Thursday, 30 July 2009

Where I've Been - Jewellery Edition

I've wished for this bracelet for ages.

I had the picture in my mind, but it took me some time (and not a few Google searches) to find out what I needed to do to make it a reality.

The idea is simple - enamel flags representing every country I've visited, arranged in order of when I first went there:

flags bracelet

I bought the charms separately and linked them together - though Estonia and Mongolia are sufficiently obscure (apparently) that no-one actually makes the enamel charms, so I had to order custom ones from eBay.

They're made by various different companies, anyway, so at least those two don't really stand out as any more different than the others, though they are slightly more reflective.

flags bracelet

My full list of countries, in order, is:

Spain*, Austria, France*, Germany, Switzerland*, USA*, Ireland*, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Cuba, Sweden, Canada, Russia, Mongolia, China.

(asterisks indicate countries I've been more than once)

I also bought the charm for New Zealand, on the grounds that I'm going there next winter... nothing like being prepared! After that I'll have to order more as I visit different places.

I really love having a record of my travels around my wrist, and it's already sparked a few conversations with strangers.

Monday, 27 July 2009

More wildlife in my garden


I thought foxes were supposed to be nocturnal - but if it's a sunny day, they frequently come out to sunbathe in our garden. There's often just one, but one day we were visited by two youngsters, who came right up to the house.

Unfortunately, they ran to hide when I opened the window, so I only have through-the-glass shots. But I think the closeness of the shots means I can be forgiven for wanting to share these, despite the imperfections.

They certainly heard - and then saw - me through the window. But this little fella took it in his stride, and decided to sit down and pose for a while:




His brother (I'm assuming they're both boys for no reason whatsoever - I have no idea how to sex fox cubs, and certainly not without getting hold of them) was a bit more nervous - he looked straight up at me and then ran for cover:


Fox runs for cover

Well, who needs a pet when you have these sights right in the garden anyway? They're so cute, especially the way they turn their heads upside down for a scratch:


Compare our British foxes to the American one I saw in Colorado.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Out Of Place

What's wrong with this picture?

The MacQuarie Mausoleum (sign)

Okay... what if I tell you that I took the photo in Scotland?

I confess to having been a bit bemused when my husband screeched the car to a halt to point out a 'National Trust' sign - until he persuaded me to read it more carefully.

Yep, in the middle of the Isle of Mull, there's a mausoleum maintained by the National Trust of Australia. Apparently Mr MacQuarie was governor of New South Wales - they must've liked him quite a lot, that's all I can think. At some stage I will find time to read more about him because there must be a story there that's worth knowing.

The MacQuarie Mausoleum

It was very early in the morning when we visited (having got up at 4am and watched the sun rise over the ocean) and on the way back to the car we almost tripped over a little hedgehog:


The Butty Bus, Leverburgh

The Butty Bus

There aren't many places to eat out in the Hebrides, but at the port of Leverburgh on the island of Harris, the Butty Bus meets the ferry from Berneray each day. (Well, apart from Sundays, but that's another story.)

We'd caught the early morning ferry so we were more than ready for breakfast and decided to investigate. After all, the idea is cute, and beautifully executed by the (ex-pat English) owner-manager-chef; as well as takeaway food, a few bar stools provide seating in a bright, airy space with great views of the surrounding landscape.

Inside the Butty Bus

As a vegetarian, however, the initial outlook wasn't promising. The menu features meaty all-day-breakfast basics like bacon rolls and sausage butties... and the owner told me that he's refused to serve vegetarians before now!

You'd think that would turn me against the place, but I gave him the chance to explain and I'm glad I did.

You see, it turns out that one of his regular customers is veggie, and has explained that he can't use his normal grill (where he cooks the meat) to prepare vegetarian food. He keeps a seperate 'veggie' pan under the counter, and is happy to make sandwiches from the ingredients he has in stock (including egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions) - but it takes time and space, and rather than cutting corners, he'll refuse to serve veggie food if the cafe's too busy for him to get out the extra pan.

I'm quite impressed by that, really.

