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Hi everyone.  Not long to go now before we set off on our European and perhaps world adventure!

Our new home for the next nine months

The front cover of my first children's book .

The front cover of my first children’s book .

Stag

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The next event, after a blissful four days of farniente,  was my third book signing at Waterstones of Dundee. When I say we did nothing for four days, I do not include of course the million phone calls to Bell & Bain the printer’s in Glasgow asking where the blazes my books were. I had ordered a 200 copy reprint of “Wee Georgie” two weeks earlier and now I was four days away from a signing and had no copies to sign! Eventually the books were delivered to the Alyth campsite and I had them ready for the Saturday.

Waiting for the crowds to arrive!

Waiting for the crowds to arrive!

The event itself was well-publicised in the Courier and I had about 15-20 visitors which was excellent when you consider it was the third signing event. I had the usual mix of people I knew and those I didn’t, but the first guy to turn up was the biggest surprise. He approached me and asked if I recognized him. I didn’t so asked him to give me a clue. He mentioned a place from a chapter of “Georgie” about fishing when we were young, a wee place on the Coupar Angus – Blairgowrie road called Stormont Loch (or Loch Bog). I knew then I had standing in front of me someone I hadn’t seen for 50 years! He was Ian Hay, the lad we called “Grass” and the boy who punched huge pike in the face to put an end to their suffering. Ian told me he’d met cousin Peter who had told him he was now famous as he was in my book and the man had decided to come and see me in person. Wonderful!

Me with Grass!

Me with Grass!

That very evening we had dinner in Dundee with our French friends Marc and Jud who as usual were back in Dundee for some summer time with Jud’s family on Dalkeith Road. It was good catching up with them and they appeared to have recovered from their unfortunate pick-pocketing experience in Barcelona when they came to visit us last Spring. I’m pretty sure however they have no intention of ever going back to the Catalan capital.

The following day, Mary decided to go and spend some quality time alone with Scott in Falkirk so I drove her to Perth station where she caught the train to Stirling then Larbet which is where Scott picked her up. Both she and I had a great couple of days chilling before I was back to Perth to collect her that Tuesday. She came back hobbling on blisters after succumbing to one of Scott’s over-enthusiastic fitness routines which he delights in inflicting on us any time we’re over there. He’s nothing if not committed to his career I must say but maybe needs to take his foot off the accelerator when his parents are around! Either that or Mary needs a new pair of trainers!

That same day was a very important one for our grandson Ben as he started his first day of Primary School at SS. Peter & Paul. Coincidently, this was the same Primary School attended by his Mum, his brother Daniel, Mary, her brother and all three of her sisters and also boasts Debbie Gallagher as Headteacher, she being Mary’s second cousin. George reported that, after a wee wobble when one or two others started to cry as parents were leaving, Ben settled down and had a great time. Well done, my boy!

Daddy, Ben, Mummy

Daddy, Ben, Mummy

The next day was lunch on the Perth Road with Mary’s Mum then drinks at Gerard’s in the evening with Marc and Norman Hadden, a former colleague of mine from St. Saviour’s High School. We meet at Gerard’s one evening every year to catch up and reminisce about the good old days. This year was no exception and with it being a full moon and a clear sky, the view from Gerard’s penthouse conservatory over the Tay to Fife was quite breathtaking.

The following morning we prepared for our respective trips: me off to Belfast with the boys for Greg’s Stag do and Mary off up to Aberdeen with Gavin’s wife Eve for Karen’s Hen Night. I left Lady Burton at her mother’s in mid-afternoon and cruised down to Scott’s house in Falkirk where I stayed the night along with Gavin to avoid too early a start on the Friday. As we are clearing out our garage, I also took Scott all his favourite toys from his childhood plus a Buzz Lightyear, a Batmobile and a full set of Pokémon cards. You should have seen his face!

So, it had finally arrived. We were all going off to Belfast for 3 nights to celebrate Greg’s last days of freedom. It was a hugely early start for Greg himself, leaving Montrose at 03.30 to pick up his pal George (yes, another one!) in Forfar then down to Dundee to pick up George and Daniel then over to Edinburgh to meet us at the house of a friend of Scott’s where we could leave our cars. A taxi took us to the airport for a 09.40 flight, a flight that would last a whole 40 minutes! Breakfast included pints of beer for some …… and we were off!

The boys on tour

The boys on tour

The Flybe flight was the first time I’d ever been on a plane with propellers as opposed to a jet engine but it flew just as easily and got us to a rain-sodden Belfast quickly and without incident. The weather forecast for our weekend was quite horrendous and it certainly started out as expected with heavy rain for most of the day although we were mostly in pubs so didn’t notice it much. Lunch was at Weatherspoon’s, a siesta was taken once we’d checked in to the Premier Inn in the city centre and we had tea at Pizza Express before hitting the big pubs. We found a place called Lavery’s which was a fantastic multi-roomed building with 15 pool tables on the top floor and about 10 bars scattered all around. We watched some of the Man Utd game (they are VERY fond of Man Utd in Belfast: it’s the Georgie Best connection, as per the name of their airport) then hit the drink.

Scott, Greg (he's happy) and Gavin

Scott, Greg (he’s happy) and Gavin

Our 4 sons

Our 4 sons, Greg, George, Gavin & Scott

As best man, Scott was the organizer of this Stag weekend and he made sure we were all up and moving by 8 o’clock on Saturday morning. We made a quick visit to a Tesco Express for breakfast and lunch items before heading for the bus stop outside Top Man where we would be starting our “Game of Thrones” tour. Now this series by HBO is probably the biggest thing on the planet at the moment and, as a lot of it was shot around Belfast, Scott had decided it would make a good choice for Day 2. And so it proved, despite the awful weather!

Our guide for the day was a guy who claimed to be a professional swordsman and fight scene choreographer and who told us about the various roles he had played in the series (including one of the men who stabbed Jon Snow at the very end of Series 5!). He certainly knew an awful lot about the scenes and the actors and was reasonably convincing but at the same time there was something about him that had us thinking “Wait a minute ……” Anyhow, the bus, Rooney Tours, took us out of Belfast and down the east shore of Strangford Lough then over the strait on a wee ferry to Strangford. From there we travelled a few more miles to our first stop.

Over the strait

Over the strait on the Strangford ferry

We got out of the bus and went under an arch to find ourselves in none other than the courtyard of Winterfell, the home of Ned Stark and family! Fanatic followers of the series became seriously excited about being in this place while I stayed somewhat philosophical, not recognizing it enough to get my pulse racing. Our guide described the scene in Chapter One which was shot here and explained how the yard was transformed using Computer graphics. He also pointed out the cottage where the brothel scenes were shot which was fairly interesting now that it is a holiday rental!

Winterfell

Winterfell

We moved on to a couple of other locations of dubious interest before lunching back in Strangford. After eating, we were taken outside to meet what had been billed as two celebrities from the series. Indeed they were. But as they were two of the dogs which play the Direwolves it was not quite as anticipated although once again the fans loved it! There was no way of telling if these dogs were the ones from the series but we played along with it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Greg with Snow

Greg with Snow

The next stop was at a ruined castle where the group were given costumes and swords to play with. This was great fun and we had a good laugh despite the incessant rain still trying to spoil the day. I got into the mood as well and dressed up in a cloak like the others and started playing with the Greatsword they called Ice. In fact we all did.

