The Snail Trail

Musings about wanderings

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That was the year that was 2020


It is reaching the end of a very strange year and with the weather currently not delightful there is time for one last coffee while I look back over the last 12 months. On the 1st of January, I do not think anyone could have predicted the course of 2020.  There were rumblings of a new virus in Asia but like everyone, I was blindsided and as such, I have not posted much this year as there has been little travel and a lot of stress.

The year did begin well with a visit to the NOW exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art. This was a fantastic presentation on the theme of time. The highlight was a mirror ball on which photos of solar eclipses had been printed. This was hung low in a room with a light shining on it. I was not the only person to spend some time just sitting in the moving lights.

Totality (2016)
Totality (2016)

As Easter approached, it was time for a trip across the country to see the National Trust of Scotland property The Hill House. This is a Rennie Mackintosh designed house just outside Helensburgh. Built in the early part of the 20th Century, the property was made of materials that were not entirely suited to the Scottish climate and as of a few years ago, the place was literally dissolving in the rain. Wanting to preserve such a unique property, the owners got permission to build a box round the house to let it dry out. This has the advantage of allowing visitors to walk round the upper stories and over the roof to see details up close that would normally be seen from the ground.

Hill House
Hill House from walkway

And then, with lots of trips planned and a summer holiday booked, it happened. The COVID-19 lockdown hit. For eight weeks, I was never more than 2 miles from the house, nor did I drive the van in that time. MOT was postponed and though I had got the habitation check done, there was a little work to be done on the gas system that did not happen. Work became virtual, visits to the gym and nights out stopped dead. I watched and waited as the numbers infected increased along, sadly, with the numbers losing their lives to the pandemic.

As I wrote in March, there is always an expectation that we can do something that we have done in the past another time at some point in the future. Well, the pandemic put an end to that, albeit hopefully temporarily. I made the decision to stop touring for this year as, being in a campervan, I am more dependent on-site facilities than a caravan or bigger motorhome would be and even with all the cleaning that was being done, I was sceptical.

With all this going on, I made plans. I was going to write more, make more music, study more, read more. I was going to put the lockdown to good use.

I did none of that. I read a bit more but found it difficult to concentrate. Same for the studying. I played my EWI a bit and made one attempt at writing a tune. And as you can see from this blog, I wrote only a few articles.

As Mark Manson put it in his article, the pandemic brought out the true nature of people, it was like they had been given a factory reset. And even though the year seemed to go quickly in the end with months racing by but the actual hours dragging, we were all forced to face our true natures. And mine is that of a procrastinator.

I suppose that we were all waiting for life to go back to normal. However, as Ryan Holiday puts it in an article on The Forge, what is the normal to go back to? The pandemic has changed the world and along with other shocks throughout the past few years, there is no going back to the way it was before. But then the world has changed many times in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

So instead of looking back in anger ( as the song goes ), I want to look back and see what the lockdown and pandemic has taught me.

First thing is that I gained an appreciation for being out and about walking through the city. And I found my garden to be a place to escape to, not a burden that has to be kept up. As I walked, I took to photographing flowers which pandemic or no, put on a show like they do every year. Nature was calming to the stressed soul.

Working from home for 9 months came relatively easily, most of my team is distributed anyway so it made no difference where I was. But it taught me the vital importance of having a distinct break between “work” and “home”. It is way too easy for things to meld together. I also learned that during the pandemic, I began to rely more and more on technology for entertainment. I gained a bad YouTube habit that I want to break as it has begun trying to radicalize me. But the choice of entertainment was bewildering. Too often I found myself just watching the 30s previews on Netflix rather than sitting down and watching the program/series/film.

I found myself losing contact with some friends but from this I learned the distinction between true friends and people I know from a certain context. Take the context away and the friendship is so much more difficult to maintain. But I also took the opportunity to reconnect with people I had drifted away from.

So, for me, 2021 will be a time of accepting both the “new normal” and the fact that this “new normal” will not last and will be replaced as what was before was replaced by what we have now. Change is the only constant as they say so probably time to get used to it.

Best wishes for 2021.

If Vans Could Talk 8SEPT20

T2 Bay Camperan
T2 Bay Campervan

Out walking the other day I came across a fantastic T2 bay window camper. A quick peek in the window showed it to be probably an original conversion rather than something restored and converted later. 

I regularly see such vehicles round the city and each time I see one, it gladdens the heart. 

But it got me thinking. Imagine if such campers could talk. What tales could it tell? Trips near and far. Families carried on holidays. Perhaps a wedding or two. A lifetime of individual moments going to make up the history of the van, all a story to tell.

