For the first time in 60 years the UEFA EURO football competition is taking place in 11 cities across the continent rather than just one host country.
And though we may be some way in, as the last 16 fall away to the finalists, it confuses me still to see hoardings around the grounds proclaim Euro2020; 2021 feels the strangest time warp in so many ways!
Here’s a little local football action from the lush green pitch beside the harbour at Lochinver, a sweet feast for the deer herd that trots in blithely from surrounding hills and neighbouring Culag Wood.
This particular stag is incorrigible, a bold regular with scant regard for the high deer fence or the mortified players obliged to scoop poop while the visiting opposition warm up ahead of match day kick off!
Whatever else is going on on my life, this is the time of year when I slip away to the magic of bluebell woods.
It feels amazing to be in the wildflower ocean! And while Spanish bluebells are pretty, they are less delicate and their hue is not so deep nor do they have the sweet fragrance of the wild English bluebells which are often found in places where they have existed undisturbed for centuries, perhaps even planted by medieval monks.
The root sap of bluebells has been used through history. The starchy liquid was a precious product to stiffen sleeves and ruffs, to bind the pages of books and to fix flight feathers to archers’ arrows. Yet the whole plant is poisonous, the roots, stems, leaves and flowers, and bluebells may cause serious skin irritation.
These precious English flowers are protected by law. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is a criminal offence to uproot the wild common bluebell from land on which it naturally grows and any trade in wild common bluebell bulbs or seeds is also an offence, carrying immense fines of up to £5000 per bulb.
Immersion in a wild English bluebell wood is a gorgeous sensory experience. Sweet perfume rises, birdsong dances on the breeze and intense waves of blue shift as soft light filters through trees slowly dressing for Spring; it is a joy!
In Scotland these delicate flowers cascade down hillsides spilling and splashing blue like paint from a tumbling tin. Scots often refer to harebells as bluebells, they too are pretty, but not the same.
In the traditional language of flowers, where a meaning is assigned to a bloom, the bluebell represents everlasting love. Here’s a glimpse of how it feels to be surrounded by that gorgeous experience!
In just a few weeks, all this blue will be gone, to return for more magic next year. It’s always worth the wait.
And while under the spell, I sometimes imagine how amazing it would be to experience that other ‘kind of blue’ gently drifting through the wildflower ocean!
Walking seaward is my lockdown routine. I feel blessed to be close by the shore, to wander in wide open space and salty air when so many others are less fortunate. I appreciate it hugely.
My route depends on how I am feeling any given day, influenced by what the weather holds as I slip away to be alone. The early morning solitude soothes me. These wanderings to meet the sunrise are quite apart from chatty strolls, those occasions when Old Faithful, my woollen tartan blanket, unearthed in an Inverness charity shop many moons ago, is spread upon the ground and steaming coffee from a flask shared with someone I love. Rather, these solo walks are sometimes meditations that set me up for the uncertain day!
Familiar sights and sounds register as part of the experience. The woodland stretch of fence where the chirpy bold robin joins me, hopping alongside, from one post to another. Or perhaps I am joining him? The squelchy fields where ponies in winter rugs wait patiently at five bar gates for breakfast, though a stroke pleasures them too, tousled manes brushing my face in the clamour for attention.
Yesterday there was something new. A boat. In a place where boats are not usually found, it sat looking a little awkward, embarrassed. I approached and noticed how someone had dug a trench to anchor it upright on the marsh.
A handwritten note taped firmly to the hull told part of the story. ‘Boat will be moved when tides permit. All valuable have been removed’. I remembered the storm of the past week, powerful enough to blast the vessel from its mooring and clear up to the land. But when will tides permit? How long might the waiting might be?
I walked onward to the miles of sandy beach where, some hours earlier, the tide had slipped away. A long dark trail of sea wrack tangled with mermaids’ purses and shells lay in its wake. I walked the line, engrossed in thoughts of tides. Surely the purpose of a boat is to be at sea?
Yet there is a learning in my impatience! Like the boat, I am locked down and like millions of others around the globe, feeling marooned at times. Does the boat yearn for the sea? Perhaps not. The boat is still a boat, in the water or out of it. The tide will come. Trust.
