Sunday, 30 June 2019

John Lennon: an unlikely memorial

There must be several memorials around the world to singer, songwriter, peace activist and former Beatle John Lennon, but this one must be the most unexpected. It's not in Liverpool, nor is it in New York. It's in the grounds of Durness Village Hall. It's a Memorial Garden.

Durness is not only in the far north of Scotland, but is in fact the most north-westerly village on the mainland of Great Britain. So definitely a far-away place, though not utterly remote and hard-to-reach: Durness is a well-known and welcome pitstop on the North Coast 500 tourist route.

It has two other attractions that are perhaps better-known: Smoo Cave, a big limestone cave at the head of a pebbly inlet between cliffs, with a waterfall inside; and Balnakeil Craft Village, a former Cold War radar base converted into individualistic art and craft units and workshops for sundry small businesses, where the chief draw is Cocoa Mountain, a chocolate manufacturer with its own swish modern coffee-and-chocolate café. I visited those too, but that may be for another post.

As you can see from this direction-sign in the centre of Durness, near the Spar supermarket, the John Lennon Memorial Garden doesn't get star billing:

In fact it's easy to drive straight past. I didn't spot where it was on the way into Durness, and almost missed it on the way out. This is mainly due to the Village Hall being set back from the road. 

It's a modern hall, and there are a series of small gardens between the main road and the hall itself. By 'gardens' I don't mean trees and big shrubs and extensive flowery borders. Durness is exposed to some very bad weather, and all the vegetation in the garden is storm-battered, stunted, and seared by salt from the sea. Here are a few shots.

Much use is made of stone slabs, upright or flat on the ground. Stone is hardier and more durable than plants, of course.

I didn't see the John Lennon Memorial Garden straight away. I walked past it. When I realised my mistake, it came as a surprise. It wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Well, it was nicely designed, and neatly executed, and clearly well-maintained. But somehow I couldn't link these stone uprights, and the pebbles, and the pieces of driftwood, with John Lennon's personality as I had known it when he was alive during the 1960s and 1970s. I dare say the artist had researched his life, and had chosen these things to be symbolic of what Durness had meant to him. But I didn't see the connection.

The information panel offered facts to aid interpretation.

The background here is that John Lennon spent his school holidays in Durness with a cousin whose family owned a croft. The panel suggests that these were the happiest days of his young life, to be recalled in the words of a song later written for The Beatles' Rubber Soul album. 

Perhaps it was so. But I find this picture of a carefree, boyish John Lennon at odds with the autobiographical anguish in other songs he wrote, such as Mother and Working Class Hero. I'd previously understood from them that he'd been an unwanted baby, rejected by both mother and father, which turned him into a troubled and very unhappy child, cheated of parental love. Which in turn went far to explain his attitudes as an adult. 

Well, perhaps all along he'd had a better time when young; and the pain expressed in his songs was exaggerated. None of this made the Memorial Garden easier to appreciate.

The look on my face says it all, doesn't it? I was puzzled, nonplussed and underwhelmed. And I don't think John Lennon would have thought much of his Memorial Garden either. 

But don't let me put you off. If you go to Durness, definitely take a look and make your own judgement. 

Next year, 2020, will mark the fortieth anniversary of John Lennon's murder at the entrance to the Dakota building in New York in 1980. It doesn't seem so long ago. 

Lennon would have been eighty in 2020. I'm sure he would still be writing songs. He would still find plenty to protest about, for so many of the problems of 1980 remain unsolved, or are even worse than they were. 

Monday, 24 June 2019

Home sweet home

An important anniversary has slipped by: last week, on the 17th June, I had lived in my present house for exactly ten years. Ten years...that's a stay-put record for me!

After leaving school, I lived with Mum and Dad in Southampton until I was twenty-six. They weren't in a hurry to push me out, and they made life pretty easy for me. I knew that, sooner or later, I'd get an office transfer to London, and so living with my parents (and giving Mum a fair, but not excessive, contribution towards the housekeeping) let me build up my savings towards a flat.

The blow fell after passing some difficult Inland Revenue internal exams in 1977, which gave me promotion. As a young, unmarried person with no responsibilities, I couldn't avoid an inevitable transfer to London. I had to work in Wimbledon, in south-west London.