Daniel & Scott

Daniel & Scott

The Stag is a Hound!

The Stag is a Hound!

That was fun! And on we went to our final destination in a huge forest where we went on a walk to a spot at a bridge where an important scene from the very beginning of the series was shot. This was possibly the most interesting of the places we visited and the guide explained in great detail the scenarios enacted at this spot. Daniel in particular was fascinated by this and showered the guide with extra questions. For those who know the series, this was the spot where Ned Stark and family find the dead Direwolf and its 6 pups.

The stone to the right where the Direwolf was found

The stone centre-right where the Direwolf was found

Do we look happy?

Does it look like winter is coming?

The bus took us back to a very wet Belfast at about 5 p.m. via several wee villages festooned with St. George’s Crosses, Union Jacks and the Red Hand of Ulster. Suddenly we began to see what we’d all heard about. This was protestant country with nought a tricolour to be seen! The infamous “murials” (sic)included “Hurricane” Alex Higgins the wonderful snooker player and of course Georgie (simply the) Best. When we reached the hotel, we all needed a wee nap before smartening up for a serious night’s bevvying (after a cheeky Nandos of course!). I stayed the course until after eleven at which point Daniel and I called it quits and walked back to the hotel. The others went clubbing, as you would on a Stag. Typical of me, I watched “Match of the Day” in my room then went down to the bar for a nightcap wherein I got into conversation with several other guests such that I was still blethering when the boys began to roll back in! So technically, I was the last man standing!

While the boys had a bit of a lie-in on Sunday, I was down for a cooked breakfast at the back of nine after which I was raring to get on with the day’s excitement. A taxi took us to Colin Glen Park in Belfast at around 12.30 but the driver offered us the “scenic” route and in no time we were cruising the length of the Falls Road, the great Catholic stronghold and the scene of some of the worst violence during the “troubles”. We picked out 10 Catholic churches, a Catholic cemetery, several green and white pubs and tributes to Bobby Sands the hunger striker. Somehow we all felt happy to be in a taxi that wasn’t stopping any time soon.

And so to Greg’s next surprise. I should point out that the whole Stag was a secret to Greg who neither knew where we were flying off to nor what we were going to do when we got there. For the last 2 weeks. we had been saying the whole Stag was in danger as we’d been advised not to go to …….. Syria! I don’t think he took that in though! In any case, once we arrived at Colin Glen Park, we had to tell him we were going to “Go Ape” i.e. climbing around on high structures, walls and zip wires. Scott and I had done this at the “Foret Indienne” in France years ago, climbing around in the high trees attached to safety cables. I’d found this a bit exhilarating to be honest so I was viewing with a tad trepidation joining the boys “up there”.

Hard Hat and harnessed, we were asked to tackle the climbing wall first, a wall slightly taller than the wee one indoors at Powburn. Greg the Stag had to go first, followed by Best Man Scott, setting the rhythm for the day. Both coped as did their old man but not everybody made it to the top. You know who you are!! I was quite proud of doing the first obstacle successfully, especially as it was my first attempt at wall climbing, and clearly all those years of climbing trees when I was “wee Georgie” must have paid off.

Spiderman

Spiderman

Gavin takes on the wall

Gavin takes on the wall

Next up was the zip wire, a slide of about 100 metres at a height of 20 feet, not the scariest but still requiring commitment and a wee bit bravery. We were helped by the half-a-dozen primary kids who did it just before us! After them, how could we refuse? There are plenty videos of us doing this but unfortunately no still photographs (well, for a zip wire I suppose that’s standard!) and this blog page doesn’t support video. Then it was on to the obstacle course at low level (only 20 feet up!). Greg went first again followed by Scott then we all got stuck in and made easy work of it. I got by simply by not looking down.

Easy Street!

Easy Street!

George keeping fear at bay

George keeping fear at bay

The next stage was a similar obstacle course except at 40 feet off the ground and with more difficult things to negotiate. Gavin was quite unsure, big George was hesitant and I waited to near the end to take my turn. Astonishingly we all got round in some form or other and thankfully the instructor was taking the photos.

Hey Hey we're the Monkeys!

Hey Hey we’re the Monkeys!

The Stag in action!

The Stag in action!

George takes an unbalanced viewpoint

George takes an unbalanced viewpoint

I'm the King of the Swingers ...

I’m the King of the Swingers …

Just when we thought it was all done, out comes the instructor with a surprise. We weren’t to use the stairs to get back down. Oh no, we were all to do a 40 feet bungee jump! No Way! Luckily Greg was again first up and just as he was about to bottle it the instructor pushed him off! Mental! Scott needed two goes to summon up the necessary willpower to step off, I jumped with no hesitation, so did young George, Gavin thought he’d bottle it but didn’t and guest George took a full 6 minutes to persuade himself and when he couldn’t, a tactical nudge from the instructor completed the day! Again check out the videos of our jumps on any of our Facebook pages and you’ll see what we actually did.

And that was the adventure bit done and dusted. Back at the hotel we had a couple of beers to celebrate then a wee nap and then out for our final evening. This time it was Greg’s choice and so we ended up in the Nu Delhi Curry House where we sampled some delicious grub. Greg found the courage to make a wee speech, thanking everyone for attending and a special thanks to wee bro Scott for arranging it all.

In The Nu Delhi

In The Nu Delhi

We finished the revelries with a pool tournament back in Lavery’s before going back to the hotel where we found the bar was already closed! Damn! The rest was sleep, breakfast, taxi, airport, flight, taxi, car and home. Well done boys, it was a brilliant weekend and we looked like we enjoyed ourselves. Roll on the next one (Scott?)!

Stag! Stag! Stag!

Stag! Stag! Stag!

Nothing Doing: Part 3

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So, after a brief overnight respite at Stef & Renée’s, part 3 started with a drive to Dundee to pick up grandson Ben’s belongings then round to his nursery to pick Ben up himself. Safely tucked up in the back seat with Mary, Ben seemed perfectly happy about going to “the party” although, as instructed, we went out of our way not to mention it would involve 3 nights away from Mummy & Daddy. Apart from a bit of traffic on the Edinburgh bypass and a comfort stop at our usual place in Lauder, we cruised happily down to the border at Coldstream and onwards past Wooler to the scout camp at Powburn.

For those who don’t know, every year Mary’s extended family (minus Mum’s generation) meet up for the weekend at the scout camp used by scoutmaster Scott Gibson, her brother-in-law and sister Claire’s husband. Sister Alison and family, sister Dorothy and family, brother Bruce and children join Claire and family plus Scott’s brother John, his wife (not this year) and two daughters. Lady Burton and I regularly attend this family get-together and for the past couple of years our Scott has managed as well. We have the place to ourselves Friday until Sunday with all the accommodation, cooking and outdoor facilities like archery, climbing, crate-stacking, rope swing and campfire. This year it would be Ben’s first visit and his first long time away from his parents. Fingers crossed!

As soon as we were settled into our allocated room of 2 bunk beds, Ben was desperate to go outside and check things out. The play area is entirely round the back and fenced in with no access to the road (which I have to say seems to be a rat-race for maniacs heading to Newcastle or vice-versa). Safety also demands that the kids wear hard hats when they are using equipment so the first job was to fix Ben up with a helmet.

Cute, eh?

                   Cute, eh?

