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My favorite historical picture

My favorite historical picture

First controlled flight
The Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk, 17th December 1903.

The anniversary of the first controlled flight, on Kitty Hawk beach. Less than 15 years after this, planes were engaging in armed combat over the fields of Europe.

The summer of 2016

The summer of 2016

It has been a good summer; so far, anyway.

Lush grass

There have been meetings in nice towns.

Up the hill

Sunsets.

Sunset

Many walks in the countryside.

Nearing harvest

Some Nordic food shopping.

Haul

More walks.

Flowing

Trees.

Tree

Convivial conversations.

Pub

More sunsets.

Sunset

Moon rises.

Moon in the gap

Cricket.

Expectant home supporters

Some writing.

Hotdesk

And unexpected music.

Uh?

I have been, and remain (using that word pointedly), disinclined to “blog” or write much of a non-work nature. The EU referendum has poisoned much, and my thoughts and vision lie increasingly elsewhere. Maybe some other time.

In the meantime, my work website (which remains under permanent construction) is where to go to check I’m still around.

Summer of 2015

Summer of 2015

My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.

This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.

And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.

Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.

So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.

The hound remained unmoved.

And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.

Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:

Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.

Also, hunting fireflies…

Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:

What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.

Also napping, because I am no longer young.

And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:

But most of all, those walks in rural Iowa. In the daytime, at dusk, under a big sky, past baseball, at sunset, and by mushroom circles, cornfields and buzzing fireflies.

Always, the fireflies.

That was a good summer.

West and south and west again

West and south and west again

A walk doesn’t have to be of Appalachian Trail length to be epic. This evenings was but four miles long.

I leave base and walk in the direction of Wisconsin. Hit a junction, turn and walk in the direction of Minnesota. Pass a church, bright sign welcoming or enticing; pass a softball park, and new houses, rich and bland and slightly ridiculous and a little isolated by absurd lawns.

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A crossroads. I turn towards Nebraska. I hit an area of agricultural land; farmland to the right of me, flat and still, large fields marching off to South Dakota, the occasional house with the occasional small lake. To the left, small holdings, the lights of the edge of town.

And fireflies. One, two, five, ten, dozens, hundreds, in either verge, flickering and flashing like an insect paparazzi as I strolled on by, towards where the sun had set a little earlier. Crossing the rail track, descending towards the golf course, more appeared; suddenly, I’m surrounded by a silent, glowing, swarm of fireflies, not landing on me but circling.

I stop and snatch out, on the third attempt catching one in my hands. Between my fingers it glows, intensely, on and off, nature’s own flying LED. I contemplate keeping it, somehow carrying it back to base, but decide against. This taming and appropriation of nature the last few hundred years has led us to quite possibly this century being the last one of advanced civilization; I don’t feel I deserve to keep the firefly.

The swarm moves on, and I feel oddly bereft.

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Onwards, and always under the constant blanket of the sound of crickets, night insects, night animals. I can’t hear any traffic, near or distant.

Past the golf course, nearing the corner of the outer built up area of town, I swing left again, head in the direction of Missouri, following the curves of suburban roads. Large houses, each different, low lights and ponds and manicured lawns and refuse out for the morn pickup. Under a street lamp I stop and write a short while, a long term work problem solved, saving notes for future implementation.

Onwards, round suburbia, then picking up the grid of streets and avenues. Through the local college, low lighting and symmetry of building design. Back across the railroad tracks, and along the last straight road, elm trees slightly rustling in the late evening breeze. And still, that background noise, like Revelations happened while no-one was looking and only, by some deity administrative error, the crickets were left on Earth.

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Back to base. I feel a lot older, a lot calmer, despite only being gone an hour and a half. It feels that the process of my mind gradually “decompressing”, for want of a better word, has concluded. Spending a year walking roughly a thousand miles around rural Leicestershire in ye olde England helped, as did clocking up a couple of hundred miles so far this summer here. It’s taken that much to slow the mind, return its clock speed to something more useful, get a whole bundle of thoughts and memories and strange life turns out of my system and into digital bits, nudge aside the inscribers block, and make some kind of adequate peace with the country of my birth. Now, it seems as equally foreign and strange to me as other countries. And that’s a good thing.

