Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Signs I Like #32: Christmas 2012 Special

My inexplicable near-six month absence from blogging notwithstanding, I emerge blinking into the dim midwinter gloom to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. This sign found yesterday in Marks and Spencer's as we hung about waiting for the turkeys to be discounted!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A grasshopper's eye view?

Continuing the grassland theme from earlier in the week, I tried a wee photographic experiment with my phone camera, seeking a slightly different perspective on this grassland habitat. I set the auto-timer to 10 seconds, pressed the shutter release and laid the phone, lens-upward, in the middle of a bed of creeping buttercups and speedwells. I think the results are quite interesting and definitely the different perspective I was seeking!  The second of the pictures was one of my blipfotos this week.
Please let me know what you think!

Signs I Like #31: Are all committee meetings the SAME?

Breathe In And Out... on Blipfoto :: Are all committee meetings the same? :: 12 June 2012

I enjoyed spotting this sign at the University of Stirling earlier this week, considering how many committee (and other) meetings I have sat in over the last 25 years!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Signs I Like #30: Once in a lifetime

Well, it probably will be once in a lifetime that the Olympic Flame is carried through the town where I live. And that is happening here in Stirling tomorrow, Wednesday 13th June 2012. And, despite all the corporate nonsense and over-commercialisation of the London 2012 Games, I refuse to have my excitement quenched. This road sign, foretelling tomorrow's rolling traffic restrictions and heavy-handed security blanket, was in Bridge of Allan's main street, where the Olympic Torch convoy will be going before coming within two minutes drive of my house in Stirling.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Find yourself a grassland right now

Yesterday, I was clearly feeling the love from contact with nature - it spilled over last night into my blipfoto daily post, here. Here's the story:

"This is a fantastic time of year to take a closer look at a grassland near you. Lots of plants in flower, the grass 'heads' all developing too, so much detail if you hunker down and take a good look! Today's blip was taken this morning in bright sun in Stirling's King's Park, well away from the bits where the ecology is ruined to suit the golfers. A beautiful mix of vegetation is on display: the white 'umbrellas' or umbals of pignut, the leggy stems and sunny yellow flowers of the field buttercup, the seed heads of wild sorrell and one of the plantains and the cobalt blue shining starlets of the speedwell flowers scattered throughout. And that's without starting on the grasses.

Go out and find some uncut grassland this week and give yourself a visual treat!"

Here's the picture of the scene that was floating my boat!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

What a tongue!

Last night's submission to blipfoto showed Ella Wonder Dog, exhausted after a tough frisbee session and exhibiting her magnificent tongue! Here's the original posting, followed by the picture and a bonus photo showing that wonderful canine tongue: Breathe In And Out... on Blipfoto :: What a tongue! :: 8 June 2012

Friday, 8 June 2012

The heart of dreichness

For last night's blipfoto entry, I felt I wanted to share with you, especially if you live outside of Scotland, what the old Scottish word "dreich" actually looks like. "Dreich" means wet, overcast, cool and generally unattractive, particularly in respect of weather!

You can read more here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Signs I like #29 - Ducks Crossing!

When it comes to road signs, I am, not surprisingly given the primary focus of this blog, quite interested in those related to protecting both wildlife and motorists from unwanted interactions. In most cases, this is primarily to protect the wildlife. In some instances, however, such as deer, there are potentially serious, even fatal, implications of accidental comings-together, both for the animal and the vehicle's occupants. In this series of Signs I Like" posts, I've previously included the funky signs in the Outer Hebrides, warning of otters crossing the roads at "pinchpoints" such as coastal causeways.

Today, the sign I like is on the business park where I work in Stirling where it points out the likelihood of encountering ducks crossing the road. It is particularly important at this time of year as female mallards walk their large broods of ducklings from their hidden nest sites across the business park, down to the small pond at the entrance to the business park. We had a mother duck walking her family of eight suckling past the office window last week - very sweet!

I took this photo in the pouring rain - very appropriate weather for ducks!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Britain's biggest buttercups - on blipfoto

Here's my blipfoto entry for today - it shows some globeflowers, magnificent giant buttercups: Breathe In And Out... on Blipfoto :: Britain's biggest buttercups :: 4 June 2012

Nothing more than a slight blip....