This helmet proved its worth within 30 minutes when Ben stood up too quickly on the crash mat below the big rope swing and took a smash to the head from young Sam’s feet as he swung by! No harm done though. I then walked him round all the other climbing things and he made thoughtful decisions about what to try and what to leave alone. But all he actually wanted was to be in the company of the other 5 kids and we had a job getting him to come in for tea. Dorothy’s husband David then took us all on a 4-mile walk through the meadows and lower hills of the surrounding area, through muddy fields and stony streams, over stiles and bridges, past cows, horses and sheep. Ben loved it, especially the bits where he got dirty or wet!

Nothing like a photo call midstream!

Nothing like a photo call midstream!

Mary was being particularly motherly to Ben (because she absolutely refuses to be grandmotherly!) and rescued him when he ventured into thick mud and found he couldn’t get his foot out without leaving the boot behind. She also adopted Ben’s somewhat slower pace given that he’s only 4 and formed the rear of the group on several occasions.

Who's looking after whom?

    Who’s looking after whom?

Once back at the camp, it was cocoa and hot-dogs before Ben hit the hay with Mary selected as resident story-reader. We settled down to group gossip over a couple of beers while the teenagers got together to talk teenage stuff. When general bedtime came, Mary and I were ultra-careful not to make a noise but our wee lamb looked unlikely to waken even if we’d let off fireworks. And so it turned out! Ben slept right through until 07.30 at which point I took him through and dished up a bowl of Cheerios for him. As the others gradually appeared in various states of consciousness, Ben urged them to get ready to go outside and play again and by 9 o’clock he was back out on the rope swing and other equipment.

Barnum!

          Barnum!

The Robertson girls moved into catering mode and prepared picnic grub to feed a small army then we were all off again, this time into the valley just up the road from the camp where there is a meadow with a wide stream running through it. With good weather predicted, we intended to have fun down by the water or at least let the kids have the fun while we lay out in the sun. A great afternoon ensued with all the youngsters getting soaked one way or the other and the adults adding to their tans. We even had the delights of an ice-cream van. complete with wonky song, stopping at the meadow and tempting us all with various treats. Dorothy bought Ben a cone with a flake in it (we call it a “99”) and he was in heaven.

No boy is an island

        No boy is an island

2016-08-06 12.56.14

      Ben, Zack ,Thomas plus Mr. Whippy

The evening meal is traditionally fish and chips and although we ended up in different villages for some reason, the tradition was more or less maintained. After that, the scoutmasters prepared the campfire and the highlight of the weekend began. We all sat around the fire and the kids for the most part led the entertainment with various scout songs, poems and chants. The adults joined in as required and also supervised the toasting of the marshmallows on the end of sticks. Ben was a bit overcome with the noise of the chanting and needed a few minutes away from it all with his granddad before slowly returning to take in the whole thing with wide eyes. I finished the singing off with guitar and “Puff the Magic Dragon”, evoking many a smile and the odd tear (the lyrics, not my voice!).

Some of the happy campers

    Some of the happy campers

He's not convinced, is he?

      He’s not convinced, is he?

I'm OK, grandad George.

    I’m OK now, granddad George.

Ben was out like a light once tucked up in his bunk and that was him for almost 10 hours! We shared some time in the main hall with all the others before Mr. Sandman began to shut our eyes and we just made it to bed. We slept like Ben. Sunday morning was the usual breakfast and a couple of hours playing with the kids outside before everybody took their turn helping to tidy up the camp and packing to leave. Alison’s husband Dave gave the kids a session of archery and we also let them take on the small climbing wall in the hall, but before you could say “Dib Dib” it was time to leave. Ben told me he didn’t want to go home but when I told him we were heading to another party, he eventually got off the rope swing and came quietly!

But we weren’t going home. We really were going to another party, this time on the other side of the country back in Kendal where Mike and Het were having day 2 of a joint 60th birthday party. We waved cheerio to the family members at Powburn drove down to Newcastle, over to Carlisle then down the M6 to Kendal, getting there about three in the afternoon. Our friends were delighted we had made the effort to come and help them celebrate and we had a splendid day mixing with their friends while Ben got acquainted with their grandchildren William and Ollie. When the guests had left and the boys were abed, we caught up with Mike and Het over a couple of glasses of wine before retiring wearily ourselves.

Our sociable Ben

           Our sociable Ben

After breakfast the following morning, all we had to do was drive back to Scotland and over to Dundee where we handed Ben back to his parents more or less in one piece. They themselves had had a relaxing weekend child-free in Glasgow and both looked the better for it. Just as it should have been. Quite exhausted we drove back to the Alyth campsite, had tea then went to bed. Just as it should have been!

I leave you with the curious case of Benjamin Burton …….. up a tree!

Me Tarzan!

                 Me Tarzan!

 

 

 

Nothing doing, Part 2

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After bagging 3 Munros in 2 days, I slept like the proverbial log at Mum’s. Naturally. The only tense moment was when I had to tiptoe past her lest she attempt to grab every stitch of clothing I had and put it in her washing machine on the grounds that it was “a good drying day”. I think that means the temperature was above zero, it wasn’t raining and it was blowing a gale! So we managed to get away without all my worldly goods getting washed and ironed to a razor-sharp crease and I include here the laptop and my trainers!

And we were off again, this time up the A9 to Inverness then west over to Joe and Mo’s at Lochcarron for our annual visit. We toyed with driving over to Glencoe and Fort William then up the west coast but I was still a bit wrecked from my exertions with the Munroamers so chose the easy but boring route. That’s maybe a bit unfair as you can see an awful lot of Scotland’s best features on the main road north, especially around Dunkeld, Pitlochry, the Drumochter Pass and Aviemore but I was in “just get there” mode so the “oohs & aahs” were kept to a minimum.

At some point or other on the journey, we resolved to learn to recognize trees. We know one or two, like the Horse Chestnut with its Big Hand leaves and the two-tone mottled bark of the Plane Tree but there are so many others we keep puzzling over as we travel around Europe that a working knowledge of the most common varieties would be helpful. Can you tell an oak from a beech from a birch? At the moment, we can’t! So, by Christmas we intend to know our sycamores from our limes and an ash from a monkey-puzzle.

These lined the A9

These lined the A9

Well, did you recognize what they were? Brownie points if you knew they were birch trees (whose branches made excellent whips as you will no doubt remember from the “Bring back the Birch” campaigns of the 60s.)

We were looking for a place to stop and have lunch when we reached the wee village of Contin (population 675). Now we knew they had half-decent toilets in the village hall there so pulled in for a little comfort break. But what we hadn’t anticipated was the hall doing fully-blown 3-course lunches for the locals and passers-by. Don’t mind if we do, we thought. Well, what can I say. The best vegetable soup I have ever tasted and as tender a roast lamb dinner as to suggest the poor thing had been running around in the adjoining field that very morning. Yummy! And it didn’t break the bank either.

Refreshed by the surprise midday meal, we drove on in buoyant mood through the glens and past the lochs, taking the narrow roads with passing places in our stride (or at least the Audi did!) until we emerged onto the banks of Loch Carron. Now it’s not really a loch in the traditional sense as it’s open to the west and over to the Isle of Skye. It’s more of what you’d call a fjord if you were Norwegian, i.e. land at one end, hills on both sides and open sea at the other end. Whatever it is, it’s spectacularly beautiful in the sunlight, assuming there is actually any sunlight, but when it’s dreich and misty, it’s not quite so enthralling. Miserable might indeed be an appropriate adjective to use. However, that day, we were blessed with fluffy clouds and some blue sky so it was a bonny sight to greet our arrival.