It was a challenge I half wanted, half dreaded. I wished now that I'd tried living on my own, before being forced out of the nest. But I was fastidious, and I'd been put off by the state of cheap bedsits in Southampton - which were frankly squalid - and in any case Mum and Dad wouldn't have let me. I would have been overwhelmed by all sorts of sensible arguments against doing it. Clearly they wanted to keep an eye on me. (Mind you, when my younger brother Wayne chose to claim his independence and rent a flat, they let him go. He escaped the family home at twenty or twenty-one)

At first I was put in the care of friends of the family in Haslemere, which gave me a reasonable commute. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad came flat-hunting with me. The temptation was to get a place half-way between Southampton and Wimbledon, but we soon saw that might be a mistake. Better to live near the office, and have a short commute. So we looked at flats to buy within three miles of Wimbledon. Needless to say, it was a mixed blessing having my parents with me. I felt that anything that seemed worth buying had to suit them as well as myself. On the other hand, they asked pertinent questions that I'd never have thought of. Mum was very good at deciding whether (say) the kitchen was good or not. On the whole, they were fantastic moral support in a quest that became rather daunting as time went by, especially after I put an offer in and got gazumped - a nasty, upsetting experience.

Meanwhile, as 1978 progressed, the friends of the family were getting tired of my presence. I quit before they got too restive, and - secretly to Mum and Dad's delight, I think - went back home and thereafter commuted from Southampton to Wimbledon by train until I got completion on another flat I'd found in a place called Worcester Park. It was close to the station there, and I could be at the office in Wimbledon within twenty minutes. It was by far the easiest commute I enjoyed in thirty-five years of working for the Revenue. (Some truly dire commutes were yet to come)

The Worcester Park flat was in a modern block called Purdey Court, and I had a ground floor apartment with a parking space right outside my kitchen window. I also bought a garage at the rear. The flat cost me £17,000, the garage £800. That was in 1978. Zoopla now values that flat and garage at £277,000 - which shows how London prices have risen over the years!

I lived there until 1983, when I married. Five years of occupancy.

The next property was a terraced 1930's house in nearby Merton Park, still in London. We lived there until 1989, when we moved out of London to leafy Sussex. Six years of occupancy.

The property we moved into next was a newish starter home in Broadbridge Heath on the outskirts of Horsham in Sussex - we were downsizing. We had fun buying a whole lot of fancy new furniture for it, but my spouse missed London badly. We both had a long commute by car, myself especially. I enjoyed my cross-country journey. My spouse did not, having a shorter distance to work but finding it very tiring. The Broadbridge Heath home became the scene of pointless arguments and irritated bickering before we parted. I stayed put. My spouse went back to London and stayed there. I couldn't get a divorce until 1996. The house was sold in that year, as part of the 'clean break' settlement. Seven years of occupancy.

I was now free to buy a house just for myself. I found one near M---, in the village I now live in, still in Sussex. That was in 1996, and I lived there until I retired in 2005. Then it was sold, as I couldn't keep up the mortgage repayments on my Revenue pension. Nine years of occupancy.

I needed to buy another house, but smaller. Meanwhile M--- put me up. Eventually, I became the owner of Ouse Cottage in Piddinghoe, a riverside village between Lewes and Newhaven. That was in 2007. It cost much more than I could afford, and I'd never normally have considered it at all, but at the time it had investment potential. Keen to make the most of this opportunity, M--- put up the greater part (60%) of the money needed to buy it, becoming my private mortgagor while I became the legal owner. The idea was to give me a home for two or three years, then sell, and buy a better home in an even better location. A lot of people were doing that at the time.

As you might suppose, M--- was the driving spirit behind this plan, and of course she was putting up most of the money. Buying a succession of ever-better homes wasn't something I'd have done on my own, but it greatly appealed to M---, and she got me on board.

But really the Cottage was beyond my financial reach, too large for my personal needs, and expensive to run. I don't think we thought carefully enough about those running costs.

Our hopeful investment quickly went sour. The housing market faltered soon after purchase, and we found we couldn't sell it and recover our money. In fact repeated attempts to sell the Cottage, year after year, all failed. It took four long, nerve-racking years to sell, finally going in 2011 at a knockdown price, yielding just enough money to repay M--- in full, with agreed interest.

