Dead Man’s Fair

Winter has returned with a vengeance.  Ever since Michael Fish and the great storm of 1987, the Met Office and the BBC et al have taken to issuing a variety of coloured weather warnings and individually naming every balmy breeze that blows in from the Atlantic. Much like out-of-date motorway hazard displays, the effect on the population is that we believe less and less and are totally unprepared when something genuine turns up.  The Boy Who Cried Wolf should be compulsory reading.

On this occasion I am not complaining, I love the snow.  Over the winter I have been scheming how to get back to the Lofoten Islands but, as it turns out, the Lofoten weather has come to Hexham.  Some of this ever-present desire to head for Scandinavia has been enhanced by my reading of Peter Davidson’s, The Idea of North.  This learned, encyclopaedic work is full of gems.  Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is deservedly renowned but I had never come across this extract from his Last Poems.  Some poetry has the power to get under the skin:

In midnights of November,
When Dead Man’s Fair is nigh,
And danger in the valley,
And anger in the sky,

Around the huddling homesteads
The leafless timber roars,
And the dead call the dying
And finger at the doors.

To quote Davidson, Dead Man’s Fair is the crucial phrase and its original meaning is specific – the last fair of the year at Church Stretton was held when winter weather made the homeward journey dangerous.  But the phrase moves out from its local English meaning to the idea of the first days of November as the point where the divisions (or defences) between the living and the dead are at there most abraded – All Soul’s Day, le jour des morts.  It acquires both the meaning of the annual time of the dead but also an extraordinary momentary implication of a fair attended only by the dead.  This implication is as disquieting as the heterodox medieval idea of the compagnie des morts, the lonely company of the dead passing in the dark on the winter roads:

Lonely roads behind the castle

Looking north east

Looking east across the field

From the road to Fawcett Hill

These images were taken yesterday, since then the weather across Northumberland has deteriorated – the first is the usual time-lapse across the field and the second is various views from indoors – the best place to be 🙂

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The Far North

Wick has been on my agenda for some time, almost five years to be precise, ever since my Highland Railways post from February 2013.  The ScotRail Club 55 discounted price has expired but with enough forward planning, you can still go a very long distance for not very much – in this instance, from Hexham to Wick and back for £66, a journey not too far shy of 1000 miles.

I set off with some trepidation – Wick and I have form.  Back in the summer of 1987 I flew there from Edinburgh on a business trip.  It is one of those airports that is disconcertingly close to the sea.  For the last half mile approach, there is the distinct impression that the plane is about to do a Captain Sully on the Hudson.  As it turned out, it wasn’t the landing that was the problem but the take-off a few days later.  Around 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, Loganair unceremoniously cancelled the return flight and left me stranded.

Taking to the railways was also full of uncertainties – the Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick, has a well documented poor reliability record.  Aging rolling stock and a single track with insufficient passing loops means that disruption to one service snowballs across the rest.  The occasional thump of shrubbery against windows also testifies to poor trackside maintenance.  I need not have worried.  All seven of the connecting services over four days ran exactly to time, the Inverness to Wick sections included.

The problem with the Far North Line runs much deeper than reliability.  Travel by car from Wick to Inverness and under normal circumstances it will take about two and half hours.  Travel by rail and it takes over four.  It is all down to geography.  The line takes the long route around three firths: Beauly, Cromarty and Dornie such that the distance by rail is roughly twice that of a well trained crow on a still day.  All three firths are crossed by road bridges with no accommodation for rail.

At least these rail routes to the heads of the firths take in modest areas of population.  This is not the case north of Helmsdale where the line wanders inland to avoid the major civil engineering challenge and associated cost of constructing a line over the Ord of Caithness.  The consequence of this 19th century decision is that the line travels remarkable distances to go to the very epicentre of the middle of nowhere.  For the idle rail enthusiast with no desire other than to observe the empty majesty of the Flow Country, this is heaven.  For the good people of Wick and Thurso and a commercial enterprise dependent on attracting passenger traffic, it is not what the doctor ordered.  To have survived post Beeching is a minor miracle.  I am just grateful it has and with the support of the Friends of the Far North Line, I trust it always will.

Kildonan Railway Station

An overnight stay provided the opportunity for only the briefest impressions of Wick.  Seen in a dull, clouded January light, it is a monochrome austere town.  There is no graffiti, no primary colours and no evidence of the too-familiar chain stores.  This creates an air of independence and self-reliance.  Grey stone and grey pebble-dash is contrasted by brown woodwork; individuality is expressed by the shade of brown wood stain. Everywhere there is solid 19th century architecture which will outlive its original purpose; the place has a curious magnificence.