The Loch

The Loch

Normally our advent at Joe and Mo’s is a series of cosy hugs and “How are you” variations but this time, as we got out of the car (I kind of fell out), what appeared to be an extra from “Quatermass” came round the corner of the house and headed straight for us. Just as we were about to get back in the car and flee for our lives, Mo’s voice came from inside a huge white helmet with a mesh front, wishing us a hearty welcome. We had arrived just as she had donned her suit and prepared to remove honey from the hive of naughty bees she keeps at the bottom of the garden. What a relief! Not being hugely brave around stinging insects, we quickly moved inside to look for Joe, leaving Mo to do that awfully brave bees thing for which she only got stung once or twice despite full scientist suit, gloves, a mesh face mask and a smoke machine.

That evening, Mo dished up an excellent dinner as always, drink was taken and out came the guitars for the Burton Boys to re-enact the dizzy nights in the Cross Keys Bar in St. Andrews way back in the day. And despite Douglas Bader legs, I was fit enough to do 18 holes at the local golf course with Joe the following morning while Mo stayed at home to practise the saxophone in preparation for her band’s appearance at the Belladrum Music Festival later that week. Lady Burton came with us golfers but eschewed a nice walk in favour of a visit to the nearby cemetery and a nice pot or two of tea over a good book at the clubhouse. I won the golf challenge by merit of being slightly less awful and a huge amount luckier than big brother. I also won the “Let’s see who can lose the most golf balls” challenge.

The brothers Grimm!

The brothers Grimm!

We enjoyed a splendid, sunny day that Tuesday followed by another great dinner, this time of trout that Joe had caught himself and vegetables from their own polytunnel. The good life! Another post-dinner sing-song followed but it’s not like in previous years where we could drink, sing and play until the wee hours. By 23.30 we were all in bed and probably asleep. The weather turned on Wednesday and we were confined to barracks for the morning before Joe drove us all round to Plockton (or Lochdubh if you remember Hamish MacBeth?) where it was our turn to treat our hosts to lunch. The Plockton Shores shop and restaurant provided us with an amazing lunch, as good as anything we’ve had in the past couple of years in Spain, France or UK.

We had planned a walk after our lunch but the rain decided to dictate events and it was just another heart-stopping drive back to Lochcarron along, up and down narrow roads at speeds only a local could find perfectly normal. In the back, I was quietly white-knuckled! Neither Joe nor Mo batted an eyelid! Our third evening was quieter than the other two but we still managed a couple of songs and Joe played some remastered tapes of songs he’d written and recorded with friends in Crail Castle in the early 70s. Simply wonderful!

After breakfast on Thursday, we waved cheerio and headed back to Inverness and down the A9 again. The weather was nothing short of dreadful, making the journey quite unpleasant, but things improved after a stop at the Ralia Hairy Coo restaurant for a spot of lunch and the rest of the drive back to Blairgowrie was uneventful.

The Hairy Coo

The Hairy Coo

Nothing doing, Part 1

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I suggest that if you intend to read right the way through this post that you make yourself a cuppa, get a nice biscuit, sit down, take a deep breath and read on. You see it has been nothing short of full-on for the past two weeks or so and I assure you that I have plenty to tell you about. We’ll begin what seems an eternity ago on Wednesday 27 July.

We had been visited at the Magic Caravan here in Alyth 2 days earlier by Mary’s brother Bruce, wife Gillian and the two children, Thomas the human whirlwind and Sophie the fairy princess. We had lunch together in the awning and at some point Bruce mentioned he was going on a historical walk around St. Andrews (he works there at Madras College) guided by a former colleague and Chemistry teacher. Mary of course said she really fancied going along too and as I have never turned down a chance to visit my Alma Mater – studied there ’71-’76 – we told Bruce we would turn up at the meeting place (The Central Bar!) on that Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Now that may appear a tad adventurous of us at first glance. No, not the historical tour, you silly things. I mean of course promising to be in St. Andrews at ten in the morning when we are resident on a campsite near Alyth. That’s a good 30 miles to travel including crossing Dundee from north to south at heavy traffic time. Added to that, Lord and Lady Burton aren’t world-renowned for getting up just after dawn, the crack of or otherwise. Indeed we sometimes wonder if we could get a clock with a dial that only spans 10 a.m. until 1 a.m. as the intervening hours are not popular with us. But Mary was super-confident and determined to take the tour and I wasn’t far behind.

At half past eight that Wednesday morning we were up, showered, fed and brushed. By 08.45 we were on the road to Dundee, over the Tay Bridge by half past nine and parked up in the grounds of Madras College (Nice one, Bruce!) by ten. Inside the Central Bar we were introduced to fellow participant Olaf, a Depute at Bruce’s school, and the guide who was introduced to me as Ross Napier. “Not Ross Napier, ex-hockey internationalist” I quipped. “The very one” came the reply. I couldn’t believe it as the guide was a contemporary of mine at the University and I remembered him as a terrific hockey player alongside my old pal Chris Healey, as well as a useful football player in the Sunday League. He didn’t really recognize me of course as I spent most of my time in the library studying. I’ll wait while you stop laughing!

The tour itself was laid-back and interesting and although we knew many of the things Ross pointed out and explained to us we learned a great deal more about the history of the “Home of Golf”, a quite bloody history might I add. They certainly enjoyed a good old burning at the stake did the residents, seemingly happy to burn both Catholics and Protestants alike! Quite surprisingly, John Knox himself escaped the execution pyre because he was actually too valuable to get rid of after he’d been captured. Lucky boy!

Ross, Olaf, Bruce and Mary discuss the Cathedral

Ross, Olaf, Bruce and Mary discuss the Cathedral

We visited St. Salvator’s church, quadrangle, the castle, the cathedral, St. Mary’s College (where I studied Theology) and some of the old buildings. Behind the postgraduate hall of residence Dean’s Court, we were ushered into a delightful set of gardens where we paused to appreciate the scene and the utter silence of this inner yard. We were also shown a plaque recounting the meridian line established by James Gregory way before the Greenwich Line took over.

The Plaque in South Street near St. Mary's College

The Plaque in South Street near St. Mary’s College

A highlight for me was a look inside a café which occupies the ground floor of the former Old Students’ Union on North Street. I have many fond memories of this place during my first and second years of study at St. Andrews and I went to ask if I could get upstairs to the area where the snooker rooms used to be but they are all modernised now. I still dream about the higgledy-piggledy stairways within this rabbit’s warren of a building. We had lunch for old times’ sake with Bruce in that Old Union building then bid him farewell, but it wasn’t back to Alyth for us. Oh no, we drove back over the Tay, on East out of Dundee and up to Gavin’s in Arbroath where we had been invited for tea.

Arry on her princess chair from Spain

Arry on her princess chair from Spain

Gavin was alone with granddaughter Arry while Mum Eve was down in London with friends. We spent some time out in the garden playing with the bairn then had tea together before I took on the role of story-reader for my wee gem. I did it brilliantly of course and in no time she was happily in the land of nod. This gave us some time to catch up with Gavin before it was time to head back to Alyth which we intended to reach via the wee roads of Angus instead of down to Dundee and out again. Victoria was asked to keep us right and she did, finding the absolute shortest route via roads one car-width for 10 miles at a time and passing through some excellent farm yards. Pitch black, full beam, trees, rabbits, geese, tractors, owls, you name it, we saw it!