In the far northwest highlands of Scotland, the village of Lochinver wraps around a deeply curving bay where the harbour is backed spectacularly by the smooth iconic dome of Suilven, known as sugar loaf mountain.
On the quayside, an extraordinary Scots baronial building, formerly the laird’s lodge, is now the Culag Hotel. Here the Wayfarers Bar extends a warm welcome to international crews from fishing vessels, local people, visitors and holiday makers. Close by, the village football pitch is grazed by wild and pesky red deer with refined tastes in lush grass, village flowerbeds and vegetable plots.
This small coastal community is a hub for the landing and onward transportation of fresh fish by refrigerated lorry to Scottish and international destinations.
Through the years I have watched the comings and goings of vessels and crews; small inshore boats harvesting prawn, crab and lobster, larger vessels netting whitefish and fish farm boats landing Loch Duart salmon.
Harbour sounds drift across the bay and around the village. Chugging engines alert seals that pop up to follow the boats in hope of scraps. And on quiet nights, in the stillness of pure highland air, the tumble-drier rumble of the ice making tower, capable of producing 20 tonnes per day, disturbs light sleepers.
In the early morning, boats steaming out are watched through bleary eyes!
With proximity to all of west of Scotland, Rockall and North Atlantic fishing grounds, the harbour is vital to the small highland community in so many ways.
A regular congregation of refrigerated lorries awaits the arrival of larger boats at the quayside. The unloading of fish is speedy; every minute counts when the drivers have a journey almost the entire length of mainland UK ahead of them.
It’s a demanding route, through the highlands of Scotland to the white cliffs of Dover and then onward to fish markets, like Lorient in Brittany. A young French driver told me the job is gruelling yet in a few years he hopes to save enough to buy a plot of land to build his family a modest home.
Yet as Brexit talks are further extended to explore ways of meeting both UK and EU demands for fishing rights, it hard to imagine how he, and this harbour I know and love, will fare in the coming years.
The situation is complex and ironic too; most of the fish landed by UK fishers is exported, and most of the fish eaten in the UK is imported.
Issues in the fisheries debate also include the protection of fish stocks to prevent over fishing and accommodating the different needs -and vastly different catch sizes – of small boats and immense trawlers.
And the simple fact that the majority of Scottish voters never wanted Brexit anyway.
‘Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force’ Lao Tzu
I have been reflecting on flow, the life force that guides our journey as humans experiencing this world.
To go with the flow is a wonderful intention yet sometimes we resent, or resist, what flow brings!
And there are times, perhaps for creative people especially, it seems flow dries up and we are gasping fish.
The thaw comes eventually, as surely as snow and ice turn to meltwater on mountain slopes. Swollen burns flow to sea past obstacles, through whirlpools, rapids and eddies.
Sometimes flow is in a rush, and sometimes it’s deeply smooth too.
And though we may wander from connection with our flow, perhaps distracted, or tempted away from the tune that carries our soul purpose, ultimately we feel the loss of what calls us and is deeply significant.
To reconnect, to feel the energy and joy of flow, we may be required to step outwith our comfort zone. No easy feat. Yet every time I observe this favourite river, from the perilously rickety wooden bridge, with gaping holes that make every crossing a daredevil mission, I am reminded of Neil M Gunn’s evocative book about life journeys, Highland River (1937) and this quote from Rumi, a 13th century Islamic scholar, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic;
‘When you do things from your soul you feel a river of joy‘
Soothing our spirits in a pandemic is a huge challenge as the Covid-19 rollercoaster lurches onward.
We are in the final quarter of 2020 and autumn heralds acute anxiety for many. Less light and lower temperatures are winter’s frozen way.
Yet there is comfort in the steady turn of nature’s wheel.
Autumn’s rusting flag show is the great celebration of growth through the year. Leaves and seeds emerged from buds and pods to flourish and ripen in sunshine. Now they fall away, dropping to the forest floor where they will nourish the deep dark earth through the dreaming time of winter, so that the growth cycle may begin again.