Here's a wee experimental blog post. As well as running (and recently failing to post in) this blog, I recommenced in May my submission of a daily photo to my account, named "Breathe In And Out" on the blipfoto daily photo micro-blogging site. As well as sharing it on Twitter and Facebook, as I have been doing to increase the number of hits, I'm going to share it here too, just see if any of you are interested. That way, at least I might avoid the month-long gaps such as the one that this post brings to an end! I'll experiment with the best way to share these, but for now, here's a link to yesterday's blipfoto entry: Breathe In And Out... on Blipfoto

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mirth, music, misery and 'monica

A stool, a box of harmonicas, two guitars and some mikes
 Sorry for the contrived alliteration of the title to this post but last night we were entertained mightily by a great gig at the Stirling Tolbooth by James Grant, frontman for Scottish band Love and Money, songwriter, guitarist and collaborator with, amongst others, Karen Matheson of Capercaillie. I've been a fan of Grant's work since 1988 when Love and Money released their "Strange Kind of Love" album which I regard, to this day, as one of the most perfectly conceived and performed sets of songs in modern popular music. I have probably listened to that album more often than to any other over the last 24 years. So, as you can imagine, a chance to see him playing live in our wee venue in Stirling would be enough of an attraction in its own right.

However, while we saw him perform a great solo show last time he came here in November 2009, this time he wasn't travelling alone. He was joined last night by a long-term musical collaborator (and clearly great friend), harmonica player and virtuoso Fraser Speirs, a fellow Glaswegian who has played on many of Grant's and Love and Money's recordings over the years. I mumble along badly on the harmonica and, indeed, have played for several years with a bunch of folk in that very venue (in a back room rather than the stage, I hasten to add) and have wanted to see Fraser Speirs playing live for a long time. So, the chicken's entrails read well for an auspicious evening (a bit tough on the chicken though)...

A solo set of three numbers by James Grant before...

Speirs and Grant in full flow

I won't review the night song by song but this was a much more varied set than the last time we saw JG play here. There were old Love and Money numbers (including one of my favourites, "Walk the Last Mile"), many tracks from his solo recordings, including, after some cajoling and banter, some fun audience chorus singing on "The Scarecrow Song", and some great covers (e.g. Angie, Tom Waits' Clap Hands and others). One great thing about James Grant's live performances is his funny (some would say dry) chat (definitely from the Glasgow school of mirth). I remember a TV interview with JG, maybe in the early 1990's - I can't recall its name - but I remember the discussion of the influence on his writing of a belief that most people live their live in a kind of quiet desperation. I now know that was Henry David Thoreau that said it first but a sense of that still percolates many of James Grant's more recent work. He claims the misery and gloom that are the usual subject of his material demands that he tries to amuse us between songs. But it's mostly gentle, and often self-deprecating, stories and he has a great rapport with his audience, many of whom (maybe most last night?) have been coming to his shows since the late 1980's. I guess it's part of what makes for a pretty intimate experience, one that's probably easier to foster too in a wee venue like the Tolbooth (150-160 seats, tops?) and we both came away last night feeling like we'd been part of something special (actually, that's not uncommon for gigs at the Tolbooth in our experience where you sit so close to the performers and we were in the front row).

Oh, and did I mention that Grant is an exceptional guitarist - one of the things that attracted me to Love and Money in the first instance was the sheer varied musicality of his guitar lines, whether rhythm, picking or lead parts. And his style of playing and singing is complemented extremely well by harmonica.

For a wee flavour of last night's show, here's a recording of Grant and Speirs live, taken from Youtube, a performance of a Love and Money classic, Lips Like Ether, which they also played last night:

Fraser Speirs giving it large on the moothie last night...

This is what a proper harmonica player's gig box looks like!

In case you've never seen or heard Fraser Speirs playing harmonica (although he has played with so many artists that you will almost certainly have heard his playing without realising - check out his remarkable discography on the appropriate tab here), here's a wee treat for you, with Speirs playing a version of 'Lost John' for the audience at Edinburgh Folk Club, The Pleasance, in January 2008 (and with a nice chatty intro too):

Was there ever an instrument more designed to mimic the sound of steam trains? I doubt it. As I said before, I play harmonica (but badly!) and I can tell you there is amazing layer upon layer of technique and breathing control in this performance, and clever use of the mike! Oh and it's great fun too...

And to round off this excitement-fest, in case you've lived a blighted existence and haven't heard Love and Money before (you poor old sod), here's a vintage performance (was this a promo video for the single? I don't know) from 1991's "Dogs in the traffic" album, a track which also features Fraser Speirs, "Waiting for Angeline":

Incidentally, James Grant's own website is here (where he has generously shared the chords and lyrics for all of his L&M and solo work), and Fraser Speirs website can be found here, including a harmonica tutorial.