Two days later, I dropped Lady Burton off at her sister Ally’s house and headed down the dual carriageway to Perth then Crieff then Comrie just outside of which I’d hired a static caravan on a farm as the base for this year’s Munroamers. There were only to be the four of us this year with Greg stuck at his work harvesting on the estate. What a pity! I got there first and settled down to wait for Scott who arrived a couple of hours later. We then prepared tea as we awaited the arrival of George and Gavin who made it by 20.30. Tea was a paella made partly from a tin I’d brought back from Vilanova, but with extra chicken, chorizo (sorry Spanish friends!), prawns and peas added.

Not bad!

Not bad!

Naturally, we had the odd beer or two that evening while we discussed the challenges that lay ahead over the next two days. All four of us were up for it though so we chilled and enjoyed our surprisingly comfortable lodgings. This was actually the first time we had ever met up the evening before Day 1 as opposed to meeting up on the morning of Day 1 itself and it’s a recipe we intend to repeat. A great night’s sleep was interrupted only by the loudest mooing you have ever heard, what with there being a field of cows and one very happy bull just 20 metres away! By the end of our visit, George was convinced that the farmer actually had a mooing machine and megaphone trained on our caravan so loud were these cow noises! Great laughs though!

Our static caravan

Our static caravan

Day 1 launched with bacon and eggs (eggs only for George the vegetarian), several attempts at writing off the loo, a short drive in Scott’s car to the south shore of Loch Earn and that was us ready to walk. Our targets for that day were Ben Vorlich (3231 feet) and Stuc a ‘Chroin (3198 feet), two medium-sized Munros making up the south-east corner of the Western Highlands. The weather seemed particularly kind to us as we left the loch shore and we were optimistic of a reasonably dry walk up and back.

The classic team photo before hitting the mountain

The classic team photo before hitting the mountain

I have to admit I found the early steep path really hard work but somehow or other I found a second wind and slowly but surely made my way up behind the 3 boys to the upper slopes of Ben Vorlich. As always the false summits and boggy areas were particularly punishing but with just the right amount of stops for water, food, a chat and a chance to rest I made it to the top, albeit more slowly than previous years and probably to the great frustration of my boys who were champing at the bit to move faster. They were awfully good to me however and ladled praise on poor old Dad for getting to the top.

Still Game!

Still Game!

Looking over to Stuc a’ Chroin from the summit of Ben Vorlich we could see the route down below which twisted up to a small boulder field before stopping at the foot of a huge outcrop of ominously dark rock negotiable with care. Inspired by having bagged our first target we went for it down the south slope of Ben Vorlich and were cruelly surprised by just how much height we had to lose before levelling out on the bealach and setting off back up. As we approached the rock we studied it carefully before unanimously agreeing to take the alternative route to the right straight up the Coire, in itself a bit of a challenge. Our hands were still needed in places and although I continued to struggle, the boys sprinted up and waited for me at the col before we made our way more easily round to the summit.

The rock scramble of Stuc a 'Chroin

The rock scramble of Stuc a ‘Chroin

As usual, the way back down proved to be the sore bit, especially on our knees, as we had to walk with the brakes almost permanently on. But we got back to the car after the predicted 8 hours and not one drop of rain had fallen on us, just like last year in the Cairngorms. While the boys prepared the Haggis, Neeps and Tatties I had brought for us I was permitted a wee 5 minutes in the bedroom and I’m ashamed to say it ran on a bit to something more like an hour and a half. Tea was brilliant as were the beers but we were all quite tired and ended up watching “Predator” on the TV before hitting the hay.

Day 2 involved cleaning up and having breakfast (Dad’s famous omelettes) before driving off in the cars back to Comrie where we parked up, got into Scott’s car and drove to the access point for our target Ben Chonzie (3054 feet). I’d been up before with some pals many years before but it was new to the boys and convenient to bag on our last day. The weather was markedly colder and cloudier today but there was still no rain although we began to see it in the adjacent glens. Fingers crossed! Our legs were all pretty good but I was still finding the steep bits hard going. However I surprised myself by reaching the plateau without incident, then it was a mile across a flat top following some convenient fence posts to the sheltered cairn at the top where we had lunch.

Ben Chonzie summit

Ben Chonzie summit

As you can see from the photo it was a bit fresh in the wind at the top and we reckoned it wasn’t far from zero up there so we were happy to get cracking back down and out of the worst of the wind. The route back was exactly the way we’d come as there was no reasonable alternative but we made short work of it and I even had time to tell a dog to get lost when it came barking at us. Great things these walking poles! The boys had been wearing their Fitbits throughout and, down in the car park Gavin came up with the route from Day 1 as plotted by his wristband.

Technology, eh?

Technology, eh?

We had done our target in 4 hours which was the least expected by the description we’d read beforehand, so well done to all of us. We realized also that this was the first time in ten years that we’d been out on the mountains and it hadn’t rained on us. That was probably a reward for almost drowning in it last year in the Lairig Ghru. Difficult memory, that one!

The boys drove off back to their respective partners while I cruised back to Dundee where Mary’s Mum pampered me with tea, a sleep and a long soak in a deep bath. Thanks Mum!

Scottish Summer

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It is absolutely hammering it down outside and the sky is a uniform grey: uniform, not even 50 shades. This morning there were six or seven families in various types of tent pitched out on the large expanse of grass that makes up the middle of our little caravan park, the 5 roads, here in Alyth. It’s just turned 13.45 and they’re all gone. It won’t be because they have to work tomorrow or get the kids to school because it’s a public holiday and it’s still the summer holidays from school. No, it’s because of the rain. We’ve been here a week and it’s rained every day at some point, even on Tuesday when the temperature peaked at 27 degrees, the hottest day of the year.

To be brutally honest, the weather doesn’t bother us all that much, given where we live most of the time. But we do feel for all the people who spend their lives in Scotland or all those who visit our beautiful country. We’ve met 3 couples from the latter category here on this campsite and they have spoken with resignation about their visit. The first two stayed one night each on their respective tours, both couples sleeping in a wee tent next to their cars. Both had breakfast in those cars as the rain battered their flimsy accommodation to the ground. They both agreed that Scotland is immensely beautiful ……… if you can see it through the stair-rods. Brave faces were to the fore but we could see they were being sorely tested. God bless!

Mary’s Mum is apoplectic about how awful the weather has been. If she can’t get her sheets hung out on the drying-green then it is officially a state of emergency at her house. Given that she finds things to wash which others simply do not perceive, you can take it that she finds herself glued to her Tablet, examining the weather on a half-hourly basis and making advance plans for the next whites or coloureds wash with military precision. She soldiers on with admirable stoicism but we can see how the weather breaks her heart.

The rain has just gone up a further two levels of ferocity here and we are extremely thankful that the Magic Caravan continues to be 100% waterproof. I must admit that we did have some qualms about spending 6 weeks in our first-ever caravan after it has been sitting out at a storage site in Birkhill to the north-west of Dundee. But we have to say that it took no more than a rub down inside and out to restore it to presentable level and once hooked up to the mains we were delighted to find that everything still worked, lights, sockets, fridge, water-pump etc. I have given it a replacement fully-charged battery with new terminals and all is now well with the internal 12v system which should stay topped-up once I have attached the solar-power trickle charger I bought at Maplin’s.