I, of course, walked away with all my investment gone forever. And worse, my friendship with M--- ruined beyond redemption. Ten years on, I can snap my fingers at the money gone; but to lose such a good friendship was a tragedy. It wasn't the only reason we parted. But the stress of a coping with a huge financial problem was an obvious factor. Neither of us could run away from it; and in the end it ruled our lives, and became very worrying. M--- wanted her money back intact, and fretted over that. I wanted relief from the crippling running expenses, which threatened to bankrupt me, for after 2009 I had two houses to run, and couldn't afford it. The Cottage represented a failed dream for one of us, a heavy millstone for the other. And all bound up with the death of a long relationship that had been so comfortable for so many years, and might have lasted indefinitely.

Risking unhappiness with ill-judged speculation? Buying property beyond one's income or needs? Private loan arrangements between friends? Never again. Never, never, never.

I owned the Cottage for four years - from 2007 to 2011 - but lived in it only to June 2009. So two years of occupancy.

Mum died in February 2009, and I inherited her half of my present home; then Dad died in May 2009, and the other half came my way. I inherited everything. My younger brother had died way back in 1995, and I was the sole survivor. Mum and Dad had moved into the house in 2000, enjoying it for only nine years, but in that short time they turned the house, and especially the rear garden, into something very pleasant indeed. It was their hobby, as well as their home. They were always adding something new. But then this had always been their way.

I was so thankful that Mum and Dad had left me their home. At Dad's funeral, everyone urged me to move into it and live there, because that would be what my parents would have wanted. I listened, and that's why on 17th June 2009 I took up residence there. I rebuilt my life. And now, I've clocked up a full ten years of occupancy.

Will I ever move away? I see no reason to. My home is in a green, rural part of Sussex, but within easy reach of bigger places and all the amenities they offer. I can get to the nearest coast inside half and hour. The village is quiet, sunny, and I have good friends here. And my home has all the old-age features Mum and Dad installed, making it future-proof for me.

So, unless my immediate neighbourhood changes radically, I consider myself a fixture. Home sweet home indeed.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Collecting the hare

Last week I wrote a post titled Something for the home, which was mainly about tracking down a hare figurine to replace one I gifted to a friend a while back, although half the post was also about a painting I bought on the same day that I placed an order for the hare I wanted.

The hare was ordered from the Forest Gallery at Petworth, and two days ago I got an email from the chap at the gallery, Ashley, informing me that the creature had arrived. I said I'd come and collect it next day, which was yesterday.

It had come quicker than expected. I thought I'd be collecting it at the start of July, and my friends Jo and Jackie were on standby to come with me, so that we could all have lunch at Petworth and afterwards tour the boutiques, galleries and antique shops there. But the hare had jumped the gun, so to speak! It was great that it had arrived sooner than hoped for, but such were my commitments in the week ahead - calls, appointments, seeing people - I'd have to collect it at once. I wanted to see the hare, check that it was what I had ordered in every respect, and get it home safely. But Jo and Jackie weren't able to join me at such very short notice. Oh, well. We will pop over to Petworth together in a couple of weeks time.

Yesterday was a Saturday, and the roads were very busy. As I approached Petworth - normally about forty minutes drive away - I wondered whether it would be easy to find somewhere to park. Probably not. But the gods were with me. As I entered the town, there was a free, one-hour space to slide into. I didn't hesitate. It was just round the corner from the gallery, too.

Entering the gallery, I couldn't see Ashley. Puzzled, I went right to the back, where his desk and computer was. No Ashley. This seemed odd. He must be expecting me. Where was he?

Coming forward to the front of the shop again, I saw that he'd been mischievous, and had set up a fun moment for my benefit. He must have seen me coming, stepped behind a door, then, while I was in the back of the gallery, placed my hare just so for me to see. A ta-daaaah moment.

Well, my new hare looked splendid. 'Isn't he gorgeous?' I exclaimed. See what you think.

The title of this piece by animal sculptor Suzie Marsh is 'Small Upright Alert Hare', and my goodness, he does look alert, doesn't he? A very nice addition to the artworks in my home. If you read the other post a week ago, you'll see how this hare, with those erect ears, will look good in silhouette when backlit at night.