A machine of magic

Yesterday's Guardian newspaper carried an obituary for one of Britain's great old cycling writers, Albert Winstanley, who had just died, aged 95. His contribution has been described thus, that it: "evoked his lifelong love of touring on his bicycle in a series of articles that stand comparison with the very best writing about the outdoors."

He seems to have been a remarkable character, who kept cycling until the age of 92, managed to remain living in his own home until his last year of life, and was still attending Bolton Wanderers football matches in his final weeks of life. We can only speculate to what extent his active cycling life helped him to maintain his admirably active older life (but it does seem likely to have helped, doesn't it?).

The title for this blogpost comes from a quote from his writing, used in the Guardian obituary, and a wonderful piece of prose. Reading this the day after two major cycling mass-rides (Pedal on Parliament in Edinburgh and The Big Ride in London), campaigning for better, safer cycling facilities in Britain, I'm sure this lovely prose will ring a (bicycle) bell for many:

"To me a bicycle is a machine of magic ... taking me on to the ways of satisfied happiness; giving to me the good friendship I enjoy with others, and to share with me the delights and ecstasies of the outdoors. It gives to me the pleasures of mingling the past with the present ... always discovering ... always learning. Above all it gives to me also, memories to cherish and store inwardly, as I wheel my ways on joyous days ... such a day has been today.

Cover of a Winstanley classic

A great title for a cycling book!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

For those in peril on the sea...

Last June, I blogged about a local link to the Titanic disaster, namely a sign on a fence at a house around the corner in the King's Park area of Stirling, marking the former home of the ship's Sixth Senior Engineer, William Young Moyes.

The date of that blog post, in June 2011, was the 100th anniversary of the launch of RMS Titanic from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. After several months of fitting out the ship, the Titanic's maiden voyage ended in disaster and tragedy following a collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on 14th April 1912, the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable vessel by the early hours of Monday 15th of April resulting in 1517 deaths among the passengers and crew, including Stirling's William Young Moyes.

I find it sobering to think that, had the Titanic run head first into the iceberg, rather than steering around it and receiving a fatal blow to the side, she might actually have survived, with fewer of her watertight compartments ruptured, even although she was travelling at her top speed (was it 22 knots?) at the time. According to the Wikipedia article about the sinking, liner collisions with icebergs weren't uncommon. Indeed, in 1907: "SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German liner, had rammed an iceberg and suffered a crushed bow, but was still able to complete her voyage." And that ship wasn't being claimed as unsinkable.

I've posted another photo of the Moyes memorial sign above, taken this week, with floral tribute. We'll raise a wee glass tonight to the memory of Mr Moyes and all the other poor benighted souls who perished 100 years ago today.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Signs I Like #29

Oops! For various reasons, I haven't blogged since two months ago yesterday. That's a darned poor way to keep your readership and a terrible way to make friends and influence people. Received wisdom is that, if you've missed several weeks of exercising, the return should be brief and gentle to begin with. In order, therefore, to exercise my under-used blogging muscle in the recommended manner, I would like to share this fun blackboard sign from our local BeanScene cafe-bistro.

The place is staffed by lovely, enthusiatic young folk, and this chalked encouragement buzzed with energy (or is it just caffeine?). And the dinosaur skull looks anatomically accurate for a T-rex (or Saddosaurus if you'd prefer), which pleases me!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Stirling Lines on Burns Night

Today is, as many of you even beyond the borders of Scotland will be aware, the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, born in 1759 in the village of Alloway in Ayrshire (the county, too, of my birth). Robert Burns came to Stirlingshire (where I now live) on two occasions in August and October 1787. He appreciated the importance of Stirling in Scotland's history and reflected this in a number of songs or poems (for example, Scot Wha Hae, By Allan Stream). I'm indebted to a fine new leaflet on Robert Burns' association with Stirling, published by Stirling's Smith Museum and Art Gallery for the above details and for providing me the opportunity to post something appropriate for Burns Night:

On one of his visits to Stirling in 1787, Burns stayed at the Golden Lion Hotel (which is still in business today) where he (mischievous lad that he was) engraved a short poem (known thereafter as The Stirling Lines) on a window pane in the hotel:

Written By Somebody On The Window Of an Inn at Stirling, on seeing the Royal Palace in ruin.

Here Stuarts once in glory reigned,
And laws for Scotland's weal ordained;
But now unroof'd their palace stands,
Their sceptre's sway'd by other hands;
Fallen indeed, and to the earth
Whence groveling reptiles take their birth.
The injured Stuart line is gone,
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race, to honour lost;
Who know them best despise them most.

