About Katrina

I live on the east coast of Scotland, not from choice. After 30 years here it still doesn't feel like home. Hence the name of my blog. West is still best as far as I am concerned. I'm married with two grown up 'boys'. I'm interested in books, films, art, crafts, cooking, politics, museums and travelling around Britain.

The Dreaming Suburb by R.F. Delderfield

The Dreaming Suburb cover

The Dreaming Suburb by R.F. Delderfield was first published in 1958 and it’s the first in Delderfield’s ‘Avenue’ books of which there are two.

The book’s first chapter takes place in Spring 1947, but in the next one we’re back in 1919, men are coming back form the trenches and discovering that all the promises they were given by the government meant nothing. Britain isn’t a place fit for heroes, it’s a place of unemployment and poverty for most ordinary people.

The story involves the inhabitants of Manor Park Avenue, it shelters a disparate collection of characters, one of the main ones being Jim Carver who came back from the war to discover that his wife had just died giving birth to her second set of twins. Jim throws himself into trade unionism and is involved in the General Strike.

The Dreaming Suburb leads us up to the beginning of World War 2 just 20 years after the end of the war to end all wars. Jim had been a pacifist after his experiences in the trenches, but he quickly changes his feelings when Hitler begins to rampage across Europe.

The author is a straightforward storyteller, there’s nothing fancy or poetic about his writing, but his characters are so well written, he was obviously a great observer of people. There are several families involved, all very different, and the children usually turn out to be very different from their parents. The strict Methodists have unknowingly brought up manipulative and dishonest children, with Elaine being the opposite of her frigid mother and determined to use her sexual appeal to get everything she wants in life. It was a real page-turner for me and I went straight on to the sequel The Avenue Goes to War. These books would make a great TV series. (Jack’s just told me they have been made for TV, back in 1978 as People Like Us.)

The setting of the suburb is twelve miles from London Stone, (something which I must admit I had never even heard of before) a place that would nowadays be very definitely seen as London itself, so far and wide has London crept.

House of Dun, near Montrose

One beautiful day a couple of weeks ago we decided to grab the good weather and drive up to the House of Dun close to Montrose. It’s a Scottish National Trust property that we had never visited before. It’s just over 50 miles away from us. Below are some photographs of the outside from various angles.

House of Dun

The house was originally owned by the Erskine family.

House of Dun, Montrose

House of Dun, Montrose

House of Dun, Montrose

The gardens are meticullously maintained, I hate to think how many hours it all must take.
Garden

Garden , House of Dun, Montrose

As you can see from the plaque below, it was laid by the Queen Mother to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the house’s architect William Adam. He was the father of three famous architects, the most famous being Robert Adam.

Box hedging dedication

The pergola below looks lovely now but it will look even better when the plants have covered all of the metal support. It is of course in the shape of a crown. The owners of the House of Dun were closet Jacobites and there are various not very well hidden decorations in the house featuring the Scottish crown.
Garden pergola

The photo below of the box hedging was taken from the top of the house steps, the back door really. The setting is fantastic with beautiful views from the house.
box hedging pano

You can actually rent holiday cottages and I think apartments in the actual house. It would be great – if the weather behaved itself. Crucially there is a good tea room!

Hurrah! the National Trust now allow people to take photographs of the inside of their properties, but I’ll keep those ones for the next blogpost.

Caithness – sheep and dolphins

Just after leaving the Castle of Mey we met a traffic jam – Caithness style – sheep. They were being moved from one field to another one down the road a bit.

Sheep
Yes the road ahead was full of sheep.

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

There was a teeny wee Border collie pup dancing on the end of its lead, probably its first outing with the sheep, but it hardly took its eyes off the shepherd.

It’s not the most beautiful scenery in Scotland, but just a bit further south you reach the Moray Firth, I’d like to spend some time there to watch the wildlife, it’s famous for dolphins amongst other things.

Moray Firth seascape

I found this You Tube video of the dolphins there, but I’d like to see it in person.