I took these pictures quickly while Ashley fetched some bubble wrap and clear tape. I'm glad I did, because he made a thorough job of swathing my hare in deep layers of bubble wrap, and taping it all together. I didn't drop the creature on the way back to the car, but he would probably have survived well enough if I had.

At the moment my hare looks like an Ancient Egyptian mummy in all that wrapping, and would look great in any sarcophagus. In fact, he is so well protected by the wrappings, that I hope Jo and Jackie are not tempted to unwrap him and take a peek at him before adding some gift-wrapping. The plan is for me to surrender him in the next few days, and then be presented with him at a girls' lunch to celebrate my forthcoming 67th birthday. I've emailed the above pictures to both Jo and Jackie, so that they can see what the hare looks like in the flesh, and hopefully won't feel the need to unpack him before the presentation.

Jackie is a great one for giving names to things that she loves. I give names to things too, but only if they are very personal. Thus my ancient teddy bear is called Teddy Tinkoes, the little Wemyss cat that travels with me on holiday is called Rosie, my beloved car is called Fiona, my phone is called Tigerlily, and my fountain pen is called Water Dragon. Should I give a name to this hare too? Jackie will urge me to.

Well, my hare is certainly an engaging animal, but he's an artwork for my home, and won't be coming with me on holiday, nor can he be part of my day-to-day mobile ensemble. Left to myself, he might just get called 'The Hare'. Still, he is full of personality. So I'll be thinking of a name I might use.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Roasting tins

One of my faults, if it is a fault, is that I like to get as close to perfection as possible when it comes to my cooking equipment. Whatever it is, it must function really well, and the maker doesn't matter very much to me, so long as the item looks good, is easy to use, and endures. Sadly, all too often my purchases fall down on that last attribute: durability. 

And it doesn't seem to matter much what the make is. There is a rough correlation between cheapness and early failure. But some inexpensive things will do their job for donkey's years, whereas I have bought some middling-expensive items that quickly look tatty. No more so than when it comes to roasting tins.

After a lot of experimentation, I have developed a strong preference for black enamel roasting tins above all other kinds that I've tried. I've been tempted over and over again to buy nice-looking non-stick tins, but have always been disappointed. For instance, this Le Creuset tin, bought four years ago.

The finish was of course excellent. It felt very solid. I rather liked those orange silicone grips, too. But those grips were a magnet for grease, and within only a few months the grips became permanently sticky, even after a good wash, suggesting that the oven heat had been working on the silicone, which also became discoloured. By now the tin looked tatty, and there was the suspicion that hygiene was being compromised. I junked the tin.

Here's another example, a much cheaper Prestige tin I saw on special offer, just a year ago.

Another non-stick tin, it didn't have the obvious quality of the Le Creuset, but still seemed solid and well-finished. Now, after only a few months, much of the non-stick coating has worn away. It's the tin on the right:

The tin on the left is one I bought today, from a shop in Horsham that was closing down shortly and was selling its stock off at a discount. It cost me £11.20, marked down from £14.00, so I got for 20% less than usual. But it ticked all my boxes, and I would have happily paid more, because good enamel tins are getting hard to find nowdays. They have fallen out of fashion. Enamel is hard-wearing, but needs to be treated with some care. You can chip the surface if you bang an enamel tin around. And they are not non-stick, so after cooking you may need to soak off any food that has stuck to the surface. That said, I've consistently found them to be better at actually cooking the food than most non-stick tins. And if looked after, they most certainly last a lot longer.

Here are more pictures of the tin I bought today.

I'm not condemning all non-stick tins. I looked today at a variety of very expensive high-tech non-stick tins, and their sheer quality made me half-believe the manufacturers' claims for their longevity. But a non-stick coating simply can't be as durable as vitreous enamel. I have faith that my new £11.20 enamel tin will be good for a long time ahead, and will represent very good value for money.

If you are staggered at the wear that Prestige tin suffered, bear in mind that I use a roasting tin (the same favourite one) most days, whether at home or in the caravan. Which means the tin is washed most days, and although I don't use anything abrasive, all that regular rubbing and scrubbing in hot water takes a lot of standing up to. The Prestige tin wasn't tough enough to take it.