This is a better summer, and ultimately a productive summer.

I say hello to the cat, note that only three vehicles had passed by during the walk, upload pictures, eat a couple of chocolate glazed cinnamon swirls (99 cents for a dozen and I’ll never complain), and write this. Now it’s time for bed, falling asleep listening to some radio station elsewhere on the plains, hopefully a sleep undisturbed by automated warnings of storms and tornados.

Tomorrow is another day.

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When winter leaves

When winter leaves

The end, finish, conclusion of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is a matter of conjecture, opinion and history. BBC weather tells us that winter ends today, February 28th, meteorologically. Some say it ends at the vernal or spring equinox, which this year is March 20th. Some say it’s when the clocks go forward and we suddenly have daylight and sunlight well into the evenings. Sometimes we just notice things that indicate a change of season. And some, in Boston, doubt it will ever end.

It perhaps does not matter what others say. Winter ends when you notice it is ending. That’s good enough.

Steam under the bridge

I’ve enjoyed this winter. On the downside, some signs of aging. I feel the cold, even mild cold, which is something new to me and I don’t like that feeling. Things take longer to repair themselves; hell to my aching shoulder of some time now. As the beard lengthens (nearly four years now), so the proportion of whiteness increases. By age 50, Gandalf perhaps. Though I’ve written much, it’s mostly been recollections about people and events and times, and that’s all been filed away; maybe for future use, or inspiration, or maybe not.

On the upside, much has been done and completed. I’ve hit a vein of work that is interesting and, sometimes, fun. And controversial, but emerging technology in education always is. We perpetually argue about the proof, what it is and where it is. Occasionally, we agree on it.

Occasionally.

Hilltop

This has also been the first winter out of the last six where I haven’t lived in a city, either Birmingham (England) or Toledo (USA). The lack of daylight or street light hasn’t meant an end to walks, though the mud and rain and surface water have meant diversions, and the strange preponderance of doggers and other people with their rituals in the rural east Midlands has also been a source of caution.

But I’ve got out and about, over field, up hill, and on trains both steam and modern to villages, towns and small cities in the eastern reaches, as the pictures on this post show. And that’s been fun.

Tea in the chapter house

Some of my significant legacy issues (more about that several years down the line) have been tackled; things I’d left for so long I didn’t think they would ever get sorted. From the mundane – finally getting rid of a load of physical possessions so I could downsize my storage unit – to more complex issues. Still much to do, but personal progress has been greater this season ending than in many previous.

Which is good. I just hope this momentum continues for the next six months, over the spring and summer.

Pub garden

Habits and daily mundane routines have changed, a lot. I still regress to a few bad habits; lemon curd, watching the relentlessly grim Walking Dead, getting pointlessly annoyed. And social media – I’m looking at your addictive qualities and we need to ‘have a talk’. Yet again. But much more of a useful nature gets done nowadays, between rising from the pillow and returning to it.

There is still much to do. The vein of work, although useful, needs more funding, perpetually. Some old things need replacing; tech and clothes especially. I have to make some difficult decisions about old books. I need, as ever, to do a bunch of legal stuff but that seems like a lifelong thing now. I have found the perfect present for my current housemate, which need to be procured soon. Closure on a few more issues would be good.

Lane

But overall, this winter has been quietly satisfying. Helped by, as said previously, living in a quieter place, on the edge of a market town, and often on my own. The sound of predictable chatty voices grinds me down; it’s been pleasant, restorative, to have coming on for a year away from that background noise.

My common sounds this winter have been the typing on this keyboard, the rustle of pages, and the radio. Four for the talking stuff, Five Live for the cricket. And if that means I’m old, then I’m old.