At the 5-Roads campsite

          At the 5-Roads campsite

We arrived here a week ago today after an excellent 8 days in Tayport at Mary’s brother’s house where we looked after their amazing cat Zak while they holidayed down in the Lake District. We enjoyed ourselves on the other side of the River Tay from Dundee and the view back towards the city as we would drive along the coast road from the bridge to Tayport ranks as one of the best we have seen anywhere. Strange how you can travel all around but still be moved by the beauty of a place where you have spent the vast majority of your life. The only near-equivalent I could conjure up was the view of the St. Lawrence River from the Olympic Stadium in Montreal but even then the Tay with the two hills of Dundee in the background wins hands down. Stunning!

Dundee seen from the Tayport road

Dundee seen from the Tayport road

Catching up with the family has taken up most of our time since our return to Scotland. We started with two nights at Scott’s flat in Falkirk after we left Mike and Het’s in Kendal, that being the final stage of our journey home. There then followed 1 night at Mary’s Mum’s (luxury!) then meeting up with George and family for lunch, tea with Greg and Karen in Montrose and a brief stop-off at Gavin’s in Arbroath on our way back to Tayport. We actually went to see where Karen works, a popular stately home near Montrose called The House of Dun and, after a cup of tea at Karen’s café, Greg took us around the ornate gardens which were really beautiful. I think we’ll be going back to visit the interior at some point next month.

Lord and Lady Burton

               Lord and Lady Burton

Out of the blue we found ourselves invited to a wedding reception at the famous Invercarse hotel in Dundee following a conversation between Lady Burton and the new groom, her ex-French Teacher Brian Gould. We had an enjoyable evening dancing both modern and Scottish and we caught up with uncle Gerard who was in attendance along with a smattering of old Dundee teachers.

The groom, Lady Burton and a tramp!

     The groom, Lady Burton and a tramp!

I did the driving that night, mainly because I’m being very good following a spate of high blood-sugar tests. The good news is that my full blood tests came back on Thursday and showed readings lower than last year and such as to cause no concern to the doctor. This was a great relief to both Mary and me and suggested I’m behaving myself (at last!).

On Friday we had my cousins Stef and Renée over for fish and chips in the awning and the weather was kind enough to at least not rain while we were actually eating! They will be reciprocating this evening with dinner at their house in Blairgowrie where we will also get a chance to catch up with their lovely children Ricky and Teresa, both adults and doing well. Yesterday Mary went off in the car – strange, that sounds like she exploded! – to meet with some old school chums in Dundee and three hours later I took the bus to Dundee to meet up with George, Ben, Gavin and Arry to go swimming at the Olympia pool where Scott used to be a lifeguard. I had a wonderful time with our grandchildren, splashing around, getting zoomed around the Rapids, buffeted by the Wave machine and enjoying the thrills (or should that be terror?) of sliding down the green and red flumes. I think I found them fun but maybe my heart thought different!

I’ve firmed up several details for the next few weeks. Next Friday we’re off up the mountains as we always do in early August. Not Lady Burton of course, as the “Munroamers” as we call ourselves is strictly male-only and includes only me and my 4 sons. Unfortunately only three can come with me this year, Greg being the odd-man-out as it’s harvest time on the Estate where he works and he’s needed there. I’ve booked a big static deluxe caravan near Comrie for our accommodation and we’ll be within spitting distance of Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin and Ben Chonzie which are our three target mountains for 2016. On Monday, Mary and I are off up north to visit brother Joe & wife Mo at their house on the banks of Loch Carron. This is becoming an annual pilgrimage and we never fail to have a great time catching up. A small libation may even be taken!

We’ll stay there until Thursday morning then drive back to Dundee for one night before heading to Powburn in Northern England for the annual get-together of Mary’s family at the scout camp. This year, for the first time, we’re going to be taking grandson Ben with us as he’s nearly 5 and will be starting school a week later. But instead of coming home on the Sunday as usual, we’re driving back over to Kendal to help Mike and Het celebrate their joint 60ths! Ben will be there too and I’m sure we’ll have a ball. When we get back to the Magic Caravan on the Monday, we may just have a rest!

Aunt Ellen called two days ago to inform us that uncle Peter (Dad’s wee brother) had passed away in Cardiff at the age of 80 after being ill for a while. I have fond memories of Peter grabbing me around the waist and lifting me up to the ceiling in Grandma’s house in Leeds when I was a wee boy in the early 60s. Our thoughts are with his wife aunt Anne and her children. RIP uncle Peter.

Peter was the brother furthest to the left in the photo on page 73 of “Georgie”, a photo of Dad’s Mum and Dad and all of his siblings. I think uncle Terry and auntie Pat are the only two survivors of that splendid photo. The two memoirs continue to do well both at Waterstones and online at Amazon. I am busy having “Wee Georgie” reprinted yet again (200 more this time) and I suspect it won’t be the last. I have a signing at Waterstones in Dundee on 13 August, my third such event and once again they asked me, not the other way around. Slowly but surely I am beginning to feel the urge to write again so you never know what I’ll be telling you in the next post. Disappointingly, book 2 of Socrates the Snail remains frustratingly unillustrated and I can’t seem to find a reliable artist anywhere who can meet a deadline. Do you know anyone who might do the job for me?

Well that’s us up-to-date today. It hasn’t actually stopped raining but at least Ginger baker is no longer practising his favourite drum-solo on the roof of the Magic Caravan. I leave you with Arry and Ben post-swim. Wonderful, but then again I AM their granddad!

Uber-cute!

                Uber-cute!

Just at the last second before I posted this, I’ve received the first photo of Fred and Jeanette’s new motorhome. I wish them all the possible joys in their new abode!

Absolute luxury!

                Absolute luxury!

Home Again

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Preparing to leave.

                       Preparing to leave.

Once again, we’re back home for the summer. Well not exactly “home” as that implies we’re back in our flat which we aren’t. That’s because it is still being rented out, so we’ve come back to Scott’s flat in Stenhousemuir. We’ll only be here a couple of nights before moving to Mary’s brother’s house in Tayport while they’re away on holiday. Then we plan to have 2 weeks in the magic caravan on a site in Alyth. That’s the theory anyway!

We left Vilanova last Friday morning and drove up into France before heading inland at Béziers on the A75. This road passes over the famous Millau Viaduct, the highest in the world, which we’ve crossed 4 times now. It’s a splendid sight indeed and we managed an on-the-move shot for you to see.

Nice, eh?

                       Nice, eh?

After that it was up, up, up to 3500 feet and back down again leaving us at our first stop which as usual was the Ibis Budget hotel in Clermont-Ferrand. We use this hotel whenever we can as it’s ideal for travellers with lots of facilities all within walking distance of it. This time we decided to have our evening meal in an Irish pub a short distance away and it turned out to be a great choice as both the food and drink were excellent and the prices, while dearer than Spain, were not ridiculous.