Castle of Mey, Caithness, and Sutherland, Scotland

Castle of Mey

On our way back from Orkney we realised that we would be very close to the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother’s residence in Scotland. After her husband George VI died in 1952 she obviously had to vacate Balmoral and the other royal residences to make way for the new Queen. She took a fancy to the very remote castle after visiting it as a guest, luckily the owners wanted to move out. After lots of renovations she moved in, and in later years the Royal Yacht Britannia was used to take royal visitors to the castle. The Queen Mother could never persuade Princess Margaret to stay overnight though, Margaret always insisted on going back to sleep on the yacht, the castle was too cold for her apparently, but I suspect she wanted more privacy to get up to her well known shenanigans.

Castle of Mey
Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos of the inside of it for security reasons apparently?! But you can see plenty of photos here.

As castles go it’s quite a cosy one with the rooms being not too big and our guide told us lots of stories about the Queen Mother, who obviously threw herself into the community and got involved with the local primary school children. There were lots of hand made gifts from them ranged around her sitting room, including a shell covered bottle made into a lamp.

I like the way they utilise the big flat stones that are on lots of the local beaches as partitions, it must be a fast way of building walls.

Castle of Mey

Castle of Mey
That was the first time we had been so far north and I thought it was really scenic, although admittedly we were very lucky with the weather, and just about everything looks lovely in the sunshine. You can look here at all the other places of interest in Caithness if you click on the list on the right hand side and here at all the small towns in neighbouring Sutherland if you click on the list on the left.

Castle of Mey garden + Hoy

It was a surprise to me how well things were growing way up north.

I just love old stone walls with wooden gates – what is the secret garden behind it like, most of the time they are locked though so they remain secrets!

East Garden door

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

The Hidden Life of Trees cover

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is a fascinating read, an absolute must read for anyone interested in natural history/trees/gardening. The author has worked in Germany as a forester for decades and his observations are supplemented by lots of research from scientists around the world.

I must admit that I’ve always been squeamish when it comes to pruning and cutting back trees and plants as I’ve long thought that it can’t be a nice experience for these living entities, and it turns out that I was correct. But there’s a lot more going on than even I suspected. Apparently trees can communicate with each other via their roots, and they even support each other when any trees in the vicinity are in need of extra care. They can send extra nutrients via their roots to those in need, even to different species, they sound more generous spirited than many humans. It has been discovered that the ends of roots have tiny brain-like nodules, it sounds to me like there’s an awful lot about trees still to be discovered. When they are under attack from pests they can signal a warning to nearby trees and that makes them deploy a chemical that makes their leaves unpalatable to the pests.

He goes on to explain why trees planted by humans often end up struggling to survive, compared with the natural plantations that have developed over hundreds of years. Without the vital nutrients that build up in the soil naturally over the years it’s difficult for the trees to survive and grow as they should. Trees like to be in communities, most of them thrive in family groups and it seems they have personalities of their own just as people do. Some give up the ghost in adversity whilst others are more determined and fight off attacks.

It was a surprise to me that beech trees are thuggish, often planting themselves close to other species and then overtaking them in growth causing their eventual death by shading them out and grabbing most of the water. I think this might happen in Germany where the author is a forester and beech forests seem to be common. In Britain they are more commonly used as specimen trees I think, often not too close to other trees – unless they killed them all a hundred years or so ago!

Inevitably beasties, fungi and viruses are wreaking havoc on trees all over the world, in fact when you realise how many dangers there are for trees it seems quite amazing that any of them survive to a great age at all.

Trees scream apparently, which unnerves me, especially as the local council here seems to be determined to cut down any tree which isn’t in perfect condition, ignoring the fact that they often overcome their problems.

Surprise surprise – it seems that many of the processes carried out by the forestry/logging companies in forests do much more harm than good. But I was absolutely shocked when the author mentioned that even he might be causing harm as he visits multiple forests on a daily basis – without even changing his footwear between visits!!

I know that botanic gardens in the UK have thick disinfectant mats that visitors have to walk through before getting into the gardens, in an effort to keep viruses at bay. It might seem pointless when spores are just as likely to be wind blown or delivered via birds’ feathers, but you have to try to do anything you can to keep them out.

I know I first read about this one in the Guardian Review but I decided I had to read it after Stefanie at So Many Books had so enjoyed reading it, you can read her thoughts here.

I borrowed this book from the library, I’ve had to wait seven months to get it although I was only the third person to borrow it, so someone must have hung on to it for months. But what enraged me was that one of those previous readers had turned down the page corners – often every three pages or so, I reckon that over a third of the pages have been disfigured in this way, and not just a teeny fold, often with the corner being folded right into the inner edge of the book!