I have a suspicion that in these days of ready meals in packets, traditional pots, pans and tins are not used nearly so much, and people aren't in general so knowledgeable as they used to be when buying them. Some are definitely designed for show, rather than use, especially if manufactured by a posh name. And there are plenty of fancy tins that claim to be what a professional chef would use. Well maybe, maybe not. Me, I think you don't have to buy an expensive Jamie Oliver endorsed pan or tin to cook a great-tasting meal. 

In fact, so long as it cooks well, and cleans up pretty much as new, anything will do. I am still using stainless-steel pans I inherited from Mum and Dad ten years ago, and have never yet felt the need to replace them.      

Ultimate north - Dunnet Bay and Dunnet Head

John o'Groats isn't the 'most northerly point on the British mainland'. Not quite. It's pipped at the post by Dunnet Head, a few miles off to the west. And I was pitched at the Caravan and Motorhome Club's site at Dunnet Bay, which is their most northerly site.

I'd never stayed here before, and was most impressed. It was on an area of green turf between the main road and some dunes, with all the usual immaculate facilities you'd expect. Somewhat exposed, of course, to the wind; but on a calm day, in sunshine, very attractive indeed. And so close to the beach.

As soon as I was set up, I had a look at that beach. Pretty good.

There are in fact several large beaches in Caithness, but this one was just yards away from the caravan. Next day I caught it at sunset too.

It was a fine beach to look at, and deserved to be walked upon from end to end, but I never made the time to do that, wanting instead to see as much of far north of Scotland as possible. But on my last evening, with a storm threatening, I did drive out to nearby Dunnet Head, wanting to see the lighthouse and get the view even further northwards across the Pentland Firth to Orkney

This was in mid-evening - I'd already eaten, in fact - and the light was beginning to go. It was essential that it did: I wanted to see the lighthouse with its light turned on, so it had to be dark enough for that. 

The road from Dunnet village to the lighthouse was decent enough, but it wound about as you got closer to the lighthouse, not taking a direct line, and forcing you to follow whatever lumbering motorhome might be making its slow way up there. And clearly many did, as I found when arriving at the car park. All facing the same magnificent view to the west.

I'd been here once before, in 2010. It was windy then, and was breezy now. The sun had gone, but there was the afterglow, almost overwhelmed by a massive cloud formation out to sea, dark and threatening. 

I decided not to walk along the clifftop, just in case lashing rain descended before I could get back inside Fiona. The view in the clear cold evening air was still worthwhile. In the top and middle shots just above, the land on the horizon is actually the island of Hoy in Orkney. And if you enlarge the picture by clicking on it, and peer closely at the left-hand extremity of this land, you can make out a giant sea stack peeping over the slightly-nearer cliffs. That's the famous Old Man of Hoy.  

It was tantalising to be so close to Orkney. Ten years ago, I'd promised myself that I would take the caravan there, and even now I'd got no closer. It's unfinished business, and I will do it one day.

The lighthouse was shining. I got all the pictures I wanted.

The light was getting really low now. Behind me, quietly lined up, were several motorhomes, and in one or two the occupants, insulated from the cold air, seemed to be enjoying a proper evening meal with all the fixings. What a fantastic spot to pitch, and probably spend the night at. Hot food in abundance, wine, conviviality. Presumably overnight parking was allowed, but if it wasn't, I doubted whether anybody would come to make them move on. 

One last shot of myself at the very top end of the British mainland. 

Then back to my snug caravan. 

And do you know, despite the black cloud out to sea, no rain came.  

Thursday, 20 June 2019


Achiltibuie is a northwest-coast Highland village beyond Ullapool. Not very far away from Ullapool as the crow flies, but to drive there means a long, roundabout journey on a very narrow road. This road is in good condition and isn't difficult; most any kind of vehicle can use it; but the regular need to pull in so that oncoming traffic can pass means that getting to Achiltibuie - and getting away from it - can't be done quickly.

The place is by no means unique on the north-west Scottish coastline for its time-consuming access, but I haven't often driven to somewhere so far from a main road, even in Scotland.