The Smith Museum leaflet describes the poem thus:

"These ten lines summarise the ruinous condition of the palace and castle, where the ceiling with the Stirling Heads [carved wooden heads of royalty and citizenry, restored in 2011] collapsed in 1777. The town also lost its sense of purpose after the removal of the royal court to London in 1603 and was in a sad condition at the time of Burns".

However accurate a description of the condition of Stirling was provided by this little poem, it also proved immensely unpopular with some locals, perhaps also for its criticism of the ruling regime, and Burns was forced to break the window! The controversy even dogged his path two years later while seeking government employment, when he was "question'd like a child about my matters and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window"!

An interesting little side story bringing Burns to life with all his mischief and perhaps a little youthful lack of foresight (or lack of care) about the consequences of his actions, and interesting for us right here in Stirling and especially today, on Burns Night.

Friday, 20 January 2012

My 2011 in bikes

"I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like"

Queen (who else?): "Bicycle Race"
I’m a cyclist and I’m proud to be described so. I don’t really race much. I do the (very) occasional short-course triathlon and I take part in the odd organised sportive ride. But mostly, I ride largely for fun, commuting and convenience. I love my bikes and, traffic and the state of Stirling’s roads notwithstanding, I love to ride. I have a few of my own bikes, none of them very flashy or new but each with their own strengths and uses.

In addition to my normal cycling experiences, I had a few encounters with interesting, unusual or odd bikes during the past year.

Le velo de facteur:

We were in Morzine in the French Alps in March and, on our last morning, we wandered around the village before departure and came upon the Post Office. Rather fantastically, there were four old yellow French post office bicycles leaning outside with little handwritten notes stuck on each, offering them free to take away: ‘a prendre’

Eh? What? No health and safety risk assessment? No cover-your-ar*e legal statement? But some of these bikes don’t even have functional brakes? Yeah. This is France. Refreshing, isn’t it? The coolest bike in Morzine? Darn right!
These bikes were obviously custom-made for les facteurs! They have a great parcel basket on the front, and a very solid-looking bespoke front-wheel based stand with little wheels of its own. The stand folds up under the frame. The one I tried was a bit stiff but nothing that a bit of oil wouldn’t sort.

The rear end of the bikes were pretty solid too, with a very robust rack and official French post office pannier bags:

Inevitably, the girls couldn’t keep their hands off the bikes:

Take one, get one free?

and it wasn’t long until they were test-riding them:

 I think if I’d been travelling with my own van, I might have brought one home. They were extremely solid and heavy machines (not one for the long climbs, I suspect) but one of these would definitely have been a unique bike for Stirling...

The recumbent tandem trike:

On our way home from helping out at our pals’ Apple Day in the South Lakes area of Cumbria in early October, we came on this recumbent tandem tricycle (not three words that you commonly see together) in a cafe car park.

From the decals, it appears to be a Greenspeed, not a manufacturer I've encountered previously. It was being ridden by a (fit-looking) couple who may have been in their 70’s and it had a Land’s End to John O’Groats sticker on it – that must have been an epic trip. It looks very stable and is probably very comfortable to ride but it is SO low down - I just can’t get over my feeling that British drivers are too uneducated in their dealings with cyclists for me to be attracted to riding a recumbent on the roads in this country.
First encounter with an electric cargo bike:

The low-carbon city project here in Stirling, Going Carbon Neutral Stirling (GCNS), has invested in a number of electric cargo bikes (trikes in reality) which it will lend out for people to use, attempting to replace some car trips in town with cycle trips. The large box at the front can carry a considerable amount, including a couple of children (a common sight in Copenhagen, where cargo bikes and trikes, electric or not, are very popular and widely used).

GCNS held a come-and-try event in the quiet residential Riverside area of Stirling on a rare warm summer evening. My wife O took one of the bikes for a spin and reported it as quite difficult to steer, especially around corners but this was her first attempt and I’ve seen the project staff riding one with relative ease on a gentle group ride around the town’s newer cycle paths. A friend, A, a massively experienced cycle racer, took one for a spin with his children in the cargo box at another open day at Stirling University and nearly turned over while cornering on a gentle downhill bend. He was probably going too fast but he did recover magnificently after cornering on two wheels. His children seemed to love it.

