Monday, October 27, 2014

Scottish Country Houses, and Books

Scottish Country Houses, and Books
Just around the corner from my hotel in London, sort of catty-cornered from one of my favourite places to eat breakfast and people-watch in the early morning hours, sits a special little shoe shop.  Emma Hope always has drool-worthy samples of their expensive wares arranged enticingly in their crystal clear windows and occasionally I stop to have a look.  Kitten-heeled day shoes.  Riding boots the colour of warm caramel.  Bejeweled evening shoes just begging to be worn to a breakfast at Tiffany’s.  I sometimes sit at my breakfast table across the street and watch women pass by these windows.   Their pace will slow a bit as their eyes catch the colorful array.  Then they stop.  They stare.  You can almost hear the voices inside their heads vehemently arguing back and forth about the necessity of another pair of shoes.  The price!  But the beauty!  The need versus the want.  It’s fun to see which side wins.

Despite my card-carrying femininity, I am not often tempted by shoes.  Don’t get me wrong; I love a good pair of riding boots and have had my head turned more that once by a jaunty pair of spectators.  But, as the little voices inside my own head can attest, I am most often lured into extravagance by old country house hotels, and books.  This most recent trip to Scotland was no exception.  We stayed in some utterly marvelous places.  And yes, despite my pleading with The Songwriter to keep me out of bookshops, I did manage to bring home a few fabulous books on this latest journey.  

I thought you all might enjoy a pairing of these two for my latest post.  So I’m sharing some of the places we stayed on this last holiday, along with some of the intriguing new titles just released for the autumn season.  
I hope you enjoy a peek of both.
  And as always, do share what you plan to read this fall.
Photo above:  Detail of Prestonfield House, Edinburgh Scotland

The Manor House
An overnight flight to Heathrow, then a smaller plane to Edinburgh where we picked up a car and drove to Glencoe, my favourite place on Earth.   A hike into the wilds of Glencoe to a place called The Study; a vantage point from which we could best observe the Three Sisters, resplendent that day in the clear, bright sunlight, a gift from Mother Nature that was as unexpected as it was most gratefully received.  A drive through the idyllic scenery of Ballachulish as the sun began to drift downwards towards the horizon led us to The Manor House in Oban.  

Sitting atop a hill overlooking the harbor, the Manor House looks just like its name.  One can easily imagine it as the comfortable home for the Duke of Argyll, which, in fact, it was.  Built in 1780, it retains all of its stately Georgian charm.  Tired and hungry when we arrived, we opened the door of the Manor House and were met with mouth-watering aromas coming from the restaurant kitchen. We were then led upstairs to our corner room where tartan blankets were tucked into our downy bed and windows offered unfettered views to the seaport below.

We sat out in the garden to watch the sun set below the mountains until the Scottish wind reminded us that summer was a thing of the past and we fled to the warmth  inside where a scrumptious dinner awaited us.  There are plenty of fireside rooms in which to read at The Manor House.  And any of these new books would fit the bill nicely.
Just click on the pictures to find out more.

The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
by Hilary Mantel

Behind the Mask
The Life of Vita Sackville-West
by Matthew Dennison


Glengorm Castle
Isle of Mull
If you are hardy enough to brave the chilled winds that whip round the top deck of the ferry to Mull, you will be rewarded with the site of an ancient castle.  Like a page torn from a fairy tale, Duart Castle presides over the coastline of Mull with a serene solemnity befitting its setting as well as its history.  Soon the ferry will dock, bumping softly into place, and its time to drive off and head north.  

You follow the coastline for about an hour, head wheeling from side to side in attempts to fully appreciate the amazing coastal views, until you come to the tiny roundabout at Tobermory.  Heading off to the left, you notice the landscape becoming wilder.  The road narrows to one track.  Like a green-uniformed army, ancient fir trees stand shoulder to shoulder, staring silently into your car windows as you pass.  The road becomes rougher as you navigate the switchbacks and ruts.  Highland Cows occasionally block your path, facing down your car in a friendly dare.  Then, at a high bend in the road, you suddenly brake.  There off in the distance, on a hillside above a wild sea, you see it.  

Impossibly grand, Glengorm Castle is the castle you dreamed of when you read Sleeping Beauty.  All turrets and spires and achingly breathtaking views.  But never fear its grandness, for Glengorm is run like a family home.  In fact, the owners live there with their two small children and two adorable dogs.  ( We met the dogs, not the kids.)  The rooms are atmospheric and cozy.  The cliffside hikes are dreams.  I managed to carve out a few minutes here to read and to knit, but not nearly enough for either.  This place is heaven.
Here are some new books perfect for curling up at Glengorm Castle.

by Marilynne Robinson

While Wandering
A Walking Companion
Edited by Duncan Minshull

History of the Rain
by Niall Williams


Prestonfield House
I had come to Edinburgh alone, enroute to meet my friend in Aberdeen for our trip to Shetland.  Having said goodbye to The Songwriter at London’s Paddington Station in a scene straight out of WWII,  I took the train northbound on a very early, very foggy, morning.  Now, sitting in the back of a taxi, I listened as the driver explained his position on the Scottish vote for independence all the while peering out the window as we passed through a neighborhood of neat little houses lined up in a row.  This can’t be right, I thought to myself.  There can’t be a hotel here.  But suddenly the cab turned in between two lichen-covered stone posts and the real world popped like a bubble into nonexistence.