In the end I had a roll with fried mushrooms & tomatoes, and a nice cup of coffee. Simple but flavourful food (clearly high-quality, fresh ingredients), and we also had a great chat with the owner - it's well worth dropping in for a coffee just to get his perspective on the island where he's chosen to live out his retirement (if you can call this retiring!)

Address:The Ferry Terminal Car Park at Leverburgh, Harris
Style:Coffee & sandwiches
Date Visited:29 June 2009

Friday, 24 July 2009

On Reflection

I'm up at Sheffield, sans camera and sans internet... lucky I have my phone, because Sheffield appears to have stolen the London Eye. And they've put it by some really nicely mirrored buildings so you can see it two (or from some angles three) times at once. It's more fun when you can see the reflections rotating, I suppose I should try to take a video.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Smallest Post Office?

Post Office

Yes, it looks like someone's set up a Post Office in their garden shed. How's that for entrepreneurial spirit? I love it!

Now look at it in the wider context; note that this is not an abnormally large house.

Post Office

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Drowned Lands

Lakes of North Uist

This is North Uist.

When you look at the Ordnance Survey map of the area, there's about as much water as there is land. You can see why they call it the 'Drowned Lands', can't you? So many little lochs.

It sounds like something from a fantasy novel though (maybe I'll pinch the name!) and really catches my imagination.

Lakes of North Uist

Saturday, 18 July 2009

VG Burgers, Boulder CO


Before I went to Boulder, I was very excited. Around a decade ago, back when it was hard work finding veggie food at restaurants in Britain, some vegan friends returned from a trip to Colorado with tales of this town full of vegetarian restaurants where they'd been able to find vegan food with no trouble.

I went. I walked through the streets. And I failed to find any vegetarian restaurants, so I turned to Google. (Usually I do this before any trip, but having heard so many good things about Boulder, I thought maybe I didn't need to.)

VG Burgers is the only vegan food place I uncovered (though they have several branches), and one rainy evening I went to give it a go. The signs advertise organic fast food, making no mention of the vegan provenance, so maybe being vegan is not that popular even in Boulder these days.


As it was raining when I visited, I ate inside rather than at the outdoor tables. It's a bit dark, and not a particularly inspiring interior, but there were piles of free local newsletters to flick through, the staff were friendly, and they played some good music.


I ordered a tempeh burger, made into a 'meal' by the addition of chips and a soft drink.

The burger itself was fine - not terribly exciting, but tasty, with good bread and some nice salad and relishes. The chips I thought were excessively salty, which was a bit of a surprise in what I'd hoped would be a healthier kind of burger bar.

The real surprise winner for me, though, was the drink. Instead of a typical soda fountain with Pepsi or Coca Cola, there was a choice of fizzy things I'd never tried before, made by a company called Oogave. I tried the Watermelon Cream Soda and was hooked - I'd definitely go back just to taste the other flavours (Mandarin Key Lime sounded pretty good!)

Address:Branches across Boulder
Style:Vegan, organic fast-food
Date Visited:2 June 2009

Poor Deer

I've mentioned before that we get deer in our garden. Indeed we seem to go through phases, and sometimes we get periods of days or weeks when it's more unusual not to see one. But they are a little bit camera shy, tending to run away if I open the window to get an unobstructed shot, so I was lucky that this one just stopped and looked up at me as I leaned out of the window with the camera.

I was just adjusting the zoom when my husband said "Goodness, something's taken a bite out of him!" (I wouldn't have noticed till I looked at the photos later...)

I wonder if that's why he was less inclined to run away. I hope he's okay.

Injured deer

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Beach view through the machair

Machair (pronounced "macker", at least by my Scottish friends) is a unique natural environment found on the west coasts of the Hebridean islands.

Sand in the Hebrides is composed mostly of ground up shells (I heard a figure like 90%). Peat is naturally acidic, and the shells are alkali, so when the sea breezes blow sand across the peat fields it reacts to form a pH-neutral and very fertile environment.

(What do you mean, you didn't come here for a science lesson?!)

The net result is that, around June/July every year, the ground erupts into a blanket of flowers. Here are some pictures of the meadows to show what that means in practise:


Machair & the beach


Bear in mind that this is a broad strip along the whole western coast of various islands. It's a sight to behold - although there are downsides for those of us with hayfever!