Every scratch and dent would serve to record those moments. Each one a point in time and an event to be remembered. A dent in a bumper from when a tree was backed into on a campsite. A set of mismatched hubcaps from when one was lost on a trip. Or like my own camper and the scratch on the drivers door from when I tried to put up my current awning for the first time.

I’ve not customized my van much but such things can be the imprint of an owner on a van with layer upon layer of changes adding a richness to the story, each one a pointer to a memory. I have a sticker on the back that says “My other car is a ..” and a picture of a Tiger tank, a solid reminder of a fantastic trip in 2019.

Like the camper, we are the sum of our memories. They define us and provide the context in which we act. The good and bad go to make up our life. Every dent and scratch, physical or mental, tells our tale.

And each of those events serves not only as a memory but as a reminder in how to act in future. The camper would point to a scratch in a cupboard as a reminder of the time that too much was taken on a trip and that perhaps we need to travel a little lighter. 

During lock-down, we’ve been creating the sort of memories that we’d never thought that we’d want but in time these too will serve as a reminder. That we cannot take our current status for granted and assume that it will continue into the future indefinitely. 

These new memories will serve as a call to action when the coast is clear to go and create some new tales. Ones that we’ll tell for years to come and that we’ll look back on at the end of our lives as evidence of a truly rich life.

So be like that camper. While you’ve still got four wheels and a working engine, make a few memories. They’ll sustain you through a life that will have its ups and downs. 

Flowers 2020

No idea what kind of flower this is but it is stunning

So far 2020 has not been that kind. The Coronavirus has caused more than 100 days of lockdown in various forms and even though we are starting to come out the other side, much time has been lost that could have been spent travelling or walking. 

However, in some ways having to adapt to the new situation has opened up new possibilities. And having to stay closer to home means a search for beauty, that would ordinarily come from Scotland’s wild landscapes, in other places. 

And right under my nose, there it was. In the gardens, woods and parks near my house. Along roads that I have commuted along often but not really seen. Nature in all its glory putting on a show for everyone to enjoy. 

Often these are curated gardens with a human purpose to the planting but also there are parks and even just the verges by the side of the roads. 

This has taught me two things. First that I should always carry a camera ( in this case it is either and iPhone 11pro or an a6000 with a 35mm lens ) and secondly that we should take time to truly see what is around us. 

So next time you are out, admire the show in front gardens and forests and take some time to smell the flowers. 

A little bit of nature close to home 11APR20

The Back Garden

When I moved into my current house, it came with a small garden. The previous occupant had done a fair bit of work to it but had let it go in the time leading up to the sale and it was a bit wild when I inherited it.

I’m not much of a gardener and really don’t have green fingers. And to be honest I was not looking forward to having to care for the garden. Plans were made to turn it into a Zen garden or even just put paving slabs down.

But the lockdown that we’re all on has made me appreciate the garden greatly. It is my own little slice of nature next to the house. The garden is a suntrap between the equinoxes (and even outside of these) and all day long, when the weather is good, the sun shines in the garden making it a lovely place to sit and read. And perhaps even work, I’ve discovered the Wifi stretches out to the garden bench.

I’ve come to the realization over recent time that I am fairly much an outdoors person. Being cooped up in an office all day makes me long for hills and trees and places where nature reigns. The hills and the bigger parks are largely off limits at the moment, but a few steps outside my door is an oasis in the city.

Being in amongst the greenery (my garden is very green, the flowers don’t seem to take), reminds us of how unhurried nature is. Everything happens at its proper time and in the proper order without it being forced. It tells us to slow down and live to the age old rhythms of the planet.

And of course, all my neighbors have gardens too and the decent weather is bringing them out as well. Chats over the fence to see how each other is doing combats the isolation that can overtake us in the current situation.

So the garden is a blessing and when we’re done with the Coronavirus and the diy stores are open again, I’m going to put a bit of effort in here to make it an even nicer place to be. 

NOW at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art Jan2020

Early in the year it was time to do something cultural and so it was off to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art to see the latest in the series of exhibitions entitled “NOW”. These are an exploration of the subject of time and its relationship to the humankind.

The exhibition started with selection of photographs by Darren Almond. These were very long exposure shots that tried to capture the sense of movement and change in the world. Looking at them gives a sense of time compressed into a static shot. The photos are taken by moonlight and this, with the long exposure, gives them something of a faintly unreal quality, like a dream captured.

Next up was some artifacts associated with a piece of performance art by Shona Macnaughton performed when she was 9months pregnant. This explores the changing nature of the body when pregnant and places this within a changing landscape as the area of Glasgow that she is from is regenerated.