As we drove slowly up the tree-lined drive, I saw several peacocks wandering round;   their turquoise feathers shining in the early morning sunlight.  And there, at the far end of the drive in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, sat Prestonfield House, waiting for me in all its Jacobite glory.  My cab door was thrown open by a handsome young Scot who offered his arm and led me in through the tall wooden doors whilst my bags were whisked away to my room.  Then, perhaps noticing my gaping jaw, the gregarious chap offered to give me a tour of the hotel, an offer I enthusiastically excepted.

I can only say that very single teeny tiny square inch of Prestonfield House is perfection.  From the welting on the double-lined curtains that dress the gleaming windows, to the paintings that line the walls.  I had dinner that night in my room, (Wilmont is sitting on my bed in the photo below) at a lovely table ( complete with complimentary champagne and roses)  by an open window that looked out over the autumnal colours of the garden, feeling for all the world like a Scottish queen of yore.  Paradise.  Seriously.
After a brisk walk round the gardens next morning, spoiled for choice, I finally settled myself into the upstairs sitting room for an hour of reading.  Believe me, I have rarely been so cosseted.  Prestonfield is a splendiferous treat for the senses.  
I’d love to curl up there with any of these new books.

Virginia Woolf
Art, Life and Vision
by Frances Spalding
(I was fortunate to catch the recent Woolf exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery.  
It was magnificent, and this book was the companion piece to the show.

Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers
Portraits of 50 Famous Folks and All Their Weird Stuff
by James Gulliver Hancock

Yves Saint Laurent
A Moroccan Passion
by  Pierre Berge'

To find out more about these Wonderful Scottish Inns....

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Indispensable Day in October

One Indispensable Day in October

  Although I prattle on about each season as though it’s my favourite, it’s no secret that autumn holds my heart tight within its bright orange glow.  When that first chill pierces the morning air and the light becomes clearer than an artist’s eye, I feel a unique joy.  So as I sat trying to think of all the delicious puzzle parts that make up the autumnal season I found it impossible to jettison even one.  Fall without scarves or shawls, turtlenecks or Dubarry boots?  Unthinkable.  To take away firesides or flannel shirts, tartan blankets or Halloween?  Never.  Losing pumpkins or cinnamon, scarlet leaves or apple pies?  Oh my goodness, no.  I doubt I could even loosen my grasp on Mario Badescu’s Bee Pollen Cream, my secret weapon for the pinkly chapped cheeks that come after brisk walks with Edward.  But the truth is, the part of autumn I would find utterly indispensable is none of these things, delightful as they are.  You see, I couldn’t imagine autumn without one special day in October.  It is a day celebrated in my family as faithfully as Christmas, and with as much gladness.

The Songwriter and I were best friends all through my teenage years.  We were the type of friends who would call each other after our dates with other people to commiserate with one another about how dreadful they’d been.  We went practically everywhere together, laughing all the way.  Then one afternoon in October, we drove up into the mountains for a picnic by a lake.  We came home engaged to be married and have never looked back.  So, every October, when that particular date rolls around, we go back to the same secluded lake in the woods - to remember, to celebrate, in gratitude and love.

We’ve never missed a year.  We’ve returned on sunny days and stormy ones.  On days when the leaves wore colours more brilliant than butterflies and on days when the heat of summer lingered and kept them clad in green.  We have come during years of bounty and during years of loss.  We have come when we didn’t really have time to do so.   Edward and Apple go with us now, eager to follow the well-worn path that winds through the thicket surrounding the lake.  A family holiday just for us.

Last Saturday afternoon, I visited an elderly friend who’d been feeling poorly.  She happily told me all about her grand-daughter’s new marriage and, as she related their plans for the upcoming holiday season she said, “It makes me so happy to see that this new couple understands the importance of traditions.”.  My mind went immediately to our day in October and I had to agree with my friend.  Traditions are touchstones, occasions set aside to mark the passing of time even as we revel in all the present joys.  Our lives spin so fast; it is vital to keep our eyes on the still places so we don’t lose our balance, lose our way.  Traditions are the still places.  Our day in October is a tradition.   

