(james benedict brown) on the road

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Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 26 May, 2009

Wondering why the blog has gone silent? It’s because I’ve started a PhD, and I’m a bit busier with that now. A slower rate of activity will resume here at some point.

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Passing Places

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

One of the lasting memories I have of the Isle of Skye is the ubiquity of the English accent. I spoke to more English people on this island in six days than I have in Glasgow in six months. My guidebook warned of a peninsula that was sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ by native locals, being so full of those southerners who chosen to relocate here in the last twenty years.

I considered this early one morning during our five night stay on the island. A vaguely circular itinerary was taking us around the northern part of Skye, and that morning an hour long ride on a school bus was our only possible form of public transport to make the journey without a longer backtrack through landscapes we had already seen. I had found the bus listed in the island’s timetable, and had checked and re-checked the footnotes to make sure that it was actually running that morning. It was still a relief to see a bus pull up, though. Departing from Dunvegan, in the north-west of Skye, it follows a very leisurely route down the west coast of the island, pulling off the main road on several occasions to follow narrow winding lanes closer to the sea to pick up dejected looking school kids from junctions and driveways. After leaving us at the junction for Carbost (and a fruitless wait for another bus in torrential rain) the schoolbus would head inland and then turn back north towards the High School in Portree. I heard some English accents among the schoolboys and schoolgirls on that bus. I wondered whether their parents had chosen to ‘downshift’ to Skye to escape tedious commutes to and from England’s larger cities, only to commit their offspring to daily journeys of equal length just to get to school.

But what a bus ride. I know that those schoolchildren might disagree, but it’s worth getting up at six-thirty to see (although maybe not every day).

Visiting Skye in late March, we took a big chance on the weather. But then a trip to Skye at any time of the year seems to take a big chance on the weather: the Atlantic is right there; the Western Isles are too small and too tiny to offer any protection. Layer upon layer of clothing beneath a rigourous waterproof outer coat is the only way to maintain your body heat and sanity beneath skies that shift in a matter of minutes.

But when the sun shines, it shines on spectacular scenery. The day before that bus journey we had struck out from Dunvegan towards the relatively remote community on and around the Orbost estate. Not being well experienced or well equipped walkers, we stuck to roads and tracks, rarely being passed by other cars but always receiving a friendly wave when we were. One (a bus driver who had a few days earlier driven us from Sleat to Portree) even offered a lift, presuming that anyone walking at this time of year would appreciate a ride.

Only one day of our visit to Skye was completely lost to rainstorms. But it was also the day we visited the aforementioned Talisker Distillery and found one of the best pubs on the island. Skye supports a year-round tourist industry thanks to its fixed bridge connection to mainland Scotland and busy through traffic for the ferries to the Western Isles. We witnessed several tour buses, including the dreadful looking mini-coaches offering chaperoned backpacker tours of Scotland in 3, 5 or 7 days. But in March we were there on the shoulder between winter and spring, long before the real crowds arrived. During six nights in hostels, only one was in a room with someone else. In Dunvegan a local even professed that we were ‘the first tourists’ of the year and that the lambing season therefore couldn’t be far off.

It was not difficult to escape the English, therefore. We walked miles and breathed deeper than we might normally in Glasgow, and thanks to low off-season prices spent very little for the best part of a week. As a full-stop on a seven month period of unemployment, it was a fitting pause before work begins. More photos here.

Snapshot: park & ride, Skye

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 21 March, 2009

Seen during our first evening stroll after arriving on Skye. The island has a respectable network of local and national buses, although beware that the latter (Citylink) are very expensive for trips just on Skye or across the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh. Although there are more services in the summertime to cope with the busier tourist season, we managed a six day trip entirely on public transport, seeing many different corners of the island. Careful planning with the Stagecoach Highlands timetable is recommended: you can find a pdf copy of it on this website.

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Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 21 March, 2009

Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.

I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.

Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.

The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.

Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.

Into the soil

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 17 March, 2009

Like two new parents leaving the maternity ward for the very first time, we carried two carefully packed boxes of heavily chitted seed potatoes from our apartment up to the allotment yesterday. With the gung ho enthusiasm of two people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, we’ve ploughed a not inconsiderable amount of time, money and labour into our little half-plot allotment garden. Yesterday marked the beginning of the next phase in our nascent gardening careers. Our little babies were taking their first steps in the outside world.

Amongst various other crops, we’re experimenting with two kinds of seed potato: a second early called Lady Balfour and a maincrop called Vales Everest. These are not the most common varieties found in our allotments, but since we’re surrounded by cheap greengrocers and food stores in Govanhill and since we hope to have many more years of gardening ahead of us, we wanted to try two unusual (but nonetheless reportedly hardy) varieties. They arrived about a month ago, and have spent the intervening time sitting in egg boxes by our tall living room window. Glasgow tenements like ours aren’t much good for germinating seeds that need heat (as we have discovered) but the tall ceilings and large windows make this kind of light based germination (the right term for potatoes?) nice and easy.

The little green-purple sprouts that have appeared on the potatoes are mostly firm, although they still seem remarkably delicate. I was about to toss them all into canvas bags for the short walk to the plot, but we realised it would probably be safer to pack them in boxes. Over-cautious, perhaps, but that sort of detail is precisely the sort of question (how to transport potatoes that have chitted) that gardening books and seed packets don’t explain. Qualitative planting guidelines are great – e.g. “plant potatoes 20cm apart in drills 30cm apart”- but the precise situation we’re in always raises other questions – how close to our path can we plant a drill of potatoes without the crop growing under it?

Based on the conversations we’ve been having with neighbouring gardenings and from the information we’ve been reading, I’ve established two fairly comforting maxims since starting on our allotment. One – there is rarely a consensus about how to do something (sk two people in our allotments how they would do something and you will get two contradictory answers) and two – stop worrying. Since taking on the plot early in the year we’ve weeded it repeatedly, turned the soil and weeded it again before investing in a truck load of horse manure. In the words of one particularly helpful allotment holder nearby “everything wants to grow once it’s in the ground.”

These principles mirror with remarkable accuracy my experience of learning architecture at university. There are always two conflicting answers to every question, and ultimately it doesn’t matter so much as to lose sleep over it. We have a small plot and have squeezed as much in as we can for this first year. Whatever grows will be celebrated by the nervous young parents of this plot.