(Click on maps and photos in this post to enlarge the detail)

As you can see from the map just above, Achiltibuie is on the south-west side of the Coigach peninsula, which has the A835 as its base, Loch Sionascaig on its right edge, and the sea on the other two sides, with a scattering of islands offshore, the chief group being the Summer Isles, just across from Achiltibuie itself. The road I've been talking about leaves the northbound A835 a few miles out of Ullapool, at Drumrunie, heads northwest along the edge of Loch Lurgainn, Loch Bad a'Ghaill and Loch Osgaig, before turning south to Achiltibuie. Here are more detailed maps of the village environs.

It's a long, strung-out place - several communities merged into one, with the 'centre' at Achiltibuie. On the map, nothing much to suggest that it might be worth driving thirty miles out of my way, there and back to the A835, just to see it. What made me go there?

Well, it was a promise I wanted to fulfill. One year previously, a couple I knew got married there, in the Community Hall. Later on they had a celebratory lunch in Brighton, and I attended that. I happened to mention that I'd be going up to Scotland in 2019, and they urged me to go and see where the Deed was done. They assured me that the locality was a beautiful one. Later in 2018, as I began to plan my 2019 Scottish holiday in detail, I built in a day for driving over to Ullapool and Achiltibuie from the east side of Scotland - either from Culloden or from Brora. 

I took it on trust that the trip would be worth my while. But in any case, a promise is a promise, and I was determined to go and see regardless. And then email some photographic proof of my endeavour to the happy couple.

As I left Ullapool, however, it was still overcast, with a strong chill wind. Shortly before turning off on that narrow road, I stopped at a lay-by that had a fine view of the mountains. In fact it was a stunning view. It looked like a group of volcanoes, brooding under the grey sky. I shot them in colour and black-and-white, wanting to capture this primeval scenery in the best way.

The cone in the far distance was Stac Pollaidh (which I think may be pronounced 'Stack Polly'), and it was the one that looked most likely to burst into life at any moment. But of course, all of these volcanoes were really long extinct, and had been somewhat ground down by the last Ice Age. How impressive they must once have been, though!

I turned onto the narrow road, and magnificent scenery unfolded.

What a pity that the sun wasn't out! Mind you, it was definitely brightening up. As I emerged from these hills, and got nearer to the coast again, the road began to traverse a grassy, undulating area that brought me to the the sands of Achnahaird Bay. Here a loop road went off to places like Altandhu and Polbain. I turned south now towards Achiltibuie. Slowly the edge of the village came into view.

I pulled in by the village sign. For some reason, I felt highly elated. It was of course good to fulfill a promise, and in a sense this was a kind of pilgrimage. But the setting - the big sky, the mountainous backdrop, the sea, the islands offshore, the brisk air - were exhilarating and intensely uplifting. 

I intended to have some lunch here. There was a notice board near the church sign. This would do: the Achiltibuie Piping School Café:

I also glanced at the church sign. 

Hmm. The Sunday service was at 3.00pm, and it was just gone 1.00pm. Did I want to look at the church and its grounds? To peer into one aspect of Coigach life? I'd feel like a trespasser, but the sign did say 'Visitors always welcome'. And I'd have the best part of two hours before members of the congregation would start to turn up. Nobody was going to kill me if I ventured. 

Inside it was beautifully warm. Coffee and other refreshments were all ready in the kitchen. Somebody had come not long ago and made preparations. They might return at any moment. Oh dear. Should I retreat? I'd entered the grounds, had opened the entrance door and stepped inside. I was already on foreign territory, and might have to explain myself. What could I possibly say? 'Oh, I just wanted to have a look. I was curious. I've never been inside a Scottish Free Church before'. It would sound frivolous and disrespectful.

Dare I go deeper inside, through that door ahead?

I did so dare. But what was this? Not at all what I expected. It looked like the auditorium in a recently-refurbished village hall, all ready for a lecture on local wildlife. The comfortable seating arranged in a semi-circle, the projection screen, the lectern. And yet I knew that within two hours a religious service would begin here, with the deadly-serious purpose of saving souls from the traps and temptations of the devil.

I didn't know what to make of it. I just knew that I had no right to be there, and certainly ought not to be taking photographs to record my experience. This was trespassing, big time. I had enormous respect for the place and its function, but suddenly knew I had to get out while I could.

