NOVEMBER - "Never give up on something that you can't go a day without thinking about" Winston Churchill

The Road Home

It's early morning and an icy gale is whipping the walls of home with attempts to get inside by every which way it can. When we moved here, from Wick, in the magic of the summer, we knew that, until repairs were done and replacements made, the winter months would be a challenge.  We hadn't anticipated the difficulty of getting people to come out here and do these jobs. Even in Caithness terms, we're fairly isolated!

The good news, however, is that we now have two very kind and efficient guys we can rely on - Calum the Joiner and Alistair the Roofer. 

Things are moving in a positive direction.

We need optimism right now. World news is fairly grim. And, frankly, I've given up on Westminster cowboys! "Cowboys, Ted!"  "They're a bunch of cowboys!" (from "Father Ted" - up there with the best comedy series ever aired!)

Whenever I write my blog I think back to my childhood and I make comparisons - not in a harsh unhelpful way but in an evolutionary way. I think about how the life I led then, and the people I knew, have shaped the person I am - my values, beliefs and my interests too.

It was a quiet life for this Child of the Isle, with simple pleasures and  fundamentally decent, good folk around me. The rich soil of the Isle of Axholme meant that many were involved in arable farming - growing, harvesting and processing the food for a grateful post-war nation. Men and women worked the land and thereby put bread on the table. Ever so slowly things changed. The little island between the rivers became more accessible for town and city workers. People moved in, slept there, went to work outside the Isle and spent their weekends enjoying the pleasures of country living. Due to more and more sophisticated machinery, fewer workers were needed to keep the farms running. The dynamic had altered.

There were many positives. Here, in Caithness, there is a similar changed dynamic, but I'm the incomer here.  As a family we have brought our own traditions with us and they are woven into our hopes and ambitions. Our Christmas celebrations, for example, are developed from Keith's childhood Christmas and from my own. It should be noted, however, that we have picked up other things as we have moved from place to place and as the influence of friends has impacted on our family.  Our Franconian friends, for example, have brought much to the Crow Christmas. Our late Polish friend gave us the recipe for her special salad and now that appears on the Christmas table each year. Christmas Decorating Day has now become an excuse for a Chinese meal - catered!  We are happy to call ourselves Christian Internationalists!  

Rose hips

Christmas didn't get a mention until December when I was growing up - although puddings, cakes and Lincolnshire plum bread were made a little earlier and secreted away for fear of over exciting the children. At school, the internal post box was taken out of storage and given a fresh lick of paint and gummed paper arrived for the manufacture of trimmings. Lights were switched on earlier in homes as the days became darker and shorter - yes, we had electricity!!

Axholme autumns had an almost eerie aura. The change from summer to winter culminated in a misty, muddy December - but there was a charm in it. The haze of years seemed to escape from the damp good earth as it had when Vermuyden, unwelcomed by Isle folk, drained the land in the seventeenth century. I see, in my kaleidoscope of memory, men trudging home after work, wrapped well against the clinging chill - some with woven sacks around their shoulders. Trees dripped rain into collars and the remaining fallen leaves became a hazard.  But at the end of it was home. And the home fires were still burning.

Sixty years and about five hundred miles on from that, I'm back in the country. No one trudges home from work. The neighbouring farming family travel everywhere in their cars. No sign of sack shawls!

While this progress is possible in 2021, it's still necessary, as the year grows faint, to feed the sheep in the fields, to tend the cattle in the byre; to mend fences, to realign boundary walls and to dig out vehicles stuck in the mud!  And the dogs need exercise too!

I enjoy walking Orlando the Sprocker with my daughters. The daughters are in charge and take it in turns to walk him. I tag along. Actually, Orlando is in charge and the daughters and I tag along!

Currently, my favourite walk is down the hill to the river and back. The "back" bit is a challenge but one day this week I did it without stopping to admire the view (code for having a rest). 

River Forss on its way from Loch Shurrery to the Atlantic via Stempster Bridge

I love the river - the noise of it, the pace of it, the pattern of it and the potential it has to turn up exciting spottings - like the heron on the old bridge support and the otter doing its "blink and you'll miss me" thing!  I haven't seen the otter yet but other family members have. The funny thing is that I regularly saw the otters on Wick River when we lived in town. I'm looking forward to meeting their country cousins.