In hibernation we retreat also, and for many this is a time of self care and connection to our deepest selves. Spring will surely come and invite us to resurface, into the light. This is how our ancestors understood the world.
Treading the path from autumn and winter, in the company of Covid-19, will cause many to feel the dark hibernation experience more acutely this year. We are social creatures experiencing trauma, this global pandemic presses heavy upon other challenges in our lives.
Finding meaning in the everyday offers hope, builds and strengthens our resilience. Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney turned to nature and places of ritual.
The Irish writer felt deeply his connection with the land, the seasons and community. His words were quoted widely at the time of the 1988 Good Friday Agreement, a milestone in the peace process between the UK Government, the Irish Government and Northern Ireland political parties.
“Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.”
These images are of a healing well I visited in May, when the surge of spring growth created a great emerald canopy in a hideaway almost forgotten.
Yet through centuries, the freshwater source provided an opportunity for people to wash themselves, their clothing, linen and blankets. Here they celebrated the spring clean that followed deep winter.
These wild places offer beautiful energy.
Seamus Heaney reminds us that to reach any farther shore, there is magic in nature to support us too.
Happiness is a rusty robin! A little magic happened this morning when I opened the front door to the full force of Storm Francis prowling around the place.
A small lady, attached by long yellow fluorescent leash to her Jack Russell dog, bent double into the wind as she walked by my house. She tugged at the hood of her jacket, tight around her head. Rain lashed at her glasses. I smiled, said hello, expecting that she could barely see or hear me. She returned the greeting and, keeping firm grip of the hood, battled on through the blast. Then she halted.
‘Excuse me’ she turned to walk back. ‘I just want you know how much I love walking past your garden. I know it’s only small, but the way you move things around every so often makes me so happy. I love looking for them every time I walk past here with my dog.’
She reached down to raise the brown, black and white hound high. ‘This is Abbie, she’s old and she’s a rescue. Anyway’ she continued, lowering Abbie tenderly to the ground, ‘I want you to know how much pleasure it gives me, and how I notice all of it, the hare, the elephant, the stag and especially the robin. Especially the robin! I like your robin so much that I went bought one for myself. He’s not quite the same as yours though.’
I was completely overwhelmed by this unexpected and lovely insight. I do love to create magic in my garden! The rusty robin has been a friend for many years. Occasionally a strong gust picks him up and flings him to the ground. I’ve always taken this as a sign to shift him to a new perch for a while! I had no idea that passers-by noticed these moves. But clearly they do, and today I have two new friends, Abbie and Hils!
Robins are associated with hope for the future and this verse by Emily Dickinson springs to mind.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— And sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard— And sore must be the storm— That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land— And on the strangest Sea— Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb—of Me.
A weekend visit to Wales. Time to take it easy in favourite places across the Llyn peninsula after so many months of lockdown.
Acquired from an Inverness charity shop many years ago, this much loved picnic rug in the clip below has since enjoyed adventures day and night, far and wide! Today it served to line a a deep sheltered dune hollow where the summer sun warmed soft sea air.
The view was magnificent across a vast bay littered with shipwrecks, known as Hell’s Mouth, or Porth Neigwl. Here the Atlantic Ocean bellows on tempestuous days, the roar is spine tingling. Skilled surfers ride risky waves and coastal path walkers battle hard to remain upright.
Yet today the great deep was serene, perhaps wearied by stormy winter or maybe its calm was a generous gift to soothe souls who have been much locked away during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The opportunity to daydream in a dune nest to the accompaniment of whispering waves was heavenly!
Stirring ourselves, we tracked through country lanes, thick with wildflowers, to Tafarn Yr Haul or The Sun Inn, a popular hostelry in a snug of cottages around a country church.
The historic place of worship is dedicated to Saint Engan, a sixth century soul who gave his name to the village – LLanengan. The church has long been a staging post on the pilgrim route to sacred Bardsey Island.
