Friday 31 May 2019

West Lothian Part Two. A Gallery of Wonders. The Lost Photo File.

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The day myself and Anne went cycling around the West Lothian uplands we both enjoyed it but it was not that great for photography. The weather was hot, humid and sultry so any distant views tended to be fairly hazy or limited... or washed out grey. Looking at the back archives however I discovered a folder that I'd never been through from 2015 on a solo cycle ride and they really show the true beauty of this wonderful landscape better than the Anne and me day recently. There is much more to West Lothian than the iconic yellow oil-seed fields as this collection now shows.
Deep in the Bathgate Uplands. I was pulling Anne's leg about this area of small gorse encrusted hills by calling them the Bathgate Alps....
But it's not that far off the mark in this photo. Certainly cycling around this upland area can be challenging so I tried to keep to minor roads that stayed mainly flat- i.e. the ones running down gentle valleys or along ridges- west to east. When I was cycling with Anne here I had dozens of previous trips to draw on to pick the best routes, making it as easy as possible to do a circular tour while still seeing the best views this area has to offer. Binny Craig  and the distant Pentland Hills in the background, above.
In some ways this area reminds me strongly of Renfrewshire, the part around the Brownside Braes, Castle Semple, and Bridge of Weir as it has a similar landscape of fertile rolling farmland, cow dotted slopes, gentle valleys and wooded ridges. A magical landscape I spent the first 20 years of my life exploring, on foot and with bike. I can't think of any place better to grow up as a child... but this district comes close to it.

When I first visited here, in the 1990s, it was with a similar joy of discovery and even 60 and 30 years later, retrospectively I'm still enthralled with both places. And who wouldn't be... given scenery and views like this one.
Looking across at Fife here and the Firth of Forth.
and over to another of the districts small hills- Cockleroy. Going at an easy pace we managed to bag all four summits in one long day consisting of Cockleroy,278 metres, seen here, Cairnpapple hill, 312 metres (1,023 feet) or thereabouts....
seen here,... or on the way, cycling towards  it.... 
Cairnpapple. The highest point for miles around and an ancient burial ground at the summit for the ruling tribes. A special place indeed. " Look at that incline." I enthused. " A Lothian Glastonbury Tor." ( This was our last hill of the day, late on.)
" Jesus save me- let me die. " was Anne's only take on it. (We ended up walking a stretch of it anyway as the cycling legs had gone for uphill endeavour and pushing the bikes by that stage felt much easier.)      I know how to show a women a good time. Unforgettable in fact.
Binny Craig, 220 metres, and...
Greendykes Bing. They may be smaller hills but the height and distance cycled and climbed adds up- ---probably around 3000 feet of ascent and descent  in total at a guess or maybe more. Felt like it anyway.  No wonder we were fooked by the end :o) But a great trip. Took 8 hours but with plenty of stops, long lunches etc. Did it in 4 hours years ago but I was much fitter and younger then and this time was more fun with good company and laughs all the way round. Thank you.
A cyclist on the minor road network looking across at Greendkyes Bing and Arthur's Seat above Edinburgh.
One I took on a clearer cooler day. Edinburgh's suburbs, Airport and Control Tower/lookout.
Evening light from the bing-lands plateau looking across at Broxburn industrial estate, and the Eastern Pentlands, another of my favourite Central Belt, lesser hill ranges.
Cairnpapple Hill. Cattle herd looking northwards.
West Lothian farmland.
Although full of arable crops, livestock, and field systems it also has plenty of little woods, pretty hamlets, farms and some wild upland areas. Not many lay-bys though and only certain right of way paths lead up prominent summits so best reached by bike or in a car to do them rather than walking long distances on foot between them... but even that is ok given such fantastic scenery. No pavements obviously but cars on the quieter road networks are very few and far between.
Lush vegetation and flowers cover waste ground under the bings.
Tropical Scotland in early summer.
The green lagoon. Big bing country.
Cattle on the open range. Riccarton Hills.
West Lothian and the Kingdom of Fife view. My Gallery of Wonders. The Bathgate Alps. An 'off the beaten track' location. Yet any one of these overlooked landscapes could easily grace a Scottish pictorial calendar and not look out of place. The Scottish Highlands may be wild and untamed but I like these areas as well which have a much greater chance of sunshine, shelter, and heat and a larger variety of wildlife, history, distinctly different population groups, and landscape management over centuries- all subjects that fascinate me now so that I keep coming back to learn more.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Gold Fever. West Lothian Triangle. Part One.

