Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
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- Recent Entries:
- Haircut and Tokyo Diner
Back Across the Irish Sea
Across the Irish Sea
A Day in North Wales
Wales and Whisky
Back at Work and Out for Beer
End of the Holiday
Islay's Northern Distilleries, and Back to the Mainland
Having a Generally Great Time On Islay
Islay's Southern Distilleries
Edinburgh to Islay
Overground, Underground and The Fry-Up
North Berwick, Glenkinchie and Fireworks
London to Edinburgh
- Haircut and Tokyo Diner
- [Saturday 29th September]
Spent the daytime lazing around at home, we had vaguely planned to go to Borough Market to buy apples (we're right in British apple season now folks), but we ended up not bothering. Chie had gone out the previous evening with some people from work, and so wanted to have a lie in - in fact I think she even had a little bit of a hangover - bless.
Around 6 we ventured out, as we both had a late appointment to get our hair cut at the Japanese place in Soho we've been to a few times now (although the previous time I went by myself).
Every time I go I find myself apologising for having left it so long - it always ends up around two months between visits. I can never quite work out if longer hair means more work for a hairdresser (would appreciate input on this if any hairdressers happen to be reading).
Anyway, as previously noted, I really enjoy the experience of getting my hair cut there. Today every other customer was Japanese (as are all the staff), and given that there really aren't any windows looking to the outside world, it is easy to believe I'm back in Japan. Tomoko-san did a great job of my hair again, and as always I also really enjoyed our chat. We spoke almost entirely in Japanese, although I realised there are a few important gaps in my vocabulary - I didn't know the Japanese words for "wisdom tooth", "guilt" or "blasphemy" - it is a miracle that I've been able to get this far without these linguistic cornerstones.
After we'd finished getting our hair sorted out, we decided as we were in the centre, and time was already getting on a bit, we ought to get something to eat somewhere. Having been immersed in that very Japanese environment for an hour or so meant Japanese food seemed appropriate. We initially poked our noses round the door at Kulu Kulu, but were put off by the queue and lack of Japanese customers.
So instead we headed over to Tokyo Diner, on the edge of Chinatown. The food was really good here - I particularly liked the agedashi tofu (especially as, by default, the stock was vegetarian). Although I think I probably should have ordered a couple more dishes as I was left a tad peckish at the end, and our bill was actually very modest.
The only slight downside was the other customers. One couple came in, sat down, drank some green tea (which they give you whether you ask for it or not), then tried to order some cakes. When they were told that the place doesn't really do cakes they said "oh, sorry we thought it was a cafe". They then proceeded to sit there until they'd finished drinking the free green tea, and then got up and left. What a nerve! Another couple sitting near us did something very similar, with the added annoyance that the guy walked into our table on the way in, spilling our tea everywhere and simply said "oh, I've spilt your tea". I think the phrase he was looking for there was "sorry, I'm a complete idiot". They too seemed to have a few sips of green tea and then get up and leave without paying anything. Given that the menu is clearly displayed on the outside of the restaurant, you'd really think people would have the basic intelligence to check it first. Unless this was a deliberate scam to get a free drink and a sit down for a few minutes, in which case these people are even more annoying.
Anyway, after dinner we got the bus back home - the Victoria line was closed yet again this weekend, and anyway the bus is often a bit more convenient from certain parts of the centre. I spent the rest of the evening watching recorded TV shows, including an episode of IT Crowd, which I have to admit to being rather fond of.
- A Rest
- [Friday 28th September]
One of our visitors from the US office left London today, and the other already had plans, so tonight I was relieved of any entertaining obligations, and decided to just go home and have a complete rest. I basically slobbed out on the sofa, and watched a few TV shows I had recorded recently.
Included in the lineup where a couple of epsidoes of Heroes - which, despite my usual aversion to any kind of hyped TV program - I actually quite like. Especially as my EyeTV means I don't have to remember when it is on or anything.
I also watched an episode of Ripping Yarns - a somewhat obscure show put together by Michael Palin and Terry Jones after they finished that final TV series of Python. The particular episode I watched was "Across the Andes by Frog". It was a bit like a Python sketch expanded out to a full half hour show, whilst it probably doesn't have much to recommend itself as a standalone show, die hard Python nerds like me will probably find it enjoyable, if only out of sheer bloody mindedness.