By night, the beam of the holy island’s light house flashes warning across Hell’s Mouth, telling of the treacherous currents that swirl around the isle. The beam is broadcast by solar power from the tallest square tower lighthouse in the UK. The stocky beacon sports stripes of red and white and reminds me of socks on a footballer’s chunky calves!
I saw this lovely doorway in the village and appreciated the smart simplicity of paint, bare wood and an open heart.
One of my favourite Welsh verses is a romantic and anonymous promise:
Mi gerddaf gyda thi dros lwybrau maith
A blodau can a breuddwyd ar ein taith,
I'th lygaid syllaf a dal dy law,
Mi gerddaf gyda thi beth bynnag ddaw.
I will walk with you across distant paths,
Flowers and dreams will bless our journey,
Into your eyes I will gaze and hold your hand,
I will walk with you whatever may come.
June arrives with roses. From tightly bound buds comes the fullness of soft plump petals. Fragrant old varieties, rich in history, flower once and rest again while modern thoroughbreds reproduce blooms with gracious ease.
Foxgloves arrive in June too, most often country travellers, arriving by Nature’s design. The unapologetic company are happiest making themselves quite at home.
In the garden shown below, which I am fortunate to know well, the designer’s intention was a glade of white foxgloves. Happily, their pink relatives have a healthy disregard for segregation. They have every right to be there and I find the beauty of it uplifting.
There’s something magical about these woodlanders, arriving to make camp and erect swaying towers of colour that hum to the song of busy bees.
The roses welcome pollinators too, with ‘come hither’ fragrance and velvet boudoir petals. ” Stay a while!” they whisper sweetly. “Let’s enjoy the romance!”
This shoebox of romance arrived on my doorstep unannounced. A gift from someone I love, who knows my ways in June – always ready to stop and smell the roses.
And perhaps gather up dropped petals in a short lived summer pot pourri. While I share these pictures, how I wish I could send fragrance too!
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!
From Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’
A refreshing highlight of lockdown life is an engaging series of online gatherings hosted by the Society of Authors at which established authors and other members of the writing community gather for afternoon tea and chat.
What a joy to sit in on the easy conversation between Joanne Harris and Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors. Joanne was taking tea and questions in the ‘shed’, a creative den in her Yorkshire garden that she references often in Twitter posts.
Joanne spoke of how she is managing lockdown life as the the Covid-19 pandemic nears its peak in the United Kingdom. The acclaimed author of 16 books draws much resilience and daily discipline from her previous career as a teacher. Days take shape around a timetable that caters for an early morning run, creative work, attention to her garden and interaction with loyal followers, friends and connections on Twitter. She describes the social media platform as her ‘staffroom’, a place where she hops in and out to ‘reboot’ and connect. The solitary process of writing makes many of us hermits to some extent.
Apart from her own books, Joanne continues to connect with the work of others and finds herself currently returning to old favourites like Donna Tartt’s Secret History for ‘comfort reading’ and Georgette Heyer, for bath time indulgence! She is also reading non-fiction to ‘reset’ her fiction brain.
Nicola describes Joanne as an ‘incredibly generous’ writer who does much to advocate for others, especially through her role as the Chair of the Society of Authors. Considering the changes that a global pandemic may bring to our communities, Joanne hopes for good things among the many challenges. She feels passionately that small presses and small bookshops will need vital support especially. And while many authors are asked to share their work freely, Joanne cautions that exposure must not be regarded as a living for an author and those who issue invitations expecting authors give their professional time and work for free are urged to reflect that harsh truth is that while exposure can lead to a living, an unpaid author may also die from it.
Life in lockdown is impacting the creative community in many ways; while some feel in flow, others are frozen and struggling with poor mental health. Joanne’s advice is wise. “Writing doesn’t come from a place of stress and anxiety, it comes from a place of calm and joy and reasonable mental health. Self care comes first. “If you can get out of this feeling ok then you are already doing very well.”
Joanne’s warmth and compassion shone through the afternoon tea party and her final words to the gathering were deeply encouraging. “Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourselves. Writing will come when it comes. Don’t worry if it is not starting.”
Catch Joanne’s chat in the shed here; a Vimeo recording of this special lockdown event.