It also seems prosperous – there is major construction work down by the harbour whilst oil rig support vessels are moored to the quayside alongside modern fishing boats, although nothing like the herring fleet numbers that crowded these waters in the 1800s.  In the busy harbourside cafe, Wickers World, the preferred choice of dress is hi-viz and hard hat.  If ownership of German SUVs is a reliable indicator of general prosperity, then the people of Wick are doing just fine.  This is a collection of images taken on the evening of my arrival and the morning of my departure.  Before too long I will return – by car and with golf clubs.  The links course, three miles north of the town, is just too tempting.

Cutting Edge Barbers

Ronnies Restaurant

The Camps Bar.

In 1651 Cromwell’s Army formed an encampment before moving on to invade Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles.  This area of the town is called The Camps.  Temperance (Scotland) Act closed all licenced premises in Wick for 25 years from 28th of May 1922 until 28th May 1947, with the Camps Bar being the first to open its doors.

Birons Ironmongers

The Post Office – Pulteney Town, Wick

The harbour, Wick

The lifeboat – Wick harbour, late afternoon.

The lifeboat station – Salmon Rock – no longer in use.

Fishermen’s huts Wick Harbour

Catherine, out of the water, Wick Harbour

Wickers [sic] World Cafe – Wick harbour.

Across the road from Wickers World.

Farewell to Wick – the train back south

… No sooner has the sun,
Swung clear above the earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live as gleaners of its vestiges.

Damon’s Lament for His Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654
Geoffrey Hill – 1978

Sunrise over Wick harbour.

Travelling by train, particularly on the near-empty carriages of the Far North Line, is one of the most relaxing modes of transport devised by man, with or without the clickety-clack of sleep-inducing rail expansion gaps. However, there is mild frustration for the photographer – a fine landscape is only visible through mucky windows which reflect the carriage lights. This is the near-best moving image I could manage – a video of the Inverness to Edinburgh line heading south on the final day:

(dig around on this site and you may find various tweeted phone images from the same journey).

Anything could happen …

In the summer of ’41 a year had passed since the Dunkirk evacuation and the immediate scare of invasion had subdued. In the east, the Germans were encircling Leningrad for the beginnings of a siege that would last 872 days and cost in excess of 632,000 lives.  Nothing was certain, none of the outcomes we now take for granted were known.  Anything could happen.

My father was completing his final year at university, evacuated to Cambridge from Queen Mary College, London the previous year. At some point in late 1940 or early 1941 he had applied for a position at ICI, Manchester and made the trip north for an interview.  That war time rail trip resulted in an offer of employment from Hexagon House, Blackley on 25th March subject to him obtaining a first or second class honours degree.  Dad’s commencing salary as an industrial chemist would be £275 per annum with a £24 war supplement, working for either the Explosives Group (Billingham or Ardeer) or Dyestuffs Group (Blackley or Trafford Park). The offer letter also included this standard caveat:

In view of the Company’s promise to make every possible effort to reinstate those of its employees on 3rd September, 1939 who serve with the Colours, the question of retention in the Company’s service after the war of any employees engaged since that date must be subject to the prior claim of those individuals.

Nothing was certain.

In the early summer of ’41 he would pack up his few belongings and return to his parents home in Andover to await the exam results.  A short bike ride across town to his girlfriend’s house would have helped fill the waiting hours, a welcome simplicity after the years of wartime travel to and from Cambridge.

I am bewildered by what happened next, just a few days after his girlfriend’s eighteenth birthday.  Dad was extremely capable, studious and meticulous.  Popular, good at games and fiercely loyal he was nevertheless a reserved character who never drank; there would have been no distractions.  I can only imagine the disappointment and foreboding when the news came – he had only achieved a B.Sc. pass degree.  A telegram was sent to ICI Blackley.

Agonising days later, a letter postmarked Blackley, Manchester 23rd Aug 41, landed on the doormat at Rooksbury Road, Andover:

Dear Mr Down,

We are writing to thank you for your telegram and confirmatory letter dated 20th August advising us that you only obtained a pass degree in your recent B.Sc. examination.