The main part of the exhibition was work by Katie Paterson. It started with a work called “Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008)”. As its name suggests, this is a room with a low hanging lightbulb that has been specially designed to simulate the wavelengths of light that are reflected by the Moon. The room was empty bar the light and it was calming to rest and contemplate while bathed in the light of the (simulated) Moon.

Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008)
Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008)

The next room contained her work “Totality (2016)”. This was a large mirror ball onto which all known images of solar eclipses are projected. The room is filled with points of light made by images of a point in time where the sunlight is blocked out. A number of visitors including myself sat here for a while to watch the spinning images.

Totality (2016)
Totality (2016)
Totality (2016)
Totality (2016)

The last section of Paterson’s exhibition was “Earth – Moon – Earth (2007)”. This was a midi piano playing the Moonlight Sonata. However, the file containing the music had been transmitted at the moon and the reflection recorded. This means there were errors and gaps in the performance.

I was glad that I got to see this before the lockdown. The exhibition was an affecting one and provoked a contemplation of time and my relationship to it. 

They paved paradise, put up a parking lot 29MAR20

It’s only a few weeks till Easter and usually at this point I’d be cleaning the van and all the camping equipment, getting the servicing done and generally preparing for the camping season ahead. However this year all that has been put on hold due to the Coronavirus. Instead, I’m indoors most of the time, working from home and missing the things that I would normally do like walking, going dancing, visiting museums/galleries, traveling and generally being out and about.

However, here’s the thing. In a normal year, I don’t do any of those things as much as I like to imagine that I would. Especially over the past year or so, I’ve done less walking, much less dancing and traveling in the van seems to be more of a burden. There has been a considerable amount of putting off till tomorrow what could have been done today. The “I’ll do it when I have the time/inclination/energy” mindset, in the belief that there will be plenty of tomorrows to come to do all the things that I don’t want to do today.

The lockdown has put an end to the tomorrows for the time being at least. We’re in an extreme situation and it isn’t clear to me how the world will look at the end of it. There could be some positives like more working from home giving more time to do other things and cutting pollution into the bargain. On the other hand many small businesses, including campsites, could go under and there could be much less choice in future. One thing is certain, this is going to be a drastic upheaval to the world.

However, this is not to lament the current situation but to look at the past from the perspective of now. And from my current vantage point, I can see that I have wasted large amounts of time just sitting around thinking that I’ll get to it tomorrow. I would guess that many people are in the same situation right now.

Memento Mori is a powerful concept from philosophy. It tells us to remember that we are mortal and that any day we could leave this life. But we can extend idea further. It can remind us that there are always unexpected changes round the corner. The lockdown has been a massive and largely unheralded upheaval in everyone’s life. All those tomorrows have been put on hold, possibly never to come to pass.

In his essay ‘The Stoic Formula for a Happy, Meaningful Life’, William Irvine discusses the concept that when we have done something n times, we always expect that we can do it n+ 1 times. There is never the expectation that this could be the last time and therefore we are maybe not as engaged in the activity as we could have been. Instead we should consider, but now dwell on, the fact that there could be no more n, we should engage fully with the activity.

We live in a busy world, indeed being busy and rushed off your feet is considered a badge of honor. I often feel I don’t have the time to do the things I want to. The question is then, where all the time is going? The answer seems to be into the black hole that is the Internet and into perceived obligations. With movement curtailed and it possible to get sick of even the endless distraction of the Internet, now is a time to take stock of life and ask of each call on our time, “Is this really necessary?”

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” – Alexander Graham Bell.

The lockdown is an opportunity. There are many things that I cannot do that I wish to but there are also many things that I can do that I now have time for. This means practicing radical acceptance. This is the situation I’m in. Instead of moaning and complaining and struggling against it, look around, accept the situation and then pick up something else. I’ve long desired to write more and to write music and now I have the opportunity. Time to walk through the open door.

So my closing thought is simple. Don’t put off to tomorrow what is important to you since you never know what tomorrow brings. And remember to wash your hands properly and often.

Hill House 8MAR20

Taken a bit of time to get going this year but it was off for the first day trip to Helensburgh and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House. Built 1902-1904 for the Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie, this is a fine example of Mackintosh’s work. But not without its problems. 

It was a somewhat driech day setting off for the 90 minute drive to the house. Luckily it was a somewhat straight journey, along the M8 then across the Erskine Bridge and finally onto the house. Good time was made and there were no arguments with the satnav, unlike Google Maps earlier which had suggested coming off the motorway in the city center of Glasgow then taking the Great Western Rd. 