After a good night’s rest, we filled up with diesel and headed for Paris (not the city, just the region) which always holds a few surprises for us the nearer we get, as the traffic slowly but surely builds up the closer you come to the city itself. But, having somewhat stumbled via the navigator on Mary’s iPhone onto a big Route Nationale, we crept into the outskirts at Creteil (Thierry Garnier and his family weren’t in!) – that will only be funny to someone who studied French with Tour de France book – slid underneath the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, before bolting away from the chaos to much quieter roads leading north out of the French capital.

Our second Ibis Budget hotel was in the little town of Noyon, about two hours from Calais, so just about in the perfect spot to stay before crossing back to the UK. It even had a McDonald’s opposite it which made choosing where to have tea an awful lot easier than it could have. One triple cheeseburger and chicken wrap later (guess who had what!?) I was in the room watching the Germany v Italy quarter final game while Lady Burton surprised us all by reading a book!

After a spot of continental breakfast on Sunday morning, we had a very pleasant drive up to the Tunnel Terminal at Sangatte where the hordes of refugees throwing bricks, as prophesized by our neighbours back in Vilanova, totally failed to materialize, leaving us to peer through the miles of scary razor wire to see if we could clock even one such person. No luck – they had obviously packed their bags and gone home! Half an hour later and we drove back onto British soil for the first time in 10 months. The Audi remembered to stick to the left which was just as well because I barely gave it a thought.

Our first task was to drive to Ashford International Train Station, which you should all note is NOT the Tunnel Terminal, to seek out one of Mary’s colleagues from Global Connect in Vilanova. She was meeting us there to collect her dismantled bicycle which we had brought to her in the back seat of the car (yes, honestly!). So, she got her bike back and we got a thank-you card and a bottle of wine. After the bye-byes, Victoria steered us back to the M20 which led us to the Dartford tunnel underneath the Thames.

Now, this crossing has changed recently. You probably know the tunnel is North only these days while the traffic heading South uses the Dartford bridge only built a few years back. But you might not know that the toll-booths have gone! Before you start celebrating a saving of £2.50 on the crossing, I should point out that you still have to pay, except now you do it online or at one of those pay-points you see in shops and post-offices. You can pay in advance as I did or pay within 24 hours of crossing, after which they slap a nice big fine on you. I even bought 2 crossings as they last up to a year from the date of purchase and will probably use it when we go back.

Once the Dartford tunnel and the horrendous M25 were behind us, it was plain driving up the M11 and A1M to Leeds and Terry and Ellen’s. We got there on the stroke of five, at the exact same time as cousin Angela and her family whom I saw greeting cousins Gillian and David and family. My God, they were all going to have dinner with us! What a splendid surprise that was and we had a great catch-up at the dinner table. Uncle Terry was looking 100 times better than when we’d seen him last September and he told us he is getting over his various challenges slowly but surely. Auntie Ellen was as ever quite wonderful and she served 14 of us with a feast fit for a family of Burtons.

The Brexit vote dominated the conversation and we were delighted to learn that the family were like us sad and embarrassed by the result to leave and even more so in the immediate aftermath when it emerged the Brexiteers didn’t have a clue what to do next! Let’s hope common sense takes over and some really intelligent people find themselves at the helm of our country because we are going to need true statesmanship from now on and an end to the self-seeking, arrogant so-called politicians on all sides who are happy to bring the country to its knees as long as they do well from it. Rant over!

A good sleep, a slap-up breakfast and we were off again, but this time a relatively short distance to Malham in the Yorkshire Dales near Skipton where we had arranged to meet our dear friends Het and Mike Farrington from Kendal. It was brilliant seeing them again back here and we had a lovely time walking around 2 particularly popular spots in that area as well as enjoying a picnic they had kindly prepared for us. The weather held for most of the afternoon but then turned decidedly British towards four o’clock, calling for waterproofs and coats, but it failed to spoil a delightful afternoon in the English countryside.

Malham Cove

                     Malham Cove

The other place, whose name escapes me!

The other place, whose name escapes me!

Same place

                       Same place

We finished our walk with a cup of Yorkshire tea bought at a nearby caravan café and we all seemed to be well happy with our day as you can see.

Me, Mary, Mike & Het

                       Me, Mary, Mike & Het

That evening, our hosts served us up a delicious healthy meal, sensitive to my new regime. They were there at the campsite the evening I took a wobbly so they knew what it was all about as regards my diet these days. Well done, my friends. We gossiped until our eyes were all closing then got off to bed for a welcome sleep and long lie. The following day we went for lunch in a place called Staveley at a café where Mike’s sister works. Incredibly, this is the exact same place Mary’s brother Bruce and his family are coming on holiday next week!

The bridge over the Kent

           The bridge over the Kent

After a short stroll we headed back to Kendal where the girls went shopping in town while Mike and I checked out a couple of hostelries. We chanced upon a rather cheeky pint of Theakston’s IPA which was so good that even Lady Burton had a half-pint when the girls eventually joined us. Mike and I also strolled around Kendal while he pointed out all the damage caused by the terrible flooding of last winter. I’m glad to say the town has recovered well and most of the damage has been put to good. We stopped by a huge bike shop to let him have a look around and I spotted a strange sight which Mike assured me is a perfectly functioning bicycle. Does this look OK to you?

No front fork?

                  No front fork?

Then it was back to their house, a few laughs, dinner (Mike burned the Yorkshire puddings which could then double as Frisbees!) and bed. The following morning was seriously downbeat, a late full English breakfast, a couple of hugs then back on the road, this time to Scotland.

A glorious sicht!

         A glorious sicht!

So that’s it. We’re back for 2 months, culminating in Greg and Karen’s wedding on 2 September. We’ll be busy no doubt but the time will fly in and before we know it we’ll be back on the road to the other place we call home. Exciting, isn’t it? I leave you with something that made us smile while down in Yorkshire.

A woolly jumper!

                      A woolly jumper!

 

 

Day 4/297: Yabba-Dabba-Doo!

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When I was a lad I liked to watch “The Flintstones”. The adventures of stone-age couples Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their friends Barney and Betty Rubble in the town of Bedrock were often the highlight of my week on TV. But one of the best things about that series was the absolutely brilliant theme tune that came with it. I’m sure almost everybody of a certain age (my age!) can easily sing all the words as well as picture the opening and closing title sequences. Here, I’ll start you off “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they’re a modern, stone-age family ………..”. Fred being put out of the house by Dino the pet dinosaur and then hammering on the door, shouting for Wilma to let him back in is etched on the memories of a whole baby-boomer generation. “Yabba-dabba-doo!”

For all the time – years and years – that we watched the series, we’d sing along with the title song and laugh ourselves silly at Fred’s two feet powering his car. We hardly noticed that Wilma and Betty‘s cartoon characters were very feminine in both appearance and demeanour yet both lacked “pointy” chests, because the whole thing was sanitized for the targeted audience. Yes, this was an age of innocence. We simply chuckled when the two wives used violence towards their inept husbands just like we did when Jerry would slam Tom into a concertina shape by dropping a heavy weight on his head.

The last line of the song “Meet the Flintstones” was “You’ll have a gay old time”. And that meant to us that we were likely to have a “merry” time watching the show. That was because the word “gay” had not yet reached us with its transformed meaning of “homosexual”, even though it had been used as such for a while before the 60s. This synonym for “carefree” or “colourful” underwent a cataclysmic transformation via Flower Power and the hippies in California certainly by 1967 to emerge with its main meaning changed to denote sexual orientation and alternative lifestyle. Suddenly, having a “gay old time” took on a dark side and we walked one more step away from innocence.