- Drummond Street
- [Thursday 27th September]
We had vaguely planned to have a sort of team dinner tonight, but it actually ended up being just the same people who were there last night - the two guys over from the US office, plus me and one other guy from the London team. Somebody had made the usual comment made whenever people come to the UK "Well while you're here you ought to have some traditional British food - curry". I'm not sure I've ever really found particularly good Indian food in London before, and never really know where to head for. Fortunately though it seems the other guy from London new an area which somehow I had never heard of before - Drummond Street, near Euston.
There were quite a lot of Indian places on this otherwise unassuming road, and many of them seemed to be completely vegetarian. We opted for a place called Chutney's - partly because some of the other places were a bit full. I'm not sure I was totally bowled over by the food - a lot of the dishes seemed to fall into the same generic curry bucket - ironically I often find Indian food to be quite bland actually. Still, it was nice to have a totally vegetarian menu, and I think I probably would come back to this street another time.
After dinner we headed over towards Euston to find a pub. For the first time in London since the licensing laws supposedly changed I actually went to a pub that didn't close at 11. It was still a school night however, so we didn't stay particularly long after that.
- Entertaining Again
- [Wednesday 26th September]
Again I took our visitor(s) out this evening, albeit for a shorter time, and tonight I was also joined by one of my fellow team members from London. Work nights out with this job have seemed to be pretty few and far between so far - in fact it pretty much only happens when we have visitors in town.
Nothing very ambitious today - we just went to two pubs near the office - the Plumber's Arms and the Stage Door, and then after that we went our separate ways for dinner.
I popped into our local Sainsbury's on the way back home, and bought a Pizza Express pizza for dinner. Predictably it wasn't anything like the ones in the actual restaurants - I guess this is a combination of it not being prepared freshly, and the fact that domestic ovens just can't cook pizzas the way proper pizza ovens do.
- [Tuesday 25th September]
This week we had two visitors over from our team in the US. One already had plans for tonight, however the other was at a loose end. So I took it upon myself to take him out this evening - I think this was his first foreign business trip, and I well understood the potential for misery when spending time alone in this situation.
I took him to visit a few pubs, with a bit of a walking tour of London in between - we started out at the Fox and Hounds, then from there walked past Westminister Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street, onto the next pub - the Ship and Shovel. From there we then ventured on a little further to the Lamb and Flag. Given that we started late, and had a fair bit of walking between pubs, after a pint in here it was closing time and so we headed back.
We talked about several things during the course of the evening, however the one dominant conversation was about age. This guy himself is in fact an intern, and a mere 20 years old, and yet is already doing really great things at the company, that have received recognition right the way up to the CEO. Similarly, there's a guy on our team in the US who is generally regarded as the most significant of our engineers - he has a finger in every pie, and the only person who really understands how all the parts of our system come together. I'd assumed he was my age or a bit older, but it turns out from tonight's conversation he's only 24. Even one guy on the team here in London, who I'd assumed to be older than me (based on his previous experience etc) is apparently only 26.
When you see people who are older than you and better at doing their job than you are, it can actually be a positive thing - it gives you something to strive towards. You think to yourself that with x years extra experience you could be like that too. On the flip side of that, when you find people who are significantly younger than you, and doing better at their job, it can actually be a bit demoralising! We often have an image of software engineering as a young man's industry, but I never though I would start to feel past it already at 30.
Perhaps I'm just a late bloomer though. When I think back to the sort of quality of work I was doing in my early twenties, it never would have met the bar at the place I work at now, and yet there are people who do join my company fresh out of college, and are somehow able to out-perform the relative "veterans" like me.
So is it the case that I just needed a lot more experience before I could be on a vaguely level playing field with all these child prodigies? Or is it just a problem of attitude? Was I just wasting my time in my twenties? I spent the largest chunk of that decade tootling along with pretty much no real ambition, doing a job which was interesting but not exactly well paid and with no real long term career prospects - whilst at the same time trying to avoid having to do my PhD. Although in the long run the PhD probably did come in handy (the place where I work now is big on that sort of thing, and it probably really helped my chances of getting the job here), I think it shared some of the blame for me not really getting anywhere back then. I just assumed another company wouldn't be interested in taking me on until I had got that out of the way. So in all that time I never even tried to apply for another job.