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Mention the Riccarton or Bathgate Hills and most Scottish/ UK folk, even keen hill- walkers, will look at you blankly. Widen it out to West Lothian and it still might get the same response- "out east somewhere" they mutter vaguely. " That lumpy patch of ground in the way between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Is that it? "

Those of us who know this area intimately however are all too aware it is a real life magical kingdom- a Scottish land of Oz. In both senses of the word. And what are the main colours we think of in May for this fair land? Gold, Red and Green of course.
Gold- for the numerous oilseed rape fields that dot this marvelous district with patchwork yellow squares and rectangles contained inside the larger triangle between Bathgate, Falkirk and Kirkliston. A five field spectacular here in the above photo. When you are surrounded by this much yellow intensity it's like sitting inside the sun. Radiant, dazzling, abundance in every direction.
Red- for the shale oil bings that rise above the surrounding golden flat-lands like ancient stepped pyramids in far distant countries.These too are man made mountains soaring from a central plain. In this case not religion or to commune with the gods the objective but mining and heavy industry the culprit- extracting paraffin from crushed and heated rocks, once a popular fuel. Creating a unique landscape like no other in Scotland. The Red Wall.
Views on top are sensational and unique. Half Scotland- half outback Australia. Even more so on a scorching hot day- and it was. The sweat was lashing off my panting princess beside me ... while I, a sporting demi- god... was completely immune .... or just road cycling fit...tee hee. 'She gleamed like a melting ice cream in the sun coming over that hill.'     comment from a passing cyclist.
Binny Craig, a volcanic plug. I was introducing Anne into this cycling Colosseum for the first time and the only way to really see it properly is by bike. It's cycling heaven on this upland plateau studded at intervals with distinctive little hills and ridges.

Would we manage to ascend them all in one day I wondered?

Or would the swarms of honey bees pollinating the oil seed flowers get us first. The air was alive with buzzing creatures of every description- see previous photo above. Come to think of it this one area is still oil producing- first a major paraffin extraction centre and now edible and cooking oils.
Green. Beecraigs Country Park being one of the few places to park a car to see it. A network of quiet minor roads snake out from here but views are mostly green in this vicinity. The sweet green of a witch perhaps? You really need a bike to explore it properly as any lay- bys are scarce or non existent. Which keeps it quiet and serene.
As always, you have to really work hard for gold- put in some graft and effort - over rolling scenery- on a hunt for scattered yellow veins of precious material.

So it's always a modern day grail quest... and a good excuse to cycle or walk up any hills en route to spot out the best riches ahead.
but not without its distractions and pleasures. Wild Garlic and Pink Campion in showy clusters adorn the hedgerows and deep dark woodlands at this time of year. It had to be done and ticked off. Cool shade and perfume for lunch.. if you like the smell of garlic that is.
Rhododendrons and fresh new leaves bursting forth make the entire kingdom feel new born. Unfurled and as yet unsullied by munching insects and caterpillars. Mint conditions to greet Morrigan, the ancient Celtic enchantress who makes an appearance... and its no surprise. Where else would you find her but here- in enchanted lands, surrounded by the ruins of iron and bronze age hill forts?
The great lady appears... in disguise :o)  a giant sized version of the species, landing on an ancient hill fort beside us. Very fitting illusion.
A village in Loth Lothian, a district named after King Loth you know... of ancient hill fort fame.
Belted Galloway cattle at Beecraigs where there are several sizable car parks...but probably full up by lunchtime on a sunny summer weekend unless you arrive early enough to nab a place.
Loth Lothian. The golden lands arrive. Another five field wonder formation to touch and sniff but whose counting. " It's mine- all mine- rich beyond my wildest dreams!!!!" Lost in gold fever.
White cottage in the gold.
Rolling ridges in West Lothian.
A big sky country of vast horizons.
and woodland flowers.