My wife’s old German racing bike:

 My wife bought a bike in Switzerland in the 1980’s which I’d never seen as it was stored at her mother’s. When we visited this summer, we dug it out of the shed to take a look at it turned out to be this splendid old Rudi Altig roadster. Rudi Altig was a German professional racing cyclist who, as well as lending his name to a range of bicycles, also won the green (points) jersey in the Tour de France, won the Spanish equivalent to Le Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, and became World road race champion in 1966, reflected by the addition of the World Champion colour rings on the bike’s down tube. You have to agree that they add a certain cachĂ©:

Note the unusual location for the early example of indexed gear shifters on the headset:

O rode this bike all over Berne, then brought it home to Blighty and it ended up in a shed. I just pumped up the tyres and oiled the chain and, despite the bike having sat in the shed for over 20 years, everything else on the bike (gears, brakes) worked so I took it out for a spin in the really hilly vicinity. I rode it for 30 minutes before, fearing that the old chain was going to snap under the strain of hill-climbing (they were REALLY steep!), I put it back in the shed again!

And as well as encounters with weird and wonderful cycles in 2011, it was also an unusually busy year as regards making the most of the bikes I already own.

Making do and mend – revamping my winter bike and my old hybrid:
I’ve had a lot of good experiences this year dealing with the guys at Stirling Cycle Repairs. Not the least of these was their advice and then hard work to help me reclaim two of my old bikes back into more active service. For the first seven or eight months of 2011, I was thinking about and researching possible option for buying a cyclocross (CX) bicycle. It’s not that I particularly fancied having a go at cyclocross racing (though if I had one, I might have had a go at a race or two as well), but it is more that CX bikes have become the new do-it-all road bikes in the past couple of years – tough, well-equipped, often for pannier racks and mudguards, they make for great general bikes for winter riding and there are many more on the market now.

I’ve been riding a bottom-of-the-range Giant OCR3 road bike as a winter bike for five or six winters and, having washed it conscientiously after most rides, it hasn’t rusted away or seized up as winter bikes often do (they are generally effectively bought as ‘sacrificial’ machines, to allow road racers, triathletes etc to preserve their expensive lightweight racing bikes for summer riding.

My Giant OCR3 has the most lovely light blue paint job and a very comfortable frame geometry that makes for quite relaxed road riding. But most of the original components had worn out. I’d already upgraded the brakes to Shimano 105 a couple of years ago. I was contemplating replacing this (and a mountain bike I never ride) with a cyclocross bike. But, given the current financial conditions, my dislike of disposing of perfectly sound equipment, and the fact that I do love that old OCR3 frame, I decided instead to investigate a refit. As I wasn't aiming for top-end components, the cost was less than I feared and so I went for it. Craig and Grant at Stirling Cycle Repairs did a great job of refitting it with basic Shimano SORA components (the gears, cranks and shifters), and finished it off with a very fetching and matching blue bar tape:

Look at the shiny-shiny! Didn’t the guys do a great job?

The wheels were still the same old wheels that originally came with the bike though and, after a week of riding, it was obvious that they were knackered (accentuated by how well everything else was working!) so I decided to replace them with a pair of Craig and Grant’s lovely hand-built training wheels – not so expensive, maybe not the lightest but light enough for winter training, pretty bombproof and likely to be usable well beyond the life of the Giant OCR3. And they are aesthetically pleasing too, with beautiful, curvaceous, silver Ambrosia hubs with Ambrosia rims. Look!

The final touch was a new pair of Continental Grand Prix 4-season road tyres with Continental inner tubes (funky yellow dust caps) to provide a durable partner for the new training wheels, and the package was complete for about a third the price of a decent new CX bike.

The final pleasing bike experience of the year was renovating, with my brother’s expert bike mechanic skills, my old Specialised Expedition hybrid, which has been stored in my brother’s garage roof for four years.

It was initially a disappointing insurance replacement for a much loved Marin Stinson hybrid that fell off a car bike rack. The replacement bike always felt heavy and clumsy in comparison to the Marin, was fitted with fairly cheap components (I constantly had to adjust the brakes, for instance) and I could never keep the wheels in true. They kept buckling and developing wobbles. I subsequently discovered from Craig at Stirling Cycle Repairs that the spokes had been incorrectly laced up when they were built and that there was no sensible way to correct that.

Luckily, my lovely brother donated a spare pair of used but good quality Cannondale 26x1.75 wheels (thanks lovely bro!). We fitted a new Shimano 8-speed cassette (that’s the rear gear cogs), a new 8-speed chain, and Stirling Cycle Repairs replaced the rubbish brakes with some good quality Shimano v-brakes.

My Old Specialised Expedition hybrid undergoing a facelift
I stuck on a set of Shimano SPD mountain bike pedals, Continental innertubes, a pair of Schwalbe Marathon touring tyres and some funky and surprisingly cheap SKS Beavertail mudguards (which needed some amendments with a hot needle and some zip ties) and I now have a tough utility bike with a rack(which I had fitted previously) and mudguards that’s ready for most of my non-training cycling needs – unglamorous maybe but helluva useful.