On parking up and approaching the house, the first thing you see is not the house itself but the shield that has been built around it. Mackintosh’s choice of building materials was innovative at the start of the 20th century but really weren’t up to the Scottish climate. Water has been getting into the fabric of the building and the house it literally dissolving away from within. So the National Trust for Scotland have built a “box” round the house which shields it from most of the bad weather and allows the building to dry out. This has the negative point that you can’t see the building situated in the landscape but does have the positive point that there are walkways round the box and you can see the house from angles you wouldn’t otherwise see. For example.

Hill House
Hill House from walkway

Entering and climbing up onto the walkways it was fascinating to see the house from above and to see some of the upper story details up close. The box is open to the wind and it was a little chilly so I didn’t tarry long but headed in through the side door.

The entrance hall was fantastic. Pure Rennie Mackintosh. Wood  paneling, a wonderful clock at the end and some rather good light fittings. To the right was the library. Something I’ve always desired in a house :-).

Hill House Hallway
Hill House Hallway
Hill House library
Hill House library

The scullery was open but set out for an event and the Mackintosh shop closed so it was on to the upper story and into the main bedroom. This was a tasteful and lovingly designed space and it always strikes me that the furniture maintains a contemporary look, to the point that you could imagine it being sold today.

Hill House bedroom
Hill House bedroom

With the building slowly drying out, many of the rooms on the first floor were not furnished but they did maintain some period features such as fireplaces and windows that would have been designed by Mackintosh.

After visiting the house itself, there wasn’t a chance for a turn round the gardens and the weather was closing in and the rain that had been threatening hit and was torrential. So it was back to the van and onward home. A lovely visit and well worth a trip of you’re in the area. 

That was the year that was 2019

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to look back on a year of travel and adventure. 

One of my goals for this year was to spent more time in galleries and museums and less in the shops. It seems that shopping is the major leisure activity in the first world today and I’m not sure that it is bringing a great deal of happiness to the planet. Certainly it wasn’t making me happy, rather just filling the house with crap. 

So early on in January I hit the road for a day trip to Dundee. First port of call, literally, was the RSS Discovery. A ship that had spent 2 years in the Antarctic ice. There was a visitor centre telling the story of the construction of the ship and its voyage south. And there was the ship. This had been modified since its first voyage but it was still an amazing sight. Along the shore was the V&A. This was interesting as the permanent collection was small (but worth the visit) but the space inside was fantastic.

In early February, it was off to the Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound where upon I came across one of the most powerful and life affirming works I’ve seen in a while. This was a series of glass plates with a smart-phone in each, engraved with a skull. The title was Memento Mori. I wrote about it here

Next up on my travels was a day trip to Arbroath to visit the famous abbey. I’ve been a member of Historic Scotland for years but don’t really get that much out of the membership. Arbroath was a lovely and mostly straight drive from home, excepting the several hundred roundabouts in Dundee to navigate. This post details the trip

Walking was to be a bit part of the year as much as I could and in late March, it was off to Loch Leven to walk round the circumference. I did this a couple of times in the year but the first trip landed some excellent photos. See here for the story and galleries. 

The traditional first trip away in the Van was to Melrose and this year, instead of climbing the hills around the town, I went to visit Abbotsford house, former home of Sir Walter Scott. This was a fantastic visit, small but the library and his study were well preserved and worth the entry fee alone. There were also some extensive grounds to walk in. On the way down I visited Dryburgh Abbey. 

Another walk in April was down the Water of Leith. A wonderful walk through the city with sandwiches and coffee at the end.

Early May was time for another house visit, this time Cragside house in Northumberland. This is the first house in the world lit by hydroelectricity. Again a fantastic house and extensive grounds to walk in and an overnight stop at the River Breamish site as well. More photos and details here

Late May was some more walking. This time up to Glencoe for a great hill climb but something of a washout of a weekend with the rain starting on the Friday lunchtime and not letting up. This set the pattern for the summer in Scotland with few dry days. 

Summer holiday was late June, early July with the start some dancing in Blackpool. Brilliant night at the Tower Ballroom. Then it was south to Birmingham with a stop at RAF Cosford. Highlight of the trip was the Tank Museum in Dorset. Read all about it here

There was a Linda McCartney retrospective on in the Kelvingrove museum in August that was worth the trip through to Glasgow. 

Last trip of the year away was Loch Lomond. This was pretty much due to really crap weather all summer, apart from the time I was away down south. There was a climb up the Ptarmigon Ridge on the way to Ben Lomond. 