Thankfully, I made it to the entrance, and then to the gate, without encountering anybody. Phew.

Back into Fiona. I drove slowly along the road and towards the village centre. I was looking out for two things: the Community Hall where the marriage ceremony had taken place; and the Piping School Café. They turned out to be near each other, both down a side-turning. Before parking, I explored further along the road, then doubled back and parked. I stopped from time to time to get particular views, or shots of buildings and other things that for some reason caught my eye. 

Running some kind of smallholding - I couldn't say whether or not it was actually crofting - seemed to be an occupation for at least some of the residents. And I got the impression that Achiltibuie was home for a number of artists. There must have been holiday homes too, places empty for much of the year - perhaps the ones that looked modernised? You'd have to stay here to find out. 

I parked Fiona in the Community Hall car park, and peeked in through its windows. It was a Millennium Project, funded from the National Lottery, and served all of Coigach. So by 2019 not quite new, but nevertheless the very hub of community life hereabouts, with modern rooms and equipment. It looked very well maintained, a sign it was cherished. A pity this was a Sunday, and it was closed. I'd have liked to step inside.

I could easily imagine residents, very old and very young, and all ages in between, the village young mums perhaps with their children, popping in all the time, and throughout the day. It functioned as a sports hall too. Well, you'd badly need a facility likes this, with Ullapool nearly an hour away by road in bad weather, or at the height of the tourist season. 

The 'badminton' part of the Community Hall doubled as a big space for all kinds of functions. It was here that, with seating set out and dressed for the occasion, the marriage ceremony had taken place.  

Time for lunch. The Piping School Café was in this much older building nearby. It had been the community hall before the new one was built.

Inside, it still had the feel of a village hall, and appeared to be the headquarters of more than just the Piping School. The walls and corridors bore tapestries and pictures of past piping masters.

I felt very much the Sussex Visitor from far, far away. There was of course no skirl of bagpipes in the background, this being Sunday, the Sabbath Day. But local women were being very chatty in the kitchen. I popped my head round the door and asked them where the café was. I was given directions. Any table I liked. One of them would come and take my order.

I emerged into a pleasant room, long but not very wide, that had windows looking out on the Summer Isles. For now I had it to myself, so I chose the table with the best view, studied the menu, was impressed, and chose a homemade chile con carne with salad, and coffee to drink. 

There were books, pictures and other souvenirs for sale, and local records to peruse. Coigach clearly had a strong identity, and had long been the inspiration for publications.

It was quiet and really very pleasant. The view of the Summer Islands was wonderfully soothing. If I were staying in Achiltibuie, I'd certainly make this café, as well as the Community Hall, part of my daily routine. The woman who took my order, in her forties it seemed, told me that she'd come here years ago from Glasgow, had fallen in love with the place, and had made it her new home. Places like this might indeed ensnare any visitor. A combination of beautiful scenery, peacefulness, and the chance to be part of a small, tight-knit community. I asked myself whether I could ever fit into such a place, or would forever be the restless outsider. I think I knew the answer to that. Oh well.

I felt privileged to enjoy my meal, in such a place, with such a view. It was a very tasty lunch, nicely presented, and the coffee was good.

By the time I'd finished, other people had come in and sat down. Couples mainly. They mostly had the air of people actually holidaying in Coigach, rather than casual day visitors like me. 

I thanked the kitchen staff on the way out, got in to Fiona, and decided to take the loop road (recommended to me by the lady who used to live in Glasgow). First stop in this was the beach at Polbain. The very essence of a Highland beach: old fishing boats, bleached by wind and rain, and falling apart in their ruin. Driftwood. And rusting buoys filled with shingle.

The loop road took me up onto higher ground, and there was a spot above Altandhu where you could see Achiltibuie in the distance, with its mountain backdrop, and obtain a better idea of what the Summer Isles were like. 

Further along, I detoured to the car park next to Achnahaird Bay. The afternoon was too advanced now to linger, but I took a shot in order to get the view, including the strange shapes of the peaks on the horizon.

The sun had never really showed its face, but I wasn't so sure now that sunshine was necessary. In any light, this was sublime.