We camped on the machair a couple of nights, and found the texture of the soil is very sandy, making it easy to get the tent-pegs in but I did worry about whether we'd have stayed anchored in a storm! Thankfully we were very lucky with the weather.

Camping on the Machair

Common flowers include buttercups and clover, but also loads of others I've not seen before. I especially love the tiny purple ones. Here are a couple of close-ups:

Machair flowers

Machair flowers

Monday, 13 July 2009


There's a great deal of controversy about using peat - particularly among middle-class English gardeners who've observed that peat is a non-renewable (or, at least, only very slowly renewable) resource, and really it would be better to use our home-made organic compost to enrich our soils instead.

In the Hebrides, however, there's no escaping from peat in daily life.

There are very few trees on the islands so unless you want to heat your house with expensive oil (brought in tankers on the ferries), cutting and burning peat seems to be the way to go. Certainly you can't walk through a village - even in summer - without the distinctive smell of peat smoke filling your nostrils.

Peat lies just below the surface of the grass on the Hebrides, so it's relatively easy to get to by cutting into the hillsides:

Peat Cutting

Touring the islands, you can often see the scars on the landscape where trenches of peat have been cut out in the past:


The 'peats' (blocks of peat) are laid out to dry:

Peats drying

Then stacked in large piles to dry out further (fresh peat contains a large percentage of water) and ready for use on the fire:

Piles of Peat

More information in my next post on the unusual growing conditions created by the peat... and if you're interested in taking a similar trip, check out my guest post on Europe A La Carte which has some of the logistics.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A Few Changes

Having had a couple of weeks of mostly-not-blogging while on my holidays, I've had chance to think a bit about how I run this blog.

The thing is, I never sat down and planned to write every day... it just sort of happened that, most of the time, I was doing. And then I started to feel guilty if I missed a day - and that, really, is silly. Don't get me wrong, I love you all, but I don't owe you a daily post. (No-one has ever suggested that I do, but I was starting to feel that way anyway.)

While advising my mum on starting up her new blog (she's just finding her feet - please go and visit her!) I found myself giving advice that I need to follow: decide how often to post, and try to stick to that.

I also noticed on holiday that, when I'm not blogging every day, I have a lot more time and inclination to write other things. Things like, um, my novels, which I've neglected a little bit lately. (And since I have one publisher who's acting interested already, I really want to get a manuscript finished, and see what happens when I send it out properly.)

So, without further ado, I'm cutting back. I'm going to try for four posts a week... but we'll see if I manage to reign myself in that much! At the very least, I want to get myself one blog-free day a week.

Also, I'm starting a new review blog, with a veggie perspective on restaurants I visit (at home and across the world). I'm not really expecting people to read it regularly in the same way as this blog, though the style will be similar, but hopefully it will build into a useful resource over time. The main goal is to stop restaurant reviews from swamping this blog - I've been struggling not to innundate you! If you're veggie or vegan, and fancy contributing a review or two, then drop by and let me know.

I'll be back with a 'real' post tomorrow....

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The Granary, Portree

The Granary, Skye

If you're a regular reader, you'll know I'm a big fan of cooked breakfasts, so it seems appropriate to start this new blog project with a fantastic breakfast.

I have a regular haunt in Stroud (the small town near my house), but when I'm out and about travelling - especially if we're camping - I'm always looking out for fun places to have a spot of brekkie.

We were recently on holiday visiting various islands off the west coast of Scotland, and we reached Portree in Skye at about lunchtime. We were about to give up on finding a nice cafe when we spotted The Granary, and went to check it out.

My husband also enjoys his breakfasts, but he's not veggie so it's much easier for him. He can order a full cooked breakfast almost anywhere, while I usually need to negotiate (and in Scotland, I was finding a few places just said 'no'). Here, however, it said Vegetarian options available in green print on the menu so I just asked for the veggie breakfast and waited to see what would happen.

The non-veggie breakfast had sausage, bacon, black pudding, egg, potato scones, baked beans, and tomato, as well as toast on the side. Then mine arrived - and it's the first time ever that I've actually got a better deal than my husband on a breakfast.

