Posted in Garden, Photography, Scotland

Scotland’s Gardens: Backhouse at Rossie Estate

The Backhouse family has a long history of working with plants. Throughout the past six generations the family has produced a number of horticulturists and botanists, including pioneering daffodil grower, William Backhouse II, who was born in the early 1800s.

Later generations carried on the tradition of daffodil development, and many varieties of daffodil can be seen each spring at Rossie Estate, home of the current generation of the family. In 2016 the Backhouse daffodils were acknowledged with National Plant Collection status, a conservation scheme for cultivated plants in the UK.

I visited Backhouse Garden, which is located just outside the village of Auchtermuchty in Fife, for the first time this week. Unfortunately I was too late to see the daffodils, but there was no shortage of other things to look at.

The first thing that caught my eye was a circular grass maze that reminded me of my youth. My mum used to leave the grass to grow long in our back garden and then mow a maze into it, for the entertainment of me and my siblings.

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Circular grass maze at Backhouse Garden, with standing stone in the middle. (Note the intrepid adventurer about to enter the maze. My dad had a bash at the maze but after wandering around, sweltering in the sunshine and getting nowhere, he eventually gave it up as a bad job).

The maze was situated in a very large walled garden that had a number of interesting features. Around the inside, expanses of wall supported numerous varieties of heritage fruit trees. The apples from some of these trees go into the garden’s own apple juice, which I can confirm is absolutely delicious.

Apple trees in walled garden at Backhouse
Fruit trees growing against a bit of the walled garden. Dead daffodils can be seen in the foreground, in front of small box hedges. All round the garden there were decaying signs of the national collection of daffodils, remnants indicating what must have been a magnificent display.

Along from the grass maze was an extensive herb garden, filled with culinary plants. Two elegant seats and a table positioned among the herbs made me wish a waiter would appear with a silver salver bearing afternoon tea.

afternoon tea table at Backhouse

Beyond the herb garden lay a succession of arched trellises with roses growing up them. I imagine later in the summer when the roses come out it must look, and possibly smell, beautiful.

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The wiggly path beneath the trellises was designed to represent the double helix of a DNA molecule. The twisting strands were picked out in grey stones set against a background of crushed white shells.

There were several other references to science and art in the garden, as well as a fascinating water feature. The water bubbled up into a well-like structure, creating vortices on the surface.

Water feature at Backhouse
You can’t tell what’s going on in this picture, but the water came up in the middle of the feature and swirled around the shallow curved areas in a quite mesmerising manner.

Disappearing again through the holes in the middle of the structure, the water reappeared at the bottom, pouring into a long straight channel leading to a pond guarded by lions.

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Lions guarding the pond with water flowing down from the mesmerising water feature.

In other parts of the walled garden, flowers burgeoned in beds lined with hedges.

Burgeoning flowers at Backhouse

Beyond the walls lay other attractions for the visitor. These included a putting green, which I didn’t have time to investigate, and a tree-lined walk to a Covenanter’s Tomb, which I did go and see.

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The start of the walk to the Covenanter’s Tomb.

It was an usually hot day and the dappled shade of young trees along a grassy path was very welcome.

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En route to the Covenanter’s Tomb.

To get to the grassy path, a stone style had to be negotiated. It was challenging for someone with mobility problems but my mum, who is still recovering from a knee replacement operation earlier this year, managed it okay. The same could not be said for the second style that came after the grassy path.

Although she climbed gamely up one side, the other side proved rather too difficult, with the first step down being a 2 foot drop.

Style number 2 with a steep drop

She decided against attempting it and later learned of another way into the area via a flat path leading off the main driveway into the garden. (Something to remember for the next visit.)

Not being hampered by a dodgy knee, I went over the style and had a look at the Covenanter’s Tomb.

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The Covenanter’s Tomb, seen from one end of the building. (The wooden fence is there to deter people from climbing on the ruins.)