I suppose if I hadn't decided to move to Japan then I might very well have still been in that same situation now - it forced me to finally get the PhD finished, and then I actually felt I could consider applying for a job at a company with a bit of a higher profile. I just wish I could have pulled my finger out a bit, and done that a year or two earlier.
Still, I'm here now I suppose - I took my time over it, but I got a proper job in the end!
- Imperial China
- [Monday 24th September]
A while ago I'd bought a tin (yes, a tin) of mock duck - a vegetarian version of the stuff you get in crispy duck pancakes. Whilst I'd managed to find this in a health food shop near where I live, what I hadn't been able to find in any nearby shops or supermarkets is the actual pancakes to put it in. So tonight we ventured to Chinatown, and even there had a bit of a hard time finding these - although finally managed on the third shop we went to.
As we were feeling a bit too lazy to go back home and cook, we decided to get some dinner in Chinatown. The last few times I've eaten in Chinatown I've been pretty disappointed, and in fact the only Chinese place we know in London that is consistently good is not in Chinatown at all (Royal China, on Baker Street). Chie had asked around at work today, and had got a vague recommendation for a place called Imperial China on Lisle Street, so we thought we'd give it a go.
It was, as I should have predicted, a bit of a disappointment - the decor was quite nice I suppose, but the food wasn't really any better than anywhere else in Chinatown. I am somewhat baffled at why Chinatown can foster so many at-best-mediocre Chinese restaurants. We went for the vegetarian set menu. It started out quite well - the soup was OK, and the mixed appetisers were not bad as well... but the main course was a selection of five dishes which were, with one exception, bland and unimaginative. I always despair when I see boring ordinary white mushrooms used in Chinese food. One of the other dishes looked like a collection of leftovers of odds and ends of uninteresting vegetables, and almost all of the dishes used the same rather bland sauce. The one exception was the dish made with yuba (the skin from tofu) which was used to wrap some vegetables - spring roll style, That was fairly tasty and interesting, the other four just a waste of time really. We couldn't finish all the food (partly because it didn't exactly get my appetite very excited), and I couldn't help but think it would have been so much better if rather than giving us five largely bland and unimaginative dishes they had just concentrated that effort on making two or three things that were really good.
- [Sunday 23rd September]
Spent the morning at my brother's house at Guildford, looking after the kids until Mum and Dad got back home. As with the previous evening, the kids were very well behaved, and seemingly quite happy to have somebody else conduct the normal morning routine of breakfast etc.
We left after lunch, and headed back to London. Didn't really do anything much for the remainder of the day evening, basically just caught up on mundane tasks like washing and tidying up the flat a bit, and wiled away the rest of the time with a combination of internet and the telly.
Chie made a Thai green (or was it yellow?) curry for dinner.
- [Saturday 22nd September]
This week was my brother and his wife's tenth wedding anniversary - so without further ado a big "Congratulations!" is very much in order. Adrian is only three years older than me, so to have been married for a decade already is a big achievement.
Adrian and Liz decided they'd like to go out and celebrate the occasion tonight, and we'd been offered the special privilege of babysitting their three adorable kids. So, in the afternoon we headed over to Guildford.
It all went very smoothly really - the kids are pretty used to us, and so there were no tantrums or anything. They were all quite exceptionally well behaved really - even the youngest of the three (Daniel), who is not even two yet, seemed quite content at having somebody else change his nappies and so on. He did look at us with an air which accused us of being somewhat amateur in this endeavour, but at the same time he was pretty tolerant.