Oh, and it is in British Racing Green which is, as you know, very cool (like bow ties). Resurrecting and finally making useful this old Shimano Expedition bike was a fine end to a year of unusual and satisfying bike encounters and experiences.

Enjoy your own bikes in 2012!

Friday, 13 January 2012

What the Dickens...?

It may have escaped your notice (but probably only if you live in a cave) but 2012 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest creator of fictional characters in English literature (sorry Shakespeare). The BBC is gearing up to celebrate the Dickens bicentennial in style, with new dramas breaking out all over the place at present.

We, however, had the chance earlier tonight to enjoy a more intimate and special Dickens experience in this most Dickens-laden of years. We were privileged to see a great great grandson of Charles Dickens, the fine actor Gerald Dickens, re-create An Audience with Charles Dickens at the McRobert Theatre at Stirling University:

The New York Times described the show as: "A once in-a-lifetime brush with literary history" and so it was, at times breathtaking, moving, funny and highly entertaining. No spoilers from me but, as the information is widely available on line, I'll add that we were treated to a one-hour long version of Nicholas Nickleby which, if you know your Dickens, you'll know has a cast of 40+ characters, most of whom featured! My enjoyment was even enhanced by knowing that some strand of the great Charles Dickens' DNA was down there on the stage (there is even a family resemblance to my eye and not just down to the beards!)

I can't recommend this highly enough. It was fantastic. Enough said, go and see it if you can. Here's a list of upcoming shows.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Wild food from the Park – Look back in hunger... a review of 2011

And so we’ve finally reached the end of our year-long attempt to find wild food from our local park, the King’s Park in Stirling, every month of the year, and to produce some edible (or drinkable!) produce from what we collected. And, if you’ve been reading my intermittent (and usually extremely late) posts on this project through 2011, you’ll know that we managed it. Furthermore, some of what came out of the efforts was surprisingly tasty and we’ll be revisiting a number again next year. There were some good “do-ers”, available throughout the year or appearing as expected, when expected, such as the ever-available jelly-ear fungus, and the ever-reliable wild sorrel, elderflower and raspberries, the latter two of which we’ve been gathering for many years from the Park.

Some of our high points were:

  • using 30 plant species (including 12 wild plants) in a wild spring green soufflĂ©
  • discovering the nectar of the gods that is honeysuckle cordial (more please, more!)
  • wild garlic and walnut pesto and, for that matter, hazel and beechnut pesto too
  • the golden honey smell of lime blossom on one warm July morning
  • finding previously undiscovered wild plum, greengage and crab apple trees and bushes
  • making new ‘things’ like sloe and apple cheese, and Autumn’s end jelly (my own creation!)
  • coming home to O’s chardonnay jelly with wild raspberries, a real warm summer’s evening treat after a long day sitting about in a green room at BBC Scotland with the Heart of Scotland choir, waiting to be filmed with John Barrowman (two new experiences in one day!)
There were a couple of things we won’t be repeating – especially our meadowsweet cordial recipe – more medicinal than enjoyable – and we probably won’t be bothering trying to gather hazelnuts locally as these were more trouble than the efforts and returns merited, thanks to the Park’s highly efficient grey squirrels.

So, how did the year pan out in terms of the use of different wild foods in each month? The following table shows how the availability of different food sources changed as the year rolled on. Red boxes show where we collected and ate something, and blue boxes where we found, but didn’t collect (e.g. for reasons of time that month, or to avoid repeating experiences from previous months - variety is the spice of life, whether eating wild food or blogging about it!). Clicking on the table should open a larger version:

It’s an interesting pattern, showing that there’s real variation of opportunity. The weather also had a significant effect on this. In January, for example, everything was frozen solid during the most extreme winter for decades, including the jelly ear fungus that was our only successful find that month. By April, lots of fresh greens were available, but by July, many had disappeared or matured into poorly-edible fibrous toughness; edible blossoms had appeared by summer though, and Autumn was full of nuts, berries, hips and haws. The extremely wet Autumn greatly shortened the season for, and the crop of, blackberries – many went mildewy or rotted quickly.

The absence of edible fungal species in the Park is a big disappointment, with the honourable exception of jelly ear fungus on dead elder wood. There are many oak, beech and birch trees in the Park, all of which can and should host edible fungi that we would trust ourselves to identify. I think we may need to go a bit deeper into some of the denser areas of woodland next year to see if there’s more safely edible fungi available than we know of.