The Wick house is just about empty now and the completion date for the sale should be on Tuesday. On our regular visits to empty it, I have been able to indulge myself in appreciation of the square and the autumnal turning of the trees. The children play amongst the leaves and a very small one takes a large colourful leaf, turns it over, studies it with learning eyes - and there begins his own appreciation of the natural world - he's become a naturalist!

Dying leaves with developing buds on the willow

The travelling, backwards and forwards, has been (mostly) a delight. The hedgerows are stunning at this time of the year. We have a lot of beech hedging in Caithness. Imagine the bright orange of that next to yellow leaves, red berries and, behind them, a steel blue sky. A small flock of lapwings shows up brilliantly overhead.  Above them, and a little further into the distance, skeins of geese move from one feeding ground to the next.

The watercourses are often full in November - the burns and rivers are busy rushing to join up with something bigger and more powerful. Our River Forss was well over its banks this month, leaving rushes stranded in a lake. It came up close to the bridge and I was more careful in the crossing of it -

"The current heaved and pushed and the middle of the river seemed higher than the sides, as if it had been squashed up." (from The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston)

A few days later, the river started to go down and my confidence was restored - I stood for a while observing the movement of it - such a spirited occupant of our valley - and, up from the north side of the bridge, a very big fish high-jumped and, very speedily, dropped down again. That was a good day for taking pictures - and I took some respectable ones - but I could never have caught this on camera!

Before the icy weather, we continued to have colour around us - pink roses flowering in the yard, rich green mosses and lichens on the stone walls, the tenacious yellow leaves of the flowering-currant hedge along the lane and the rose-hips across from the drive - the warmest of orange/reds.

A cloak of green on the dry stone wall

The roe deer remain our most frequent visitors. Sometimes we watch them on the trail camera but, equally often, we spot them in the lane, running past the broch or up towards the wind farm. One walk inspired a recital. Walking amongst the windmills, the sun was rising and the deer were running. No prizes for guessing which carol was on the tips of tongues that morning!

Last Monday was a filthy day!  That was the name we Islonians used to give to a dull back-end day when the rain makes mist in the distance - until gusts of wind break it up before dropping down again, allowing the greyness back in. The sheep didn't seem to notice. The fields are emptied of cattle now. The cows are safely in the byres. No such comfort for the sheep - until lambing time - and that's not so far away! 

We have our first snow at Stempster. The deer are coming closer to the house and the birds are struggling - particularly the tiny wren. Not so the mouse who broke into a large bag of granulated sugar, ate a number of cheesy oatcakes and attacked a packet of cotton wool like there was no tomorrow. Said mouse was removed by way of a humane trap, then rehoused in a field by the river.  Perhaps it wasn't taken far enough away? Watch this space!

Last Wednesday, 24th November, we were having our lunch at the kitchen table and I was looking out for our regular feathered visitors to the back garden. I became aware of a change in the light. There was a luminescence - not a shaft or beam of light but an overall glow. I studied it carefully and realised we were inside a rainbow. The "Richard of York gained battles in vain" colours were all there - around us - faint but not far. Now, I'm sure scientists will argue with this - but, truly, that is what I saw. It makes you think. Here we are, on a planet in pain, wrapped around by beauty. So much to be thankful for, so much hope for the future. 

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."  (attributed to Edmund Burke)

I reckon that, if I persevere with my recycling, cutting back on car journeys, shopping carefully and locally whenever I can, using eco-friendly chemicals and LED bulbs where possible, making our own compost, encouraging and supporting wildlife, showering instead of bathing . . . . and watching my daughters dig for victory!!! . . . .  then I'm helping this wonderful world. 

November's Rose

Anger and antagonism have no part in my life but roe deer and rainbows, rivers and wrens, lapwings and lichens all light up the November of this amazing year. As we move into December, I know that I will spend precious moments remembering years past and believing in a bright future.


  1. Loved this month's blog; the photos captured your words perfectly. Compliments galore to all concerned.


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