Once we'd put the kids to bed, we watched a DVD Chie had brought with her: a film called Beijing Bicycle. It was a story about a boy from rural China who moved to Beijing, got a job as a cycle courier, and after lots of hard work earned his own bike. Then it got stolen and he spent the rest of the film trying to get it back and being beaten up a lot. In the final scene, without him ever having done anything wrong, he was attacked by a mob and the bike was smashed up in front of him. I was left feeling angry at the director for having started the film out with an endearing and upbeat tone, and then ending it in such a depressing and thoroughly wretched manner. This seems to be a common theme in East Asian cinema - and particularly Chinese films. They are absolutely dead set against having happy endings, and I can't help but wonder if this is not so much of a cultural thing, but simply the easiest way to set their creative output apart from Hollywood. Call me shallow, but I don't actually particularly enjoy a film which makes me downright miserable. I am considering forthwith a boycott on Chinese cinema, until they bloody well get their act together, and start making the kind of idyllic, rose tinted spectacle happy endings that we are used to in the West.
- Korean Food
- [Friday 21st September]
Was again feeling a bit down in the dumps when I woke up this morning, but did at least manage to make it into the office today.
After work, Chie and I had the usual "what are we going to do for dinner?" phone call, and somehow we hatched a plan to go out for some Korean food. There was a place next to Holborn station (called Asadal) which Chie had been to once before, and had rather liked, so I was keen to give it a go as well.
It was really very good indeed - and I was particularly impressed with the range of vegetarian dishes they were able to produce (my previous experiences of Korean restaurants had been less-than-favourable in this area). We started with a selection of kimchi, which was simply delicious, and then followed this with a Korean pancake (whose name escapes me), a tofu dish, and some bibimbap (a Korean rice dish). It was all really very good. The drinks were also very much to my liking - a bottle of OB (a Korean beer) followed by a bottle of Jinro.
After dinner, Chie tried to take me to a Japanese bar she'd been to the previous weekend, but it turned out to be booked for a private party. So instead we just headed back home, and spent the remainder of the evening wiling away time on the Interweb.
- [Thursday 20th September]
I decided to work from home today, a decision which was driven by feeling generally a bit down in the dumps. I'm not exactly sure what is at the root of my recent malaise, it seems to have been hanging around since I got back from Scotland, so I suppose it is partly just post-holiday blues. I think in particular having seen the way people lived on Islay - a place which to me is a kind of paradise, but is at the same time able to support real practical communities - the reality of coming back to all the hustle and bustle of London has actually been a bit of a shock.
Not, I feel it important to stress, that I particularly dislike London, or my job, but I guess it is at times like this when one is prompted to wonder what it is all about. A job in software engineering is such a virtual thing - I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels a sort of envy when I see people doing a job which is real and has a tangible result at the end of it - the sorts of things you're exposed to when you go to visit somewhere a bit more rural and in touch with nature. Of course, I'm realistic about this, I'm sure there's a certain amount of the grass being always greener - after a couple of weeks of working in any kind of manual job I'd be complaining about the pay and the hardships involved and so on... but still, I am working for what is arguably one of the best companies to be working for in my industry at the moment, and yet still somehow I am not 100% satisfied.
So anyway, today I worked at home, and made a start on a new project which is all my own idea (although thoroughly endorsed by my manager, I should add), and although quite closely related to the other work I've done so far in my current job, is taking it off at a slightly different tangent. I suppose this change of scenery, pace, and routine was probably very good for my state of mind longer term, although within today I couldn't quite seem to break out of that shroud of gloom.
In the evening I made tacos, filled with vegetarian chilli. I wiled away the evening watching TV shows I'd recorded again, and was glad of the mindless distraction from my current existential crisis.
- [Wednesday 19th September]
Was back working at our London office again today, and generally speaking it was a pretty uneventful day.
In the evening I decided I quite fancied something tapas-ish for dinner, so I popped into Sainsbury's on the way back for a few bits and pieces. I also wanted to buy a bottle of wine to go with dinner. I've become quite determined to find wines which are marked as being definitely vegetarian, and have noticed at Sainbury's that (A) only their own brand wines have any kind of labelling for this sort of thing at all and (B) they seem to have a range of cheaper wines spanning most of the major wine producing regions of the world, in addition to a more expensive range of organic wines, and it is only the latter that are ever marked as vegetarian. I somehow struggle to believe that every single one of the cheaper range of wines are non-vegetarian, and yet wine is a grey area - as they're not required to put on an ingredients list, you can't easily check for yourself. So I kind of feel as though I'm being conned into buying the more expensive ones simply by labelling. Marks and Spencers, I hasten to add, seem to be much more consistent in their labelling, and therefore much better in this respect.
