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And now…the Larch

April 23, 2014

Could you recognise a larch from quite a long way away? The Monty Python team could. Thanks to them, I cannot write about larch trees with a straight face; so we’d better have a look at the relevant sketch before I can carry on.

 

Good, now that’s out of the way, I can show you why I like larches. These deciduous conifers are very much part of the landscape here on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. In the autumn their needles turn the hillsides mellow gold; in spring, their fresh new green exhales energy.

 

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Down by the river, where we are fishing this week, the gloriously sunny Easter weekend has brought everything bursting into life.These graceful swooping branches belong to larch trees. There have been some Aprils when we have fished in snowstorms, and there was barely a hint of green bud to be seen on the larches: theirs is the growth by which I measure the coming of spring.

 

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As well as their sprays of new soft needles, larches at this time of year bear what look at first glance like little pink blossoms.

 

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These are what will become the cones of autumn. You can see last year’s papery cones still attached to the branches beside the  new pink ones.

 

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These spring larches by the river always bring cheer to the fishermen: we all seem to compare notes on how they are coming along and how beautiful their new green looks. They are lovely trees, both in close-up and, indeed, from quite a long way away. Monty Python, take note.

 

There is more about spring larches, amongst other trees, in Too many trees.

On Easter, humility and…um…cake

April 18, 2014

On the evening of Good Friday, we are at the nadir of the Easter story. The dark before the dawn. To a Christian, this is the crux – literally – of Holy Week, the most profoundly significant week of the calendar. Unfortunately, however, I was unable to go to church as I wished today, as it seems to be my turn to be struck by the nasty chest infection that has been doing the rounds of the family.

While my husband went to church alone, I spent some of the afternoon sitting  in glorious warm sunshine in the garden, feeling (as my Dad would have said) very feak and weeble. My younger son and the dogs had a wonderful time enjoying the first really summery weather of the year. As I can barely speak above a whisper today, they could pretty much do as they liked.

 

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I sat and dozed, and reflected on today’s events in the Christian year. I also reflected on what I have realised during this Lent: that lack of self-confidence can lead to a sort of egotism, as one’s thoughts turn anxiously in on oneself. Thus even someone who feels quite humble can be guilty of the sin of pride. Now there is a humbling thought.

As if to help with that, I came across another idea new to me during Lent. ‘True humility,’ wrote C. S. Lewis, ‘does not mean thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less.’

I don’t think that I had ever really understood that before. So many of my friends are so much more giving of themselves than I am: generous in time, thought and action. For most of them, it has nothing to do with conscious faith (practising Christians are in a minority here these days, even if the Prime Minister has just ‘outed’ himself as one). Believer or unbeliever, the danger of being too introverted is that you can be so busy thinking negative thoughts about yourself (‘I’m not the right person to help’, ‘I’d be useless at that’, ‘They wouldn’t want me‘) that you forget that most of the time in life it’s not about you. So I have been remembering C. S. Lewis’s wise words, repeating them like a mantra every time the negative voice in my head threatens to drown out the needs of someone else. It’s amazing how useful you can be once you stop thinking about how useless you are!

Perhaps you are someone who has always known this, in which case you might think I’m a little slow on the uptake. That’s one of the wonderful things about growing older, though, isn’t it: there is always more to learn. Personally I find Lewis’s words very cheering and encouraging.

‘Mummy, you’re so lucky,’ commented my son the other day, looking around the kitchen at all the cards propped up on shelves. ‘You get Mothers’ Day, and then soon after that it’s your birthday, and next it’s Easter. You get lots of cards and cakes.’ Well, yes, I have always liked April for that reason, although, as I pointed out to him, it is me that makes the cakes. I’m quite happy with that, however. Perhaps one of the best things about being useful is that you get to have your cake and eat it.

Talking of which, I’d better finish marzipaning the Simnel cake before I drag myself off to bed. Then my family and friends can look forward to the joy of Easter Day…and cake too.

And after these slightly incoherent thoughts (blame the lurgy), may I wish you a very happy Easter on Sunday!

 

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Pansies in the garden, making the most of the Easter sunshine.