I had the egg, beans, tomato and potato scones - but to replace the meat I also got an extra tomato, a veggie grill, a cheese & leek sausage, mushrooms, potato lattices, and a portion of fruit dumpling (which I rescued from the small pool of bean-juice and kept back to eat for pudding at the end of the meal).

Vegetarian Scottish breakfast

This is a veggie blog, so I won't post pictures of meat, but if you want to see how much better mine was just head over to Flickr where I've also posted a photo of Andy's meal.

Address:Somerled Square, Portree, Skye IV51 9EH
Style:Traditional Scottish cafe
Date Visited:25 June 2009

Hebridean Scenes

I've got a number of posts in the pipeline for you on a few aspects of Hebridean life and nature as illustrated by pictures from our recent holiday... but in the meantime, while I get myself organised enough to write all the things I want to write (while trying desperately to finish writing/editing the first draft of my novel!), here are some scenes which don't really seem to fit in anywhere else.

This is one of my favourite "completely random" shots - I love the contrast between the rugged natural stone in the background and the nautical junk piled up in the foreground:


If you know Britian, you know that shrines to the Virgin Mary are not a common roadside occurrence on the mainland. But things are different up here - the Uists are Catholic islands, and Mary is watching you wherever you travel:


Otters are also far from commonplace in most of the UK; sadly none of these ones fancied posing for a photo so you'll have to make do with the sign that made me giggle:

Cautino: Otters Crossing

This is a fairly ordinary picture of a house, but there was just something pleasing and slightly bleak about the way it perches on top of the hill against a flat grey sky. The washing flapping on the line just sets it off nicely:

Washing Line

This path is clearly an artificial construct, designed to wiggle pleasingly through the trees - note that the whole forest is also a recent plantation, there are very few old trees in the Hebrides:

Woodland path

Look at these ear tags! No, really, there isn't much else to say - except that I spent quite a while trying to encourage him to pose for the camera and this unimpressed expression was the best I got:


The Hebrides are scattered with old houses in various states of disrepair, from "occasional holes in the roof" to "barely a stone left". One common configuration is for the two end walls to have survived, while the sides and roof have gone. It doesn't seem to bother the sheep, who still manage to find refuge in the fireplace:

Abandoned house

A pleasant stone beach; one of those pictures where you have to get down on your knees to get the angle you want:

Stony beach

And finally, some of the white-sand beaches for which these islands are so rightly famed:




Friday, 10 July 2009

Friday Shoot-Out: Textures

I've been away from the Friday Shoot-Outs for a few weeks, mostly because I haven't been at home for most of the past month, but also in part because I do struggle to balance the various aspects.

On the one hand, there are the two internal 'goals' of the shoot-out, to capture my home town, while keeping to the theme for the week. Add into that the fact that I want to produce a post my regular readers will enjoy reading, and take some decent photographs to achieve all of this in a creative and compelling manner.... the upshot of all this is that I don't like doing things if I can't do them well, and sometimes I can't think of a way of balancing all the 'competing' elements into a pleasing whole. But I'm hoping that having an extra week of thinking time for each theme will help, so I'm going to try and be more regular about this over the next month (until I go to America again - yay!) and then reassess whether I'm doing it to a level I'm satisfied with.

So, for today, the theme is Textures... always a tough thing to capture on camera since it's essentially tactile, and also, how to make texture convey something essentially British? But there are a handful of interesting textures in my home which I think are characteristic of the time and place that this house was built. And at the very least, this should satisfy a bit of blogland curiousity about where I live!

For starters, Cotswold stone is a local building material in the area where I live, with far more character and texture to it than the bricks from which most houses are built. There's a disused quarry in my garden, and we believe our house and many others in the area were probably built from the stone from 'our' quarry.


I think most British houses nowadays have central heating, but this is the first house I've lived in that has it, so I'm still getting used to the very distinctive white ribbed radiators in every room:


And we've got very simple lightshades throughout the house, which also have a great texture because of the spiral design which lets them fold flat when not in use:


The original part of my house was built in 1880, but there's also an extension built in the 20s - this means we have a foot-thick wall between the old and new parts of the house, but in sharp contrast to this, the internal walls in the original half of the house are made from wood:


The door between the two halves of the house is one of the more interesting doors in our house, with huge hinges and a very solid lock:


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