Niddry Castle sitting in the green valley between the bings.
in our wonderful realm of Oz.    The golden land.
And a colourful meal to end the trip. My idea of heaven on earth.

Saturday 18 May 2019

The Bookcase. 23 Outstanding Reads. IMHO.

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An unusual post this time. Over the last few years I've been buying second hand paperback books in book sales for very little money- often six books for a pound. Not great news if you are an author trying to make money from writing but good if you like reading.
Like many folk my age, since childhood, I've been a keen reader and the best books, the most memorable or interesting ones stay friends for life. I still have books I first read in my teens and twenties, often re-reading them at ten year intervals and still enjoying them, finding new depths or greater insights with advancing maturity.
So here's a selection of the best books I've enjoyed- and kept- or old favorites devoured again- over the last five years. Although everyone has different tastes these books stand out as excellent, well written, vivid and enjoyable adventures. I still prefer old style paperbacks rather than e-books. Books you can touch, interact with, and store away without ever forgetting they are there- not hidden away in a computer folder or pad index, in all likelihood never to be visited again. Paper books are alive, on show, and always visible.
So here goes....
when writing my own books I went right off reading for pleasure for a few years, simply because I was putting in long hours writing, editing, correcting, learning self publishing, etc etc and getting eyestrain and headaches. After a gap of some years this first book mentioned was my way back in. Sitting in my back garden in the sunshine, reading, drinking soft fizzy drinks and munching crisps or sandwiches. Pure indulgent luxury rather than powering up mountains every weekend. My not so guilty other favourite pleasure in life.
Wicked- Gregory Maguire.
Everyone thinks of the musical (I've not seen it) but the book is magnificent in its own right. A technicolor kaleidoscope of lyrical invention, playful imagery, slightly adult themes and a reinterpretation of the original stories. Quirky, funny, brilliant... and just a tad wicked. And a great female character in the much misunderstood green witch of the title. One of my all time favourite books and still very underrated. Written in a slightly unusual style so it takes the first three chapters to get into the swing of it- then its excellent until the end.
Before The Poison. Peter Robinson.
Bestselling crime novel and the finest I've read in its genre. A prosperous and successful musician travels back to his native Yorkshire and buys a remote house in the Dales, gradually becoming obsessed by the former owners and finding a mystery he's compelled to solve. Well written, full of lucid descriptions and a haunting, moving climax. All the books in this list linger long in the memory, to me anyway, and this is no exception.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra. Margaret George.
Over 1000 pages long but never a dull paragraph as the ancient Queen of Egypt is brought back into vivid, touchable, believable existence. Reads like a bestseller and so it should. After wading into this epic, sprawling, masterpiece you will be convinced you have lived alongside her, felt the same burning sun, sailed down the River Nile, seen the pageants and events- maybe not in the royal palace but in a hut nearby, looking on at the great and the good travelling past the doorstep. A novel but full of accurate factual information retold in a compelling fashion. Another favourite.( This book tends to play down the Queen's undoubted ruthless streak and survival strategy to make her more relatable/likable to a modern audience being the only flaw, but understandable given that the age she lived in had very different rules and values where problem people were simply deleted with little human emotion or regret involved. Different times being a leader then with a long established family tradition of quietly rubbing out your brothers/sisters/ father/mother/cousins, uncles etc without a teardrop spoiling the makeup...)