So when Mary and I, along with Dutch neighbours Marianne & Theo and their daughter Marike, went to Sitges Sunday past for the annual Gay Pride parade, we knew exactly what we would be seeing. To be fair, the whole thing was definitely “merry”, the atmosphere was totally “carefree” and the floats and participants were wonderfully “colourful”, but there was no doubting that we were enjoying a “gay” afternoon. And it was fantastic!

Pink is this year's black

                     Pink is this year’s black

As we watched hundreds and hundreds of gays parading up and down the seafront at Sitges, their spiritual centre some say, we were struck by the complete joy on their faces, the kind of joy that can only come from being somewhere that you are comfortable to be and with people you are comfortable to be with. There was no repression here I assure you! This was loud and proud, the gay community from all over Europe strutting their stuff in front of a rapturous crowd of spectators and followers. The costumes were beyond extravagant, the make-up elaborate and the attention to detail amazing as float after float of gay revellers paraded up and down the strip.

The wardrobe must be huge1

      The wardrobe must be huge!

Some were organized according to different nightclub venues while others had come together under a particular banner. It was noteworthy that the word “Orlando” figured frequently on banners, reminding people that this community refused to give in to the wanton violence their likes had suffered just a week before. If the gunman’s target was to drive gay people into hiding, then this was a stark reply of defiance. It was very hard not to see their point.

Best in Show!

                  Best in Show!

There was also a maximum of humour present in the proceedings and how could there not be? Some of the costumes were frankly way over the top and verging on insane but it was clear that the wearers were all dressed up to have a good time and welcomed us “straight” guests in a totally friendly and unthreatening manner. They were the ones with the slightly patronizing looks as we thronged to get our photos taken with them, they were the ones “at home” in Sitges and to all intents and purposes they were in the majority. Sitges is the only place on the planet where Lady Burton and I have felt ourselves to be in the minority or felt like a guest in someone else’s patch. Even when seemingly the only British people in deepest Italy over the winter of 2012-13, we felt part of where we were, capable of blending in and becoming one of them. But not here! No, the feeling was absolutely that this place is a gay community and that we are invited to observe.

Hey you, up there!

                           Hey you, up there!

That’s not quite true actually. A couple or three years ago Joe and I did an audition for a short-lived BBC game show based on the Sudoku puzzles and we made it to the televised part down in Wood Lane studios. Mary was allowed to come with us so she and I travelled down to the capital on the train then took the Tube to our hotel. Unfortunately our stop was shut for repairs so we had to go past to the next stop which was Shepherd’s Bush. It was Sunday night about nine when we got there.

 

We crossed to a bus stop, asked which bus would take us back to our hotel area and waited. It took us no time at all to realize that we were the only white people in the immediate area. While that in itself was no cause for concern really, our unfounded surprise and slight anxiety was heightened by the type of person zooming by in cars or looking “shady” on street corners. We felt REALLY in the minority there and, while no-one said “Boo!” to us, being the only non-coloured couple in that area at night with one big suitcase at our feet left us agitated and not a little fearful. The taxi we eventually got to take us to our hotel when we gave up waiting for the bus only actually stopped because I threw Mary in front of it in desperation!

He was gorgeous1

                 He was gorgeous!

Back in Sitges, I puzzled over several of the lovely ladies passing by. Were they? Ladies I mean. Mary was much better than me at pointing out why the person was obviously a transvestite male but I in my innocence found it really quite hard to tell. Two of the ones I got a hug from were real stunners and I found myself hoping that they really were females, so comfortable did my arm feel around their waists. Or maybe I was just feeling a wee bit gay myself!

I quipped to Mary as the parade went by that the men all looked particularly cool and contented together, a sharp contrast to the stressed faces we often see on heterosexual couples with kids on the campsite. Is it the kids or is it the couple? Hard to tell, but the Sitges crowd had none of it and I’ve rarely seen such overt joy being expressed on the streets. Of course a lot of it is because the parade is Showtime and the participants go to extremes to show themselves off and it was interesting that the 3 guys from Wales we engaged in conversion were keen to point out that, while all 3 were gay, they didn’t normally wear the pink dresses they had on!

They'll keep a welcome in the valleys....

            They’ll keep a welcome in the valleys….

So much for Sitges Gay Pride 2016. We’ll be back next year.

After the parade, we all walked up the hill past the church then down the other side in search of a restaurant Marianne and Theo had already been to. When we saw that a menu plus drinks, water and bread was only 14 Euros a head we took the decision to have dinner to celebrate our Dutch companions’ 30th wedding anniversary that very day. Congratulations guys! We had a lovely dinner together then strolled back through the town as the sun was going down, giving us the opportunity to see the gay community enjoying their evening in the bars and restaurants. If you haven’t experienced any of this lifestyle, we recommend you come and see it for yourselves as it’s quite an education and goes a long way to emphasize the latent prejudices/discomfort you may have lurking inside you.

5 Crayola crayons + fans

                     5 Crayola crayons + fans

One other thing you will observe is how confidently such outdoor events can usually be arranged here in Spain. The weather for the parade was absolutely perfect and there was no need for anxious looks to the sky to check for approaching rain or clouds. How unlucky we are to live in such a beautiful country as Scotland yet so seldom have the opportunity to see its magnificence under a clear blue sky and in warm temperatures. Pound for pound I’m certain Scotland is a much bonnier country than Spain but when it comes to the weather there is no competition and that’s why so many ex-pats are out here.

That may well change of course, maybe even in the near future, if the vote to leave the EU wins the day later this week. I hope we Remain for many reasons but mostly I fear the motivations of those who wish to quit. Their emphasis on uncontrolled immigration smacks of rampant xenophobia in my book and it’s not as if the Remain voters don’t know there is a problem with this. Of course there is, but to blame all our recent ills on the immigrants is just not reasonable. Yes, a solution to mass immigration needs to be found and not everyone should be allowed in, but how can we send women and children back to countries ravaged by war? Do you really think they take their lives in their hands crossing the Med to seek out a cushy life with us?

Their other motivation is of course financial and the Leave supporters seem to want to blame membership of the EU for all the forced austerity of recent years. It’s astonishingly convenient that they seem to have forgotten that it was the greed of the banks that led us into that mess, a mess cleaned up with your and my money, a system bailed out by the taxpayers. How many of us remember their humility and profuse apologies for screwing up the whole country (and the world!)? No, I didn’t think so. Will you be getting a 7-figure bonus at the end of the year? Guess who will still be getting one? Big business wants out so they can escape the systems put in place by Brussels to protect workers’ rights, allowing them then to exploit workers even further and line their pockets even more.

And if they want their country back, what will that be like? Personally I don’t remember life being all that marvellous when I was a kid and I even wrote about it. My parents worked very hard, earned very little, had no luxuries and holidayed in Arbroath or Broughty Ferry. Mum was never, ever abroad in her brief 66 years of life, my parents never had a car and they were at best stoically happy, contented with their lot no matter how poor that happened to be. As long as they kept their heads down and caused no trouble, paid their taxes and got up for work, they felt they were doing their bit. Interest rates on savings were a whopping 15%, but that’s no use if you ran out of money the day before payday every week like we did.

OK that’s the rant over. Hope you liked the photos from Sitges!

Mary & Marianne. No, they're not!

Mary & Marianne. No, they’re not!

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