 

 

I wrote on talking with children about Christ’s Passion and Resurrection in Children and the twist in the tale; and a little about Holy Week in Malta here.

Cherry blossom, soft rain

April 10, 2014

Please excuse my non-existent erratic blogging at the moment: it is the school holidays. Ideas evaporate unwritten while chores and family life take up my time. Meanwhile, the outside world grows more green and lovely every day; April is looking just as it should, with daffodils in full bloom everywhere and more flowers opening daily in the garden: hyacinths and Japonica and tiny forget-me-nots, primula and flamboyant Magnolia stellata. Best of all, the cherry trees have blossomed this week. I know my last entry was about pink flowers, but I’m going to have to give you some more. Cherry blossom time waits for no blogger, and I can’t let it pass uncelebrated.

First, the wild ones. Down by the river at the very end of March, I was thrilled to spot some wild cherries already flowering. I brought a spray home to admire for three or four days.

 

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Don’t you think that these blossoms are exquisite in their perfect simplicity? I do.

 

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But then, I love the cultivated varieties too. There is a new sapling in the garden which is much more pink and frilly, each blossom like a fairy’s ballet tutu.

 

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My favourite cherry blossoms, however, are on the little tree by the garden gate: pink but not too pink, frilly but not too frilly. When I refer to cherry blossom time, this is the tree I’m thinking of.

 

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On a peaceful April afternoon earlier this week, I stopped to photograph it and to drink in this fleeting beauty, while a blackbird’s song  was filling the garden and a gentle rain was falling.

 

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Lichen curls from the bark, its pale green complementing the soft pink of the blossom.

 

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The flowers catch raindrops on their petals. Already the petals themselves are beginning to fall; but for now, this must be the most beautiful rain of the year.

 

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If you love the cherry blossoms as much as I do, you can find a post about them here from 2011 and here from 2012.

La vie en rose

March 30, 2014

I have always had a weakness for old-fashioned pink roses.

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Whether in the garden or in the kitchen;

 

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whether in full bloom…

 

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or in bud on vintage wallpaper,

 

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old-fashioned roses never fail to make the world seem a cheerier place.

 

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So you can imagine how excited I was when I spotted these cups in the window of a local vintage shop on Friday.

 

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Cabbage roses on a bone china cup is a match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. (Vintage teacups are another weakness of mine.) These two little unmarked coffee cups and a Copeland Spode teacup and saucer are all rather the worse for wear with cracks in several of the pieces, so I was able to ‘rescue’ the lot for a few pounds. Looking at the gilded design in the centre of the saucers, I’d guess that both designs date from the late 19th Century – perhaps the 1880s/90s? – although I’d welcome further information.

 

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It seems delightful serendipity that I found them just in time for this weekend. Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK, when Mum is traditionally brought a nice cup of tea by her family; and what mother would not like tea in such a pretty cup? I am sure my tea tasted extra good this afternoon.

 

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Not only that, but it is Laetare Sunday in the Church’s calendar, also known as Rose Sunday.* All in all, pink roses could not be more appropriate for my Mothers’ Day tea. So here’s a cup raised to all our mothers – and I hope that all these roses have helped to make your world, too, a little bit cheerier today!

 

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*You can read my introduction to Rose Sunday in this post.

Spring song

March 28, 2014

We have been quite busy at the castle in the past couple of weeks. The energy of Springtime can already be felt, in human goings-on as much as in the rest of nature. Our events season is beginning, with the first wedding of the year already having taken place. Castle Beastie is fairly unusual in having its own chapel, which makes for a gorgeous setting for religious services.

In the past fortnight, this beautiful neo-Romanesque building has been the venue for both a family Christening and for a charity concert of traditional fiddle music. Rose-tinted sunshine streamed through the stained-glass windows during the baptism,

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and a newly-woken peacock butterfly alighted on the altar cloth like a blessing.

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The concert, too, was a memorable occasion: a chance for once to sit in a pew and just listen, and look, the lilting music of fiddle and ‘cello filling the vaulted chapel like sunlight.

Outside in the castle policies, meanwhile, the lengthening days of sun have brought spring galloping on. The snowdrops are finished now – a month earlier than in last year’s late spring – and the wild daffodils are coming into flower at the edge of the fields.