Deliberately constructed to look unimportant (there was never a roof, so that seen from a distance it would look like an abandoned building) the tomb is thought to contain the remains of Sir James Scott and Lady Antonia Scott, both of whom were Covenanters in the 17th Century. (The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Protestants who opposed the belief in the divine right of kings. Their name came from a document called the National Covenant, which supporters signed in 1638.)

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On arrival at the garden (before we saw any of the above) we went straight to the cafe, housed in an old stable block at the entrance to the garden, for a spot of luncheon.

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Garden entrance with cafe on the left.

The menu was unusual, offering daily specials using ingredients grown in the garden. I was tempted by the prospect of homegrown asparagus on toast, but opted instead for Orkney cheddar and homemade apple chutney open sandwiches. My parents had bread with hummus, and mini croissants with cheese and ham. We all enjoyed Backhouse apple juice, which was extremely refreshing on a hot day.

Before leaving the garden we called in at the cafe again for afternoon refreshments. The ‘cake of the day’ was lemon drizzle and we each had a slice, with breakfast tea for the parents and Earl Grey for me. The teas were loose leaf and branded with the names of previous Backhouse botanists. The sturdy glass teapots held more tea than we could drink, but we certainly drank our fill and it was a splendid way to round things off.

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Tea and cake at Backhouse Garden. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a little vase of buttercups on a tea table before.

Backhouse at Rossie Estate is open from 1 April to 30 September, Wednesday to Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday) from 10:00 to 16:00. Entry to the garden costs £5 for adults, £4 for senior citizens, £3 for children aged 5-16, and under 5s go free. If you’re a member of the Royal Horticultural Society you can get in for free on Fridays. If you’d like to read more about Backhouse, you can visit their website here: www.backhouserossie.co.uk.

Posted in Book review, Fiction, Writing

Book review: “Border Line” by Hilary Custance Green

I recently re-read this novel, having first read it about two years ago. On the first reading, my initial impressions were of a well-written and interesting story featuring a good mixture of nicely drawn characters. I felt the same on reading it the second time.

Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
‘Border Line’ by Hilary Custance Green (2014)

The story follows a group of people who have been brought together by a mutual desire to commit suicide. This might seem a morbid premise for a book, but I didn’t find it depressing. The story is told from the point of view of one of the group, a 35 year old geographer called Grace.

The group’s leader, a drama tutor called Daniel, has organised a trip for them all to Slovenia. The excursion lasts for three weeks, during which they take part in various games and activities designed to help them learn about themselves and others. At the end of the three weeks they have the opportunity to either end their lives or change their minds and choose life instead.

I particularly enjoyed the way the relationships between characters developed over time. That is, indeed, one of the main threads of the story, and I found it convincing.

The author, Hilary Custance Green, has asked for honest reviews of this book and so I’m going to mention a few things I might not otherwise include in a review. As I was reading, I tried to be critical and take note of anything that stood out for me in any way.

The main thing I noticed was how well written the text was, and how refreshing it was to read a book with section headings rather than chapters. As far as I can recall, I have never read another novel laid out in this way but I found it a satisfying and enjoyable approach. For example, on page one there is the heading ‘Devon – Day nought‘ and on page six the next heading appears: ‘Trieste – Day one‘, followed on page ten by ‘Divača – Party game‘ and on page 14 by ‘Lunch – Questions. Presenting the book in this way created the impression of a diary or itinerary, and gave the book a sort of forward momentum that made me want to keep reading.

To my mind, there was very little to criticise about the book, but I have a few small points to mention. Firstly, some of the games the characters took part in were hard for me to visualise and I suppose that was slightly frustrating at the time, although it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

Secondly, it surprised me that each character had a specific historical reason for wanting to do away with themselves. In normal life I think a lot of people reach the decision not because they’ve done something awful in the past, but because they feel hopeless and can’t see any point in living. However, this issue was perhaps addressed in Daniel’s admission that each individual in the group was selected from a larger pool of people who contacted him about their suicidal wishes. It was implied that he had deliberately chosen those who cited particular events in their lives.