Strange Shores. Arnaldur Indridason. 
A crime novel set in Iceland with a detective trying to solve a decades old mystery of a young women who vanished without trace. Haunted by an incident in his own childhood the past slowly unfolds it's secrets. Cleverly crafted Icelandic noir and the bleak unusual setting of icebound fjords gives this story its edge.
Station Eleven. Emily St John Mandel.
The collapse of  modern life through a virus/ plague/ man made incident etc is a familiar theme but this book takes a fresh new perspective on it. Very different and refreshing. Well written, memorable, and all too realistic a scenario but surprisingly not depressing. As much a journey under hope and sunlight as any shade encountered along the way. A classic book.
Flood and Fire. Emily Diamand. A winner of the Times Children's Fiction Competition and I can see why. 
Although in the children's/ young adults  category this is just a brilliant read for any age group. Full of adventures, intrigue, changed landscapes and scattered humans, as they navigate through a flooded, half submerged London and England in 2216.  A young girl and her cat creep under the radar in a dangerous new world rapidly reverse evolving into savagery and tribalism, carrying the last working computer from that shattered technological past as her furtive guide and salvation.  Up there as a true modern classic.
Edge of Dark Water. Joe R. Lansdale.  A book set in depression era Texas with shades of Huckleberry Finn as it's setting is a journey down the Sabine River. A region I know very little about but was captivated from the first page to the last in this extraordinary book. A great storyteller and a who done it mystery/ adventure/travel novel gliding past a heightened 3D landscape with characters that jump off the page and stand before you fully formed. Really enjoyable and different.
The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey.
 Alaska in the 1920's. A hard grim wilderness of short summers and long bitter winters but when a childless couple find an abandoned little girl wandering in the snow they take her in... but who is she and where did she come from? A clever reinterpretation of L'enfant Sauvage/Pinocchio.

Darktown. Thomas Mullen.  Atlanta USA. 1948. A novel. In a divided city split down white/black boundaries the first eight negro policemen are enlisted to solve crimes in their own districts, territory previously patrolled/ controlled by corrupt white officers taking bribes. Based on real historical events the black police officers face openly hostile residents, openly hostile white police determined to stamp them out and a landscape outside the city zone they reside in that will kill or jail them without hesitation, given any opportunity, no questions asked. In the Heat of The Night and To Kill a Mockingbird are rightly regarded as classics but this book really digs deep into the corrosive nature of casual ingrained racism more than anything else I've read or watched. A fast paced murder mystery adventure.... well written, gripping and shocking at every turn. Highly topical in a newly refocused populist politics America and UK.
 Still Life with Crows. Preston and Child. A New York Times best seller and rightly so by these two well known authors working as an effective writing team.  The golden cornfields of Kansas but a long way from Dorothy and Toto as a serial killer paints elaborate outdoor art in the growing corn using human victims as his brush strokes. A brilliant psychological thriller/ crime novel with great characters and unusual locations. Funny, disturbing, thrilling and brilliant.
The Chalk Man. C.J. Tudor.  Set in a small English town this follows a group of young teenagers riding bikes and having adventures in the woods until a chain of strange events alters them forever. A wonderful evocation of life as ordinary schoolchildren in an urban/ rural setting having fun gradually turns darker with twists aplenty before the end. Fascinating and compelling. A great book.

Flightsend. Linda Newbery. As a pleasant change to crime novels, which seem to make up around 70 percent of all books, I picked this one due to its cover art of a young girl lying in a meadow with butterflies dancing around her. I was not disappointed as it was just as nice inside. Sixteen year old Charlie is pulled away from urban familiarity and friends to a new home in the countryside as her mother makes a fresh start. Well written and carefully crafted throughout this is refreshing, magical, sunny and simple all in one dish- like a perfect early morning of golden sunrise or a spectacular ice cream and fruit surprise. Nothing much happens in it... no one dies in a grisly fashion... but it is wonderful nonetheless. A favourite book for cheering me up...just looking at it and knowing what's inside and that it's sitting on my bookcase.  Relatable as it also describes my own childhood in part- half urban- half countryside experience, exploring the woods and fields around my house with my dog as a youngster, getting further away with each new journey/adventure. Sometimes isolated and alone from companions- so creating my own internal universe through imagination during solo wanderings. 'What will I find when I eventually reach that far off wood? What's the view going to be like over the next hill?' The basic stuff of life that still keep me interested today.