Anyway, I ended up buying a bottle of Argentinian (organic) wine, which was quite passable, and for dinner we had a good mix, involving halloumi (OK not traditionally part of tapas, but Chie fancied it), a Spanish omelette, some chilli peppers in breadcrumbs, mushrooms in red wine and so on. It was all quite nice.
- Back Across the Irish Sea
- [Tuesday 18th September]
I spent this morning working from the Dublin office, met Bartek for lunch, then after that headed over to the port to catch my ferry back to the UK.
I had originally planned to walk to the ferry port, but as it started to look like I was cutting it a little bit thin I decided in the end it was better to get a taxi - especially as I remember the roads around the port didn't seem that well suited to pedestrians.
Of the several taxis I took whilst in Dublin, at least two of the drivers exhibited somewhat-less-than-PC opinions about things. I don't think this necessarily indicates that the Irish are any more prejudiced than the British, but perhaps just that they are more avid about voicing their opinions. On Sunday night one had "warned" me against going into a bar near where he'd dropped me off, as it was apparently Dublin's biggest gay bar. Today the taxi driver decided to have a go at immigration. I think I did a fairly good job at politely disagreeing with him - I mentioned that I had lived abroad, and if I had the right to do that, then why shouldn't other people? He didn't seem to have a good argument to counter that, although probably wrote me off as a lefty English ejeet, and was glad to see me getting on that boat back to the UK.
My ferry left at 2:30 in the afternoon, and unlike the trip on the way over, today the Irish Sea was much more amenable, and it was a very pleasant crossing. I decided to treat myself, and upgraded to Club Class - a mere 10 quid extra, and it came with much nicer and more spacious seats, plus some complimentary drinks and nibbles (and the chance to get away from all of the rest of the riff raff on the boat - oops, did I say that?).
The ferry arrived in Holyhead at 4:30, and I then had an hour before my train left. I decided, somewhat ill-advisedly in retrospect, to take a wander around the town centre in Holyhead, perhaps with the hope of finding something to eat on the train. It was a thoroughly demoralising experience - I don't think I'd ever really been into Holyhead properly before, and it turned out to be a really dilapidated and generally depressing place. There were two supermarkets - a smallish Co-op and a Lidl, but I couldn't bring myself to actually buy anything at either of them.
The first leg of the train journey took me from Holyhead to Crewe, taking just over two hours. I then had to change at Crewe - another depressing experience (although thankfully quite short) to get on the final leg of my journey back to London.
Although I had made something of a stand with this trip by very deliberately not flying, towards the end of the journey it did occur to me just how long a trip it is by the land and sea route. My iPod was quite helpful in alleviating the inevitable boredom, although towards the end I had watched all the TV shows I had stored on there, and resorted to listening to all my songs on shuffle, and skipping the vast majority.
I finally got home just after 10, and it was great to see Chie after a few nights away!
- In Dublin
- [Monday 17th September]
This was my third trip to Dublin (see here and here for the other two), but today was the first (and only, on this trip) day where I'd actually spent a full day there - i.e. both woke up and went to sleep in the city. Not that it really matters, I just though I would mention this rather pointless fact. It's what having a blog is all about.
So I woke up at 8, had a shower in my very fashionable and modern hotel room, and then walked to the office. It turned out to be quite a long walk - my hotel was right the other side of the city - but I managed to make it into the office for a semi-respectable 9:30.
On arrival I realise I hadn't actually arranged anywhere to sit, so I spent most of the morning "camping" (as I believe people often call it) in the cafe, which was actually rather nice - all the important facilities (coffee, croissants, and wireless networking) were on hand, and I was actually able to get a fair amount done. Towards the end of the morning I actually got a proper desk sorted out (working around lunchtime would have been difficult otherwise) and so I moved up to the 7th floor to take up my very temporary residence there.