Oh yes, I know it sounds sappy.  Who celebrates the day they became engaged, for goodness sakes?  Isn’t the wedding anniversary enough?    But I couldn’t imagine autumn without this most personal, most celebratory, day.   After all these years, The Songwriter is still my favourite person; we still laugh every day.  I am grateful. So yes, this is the one part of autumn I could never relinquish.

Once again, I'm tickled to take part in Splenderosa's monthly topic.
Always such fun to see what everyone writes.
See more HERE.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wilmont and My Passport

Wilmont and my Passport

He had shown me parts of Shetland I would never have seen otherwise:  hidden coves where corpulent harbor seals lounged on grey rocks, blinking their black round eyes at me as I sat watching them with my chin resting on my knees…. secret seasides where the tide came in white with hundreds of swans… a strip of wide sandy beach where waves crashed on either side as I walked its length with the sound of a wild wind in my ears.  Now as he pointed towards the horizon he looked grave as he said, “Weather’s changing.  It’s gonna get bad.”.  

Tom was our tour guide, a life long Shetlander, wealthy in his knowledge of the islands, but as I squinted in the bright sunlight to follow his gaze all I saw were a few thin clouds, misty and grey, gathered together far out in the sea. They certainly seemed innocuous enough. “But… “, I said, noticing he had already left to head back down the hill.  I followed behind him at a clip.

I had not originally planned to come to the Shetland Islands.  But when a friend and fellow knitter wrote to tell me she’d booked a trip to Shetland Wool Week I found it impossible to resist.  After all, I was already in Scotland.  So The Songwriter flew home to Edward and Apple on the date we had planned, and I made my way up to Aberdeen to meet my friend.  We boarded the fourteen hour (Fourteen!) ferry to Shetland, landing early on a rainy Saturday morning, picking up a car and heading north where we took another ferry to the island of Whalsay. There we spent seven hours under the delightful tutelage of two Shetland ladies, learning the intricate techniques of fair isle knitting.  

We took a wonderful tour of the island on the day before we left, returning back to our inn with Tom’s dire weather prediction bouncing round our heads.  Sure enough, we received an email that evening from the ferry company informing us that the ship was sailing two hours early in an attempt to avoid what was coming.  “Really?”, I said, as I stuck my head out our picture window, breathing in the air of a clear, starlit night.  

The next morning dawned drizzly and cold.  We visited a couple of museums and wool shops and whenever shopkeepers heard we were leaving that afternoon, expressions fell and darkened.  “Oh, you’re in for a rough one.”, they said with concern. “Take your seasickness medicine every hour on the hour and don’t even try to sit up.” 

The feeling of foreboding was heavy in the little ferry terminal as we left.  The few passengers there were shuffled down the walkway as a stiff wind blew the rain sideways into the foggy windows.  I swallowed hard.  Once in our cabin, I stretched out on my bed, clutching Wilmont, our stuffed monkey who accompanies us on every long journey, grateful I’d decided to keep him with me instead of sending him home with The Songwriter, and I waited.  

The moment the huge ship released its grip on the dock, it started.  Violently swaying and tipping, we made our way out into the wilds of the North Sea, feeling farther than ever from home.  Two hours later I was holding onto the sides of my bed as it pitched backwards and forwards and side to side when I heard… “Due to the expected adverse weather conditions, the restaurant will close in one hour.  Passengers are requested to stay inside their cabins.  Thank you.”   
OH Lord, I thought.  It’s going to get worse.

And dear reader, worse it did get.  Items sailed off tables, doors flew open.  Occasionally there would be a sound so deafening and a jolt so violent it seemed we’d obviously run headlong into something of monstrous proportions.  The cabin would then creak and moan as though threatening to break apart completely.  Without great effort, I could see myself quite clearly, alone as I bobbed up and down in the dark North Sea, clutching the two items I felt I would need most:  Wilmont and my passport.  

Either I passed out or fell into a frightful sleep, for I woke up at four in the morning and everything was still.  Wondering for a second or two if I was indeed, dead, I peered out the window, saw a tall building and, as it possessed nothing of a heavenly quality, decided I must still reside in the land of the living.  Slowly I stood up, opened our cabin door and ventured out into the eerily silent ship.  Padding upstairs, I found the crew sitting in the bar, sipping coffee and watching the weather on their computers.  “Excuse me, “ I said in a weak voice that sounded nothing like my own.  “Where exactly are we?”

“We’re in Aberdeen”, came the proud reply.  “Made it here two hours early like we hoped.  Beat the worst of it.”

With great diplomacy, I chose not to comment on this last statement, but just said, “Thank God.  I don’t ever want to be on the sea again.”

The room filled with laughter and one man said…”Ay, what you mean, lass?  People'd pay good money at a fun fair for a ride like that ‘un.”

I left as soon as the doors were opened, 
Wilmont in one hand, my passport in the other.

Wilmont, at Holyrood Castle, Edinburgh Scotland
October 2014