Runaway. Peter May.  Another book I enjoyed for partly personal reasons as I too travelled down to London and met someone there that altered my life journey. Although equally well written I read another of his books recently but it failed to have the same emotional impact as this one. Four friends leave Glasgow to start a band in the capital but it doesn't go quite as planned. A very memorable book, uncannily close in certain chapters to my own life throughout the 1970s, which was a very weird experience indeed as I kept thinking " ****, I've been there/done that/visited that place... as well...!? .
Weirdo. Cathi Unsworth.  The seedy underbelly of an English coastal resort during the punk era. Not for everyone this novel with madness, prostitution, music, murder and biker gangs but very memorable proving that not all crime and deprivation happens in big cities. Fast paced, lurid, and action packed.

Amazonia James Rollins. An adventure thriller set in the hot steamy heart of the Amazon jungle.  A one armed government agent goes missing in remote location only to emerge years later with two working arms before dying. A second expedition sets off to solve this mystery and the stage is set. An enjoyable romp into the deep unknown.
Altar of Eden. James Rollins. Same author -equally good tale set around the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. Abandoned fishing trawler washes up on coastline carrying a cargo of exotic animals. Vet gets called to examine them and finds them strangely altered in certain ways. Combines vivid landscape locations and good story detail with elements of cutting edge science, animal and human genetics research, ethical and moral future dilemmas, 3D fractal imaging etc. into one very interesting novel.
Itch. Simon Mayo. A schoolboy element hunter finds himself drawn into a dangerous adventure. Although a young adult novel... any good book to me is a good book. Period. And this is. Very unusual and original story/subject matter and well written... a page turning classic.
Witch World  series. Andre Norton.  Taken as the first six books in this series  it's on a par with Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings for fantasy adventure. A 1960s classic and well worth reading in sequence. Still great reading today and highly influential on later works in this genre.
Chris Beckett. Mother of Eden. Although set in a future world this novel also looks back at our own origins mythology and examines the process and evolution but in an exciting way by creating a vivid story all its own. The second in the Eden series.
A Tap on the Window. Linwood Barclay. A detective thriller murder mystery which takes place around USA's Great Lakes district and the Canadian border towns. Compelling story, well written and interesting throughout. Author of a string of bestselling books so no surprise its a gem of a novel... although the 'bestseller' tag is not always a guarantee of a great book, just a popular one.
The Dune Trilogy. Frank Herbert.  Way back in the early 1970s the books where I first discovered the term 'Jihad' or Holy War and the concept of religions fighting continual battles with each other down the centuries. Heady stuff for a teenager then and even more topical now on our divided planet.
A science fiction classic... a cracking read today... and like the best imaginary world tales... reflections in a mirror only one small step away from our current reality.

Endurance. Alfred Lansing.  The true story of Shackleton's failed Trans-Antarctic expedition and the subsequent incident filled prolonged return across frozen wastes, over city sized icebergs, and towering mountains. An epic sea adventure of survival against all the odds. Aptly named book and beautifully written. A classic.
In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick. The true story of the whaling ship 'The Essex' lost at sea 1000 miles from the nearest landmass after being rammed by a giant whale, presumably enraged by the slaughter of its family group. The survivors cling to tiny rowing boats used to chase whales but, unlike the others, this one is not running away any time soon.  The real life incident that later inspired Moby Dick.

23 outstanding books to enjoy.