There were a couple of opportunities for which we ran out of time– the first, I’ve tried before and which is a little underwhelming, would have been acorn coffee. I still have some left from last year, and it is a bit like a malt drink with most of the flavour removed. The other failed opportunity was to try to make the drink, dandelion and burdock, made from the long roots of both plants in autumn after a summer of storing energy and flavour. Maybe next year!

One thought that struck me often throughout the year, and one which drove me back to read Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman's BBC book: ‘Wild Food’, was how difficult it would be to have a properly balanced diet from what we found to be available – protein was in relatively short supply for most of the year, although mycoprotein was available every month from the fungi. But I don’t know how much of a healthy diet’s protein is available from fungal sources. Of course, a true ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet would have included birds and their eggs, fish, shellfish and mammals. In the case of the Park, this latter option could have included roe deer, rabbits and grey squirrels – indeed, the King’s Park is a remnant of the much larger original deer park (forest) where the high and mighty residents from the Royal Household and Court in Stirling Castle would, in medieval times, have hunted for roe deer and, maybe, wild boar. But we weren’t hunting (it’s almost certainly banned in the Park, even for rabbits) and most of the birds are now protected by law, along with their eggs! Hazelnuts would have provided a good and readily storable protein source if they hadn’t been taken by the grey squirrels first.

Perhaps even more difficult to identify than protein sources, however, are obvious large-scale sources of complex carbohydrates, such as starch. Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman do, however, describe how many wild grass species (after all, the wild ancestors of our few domesticated grain crop species) were collected, processed and eaten by the early pre-agricultural peoples of Britain. A number of the grass species they describe can be found in the Park, for example the tufter hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa . There are also plants with complex carbohydrate storage ‘organs’, such as the pignut, distributed widely in the Park and which we’ve previously collected there and eaten. We just ran out of time during the late-Spring season for pignut, and didn’t really think about the grasses until it was a bit too late. Also, I suspect the grasses might be a lot of work for a poor return. At least the berries, wild plums and greengages would provide fruit sugars in a form that could be dried and stored as dried fruit, and blossoms provide some light, fresh, sugar-rich food during their season. Also, our ancestors would have braved wild honey bee hives for the honey – but I’m not going there!

But despite all the missed opportunities, the nutritional gaps that total dependence on the Park would have created, and the time and effort involved (although most collecting was actually done on dog walking excursions, much to Ella’s impatient disgust), I hope it was obvious from the blog posts that we had a lot of fun with this. We made some really interesting discoveries, both in recipes and wild food sources in the Park, and we have picked up some new culinary experiences and cookery skills. We’ll definitely be carrying on with an expanded range of wild food that we collect and eat, though I won’t necessarily be blogging about it in quite as much detail as I have this year!

Wild food from the park – December

Aha! Finally, it’s December and we only had to find one more wild food source this month to complete our year-long project. This December’s weather is somewhat different to last year’s. On the 22nd of December, I checked with the Twitter blogger ‘Stirling Weather’ who posts tweets on, well, you work it out. They confirmed that the temperature that day in 2011 was a full 20 degrees Celsius warmer than the same date in 2010. Thos extreme winter temperatures in December 2010 were maintained into January 2011, making our wild food searches somewhat problematic. As I reported though, we did manage to find jelly ear fungus that saved the project foundering before it had barely begun. And so, as we reached December, jelly ear fungi once again proved to be a reliable source of winter wild food. We cooked them with some ordinary white field (supermarket) mushrooms and included them in a pasta dish:

A final use for jelly-ear fungus– with commercial white mushrooms in a pasta dish

As we only had a couple of days of frost in December (it was actually remarkably mild), wild sorrel remained available, as did the wall plant ivy-leaved toadflax which we’ve eaten before and which is edible but uninteresting. We included leaves from both plants in a vegetable soup in late December, to bring our year-long wild food project to a successful if reasonably unspectacular finish:

Wild sorrel and ivy-leaved toadflax in vegetable soup

I’ll shortly post a review and discussion of the whole year’s ‘Wild Food from the Park’ experiences.

Wild food from the park – November

So, with November, we were nearly there for a full year of wild food from the Park. If you’d asked me in January if November was likely to yield much wild food, I suspect that I would not have been hopeful of finding much beyond some meagre greenery and a few jelly ear fungi. But, as you’ll see, a long extended tail of a mild Autumn left us with a relative cornucopia of delights in November... which does make for a more interesting blog!