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Honey bees are busy in the first rhododendron blooms,

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and the birds are busy foraging and establishing their territories. I saw a jackdaw wrestling with a twig longer than itself yesterday, while its mate chased a squirrel off ‘their’ tree. In the kitchen a couple of days ago, I was distracted by someone at the window, loudly insisting on my attention. It was a dunnock or hedge-sparrow, telling me exactly what he thought. Whether it was food he wanted (in which case he was at the wrong window, as the bird feeder is on the next one along) or whether perhaps he had spotted his reflection and was arguing with it, he sat chirping loudly into the room for several minutes before flying off to try his luck elsewhere.

 

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Even the trees are showing signs of energy: the trusty horse chestnut is already coming into leaf, and the nothofagi (South American beeches, whose Latin name I always struggle to spell!) are well ahead of the other broadleaves, looking properly green already.

 

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Isn’t spring a lovely time of year? More even than autumn, it reminds me of why I so enjoy living in a temperate climate. Perhaps the British are professional moaners about the weather because our turning seasons always give us something to talk about, always changes to notice. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Feather caught on a cherry tree, with blossom about open.

 

 

You might enjoy Cherry blossom time already.

Stirling Castle

March 19, 2014

For a half-term treat recently, we met up with Granny for a day out at Stirling Castle. Scotland is stuffed with historic castles, yet this one is really special.

You can see the castle miles before you reach it. Stirling is everything a Scottish castle might be in your imagination: a grim stone fortress set high on a crag, dominating the plains beneath and set against a backdrop of purple hills. Looking at it, it is easier to imagine armoured knights riding out of it than to believe that any of us are now welcome to enter under its gates. But we are.

Stirling Castle’s heyday was centuries ago, in the time of the later Stewart kings. After the Union of Crowns in 1603, the royal court moved south and the castle fell gradually out of use, except as a military garrison. Today it is cared for by Historic Scotland, under whose aegis the buildings have been restored and transformed into one of the most memorable places to visit in the country. If you are visiting Scotland as a tourist, do make sure that this castle is on your list!

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Both in its strategic importance and its grandeur of location, Stirling arguably beats even the castle in Edinburgh. Built, like Edinburgh’s, on a spur of volcanic rock, Stirling Castle rises from boggy flood plains, between rough hills to north and south and the great river Forth meandering west to east.

In the long centuries before the marshes were drained and roads were blasted through the hills, whoever controlled Stirling Castle controlled access across the whole of central Scotland. It has been described rather poetically as the brooch pinning Highlands and Lowlands together. No wonder there have been memorable battles fought beneath its walls (Bannockburn, anyone?) and no wonder that the castle is defended by massive walls, bastions and canons.

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These days the defences are purely historic: the last military threat to face the castle was the Jacobite rising of 1745. The canons remain only for ornament and, of course, for children. Was there ever a child who could set eyes on a canon without feeling the urge to climb aboard?

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There is plenty to see and do for all ages inside the walls as well. Once you have passed through the several guarded gateways and under the ominous portcullis, a surprise awaits you. The grim fortress you first spotted from afar is, in fact, an elegant palace, ‘arguably the finest complex of late medieval and Renaissance royal buildings in Scotland’.*  Although there has been a royal castle at Stirling since the reign of Alexander I in c. 1107, the buildings  were heavily altered or replaced by the Stewart kings, culminating in the 1530s with James V’s building of a palace in French style to house his French queen, Mary of Guise.

Bet you weren't expecting this, were you?

‘Bet you weren’t expecting this, were you?’

Five hundred years of  Scottish weather – and it is very windy up on the castle rock – have taken their toll on much of the exterior finery, it is true. However, recent restoration work on the interiors has re-created some beautiful rooms, including the bedchamber of Mary of Guise (mother of Mary, Queen of Scots):

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and the Queen’s Inner Hall, on the walls of which hang the famous Unicorn Tapestries.

A lady in period costume gossips to visitors about daily life at the court of King James V.

A lady in period costume gossips to visitors about daily life at the court of King James V.