Doh!

Possibly for the first time ever, logistics and moving things around mean that all three of my suitcases are with me in this room. The battered grey one that I hauled around two continents for several years; the very expensive-looking gold colored one that I rolled through Detroit on my first stay there instead of getting a taxi; the smart red one which has been pressed into service to transport human and animal ashes on several occasions this last six years. They probably all need a thorough clean before further use.

And one of these will soon be loaded, with new clothes, a cumbersome amount of tech, three books, a lot of stationary, and Cadbury chocolate (the genuine version). It’ll be coming with me on a long trip (multiple modes of transport, multiple days) I’ve started to plan out, and book.

Deepening sky

Daily, several times, sometimes many times, I look up at the sky, where others fly for reasons significant, to places distant. It’s lighter a lot more now, as we steadily head towards the equinox, then the summer solstice. Looking at the sky frequently is a good thing to do; you leave the babble of people on the surface behind, make your eyes stretch far, become aware of the weather, the light, where you are, who you are, where you want to go, where you’ll probably end up.

It’s been a while.

Archipelago days

Archipelago days

An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.

But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.

Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.

Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:

Out tae sea

Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:

Deer

There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.

Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.

You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.

Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.

In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.

One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:

Stensholmen

And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.

Zig-zag

Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.

There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:

Welcome to my world

Arctic Blue | Lofoten, Norway

p e r s i s t | lofoten, norway

But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.

+ + + + +

Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.

Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.

Best travel decision ever.

The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.

The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.

I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).

Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.

As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.

Sweden

We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.

And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset:

Sunset

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

An intermission of rural England

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.

The Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox

The first time in Boston was December 1995, for the fourth World Wide Web conference. The last time was two years ago almost to the day, on a night stop-over on the way to (finally) meet – in ‘real life’ – the person who would be my fiancee.

The events of the last week – not just in Boston, but elsewhere in America, and much more personally closer – have been strange, turbulent, upsetting, downright scary, annoying as hell, thought-provoking and personally defining. Sometimes, in life, you never know your exact feelings about something until a situation or crisis occurs. That’s happened a few times this week.

Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts - HDR

One of the (by far) lesser things, personally, was finally deciding which baseball team to support. I know a lot about cricket but, despite going to several matches over the years, hardly anything about baseball. Apart from the basics (e.g. loading the bases, top and bottom of the innings, of which there are nine). The statistics aspects, the tactics, the culture surrounding it look enjoyable and reminiscent in some ways of cricket, and no other sport. And above all, it’s fun to go and watch; a truly social spectator sport that fits the “pursuit of happiness” ethos of America well.

But, which team to support. It was easy with cricket; Worcestershire County Cricket Club, my home county side, based at one of the most scenic sports grounds around, a few miles from where I went to school.

Not so easy with baseball. I’ve been to many matches now, in cities including Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle, and seen teams play in major and minor league baseball. I have no geographical affinity to any side – there is no major baseball team within a good 6 hour drive of the place I consider ‘home’ in the USA. I have no baseball heros or players I follow closely, past or present. And people advise me to pick a major league side, and a minor league one close by so I’d not have to take a plane to always support my side.

Who to pick? Not an urgent question, but one dithered with for several years. A team is for life, not just for a season. Choose wisely, young padawan. You may be explaining this choice for several decades yet.

Fenway Park

But this week it clicked. Boston. The Red Sox. Of course. The first baseball match I went to in America (or anywhere), over fifteen years ago. The events of this week, with a city (and a country, and a people) I recognise, and like, and like a lot, in the news, across all news and disposable social media. The city where I got my online web work mojo together. The home city (near enough) of JFK, after whom I was named, and various presidents, patriots, and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

And the city where I first thought “Hey, maybe I’ll move to this country one day”.

Those reasons are more than good enough for me. So the Boston Red Sox it is. Here’s a video taken by someone three years ago during a Patriots Day match between the Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston:

The solstice walk

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set. Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.