I spent the afternoon engaged in the training course which was the main purpose of my visit, and after that returned to my temporary desk for a while, before deciding to head out for the evening. Shortly after leaving I got a call from my friend who works at the Dublin office - actually he had just arrived back from holiday, but rather kindly agreed to go out for a drink regardless.
We arranged to meet at 9 which gave me an hour or so to wile away in the city centre. I took a bit of a wander and then came across a bar called the VAT house, which I had coincidentally read about on the web before coming to Dublin, it being notable for its whisk(e)y selection. So in I went, and sat down. They had a few different bottles of Scotch behind the bar, but naturally it was overwhelming Irish Whiskey, and despite initial thoughts of cheating and having something from "safe" from Scotland, I decided to be adventurous and try something Irish. When in Rome...
The VAT house did a sampling tray, with four different Irish whiskies on it, which was a thoroughly good idea for someone like me, who, in terms of Irish whiskey, had no real idea what was what. In order, the four were Powers Gold Label, Greenore Single Grain, Redbreast 12 Year Old Pure Pot Still and Connemara Peated Single Malt. Quite predictably, I didn't really get on with the first two, the third one was sort of interesting, and the fourth was actually quite good. Still, I can't help a sort of shudder factor when drinking Irish whiskies - very similar to when drinking Bourbon - which I guess is a similar thing to what people who don't really like Scotch get (which generally causes me to look on in bemusement, as I struggle to comprehend why people do not utterly love some of my favourite single malts).
After a spell at the VAT house, I ventured out to meet my friend Bartek. As he didn't immediately have any particularly strong recommendations for a place to eat, we decided to go and have Japanese - even though I had been the previous night, I found I was still craving sushi (no, before you ask, that doesn't have to involve raw fish) and sake. So we went to the other restaurant owned by the same company as the place I'd been to the previous night - Yamamori Sushi.
After dinner Bartek suggested a Russian bar called Pravda (?) which was just round the corner, and given my general like of all things exotic and unusual I was very keen. Once we got in there it turned out to be more Polish than Russian, but this was no less fun for me - call me odd but I actually rather like being surrounded by people chattering away in a language I can't actually understand. It's better than overhearing British people having conversations about depressingly banal things like football and Big Brother.
We didn't stay out particularly late, Bartek was naturally a bit tired after his holiday, and we both had work in the morning, but it was a very pleasant evening nonetheless.
- Across the Irish Sea
- [Sunday 16th September]
Mid-afternoon today we left Dad's house, bound for Holyhead. We had been closely monitoring this site which gave detailed local weather information, particularly of relevance to shipping. There were winds bordering on gale force out in the Irish Sea today, but the indication seemed to be that they'd drop back significantly by the time I got on my ferry.
My ferry was delayed in leaving by about an hour because of the weather, and once we got out into the open sea it was really quite rough still. I started off braving the elements out on deck, but after a while the wind was just a bit too much for me so I retreated inside. The boat was swaying about a fair bit, and I have to admit to feeling like a bit of a landlubber, as it definitely made me feel a bit queasy.
Still, when I did manage to brave going outside, the views were very nice - the sun set over Ireland as we approached it, and despite the wind there was actually a fairly clear sky.
I arrived in Dublin some time around 8:30, and from the ferry port took a bus into the city centre. Realising I didn't know my way round the city centre at all, and possessing only a very rudimentary map of where my hotel is, I thought it wise to get a taxi.
After quickly checking in at my hotel, I rushed straight back out again for dinner - concious of the fact it was a Sunday night, gettting late, and presumably places wouldn't be open that much longer.
I had done a bit of research on where to eat on the web the previous day, and had settled on a place called Yamamori Noodles. I had their moyashi ramen (a vegetarian soup noodle dish) and some edamame, with a couple of bottles of kirin. It was OK I suppose - I found the soup rather disappointingly had a lot of cheap domestic ingredients in it, like boring old white mushrooms, green peppers, and the tofu was Chinese rather than Japanese. The clientele appeared to be mostly Irish, not a lot of people in there who were Japanese, as far as I could tell. Maybe Dublin just doesn't have that much of a Japanese population, compared to London. Still, I was happy enough to find a place I could drink Japanese beer and eat edamame.
