Category Archives: United Kingdom

Homage to the Dandelion

The grass and fields and hedgerows around where I live are awash with dandelions –

– they resist any attempt to eradicate them, keep the pesticide industry going almost single-handed and seem to mock us as they pop up on our manicured lawns, flaunting their bright yellow petals.

The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ or ‘lion’s tooth’ , used to describe the marked indentations along the edges of the leaves and the ragged appearance of the tips of the petals.

But why do we so begrudge their presence?

Every part of this plant can be used:

the roots can be ground and roasted to make a caffeine free beverage, although more palatable to my mind are dandelion and burdock (or dandelion wine for an extra kick!)  made from the petals. The leaves can be blanched or sauteed in a similar way to spinach and added to salads and soups; the dandelion is also used in herbal medicine for liver infections or as a diuretic. It is even used as a dye, although the resultant slightly muddy brown colour (called ‘caramel’ by the more charitable) is disappointing, given the original glorious yellow of the petals.

Its colour alone would persuade me to rebrand it! It’s a flower! Let’s cherish it! We love the colour yellow! All the best things in life are yellow! Gold! Saffron! Buttercups! Butter! Egg yolks! Sunshine! Submarines!

Think how many songs have the colour yellow in their titles – you should be able to think of at least TEN. This is one of my favourites

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICkWjdQuK7Q

My dad was never a gardener. His idea of keeping the place tidy was to sally forth, scythe in hand, once the grass was knee high.  Dandelions thrived! And so did lots of other pretty things like these:

And so did dandelion clocks – the fascinating, spherical seed heads which appear after the flowers and use the wind (or excited little children ! – the hour is however many puffs it takes you to blow all the seeds off the ‘clock) to scatter those seeds to the four corners of the garden, producing masses more dandelions the next year! So Dad was nurturing a wild life garden long before our present  ‘crop’ (oh!dear!) of TV celebrity gardeners advocated them!

But the real reason they are there is for these little guys:

……….the army of pollinators, buzzing busily from bloom to bloom – they don’t care whether we think it’s a weed or a flower!

Edinburgh – city of castles, kilts and whisky.

Just back from an action packed few days in the Scottish capital. This tourist malarkey is exhausting!

Now, I know a lot of people are a bit funny about getting on ‘the tourist bus’ but, as far as I’m concerned, there is no better way to get your bearings in a city you don’t know. A couple of circuits round the main streets and some helpful commentary from the guide and you can make a much more sensible decision about where to alight for a more leisurely gander at the ‘places of interest’ you are actually interested in.

Of course,  nobody visits Edinburgh without going to the castle, perched atop the Mound, just beyond one of the main thoroughfares, Princes Street.

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And the other attraction, if that’s the right word for it, which is ‘de rigeur’ is the Royal Mile, The taxi driver who took us from the airport to our accommodation in Newhaven Harbour advised us to do the ‘Royal Mile’ from top to bottom, i.e. walk from Edinburgh Castle downhill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The lady we rented our excellent accommodation from said the same thing and when you see it you quickly realise why!  It is very steep and as the name indicates – it’s a mile long – exhausting! even if you have had your porridge!

By far the most obviously touristy place was the area around the castle  where you find ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’ and the ‘Tartan Weaving Mill’ and also magnificently turned out pipers playing those haunting laments on the bagpipes. There are myriad tartan shops sellingall sorts of garments, mostly in the familiar red plaid  (it put me in mind of the old joke – you can have any colour as long as it’s red! )  and lastly, black double deckers which will take you on a Ghost Tour. The icing on the cake was a sighting of Braveheart! He was having some fun with some young lads and I thought he hadn’t spotted me but … I was wrong!

 

 

       

The Royal Mile is full of shops, bars, cafés and beautiful traditional buildings. At the bottom end is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where I believe the Queen is in residence for a week or so every year, performing official duties. Behind the Palace is Holyrood Park – again, if you’re feeling energetic you can walk up to Arthur’s Seat, an old volcano where – I’m told! – you get some great views across the city.

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You can take tea at the Palace Café and, suitably refreshed, wander round Queen’s Gallery or marvel at the interesting Scottish Parliament Building. Designed by catalán architect, Enric Miralles in 1999 and opened by the Queen in 2004, it caused some controversy when it was built. Personally, I loved the design but it differed radically from the traditional buildings around it so I can understand why opinion was split.

       

The weather in Edinburgh wasn’t brilliant – quite cold and damp, so we decided to spend a couple of hours on the wettest day at the National Museum. As it turned out, it was quite interesting because the Scots were an enterprising bunch of engineers and industrialists – it’s not every museum that boasts a full size locomotive or a whisky still!

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The other iconic structure that is definitely worth going to see is the Forth Bridge – as emblematic of Scotland as the kilt or the bagpipes. We took the short train ride  to see this familiar sight close up – everyone has seen it in photos or on television, even if they have never been to Scotland – it is legendary as the bridge that never stopped having to be painted! Of course, then someone invented a special striking red coloured coating that didn’t have to be continually replaced – so that was a relief! The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the same colour so they must use the same stuff!

We discovered that there are in fact three Forth Bridges –  a road bridge (suspension design) and a rail bridge (cantilever design) and now a third – a new road bridge, still under construction, which will be a cable stayed design (don’t ask me, I don’t know the difference!)

The bridges span the Forth estuary and are indeed an impressive sight. The little town of South Queensferry lies between them, with its toy boats and life boat station – reminiscent of small Welsh seaside towns on a drizzly, damp weekend.

