Monday 30th January 2006
At -4° C, the frost was thick everywhere – and my poor little Clio didn’t escape. This meant a race to see how much of it I could scrape off the windscreen and windows before my fingers numbed completely. I won, but there wasn’t much in it.
The frost did, however, herald an absolutely cloudless day with lots of sun – an ideal one for my drive north and my return visit to Lindisfarne. Although the Museum was attractive in its way, it relied heavily on graphic story-boards to illustrate the history of the site and was, I thought, a little light in the relics department. On its own, it wouldn’t have been enough to justify going back, but revisiting the priory and taking the walk out to the headland to view Lindisfarne Castle (closed) from the outside made it so.
Leaving the Holy Island at about noon, I then took a meandering route across the border into Scotland and my new “home”. Early signs are very favourable – a friendly welcome and a nice room. This was later confirmed by a really “scrummy” dinner, which comprised: roast parsnip soup glazed with parmesan cream – great; rack of Borders’ lamb with a basil and mustard crust on a rosemary scented sauce and served on a bed of bok choi, with a side dish of stir-fried vegetables – greater; and vanilla pod crème brulée with compote of blueberries – with one or two notable exceptions, the greatest!
Guess who’s going to enjoy his seven nights here?
Tuesday 31st January 2006
Frosty yesterday, frostier today and down to -6° C! After a heartening – if not particularly heart-friendly – breakfast of crispy bacon, black pudding and poached eggs, I was ready for my drive out to and up the east coast north of Berwick. There was a slight delay, of course, while I slaved over an icy windscreen and windows and the subsequent warming of equally icy fingers. Oh, the travails of travel in winter in the Northern Hemisphere!
Having perhaps gained your attention if not your sympathy, my first stop was St Abbs, a small fishing (?) village like Robin Hood’s Bay, but one which was somewhat less attractive – though I was able to drive down and up to it, and that had to be worth something. A couple of photos but nothing that was characteristically St Abbs! Then on along the coast – but, again, not really close enough to it for my liking – to Dunbar, where I turned inland, and from Haddington followed the B-road across the Lammermuir Hills and past the White Adder Reservoir back to Swinton. On a crisp clear day like today to drive through the moors and farmland, in some places still stark white with frost was just marvellous.
As if to round out another great day, I found it hard to resist the temptation of an entrée of breast of pigeon on black pudding and celeriac with an orange and redcurrant sauce and a main of Scotch fillet steak on a duxelle with pate crouton on a caramelised button onion and truffle oil sauce and, again, stir-fried vegetables. “The Wheatsheaf” runs the risk of topping the poll if this standard is maintained. I didn’t “do” dessert, not because there wasn’t anything I liked – but just that I couldn’t manage it!!
Wednesday 1st February 2006
Today was the coldest day I’ve experienced in the UK thus far. It was -7° C when I went out to do my “tiny hand is frozen” bit and didn’t ever get above 0°. Not the best choice therefore of a day to visit another ruin or three, but with rain forecast for the rest of the week probably my best chance of doing so “dry”!
My first stop was Jedburgh Abbey which, since the major archaeological digs of the mid 80s, is purported now to be a much more interesting and complete “abbey” site.
Begun soon after 1138 to house Augustinian monks, the church is one of the most complete of its era. That this is so is as much a result of on-going repairs to make good war-damage by both English and Scots, as the fact that it was used a parish church after the Reformation and thus was spared some of the reformist “zeal” so evident in other abbeys.
I dutifully followed the excellent audio guide (and risked frost-bite to take some photographs,) but I have to admit that my appreciation of the site was somewhat coloured – blue would you believe – by the cold!
After thawing, partially, with the car heater at full blast, I moved on to the second on my list of three: Melrose Abbey. Melrose has a connection with Rievaulx; in that David I invited the Cistercians from there to found an abbey there in the 12th century and endowed it liberally.