In a previous attempt to use the wild food in our park, we tried to make some hawthorn jelly sweets using a recipe in Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book. On that occasion, the haws (collected late in the season) were rather sparse and quite dry and the resultant sweets were a bit of a disappointment. This year, we were able to pick them a bit earlier, so the moisture content was higher. But there was, again, quite a poor hawthorn harvest in King’s Park’s. So, we supplemented these with hawthorn berries, or haws, from East Lothian, where the hawthorn bushes were so red this year with big, plump haws that they looked more like cherry trees. On a visit to see family, I collected a couple of kilogrammes of hawthorn berries from the Longniddry-to-Haddington railway walk, which is lined for much of its length with hawthorns and which, in October this year, was distinguished by dense, bright red drifts of haws. This photo is a bit out of focus but it shows the lovely, fat, red hawthorn berries:

 The recipe calls for the boiling of the haws with water, straining the resultant mash, then boiling the resultant liquid with sugar until it thickens. It is then poured into moulds or onto a flat tray to set – a bit like a fruit leather, I guess. The resultant sweets are then rolled/coated in icing sugar to stop them sticking and the final result is not unlike Turkish Delight! And did I mention, surprisingly tasty?

We did a bit of both – here are some hawthorn jellies produced in silicon moulds:

and here’s the process of forming it into a sheet and cutting it up (free tip: kitchen scissors proved more effective than a knife):

Just as with the start of this project in January and February, when we were able to harvest jelly ear (or Jew’s ear) fungus, even in the coldest weather (when everything else in the Park was frozen solid between -10° and -20° C for weeks), as the rest of the wild food harvest began to dwindle in November as winter approached, so we were able to collect many large, freshly-emerged jelly ear fungi from dead elder trees or broken-off branches. We used them with some of the wild chanterelles we collected earlier (not from the Park) in a potato and wild mushroom ‘au gratin’ dish from Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book. Finely-sliced potatoes are layered with wild mushrooms and garlic in a casserole dish, cream poured over the top, parmesan grated on top and the lot is baked in a hot oven:

The jelly ear fungi, although quite tasty, have a tendency to rubbery chewiness when cooked (we normally cut them up very small), but prepared this way, they were quite tender.

One of my favourite discoveries this year has been a large area of wild garlic in a relatively inaccessible corner of the Park, and the riotously-tasty wild garlic pesto we made from some of it in April (here). I’ll definitely be making more (much more) in 2012, now that I know we have such a large local supply of wild garlic. That experience made me keen to explore other possible pesto ingredients from the Park. One of the key ingredients of ‘true’ pesto is pine nuts. Obviously, that’s a difficult wild food ingredient to source locally but I couldn’t help thinking that the few beech nuts (or ‘mast’) that we started to find in the Park from late September were very like pine nuts in look, texture and even to some extent in taste. Now, as I wrote about in the September wild food post, most of the beech mast cases we looked at were empty or contained hollow beechnut cases but a few had little beech nuts and we began to collect them, along with the few hazelnuts we could find that hadn’t been snaffled by the darned grey squirrels. Comments on Twitter by TV gardening broadcaster Toby Buckland and in the Guardian newspaper’s nature diary suggested that 2011 was, at least in the south of Britain, looking like a classic ‘beech mast year’, with a prodigious crop of beech nuts. I had high hopes, therefore, of a great opportunity to make lots of beech nut pesto but, by late November, our local crop proved to be thin pickings, it was obvious that we weren’t going to find any more and we had to make do with a small dish of local beech and hazel nuts supplemented by some shop-bought hazelnuts (boo – the best-laid plans and all that):

Our meagre catch of local hazel and beech nuts

But, with the addition of the more usual oil, parmesan, basil, etc ingredients, we made a more-than-passable pesto:

Beech and hazel nut pesto certainly looks the part...

And it was pretty tasty on cracked-back-pepper oatcakes. Next stop, some pasta.

We managed to gather a few remaining sloes from the Park but, on my East Lothian visit, I also found a blackthorn bush that yielded nearly two pounds of sloes (and that was only a small part of the crop). Then, at the eleventh hour as far as this particular harvesting opportunity is concerned, I discovered a little crab apple tree out in the middle of the Park’s golf course. All but three of its crab apples had fallen and been removed (actually only the day before!) when the greenkeepers sucked up all the leaves along the edge of the fairway with their leaf and (crab apple) sucking machine. But I picked those remaining three (and watch out next year!), and with some of the few apples our garden’s apple trees managed to produce, we used the sloes to make a sloe and apple cheese using another recipe from Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Food’ book:

Amazing sticky red sloe and apple cheese goo!

...transformed into preserved ‘product’ and awaiting consumption on a cheese board!