The only other thing I wasn’t sure about was the way in which group members reacted when each person gave their reason for wanting to commit suicide. It seemed to me that some of their responses were unlikely, although this was perhaps a deliberate ploy by the author to put across different points of view.

None of the above criticisms in any way spoiled the book for me, and I only include them in an attempt to give a balanced review.

To end on another couple of positives, I was impressed by the quality of the book’s print and paper. I was also very pleased with the bookmark that came with it, which gives a list of the story’s characters, alongside their ages and professions. Since there are 11 main characters, I found the bookmark especially useful in the early stages of the story.

Back cover of Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
Back cover of ‘Border Line’ with helpful bookmark giving names, ages and professions of characters.

I would highly recommend this book to other readers who are intrigued by the story idea. Using my ‘4 Ps’ rating system I’ve scored it 18/20.

Posted in Garden, Photography, Scotland

Scotland’s Gardens: Dundee Botanic Garden

I enjoy visiting large gardens and although my photographs rarely, if ever, do these wonderful places justice, I thought I’d start a series on Scotland’s gardens to illustrate the botanical splendour on offer in this part of the world.

The first garden I’m featuring is a relatively new botanical garden, set up and run by the University of Dundee. The garden is spread out over 9 hectares, divided into geographical areas containing plant species from all over the world.

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The glasshouses and Mediterranean area of Dundee Botanic Garden.

From the early 1970s, when the garden was created, it has been run on a small budget. The objective of maintaining it as cheaply as possible remains an important policy of the garden today.

Beyond the glasshouses lies the Garden of Evolution, which contains some impressive dry stone walling.

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Dry stone walling in the Garden of Evolution.
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Entrance to the Garden of Evolution.

When the garden was in the planning stages, the only suitable site that wasn’t too far from the University lay just north of the River Tay. From the southern edge of the garden you can see the Tay, separated from the garden by a busy road and Dundee’s small airport. The amount of traffic nearby makes this far from the quietest of gardens, but perhaps it makes having a garden here all the more beneficial.

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Dundee Airport and the River Tay, seen from Dundee Botanic Garden. The land beyond the river is the northern boundary of the Kingdom of Fife.

If you’ve spent much time in Scotland you might agree with me that hothouses are a welcome addition to any garden. The ones at Dundee Botanic Garden were much appreciated on the rather nippy day when I was taking these photographs.

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Entrance to Dundee Botanic Garden’s hothouses.

My camera lens kept steaming up in the jungly atmosphere inside, but it was bliss to let the heat seep into my bones as I strolled amongst exotic foliage.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the warm, moist atmosphere.

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As you might expect from a university-run enterprise, Dundee Botanic Garden places an emphasis on education. The garden provides a wide range of programmes for school children of all ages as well as occasional courses for adults.

The garden is open all year round (apart from a few days over Christmas and New Year) and at time of writing a day ticket costs £3.90 for adults and £2.90 for senior citizens, children and students. Students of Dundee University and Dundee College, and members of the Royal Horticultural Society get in for free.

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Striking white bark and a white turret, Dundee Botanic Garden.
Posted in Photography, Postage stamp, Royal Mail

Postage stamps no.3 and no.4

In August 2015 Royal Mail brought out a series of stamps depicting six bee species found in Britain. Prior to the release of these stamps, research was commissioned to find out how much people in the UK knew about bees.

The research revealed that although 87% of Brits said they cared about the bee population, 53% couldn’t name any species of bee. The UK is home to around 250 different bee species, but over 70% of people surveyed thought there were fewer than 20 different species buzzing around the British Isles.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of any of the bees featured on the stamps: the Scabious Bee, Great Yellow Bumblebee, Northern Colletes Bee, Bilberry Bumblebee, Large Mason Bee and Potter Flower Bee. The first two have become familiar to me now because I have the stamps that feature them.