Like Jedburgh, Melrose suffered at the hands of the Scots’ “auld enemy” and the present abbey church dates almost entirely from the rebuilding following the devastating attentions of Richard II. Be that as it may, what survives is for me another rose-stoned beauty – beauty to which the accompanying photograph scarcely does justice.
But says he, in defence, given my cold-numbed fingers and/or cold-numbed brain, I’m surprised there’s even one! With the best will in the world, another partial thawing was insufficient to persuade me to complete the third of my visitations – to Dryburgh Abbey – and I beat a chilly retreat back to Swinton to await, in my view anyway, a well-earned repast!
Another meal to “write home about” comprising an entrée of seared Scotch scallops with rockette salad – divine; followed by a main of roasted halibut on sautéed cabbage with a salmon gravlax sauce, new potatoes and stir-fried vegetables – just brilliant! To anyone visiting the Borders, I recommend a meal – or better DBB – at “The Wheatsheaf” unhesitatingly! For those of you interested, you can view its website here: http://www.wheatsheaf-swinton.co.uk/
Thursday 2nd February 2006
Much warmer today – 0° C and later reached a high of 7° – a heat wave no less! A not particularly exciting day in that I drove up to Edinburgh to see if I could find my flat/apartment/pad for next week’s stay. Found it (and the nearest Tesco Supermarket – necessary if I’m going to be doing for myself) with reasonable ease but got myself thoroughly bamboozled on getting out of Edinburgh for the return trip. I daresay, it’ll be alright on the day – as they say!
Another just outstanding meal: an entrée of smoked haddock Scotch egg with curried mango mayonnaise – gives a new dimension to scotch eggs; a main of poached fillet of salmon on leek greens, again with new potatoes and stir-fried vegetables – brilliant; and for dessert: hot sticky ginger & pear pudding with Drambuie sauce and vanilla pod ice cream – just superb! What more can I say? And what better way to prepare my self for self-catering in Edinburgh??
Friday 3rd February 2006
A frustratingly foggy day. I had planned to visit Dryburgh Abbey today to complete the trio in that area but, having braved the fog to get to Dryburgh, my hope that it might be clear just there was optimistic in the extreme. There was nothing for it then but to head back, cautiously, to Swinton – and settle down to a relaxed read. And there are worse things to do on a day like that, I guess!
As if to compensate, dinner was again great! Entrée: pheasant, raisin and chestnut terrine on a mulled apple sauce – less gamey than I expected, but nice and chunky; slow braised shank of Borders lamb on a spring onion and potato mash – not quite as it should be for me in that it didn’t quite “fall-off-the-bone”, but flavoursome for all that and its richness led to the reluctant decision to decline dessert again!
Saturday 4th February 2006
A little fog early, but was soon burnt off by brilliant sunshine. That’s not to say it was warm early, but it reached 9° C at North Berwick where I was at about 1:00 pm. Almost spring-like – something that I had reinforced by my first sighting of snow-drops.
Lest I get too optimistic, the “Monument Manager” (what a wonderful title) at Tantallon Castle assured me that the mild weather couldn’t last, and that, in Scotland, the last two weeks in February and the first two in March were typically the coldest. Not something I was too interested in hearing.
Tantallon was my first stop for the day. From the pictures I’d seen, neither Tantallon nor Dirleton, of which more later, seemed worthy of a visit. How wrong I was. I had intended to visit Rosslyn Chapel, not for the “Da Vinci Code” connections but for the mason’s artistry and, as it was such a beautiful day, I thought I’d precede that with a visit to two of the few Historic Scotland sites that are open in the winter, Tantallon and Dirleton Castles.
Anyway, back to Tantallon. This was the stronghold of one of Scotland’s mightiest families – the “Red” Douglases, Earls of Angus – not to be confused with the “Black” Douglases, you understand. There’s an incentive to “Google”! It was at Tantallon that the Douglases (of the right colour) withstood the might of two Stewart kings but succumbed to Oliver Cromwell’s guns. The site itself is deceptive; looking nothing from the path towards it, but once inside it is clear why it was a great baronial residence as well as a war-time fortress. I found it fascinating.