In normal circumstances this would disqualify you for a position with us, but we have referred to the notes which we made during the interview and have decided to make an exception in your case.  In the attached formal letter we are making you a conditional offer of a post at our Trafford Park Works, and if all is well we will expect you start with us on Monday, 1st September.

We feel sure that your work will justify the confidence we are placing in you …

The formal letter contained some further conditions: the aforementioned reinstatement priority for staff who served with the Colours, a medical examination and the following:

It is understood that our offer and your acceptance of employment are subject to your final allocation to the company by the Allocation Committee of the Military Recruiting Department of the Ministry of Labour.

In the dark days of ’41, this vaguely Orwellian government department was tasked with balancing the manpower needs of the Register of Protected Establishments with those of the armed forces; that summer both were suffering significant shortages.  On August 23rd 1941, final allocation to Imperial Chemical Industries was by no means certain.

Ultimately Dad justified the confidence placed in him.  Starting on 1st September 1941 he stayed with the company until his retirement, forty years later.  He married his Andover girlfriend in 1943, and one year later my sister arrived.  The war ended and eventually, perhaps with some reluctance on my mother’s part, I made my appearance.  In August 1941 none of this was known.  Anything could happen.

 

It don’t snow here …

it stays pretty green.  Except this year it has and it doesn’t.  These last few days, winter arrived early in Northumberland and elsewhere across the UK.  It never used to snow much in Cheshire either, except in the long winter of 1963 ‘when it felt like the world would freeze, with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles’.  I remember rare nights in the 1950s, staring out at the dim glow of gas street lamps as they lit up huge flakes falling out of the dark night. The rarity made it even more special.  Nothing changes the world quite so dramatically.

If we get no more snow this winter then we will still have had more than the last couple of years which have been monotonously grey and wet.  The British like nothing more than to discuss the weather, perhaps because we get so much of it.  Even the trees shiver …

Snow gets me out, or at least it gets me out with a modicum more enthusiasm than when it is simply cold and wet. We have lived nearby these country lanes for more than twenty years so I have taken countless images of the same things and many have appeared on this blog. The challenge comes from seeing things differently – modern RAW processors provide endless possibilities for variation.  These were all taken on the same short walk to Sandhoe postbox – Saturday 2nd December 2017:

… the north side of Beaufront Castle.

… the north side of Beaufront Castle

… the dead of winter

… Sandhoe postbox

Oh the bitter winds are coming in
And I’m already missing the summer
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather

When I was small …

and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things.  Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines.  Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside.  The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near.  In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it.  In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.

Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window.  And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.

Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a  more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.

At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the  British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack.  As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay.  However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development.  Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it.  Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.

The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid.  Just fifteen years later it was switched off.  Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere.  Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.

I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR.  This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without.  Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years.  Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.

This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington.  Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:


An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).

Fairway and tarmac …

There are no signs.  The implication is that if you don’t know where to go then you shouldn’t be here.  It will be different when the Open arrives along these shores but at all other times, Muirfield is discreet, understated, almost forbidding.

It starts in the car park.  Should I really be here.  Is this row of covered stalls really intended for guests.  The pewter grey Elise looks perfectly at home, more at ease in its surroundings than me.  The walk to the course and clubhouse is no less a pilgrimage than first steps along Magnolia Drive.  Still there are no signs but the imposing P Johnson & Co Iron Gates is the obvious direction – if Bates Motel had boasted a golf course, this is how the entrance might have looked.  To the right is the pedestrian gate and this alone solemnly announces that you have arrived at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Inside the clubhouse my generous host for the day gives me a tour of the inner sanctum: the wood panelling and changing room reminiscent of a boys grammar; the polished trophies, some of the earliest ever played for; the tall red-coated portraits; the maps portraying the evolution of the course; the dark bust of the 1950s Captain, C J Y Dallmeyer; the scorecards from past Opens and a replica of the Claret Jug, complete with up-to-date engravings – 2017 Open Winner, Jordan Spieth.  Quiet as a library, this place is special.  In the hall I meet the Recorder, various members and later the Captain – all welcoming, polite, men of standing.  This is not the stuffy, jurassic establishment portrayed by the social and print media, this is the polar opposite.