Two bee stamps

The Great Yellow Bumblebee, shown in the 1st class stamp on the left enjoying the flowers of Bird’s Foot Trefoil, is one of the UK’s rarest bumblebees. It is found only in the northernmost highlands of Scotland and on some of the Scottish islands. The population has declined by 80% over the past century, due to changing agricultural practices across the UK. In the areas where the Great Yellow Bumblebee survives, wild flower meadows proliferate and traditional crofting practises hold out against modern intensive farming.

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The Great Yellow Bumblebee, happy to buzz around the quiet places of northern Scotland.

The Scabious Bee is depicted in the 2nd class stamp sitting on its namesake flower, the Field Scabious. This plant is essential to the bee’s survival, and is found in undisturbed sandy and grassland areas. Like the Great Yellow Bumblebee, the Scabious Bee’s population has declined in recent decades and the bee is now confined to southern England and some parts of Wales. It is one of Britain’s largest solitary bees and is a so-called ‘mining bee’ because it burrows into the earth to create its nest.

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The Scabious bee, content in the more southerly climes of the UK.

Although neither of the bees featured on these stamps can be found in the area where I live, I have noticed several different species of bee in the garden. I don’t know what they are, but they all seem to love the Pieris flowers.

Posted in Book review, Non-fiction

Book review: “The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young woman’s escape from North Korea. I found it at turns shocking, horrifying, inspiring and heart-warming.

Aged 17, Min-young (as she was then known) crossed the border illegally into China, alone and unsure of what she was going to do once she got there. The night she left, she told her mother she was going to a friend’s house. It would be twelve long years before she and her mother would meet again.

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“The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (2015)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many cliffhangers in it. For a large part of the tale, particularly the latter two thirds, I was constantly on the edge of my seat. Hyeonseo Lee’s journey, which took her into various parts of China and eventually into South Korea, was peppered with knife-edge situations and the ever-present fear of being discovered as a North Korean defector.

The first few chapters of the book describe Lee’s childhood and upbringing, and I found the descriptions of life in North Korea frequently depressing. The closed nature of the country makes it endlessly intriguing to those of us on the outside, but for those inside it must be a brutal and terrifying place to live.

North Korea’s dictatorship demands total loyalty to the despot; anything less is considered a criminal offence and swiftly dealt with by torture or execution. The country’s citizens are brainwashed to such an extent that they believe their leaders to be gods, and live in constant fear of their dictator’s barbarity. Hyeonseo Lee witnessed her first execution aged when she was just 7 years old.

As indicated by the book’s title, The girl with seven names, Lee had to keep changing her identity to avoid being detected as an illegal immigrant in China. Her incredible courage, determination and resourcefulness eventually paid off when she gained asylum in South Korea, more than a decade after leaving North Korea.

While some defectors, like Lee, succeed in escaping to safety, others are tragically caught and returned to North Korea to face beatings and death camps. There are also those who find it so difficult to adjust to life in the free world that they choose to return, knowing they’ll face savage treatment for their disloyalty.

Thanks to the bravery of the defectors who speak out, the rest of the world is learning more about this secretive nation. The decision to leave, however, is never straightforward. Once defectors have turned their backs on North Korea, they often become completely cut off from family and friends, live with the guilt of leaving their loved ones behind, and struggle to make new lives for themselves in countries vastly different from the one they know.

Hyeonseo Lee now lives in the USA with her American husband and campaigns for human rights. She believes North and South Korea will one day be reunified, but admits that achieving this will be extremely challenging.

Posted in Book review, Non-fiction

Book review: “Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green

This book, compiled by fellow blogger, Hilary Custance Green, was given to me as a Christmas present. It was well into this year before I began reading it, but once I started I was hooked.