Honestly, I don’t believe in capital punishment – but if I ever discover who did that ….. they’re for it!

The Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore

It was our 41st (yes that’s not a typo, but I don’t know how that happened!) wedding anniversary earlier in the month and we decided to celebrate by driving 50 miles north to the wee village of Kenmore. Previously we had just briefly looked at Kenmore as we drove through it on the way back from a holiday in the Highlands.
Loch Tay Crannog
Crannog on Loch Tay

It’s such a scenic area, the River Tay runs out of Loch Tay here. We intended to visit the reconstructed crannog in the loch, but didn’t think that would take very long. As it turned out we were there for getting on for two hours and I highly recommend visiting The Scottish Crannog Centre. Rachael gave a very interesting talk and is an archaeologist so she should know what she’s talking about.

Crannogs were living quarters that were built by the inhabitants of Scotland 2,500 years ago. They were built on tree trunk stilts above the loch with a split log walkway leading out to the crannog. It’s like a very heavy duty yurt I suppose and is really very comfy and cosy inside. They would have had a fire in the middle of the structure so it would have been a bit smoky and their sheep were also in a fenced off area within it so it was probably a bit smelly, but on the upside – the midges apparently don’t bother you there.
Crannog Kenmore

We were told exactly how they went about building crannogs, cutting trees with bronze axes and forming a point at one end to help get it positioned in the bottom of the loch. When the log stilts were driven in in a circle they then made a platform floor making one large circular room and then sectioned parts of that off.
Crannog at Kenmore

One extended family would have lived there, possibly as many as 15 people (and the sheep). Nowadays the only permanent inhabitants were two families of swallows who dived in and out as our guide talked to us.
Crannog swallow

The museum part of the centre has lots of artefacts that were found when some of the eighteen known crannogs that were on the loch were excavated. Tools and pottery, jewellery, wooden bowls and even some tweedy fabric has survived. The crannog dwellers could refurbish their homes for years, replacing rotten wood with new logs, but eventually there came a time when there was no space to put new supports and then the whole thing would collapse into the loch, which eventually became a small island as trees and plants germinated there. In fact you can see two small crannog islands from the reconstructed one. One had a abbey built on it in the 11th century. It’s situated just behind those boats and blends into the trees on surrounding hills, but it is an island.

Crannog on Loch Tay Kenmore 1
Crannog on Loch Tay Kenmore 2

They’ve also hollowed out some trees to make authentic log boats like the ones that were used by the crannog dwellers.
crannog log boats
After the talk in the crannog we walked back onto land and were given demonstrations on fire-making, wood-turning and spinning. I had a wee shot at the spinning, I think I could get into making and dyeing my own wool!

After that we had a tasty dinner at the Kenmore Hotel which is apparently the oldest inn in Scotland. Sadly by then what had been a beautiful blue sky day had turned into a grey damp one, but that didn’t stop us from walking along the beach below and then driving on to a few more villages in that area before going home.

Crannog and Loch Tay from Kenmore 1

That was a great way to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

Soot by Andrew Martin

Soot cover

I decided to read Soot by Andrew Martin because Helen at She Reads Novels enjoyed it so much. You can read what she thought of it here. Helen’s review is much more detailed than my usual sketchy thoughts.

The setting is York 1799 and it’s a murder mystery. Matthew Harvey a well known silhouette artist has been found dead, he has been stabbed by the special scissors that he uses to cut the ‘shades’. It’s thought that the culprit must be one of his clients on that last day and the victim’s son employs Fletcher Rigge to investigate the murder. Rigge has been living in the debtors’ prison in York Castle since his father’s death, he had left nothing but debts after losing the family estate in a gambling session. Fletcher Rigge knows that he is likely to end up back in the prison if he can’t get to the bottom of the mystery

The story is told by various characters through diaries, letters and his investigations bring Rigge into contact with the theatre and bookshops in York and it’s all very atmospheric. The only slight gripe I have with the book is that there is no map of York. Although I know the city I don’t know it well enough to be able to follow Fletcher Rigge on his travels around it in my head. This is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Martin and I’ll definitely be trying some others.