   

I enjoyed my trip to Edinburgh and will go back some day to see more of Scotland. By sheer coincidence another iconic piece of engineering was passing through our local railway station on the day I travelled north –  the Flying Scotsman!!

 

Hark, when the night is falling, Hear, hear, the pipes are calling……..

We all have preconceptions of a place and its people before we go there, based on things we learned at school, television programmes, books we’ve read, sports we follow or even films we’ve watched.

Take Scotland. I’ve never been there but I know all about it ! How?

Well……………………………

at every New Year’s Eve party – even south of the border- I’ve linked hands with people and belted out a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne , penned originally by Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, who died quite young but not before writing some of our best loved poems.

I’ve watched the film ‘Braveheart’ (three times!) It stars Mel Gibson. Who can forget his blue warpaint as he galloped across the Scottish countryside as William Wallace, the fearless leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

The real Wallace met a grisly end of course, hanged, drawn and quartered as he was, but let’s not dwell on that.

 

I’ve seen documentaries about the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Scotland is divided diagonally NE to SW into the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands lay claim to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis – standing at 1,344 metres above sea level –  in global terms not much more than a hill – after all,  Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high , Mount Toubkal in the Atlas range measures 4,165, and even Spain easily beats it with Torre de Cerredo in the Picos de Europa at 2,650 metres  and Aneto in the Pyrennes at 3, 404 metres.

But what mountains anywhere all have in common is the exciting (not to say hare-brained!) range of winter sports that have grown up around them and Scotland has its fair share of those, and also the more sedate sport of curling – and they’re not half bad at it -remember the 2014 Winter Olympics ?  Eve Muirhead captained the Great Britain team to a bronze medal.

Highland Games – one of my earliest memories of anything Scottish is watching a TV programme (I was about 8 at the time). I was flabbergasted to see a huge bear of a man dressed in a skirt and vest, every muscle straining and every vein bulging as he hoisted the end of a tree trunk skyward and it fell with a crash – he was obviously delighted at the outcome but what was he doing?    I later learned that he was ‘tossing the caber’ – this was one of the Herculean tasks participants of the Highland Games were required to perform; at least this particular task was not just to show off the contestants’ strength – in lumber jacking they sometimes needed to toss logs across narrow chasms to cross them.

I’ve read that ……there’s lots of incredible wildlife up there – 70 % of Scotland’s population live in the Lowlands, leaving the Highlands to creatures like grouse (the capercaillie being the largest of them) red deer, which no longer have any natural predators and so numbers now require ‘managing’ by us humans (oh, no!) and all manner of sea birds such as gannet, puffin and the majestic white tailed eagle  – Mull is a good place to see those, I’m told.

 

And if you venture out onto the water you might see dolphins, seals, even basking sharks – and if you’re really lucky – there’s Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve worn a tartan kilt  and  – who hasn’t heard a rousing band of Scottish pipers at a military tattoo?   Immaculate down to the last detail, marching resolutely  in perfect time or marking time outside the gates to some castle or other, tartan kilts swaying, and sooner or later you know they’ll play the evocative  ‘Scotland the Brave’ whose stirring lyrics and haunting pipes would reduce anyone to tears, Scottish or not.

 

Scottish gastronomy – well, for me it’s porridge, haggis and whisky! I love porridge, can pass on the haggis, though I’m not averse to a bit of offal, but I don’t like whisky  – or know anything about it, even though it is legendary north of the border. I understand there are literally hundreds of distilleries in Scotland, although I’m not sure how many are still Scottish owned (like every other industry on these islands some distillery owners have been forced to close or sell out to foreign companies  –  I believe Bacardi has taken over some distilleries – is nothing sacred!!) I’m sure there’s more to Scottish cuisine than this (Italian fish ‘n’ chips, for example, if you see what I mean!) but nothing comes to mind.

But famous Scots, well, that’s a different story. I’ve already mentioned two – Rabbie Burns and William Wallace, but what about other popular heroes? There’s Stephen Hendry, snooker ace, Billy Connolly AKA The Big Yin, who played John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.  The story goes that John Brown, who started off as a humble gillie and servant on the Balmoral estate, became a  source of great comfort to the Queen whilst she was grieving for her dear departed, Prince Albert. And a source of great DIScomfort to those around her as they deemed his friendship inappropriate. Connolly proved his worth as an actor in that film. Another literary figure was Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist, who was a contemporary of Rabbie Burns, a few years younger. His works include ‘Ivanhoe’ – ring a bell? Set in the Middle Ages – knights, crusades and all that,  you know.

And what of the Scottish character. Anecdotally,  the Scots are said to be ‘careful with their money’. It’s also said that the Scottish accent is one of the most popular and that people more readily trust a Scot in business negotiations.  I don’t know enough Scots well enough to comment. My Spanish husband worked with lots and their accent proved impenetrable to him. On the occasions he could get someone else to interpret he said they had a great sense of humour.

My favourite Scot?  Well, at the moment I think it’s Paolo Nutini –

 

obviously, descended from Italian immigrants and didn’t fancy going into the family business. I’m assuming that’s his real name, of course, it could be Alistair Stewart, but that wouldn’t matter – I’d still like his songs.

For me it would be a shame if Scotland became independent, not for any clearly defined political reason – simply because I ascribe to the ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy – if the U.K. fragments into 4 small states it would be like a family of 4 separating  and not seeing each other again – all four members would be weaker and poorer in every way.

I’m looking forward to my trip to Scotland – I feel my education is sadly lacking !! Time to make amends.