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“Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green (2016)

Hilary’s father, Barry (the handsome chap on the cover), was 26 years old and a Captain in the British Army when he was posted to the Far East during the Second World War. His young wife, Phyllis (the lovely lady on the cover), and their baby son, Robin, were left behind in England, expecting to join Barry in due course. At that time, in the summer of 1941, the Far East was at peace and there was little inkling of what lay ahead.

As soon as they were apart, Barry and Phyllis began communicating with each other by letter. It is these letters that make up the bulk of the book, along with letters sent to Phyllis by relatives and friends of other men serving alongside Barry. During what ended up being four years of separation, Phyllis made it her mission to try and keep in touch with the families of Barry’s unit, known as 27 Line Section.

After Japan became involved in the war, life deteriorated significantly for the British and their allies serving in the Far East. Held as Prisoners of War (PoWs) by the Japanese, they were treated appallingly. Along with many of his fellow PoWs, Barry was frequently moved between various work camps in Malaya and worked on the now infamous Burma-Siam railway.

Throughout this time the sending and receiving of mail became increasingly difficult, with letters taking months, or often years, to be delivered. For three and a half long years after becoming a PoW, Barry was constantly waiting for news from Phyllis while Phyllis was desperately awaiting letters from Barry. Each of them continued to write, always hoping for some sort of response. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it must have been to keep on writing in those circumstances.

Thousands of PoWs died in the Far East, but Barry was one of the survivors. After reading this book it seems clear that his relationship with Phyllis was a big part of what kept him going. For Phyllis, left to bring up their small child on her own and and never sure whether her husband was still alive or not, the prospect of one day having him back gave her hope for a brighter future. The love Barry and Phyllis had for each other shines through the pages from beginning to end.

Although the conditions Far Eastern PoWs had to endure were truly horrific, and some of what’s described in the book makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading, I found this a surprisingly uplifting and moving read. The book is skilfully edited by Hilary, with sufficient context and extra information to allow the letters to speak for themselves. After finishing the book I was left with the reassuring feeling that, no matter how bad things get and how awful human beings can be to each other, love and friendship always win through.

Posted in Photography, Postage stamp, Royal Mail

Postage stamps no.2

In 2016, Royal Mail celebrated 500 years of the British postal system. Very fittingly, this fine achievement was commemorated with six special postage stamps drawing attention to different features of Royal Mail’s history.

The Royal Mail began in 1516, when King Henry VIII knighted a chap called Brian Tuke, making him the first Master of the Posts. Tuke’s task was to establish a postal network across Britain, using major towns as hubs. The system didn’t become publicly available until the 1630s, but it then quickly expanded to delivering mail beyond the British Isles. By the mid-1600s Royal Mail was delivering letters and parcels to countries on the European continent, and these journeys were made by what became known as packet ships.

The range of ‘Royal Mail 500’ stamps produced last year featured six images: Brian Tuke, a packet ship, a pillarbox, a mail coach, a river postwoman and the inside of a mail centre. I have one of these stamps – the packet ship – in my possession, and since it’s starting to get a bit tatty round the edges I’m thinking of using it some time soon. Before I do, though, here it is in all its philatelic glory:

Royal Mail packet ship stamp

The original packet ships were wind-powered, but by the 1820s steam ships were being used. In 1839, a Scottish geographer named James MacQueen started up the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company which carried mail from the south of England all the way to the Caribbean twice a month.

Since Henry VIII’s time, a further 20 British monarchs have overseen the Royal Mail, and there have been a number of pioneering moments throughout the company’s history. Royal Mail was the first postal service worldwide to use a postmark, the first to deliver mail by air and the creator of the first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black (in 1840). Uniquely for world postal services, Royal Mail stamps do not feature the country name. Ever since the Penny Black was produced with a silhouette of Queen Victoria’s head on it, British stamps have had the reigning monarch’s head on them.

You can read the first in my stamps series here.