These tapestries are a tale in themselves. Closely modelled on the Flemish set now held in the Cloisters Museum in New York, this set is brand new and were woven in situ, on looms set up in the old gunpowder store in Stirling Castle. They were commissioned as part of the restoration of the castle, because it is known that James V possessed two sets of unicorn tapestries, now lost. The unicorn, of course, is a beast rich in symbolism. Its particular significance here is that it represents Scotland, being one of the supporters of the royal coat of arms. (You can read more about the tapestries here.)

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This is my favourite. The unicorn dips his horn in the stream, while peaceful animals look on. Stag and lion, leopard and goldfinch, and a pair of pheasants on the fountain: all is harmony until the hunters burst in.

Several smaller rooms have been restored to house entertaining, interactive exhibits about the building of the castle and about courtly life within it. My boys’ favourite was the room about clothing in the era of James V (early 16th Century): there are lots of costumes to try on! I swear the boys grew an inch in stature once they were buttoned into damask doublets and fur-trimmed cloaks. The younger one would happily have made off with a full set to wear back home. ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, observed Granny.

The boys admire their 16th Century selves in a handy mirror.

The boys admire their 16th Century selves in a handy mirror.

One of the most memorable areas is the kitchen, or rather kitchens. They are populated by a full complement of plaster model cooks and kitchen boys in sixteenth century mode, and stuffed with plaster food fit for a royal feast: mussels, eels and sides of beef, raised pies and roast swan, loaves and bannocks by the dozen. It is very atmospheric, if slightly spooky, as you thread your way between the ghostly workers.

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 To round off your visit, there is a very good cafe tucked into some of the old vaulted rooms nearby – and no, the food is not made of plaster! A final compulsory look in the gift shop finished off a wonderful day for us. This is history brought to life, at levels which every age can enjoy.

As a new visitor centre is opened at Bannockburn (almost within sight of the castle walls) to celebrate the Scots’ important victory over the English invaders seven hundred years ago, Stirling Castle still feels at the heart of Scottish history. A word of advice, however, to English visitors. Perhaps you should come and see it sooner rather than later: if Scotland chooses to recede from the Union in the coming referendum, you might find those armoured knights riding out to meet you after all…

The Wallace Monument seen from Stirling Castle

The Wallace Monument seen from Stirling Castle

*The quotation and much of the information in this post is taken from ‘Stirling Castle’ by Richard Fawcett, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments (Historic Scotland, 1999). You can find good information online at the official website for Stirling Castle.

You might enjoy A poem for Bannockburn, and a short piece about Carlisle Castle: Now THIS is a castle.

Trees: frost shadows

March 11, 2014

What a blessed change in the weather this week! Starry, frosty nights give way to blue-sky mornings and bright sunshine. There is warmth in the spring sun now: it will soon put paid to the snowdrops, I think, and has brought the crocuses in to flower (those that have escaped the attentions of the hungry pheasants, at least). On the morning school run, however, the frost is still hard enough for me to have to scrape the ice from the car windscreen; something I’ve barely had to do all winter.

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Crocuses and snowdrops under a lime tree

I awoke early this morning, in tears after a vivid nightmare. It was obviously an anxiety dream about my younger son’s coming transition to boarding school. I could rationalise it, but it was one of those dreams whose atmosphere is thickly present in the room even after you wake up. I got out of bed to splash my face with cold water and break the spell. The compensation was that I was able to see the first and best of the bright morning: a woolly blanket of fog lay over the river under the sunlit hill, and the fields were striped with frost shadows. Every bird in the wood was singing.

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A little later, at a more civilised time but before the shadows had retreated too far, I took some photos from the bedroom window. In this one you can see the dark bulk of the castle looming towards the lochan, the chimneys like claws on a great bear’s paw almost touching the water:

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It was the shadow of a tree which really caught my eye, though. A rather nondescript beech was transformed, by frost and sunlight, into a perfectly shaped leaf skeleton on the new spring grass. Seeing this huge leaf shape thrown across the field raised my spirits again: it seems like a reminder, a promise that there are days of green leaves and sunshine to come.

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You might enjoy Oak on a frosty morning.

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