Five miles further on – north of North Berwick – is Dirleton Castle. What’s different about Dirleton is that it is set in a garden – bare today, but one that must really be a picture in the spring and summer! Originally built by the De Vauxs who came to Britain in the wake of William the Conqueror and who, incidentally, gifted land to Dryburgh Abbey, the castle’s history is intertwined with the families that later lived there, namely the Halyburtons and the Ruthvens, who adapted it to their needs in the 14th and 16th centuries respectively. Dirleton too fell, in 1650, to Cromwell’s guns, and was left to decay.
Apart from exploring and enjoying the “three ages” of the castle itself, an “extra” was the large dovecote in the grounds, which must have housed (nested) hundreds of birds. The following description from the Information Board there of the technology used to recover birds or eggs or both reminded me of the old saying about “nothing new under the sun”:
“It has hundreds of stone nesting boxes around the walls. Each housed a pair of breeding birds who flew in and out through an opening in the roof. The birds and their eggs were taken when required; a revolving T-shaped pole, called a potence, with ladders at the outer ends gave access to the upper rows of boxes.”
The final stop for the day was Rosslyn Chapel. If you didn’t know what to expect, the first impression is a shock, because what you see is something that looks like a huge wall-less hangar supported by scaffolding. An impression not improved by an entry point that looks all the world like a retired demountable classroom. But, under that roof and within that scaffold is the chapel. That the decoration is a tribute to the mason’s art is undeniable, but I found the plethora and diversity of the carvings (exquisite as they may be) somewhat overpowering and, if this makes sense, a distraction from the building’s real purpose – a church.
I did take some photographs but they weren’t a success – something that I’m not too fussed about because the illustrations in the guide book are excellent, as indeed are the accompanying explanations and interpretations of the images. The roof, by the way, is a temporary (?) covering to protect the chapel’s fabric until it has dried sufficiently to allow serious conservation work to be completed.
I gather that the number of visitors to the chapel has grown enormously since its appearance in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and will, doubtless, explode once the film of the book is released!
Despite my not too successful day, dinner again made up for it: Entrée, sautéed Paris brown mushrooms with bacon in a filo pastry case with glazed cheddar- just great; and a main of breast of duck on roast sweet potato and a fresh plum and port sauce – just ‘ducky”! Again, for reasons which must now be coming obvious, I declined dessert.
Sunday 5th February 2006
A dullish day, but not sufficiently so to thwart me from my determination to visit Dryburgh Abbey – and complete this Borders trio.
Nestled in what the guide book accurately describes as “sylvan seclusion”, Dryburgh was settled by canons of the Premonstratensian order (best remember that, there’ll be a written test, later) at the invitation of Hugh de Moreville, the king’s constable, who, as it happens, was the father of one of St Thomas a Beckett’s four assassins.
For me, of the three abbeys, this one – despite the sylvan setting – had least to offer as an abbey ruin; and I suspect that what attracts visitors may well have less to do with its monastic heritage than the fact that Sir Walter Scott and Field-Marshal Earl Haig are buried here. The accompanying photo is of the north transept chapel where Scott and Haig now lie.
Then it was back to Swinton to re-pack for my move to Edinburgh in the morning – a compression feat that was made that much more difficult by the acquisition of some more guide books!
My final dinner at “The Wheatsheaf” was up there with the best of them. Although the restaurant was to all intents and purposes closed, thanks to Chris and Jan, I enjoyed: a prawn cocktail entrée and a main of battered haddock with chunky chips. It was a really nice Sunday night meal – made the nicer by their company.
Having regard to the fact that I’ll be catering for myself in a flat/apartment/pad in central Edinburgh for the next seven days, it’s perhaps just as well that I’ve taken full advantage of this week’s feasting – for that’s what it was!