Garden update – late July

garden path

Not long after I took the above photo of the back garden path I had to give the geraniums a right good chop back as they were in danger of engulfing the path. I do hate cutting back but it means I’ll get another flush of flowers and they’ll still be going strong in October.

You can just see the left hand side of the metal archway and although I’ve planted a supposedly climbing rose there, it remains bare, that rose seems to have no intention of climbing. The other side of the archway has far too many things covering it, including a lathyrus/everlasting sweet pea which is an absolute thug and is climbing everywhere.

Below there is that disappointing (so far) red rose, pieris, foxglove, lychnis, geraniums, physigelia and various others.
back garden flowers

In the photo below you can see my recent garden purchase – a Belfast sink! I had to laugh when I heard someone on a gardening programme saying recently that in his childhood every garden seemed to have a Belfast sink in it! Mine still has and I had a hard time tracking this one down, I had one in the old garden but had to leave it behind as the house purchasers wanted everything in the garden – grr!
back garden flowers

The cherry tree in the photo below is growing like crazy, but I only had a few flowers on it in the spring. It has been in for three years now so I hope it gives a better account of itself next year.
back back garden flowers V garden flowers
Below is a Philadelphus which isn’t giving off as much scent as I had hoped it would. I think a different variety might have been better, it’s my own fault for not waiting and buying one when it was already in flower.
Philadelphus

The Christmas tree in the photo below was one that was left in a pot by the front door when we moved in here, it was looking very sorry for itself, but as you can see, setting him free in the soil has really cheered him up. There is also a cotinus, cotton lavender and astrantia in the photo.
back garden flowers

There’s a dwarf Japanese maple, euphorbia Fireglow, primula Viallii and a lot more in the photo below.
back garden flowers

The so called rockery in the photo below has gone a wee bit crazy this year and most of the rocks in it have been hidden by the plant growth, I blame all the rain we’ve had. I have to do some serious weeding soon, that ajuga I planted there is on a bid to take over the whole area. I don’t think you can actually see it in the photo although it’s hard to avoid as it is taking up half of the rockery I could shoot myself for planting it!
back garden flowers

That was the back garden at the back end of July. I’m quite pleased with it considering this is only its third year and there was only one teeny tree in it and a sea of grass when we moved in.

Skaill House, Orkney

Skaill House

Skaill House is just a stone’s throw from Skara Brae on Orkney, in fact it was the owner of the house who discovered Skara Brae on the beach after tons of sand had been blown off the settlement during a huge storm in 1850. If you buy a ticket for Skara Brae it also gives you access to the house. It’s apparently Orkney’s finest 17th century mansion, it’s certainly very homely for such a grand house.

Skaill House

The dining room is just a nice size, it would be very cosy I think. The dinner service on display in the built in dresser belonged to Captain Cook, it was on one of his ships and he gifted it to the then owner of the house. It’s very fancy, I had imagined that anything onboard would have been much more utilitarian.

Skaill House  dinner Service

The library is great with lots of 1930s-1970s book club favourites as well as older no doubt rarer books.

Skaill House  Library

Skaill House  Library

I took a lot more photos but that’ll do for now. I really enjoyed going around Skaill House but according to some comments I’ve seen it seems that not everyone has been all that enamoured of the house and only went to see it because the ticket was included in the price of the Skara Brae one. They even thought that having Captain Cook’s dinner service on display was ‘scraping the barrel’. Honestly – some people just live to moan about things online!

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers by Brian Aldiss

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers cover

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers by Brian Aldiss has been enticing me to read it for ages, it had been at the top of a pile of Jack’s TBR books, and I got to it before he did. Brian Aldiss is mainly a science fiction writer, not my favourite genre, but I was charmed by the book cover, not always a good thing.

I think I would give this book three stars. At times it really reminded me of a sort of updated Barbara Pym. The setting is the same as many of her books, a village near Oxford, Hampden Ferrers and it’s about the lives of its inhabitants as you would expect. There are love affairs and just relationships, the stuff of any small settlement, but every now and again it gets very weird. Almost like a few of the inhabitants are on drugs, but in the case of the vicar, is he having a vision? – unlikely as he is seeing an angel in an old tee shirt. Not really my cup of tea. I still like the cover though.