The seventh, Muirfield

We play foursomes, the traditional Muirfield game – my playing partner takes the odd tees and I take the evens such that I will take the final drive up the eighteenth. I had no preconceived agenda about setting a score so assistance and a joint responsibility suits me fine.  More than that, it is a thoroughly enjoyable team game and we rise to the occasion, hitting fairways and sinking putts – a birdie at the par 5 ninth puts us five up.  At the turn, we head to the clubhouse for lunch. This is how all golf should be played. ‘And, if it be retorted that a player plays twice as many shots in a fourball game as in a Foursome, the Muirfield man would reply – “Play 36 holes in 4 ½ hours and you will get the same number of shots, twice the exercise, far more fun, and you won’t have to wait between shots.  Furthermore you will learn to play better golf.” ‘ – Foreward to G Pottinger’s Muirfield and the Honourable Company.

The thirteenth – unlucky for some, we made par 😉

Lunch is taken in the lounge, jacket and tie being mandatory.  I have brought a tie from the funerals drawer for the occasion – I am a guest and I must honour club traditions, no matter that such attire is at complete odds with my late hippy demeanour.  A generous tray of sandwiches is accompanied by a gunner (ginger beer, ginger ale, dash of lime and a measure of angostura bitters), followed by coffee and the traditional Muirfield and Prestwick liqueur – kümmel, a sweet, colourless drink flavoured with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel.  First impressions are mixed but I warm to it as the glass empties. I am unsure of the effect it may have on the back nine.

Sure enough, post lunch, our partners make a comeback.  We are playing to Colonel Dallmeyer’s rules.  Individual handicaps are ignored – each team plays level until one pair goes three-up and your opponents receive strokes until the leading pair are back to one-up.  After the sixteenth we are playing level again – we lead by one with two holes to play.  All of the Muirfield holes have witnessed high drama and historic occasions, none more so than the 17th at the 1972 Open.  Trevino has hacked his way into rough at the back of the green in four, Jacklin is sitting comfortably on the green in three:

On the same hole we are lying three in the semi-rough to the right of the green having avoided some monstrous bunkers – our opponents have been in several:

… Hew extracting himself from a bunker on the 17th – not for the first time.

I chip within a distance short enough to be given the hole – we have won 2&1 – what Jacklin would have given for five at the 17th in 1972.  That year I was oblivious to the high drama being acted out at Muirfield.  On the same day and around the same time I know exactly where I was – at Brands Hatch for the 1972 British Grand Prix, watching Emerson Fittipaldi take the flag for Lotus.  In those far-off days, major sporting events were concluded on Saturdays, not Sundays.  The modern migration to the Sabbath has less to do with the slackening of religious observance and more to do with maximising TV exposure.  This fuzzy clip from Brands was filmed by BBC Eurovison and the commentary is in Austrian:

This youthful obsession explains the Lotus in the Muirfield car park – it is not about prestige or one-upmanship, it is about history, teenage dreams and the joy of driving – as Andrew Frankel recently observed in Motor Sport – ‘The secret is not to go lobbing it around – the pleasure comes not from power and slides but feel and finesse’ – it has ‘a level of feel that makes all other sports cars seem like you’re driving them wearing oven mitts … the car is simply fabulous’.

However, I confess, given the choice now, I would be at the Open – modern day F1 is a pale shadow of its former self.  It has been a convoluted journey from Kentish tarmac to the fairways of East Lothian.

The eighteenth – as a consolation, our opponents win the hole with par.

With sincerest thanks to David S-S for organising my visit and to Hew and Mark for their excellent company. A very memorable day.

Strangles

Getting down to the beach was never easy and the last stretch was always a slight concern with three children in tow.  Thirty years later the direct route has been closed off due to erosion and the last 15 feet requires the use of ropes, the gentler drop to the beach having been washed away by the sea.  It is worth making the effort.

Padstow, Boscastle, Tintagel and Port Isaac, respectively made famous by food, flood, legend and soap opera, are overwhelmed with day trippers.  Strangles is empty.

And yet, some 100 feet above the beach I catch the faint smell of wood burning and, as we drop onto the beach, to the south, there is the cackle of a minor rock fall.  I sense we are being watched.

Well, the-
The ocean doesn’t want me today
But I’ll be back tomorrow to play
And the strangles will take me
Down deep in their brine
The mischievous brain jewels
Down into the endless blue wine
I’ll open my head and let out all of my time
I’d love to go drowning
And to stay and to stay
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
I’ll go in up to here
It can’t possibly hurt
All they will find is my beer and my shirt
A rip tide is ragin’
And the life guard’s away
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
The ocean doesn’t want me today

Tom Waits

With thanks to gavinclinch on Blip for making the connection between the place, the images and this Tom Waits track.