So a not bad year of day trips and  other adventures.

Loch Lomond 6-8SEPT

With August being pretty much a washout in terms of camping with rain and more rain, I was keen to get away at the start of September. And as luck would have it, there was some good weather forecast for the Saturday.

So it was packed up and off on Friday heading for Loch Lomond and the Cashel Camping in the Forest campsite. It was onto the M9 and then off again at junction 10 to head west. The rain started drizzling as I passed Stirling and got a little heavier as the campsite grew closer. The road to Cashel was only about 70 miles but right at the end there was a sharp turn followed by a 15% slope. Somewhat scary though the site brochure warns about this. A lot of respect to people who get bigger motorhomes and caravans up there.

It was still drizzling as I got pitched up and the wardens mentions that they hadn’t had a dry day in August. As such the grass parts of the site were somewhat muddy.

It was somewhat cloudy but the sun started to break through as evening wore on. The site itself is situated right on the banks of the Loch and in an ideal location for sailors, canoeists and alike. As the sun went down there was time for some photography

Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond

Saturday dawned and for once the forecast weather arrived. It was bright and sunny and while chilly in the morning, perfect for walking.

The plan was to walk up to Ben Lomond then climb the Ptarmigon Ridge the come down the “normal route” and walk back to the van. So it was off along the West Highland Way heading for Rowardennan and the foot of the hill.

It was at this point I made something of an error. It being cold in the morning, I put a (thin) fleece on but only put suncream on my face. The logic being it was cold and would be colder still as I climbed up the hill. This however didn’t happen and by the time I was at the start of the Ptarmigon route, I was baking and debating whether to leave the fleece on and boil or take if off and risk sunburn.

The route I had chosen up the hill was steep and in some places, hands on. Not quite a full scramble but not a simple stroll up the hill. For the first part of the climb I had the place too myself but as I went up there were people coming down and a few overtaking me on the way up as I rested. Still there was some opportunity for great views.

Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond

In a rare piece of chance, I bumped into a old colleague on the hill as he came down and I went up. We chatted for a bit ( I was glad of the rest ) then the final assault on the ridge and up to the summit.

Ben Lomond
Ben Lomond

The sun had brought many people out and there was quite a crowd on the top with some drone flying happening as the wind was almost zero. I had lunch in the sunshine at the top and then started the way down the much less steep main route.

I was very very hot at this point and somewhat headachey from the heat so it was time to risk the sunburn and the fleece went in the bag.

The descent was over mostly open moorland with a few cows to break up the landscape. Off the summit the shoulder is fairly shallow and on a well made path.

Back at the car park it was time to choose. I had come up to Rowardennan via the West Highland Way path but this was up and over a few small hills. The road seemed less so and thus I headed off down the road. This was not the best decision as it is narrow and the card drive along at a fair old speed. As soon as I could it was back to the path and a more sedate wander back to the van.

In total I walked about 27KM over 8.5 hours. I was most impressed with the Garmin VivoActive 3 watch. The battery lasted in GPS mode for almost all of the walk only finally giving out about 10mins from the campsite.

Then the joy of hot showers and a large dinner. I slept well that night having burnt over 4000 calories in one day according to the watch.

Sunday was still dry though there was a heavy mist over the site. The awning was soaking from the morning dew and mud had gotten all over the electric hookup cable. Still, nothing to complain about this weekend. A very relaxing couple of days, some great walking and photography to boot.

More photos here.

Linda McCartney Retrospective (Kelvingrove 23AUG19)

By chance I discovered that there was a retrospective of Linda McCartney’s photographic work at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. As I had the day off, it was on to the train (after 9:15 to get the cheap tickets) and over the way to Queen St Station.

While the museum is free to enter, the exhibition was £7 but a very worthwhile cost. The curators had set the photos out in the basement in something of a labyrinth with plenty of wall space to show a huge range of the photos.

A section of the show was given over to her celebrity photos with plenty of famous faces from the 1960’s including Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles were in evidence as well with a group of shots round the taking of the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing photo.

But by far the biggest section were more intimate portraits of family life. The time spent by them on the Mull of Kintyre is especially evident. Linda was said to be very fond of the light that was to be found in Scotland.

Much of the photography work was unposed. There were some portrait shots but more often Linda seemed to capture the essence of the subject in a more natural way. This was true of both the professional work she did in the 60’s for magazines and in family life photos from later on.

Truly an inspiring show and one that has made me want to get out and about with my camera more often. Well worth a visit, details here

And of course the rest of the museum is worth a look round. Especially for the famous paining Christ of St John of the Cross

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