I attempted to walk back to the hotel from there, but after a short distance realised I was going in completely the wrong direction, so instead took another taxi.
Going away anywhere always seems to remind me just how great taxi drivers are in London - you tell them the name of a street, or a hotel, and they just know it. Here in Dublin though I got a total of three taxis this evening, and in each and every instance they didn't really know where the place I wanted to go to was. The strategy seemed to be to just head for the general area, and then hope we spot it. Admittedly that did actually seem to work quite well on this occasion, but it did certainly highlight the difference, in terms of taxis at least, between London and the rest of the world.
- A Day in North Wales
- [Saturday 15th September]
Had a fairly quiet day relaxing at Dad's house in North Wales. Got up late, and then had a big hearty brunch around 11:30.
Just went out for a short time in the early afternoon, to take Yates for a walk along one of his favourite coastal paths. He seems to really enjoy having a roll about on the cliff top, dangerously close to the edge. It was lovely weather out - albeit somewhat blustery (which didn't bode well for my ferry crossing to Ireland tomorrow!).
On our return to the house we had tea out in the back garden, Dad made some rather good Welsh cakes to go with it.
Later on, Dad prepared the usual eclectic feast for dinner - including some excellent mushrooms soaked in red wine, and a very tasty paneer dish including tomatoes and melon (!).
In between the various bouts of eating and the walk, I spent a large part of the day on the Internet . Mostly I was looking for places to eat and drink in Dublin. It has been a while since my last business trip, and on that occasion I was lucky enough to have Chie come along with me, so didn't have to endure the ordeal of eating out alone. I'll only be in Dublin two nights - and possibly one of those nights I'll be meeting up with my friend there - so it won't be that bad I suppose. Who knows, I may even enjoy it for once.
- Wales and Whisky
- [Friday 14th September]
At the start of next week I'd be spending a couple of days in Dublin for a training course. As always I'm really against the idea of flying, especially where other perfectly practical alternative exist, so I had made up my mind to go by train and ferry instead of by plane.
From London, the easiest way to go to Dublin by land and sea is to get one of the reasonably fast trains up to Holyhead, and then hop on a ferry from there. Of course, the good thing about this is that it takes me fairly close by where my Dad lives in North Wales, and so it seemed to make sense to stop off en route and visit him for a couple of nights. Chie decided to remain in London, as obviously she'd have to be back in work on Monday, but also she had a friend coming to stay from Japan.
So tonight after leaving work I headed over to Euston, and got on a train bound for North Wales. Following my recent experience in First Class I seem to find it really difficult to adjust back to standard class - similar to my experience on the return trip from Edinburgh, it felt really quite cramped and overcrowded. Still, I had a seat booked, and my iPod (full of TV shows I'd recorded recently) to entertain me, so I suppose I mustn't grumble.
I arrived in Bangor at 9, where Dad was waiting for me, and from there we drove back to the house, whilst having a very interesting conversation about that TV program on Protestantism I had watched the other night (Dad had seen it too).
It turned out Lucy and Martin were also staying this weekend, which a nice added bonus to my impromptu visit.
The five of us spent what was left of the evening (and in fact stayed up until well after midnight) sitting around the kitchen table, with me and Dad sampling a range of whiskies, and I struggle to think of a nicer way to have spent an evening.
We started off with the new bottle of Port Ellen - a 23 year old distilled in April 1982. I had bought it in the Islay Whisky Shop (which, endearingly, is also a Spar), and had chosen it because it was in the Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask series, the same series as the famous Fortnum and Mason bottle (which, it transpired, had finally been finished off - there was only a tiny dribble left of it last time I was at my Dad's house). This new Port Ellen wasn't quite as spectacular as the Fortnum and Mason one had been, but was still rather special in its own right - a bit lighter, but still very rich, with a similar mouth feel, nicely balanced peat, and a finish which reminded me of boot polish (although the tasting notes on the bottle itself described this as leathery / tarry - close enough I suppose).
We also had a little of the Caol Ila I had bought in Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh, and then a little miniature Suntory 17 year old (Hibiki), followed by some of the rather good SWMS Laphroaig I had given Dad as a Christmas present (impressively quite a lot of this was still left!). I also had a taste of "the other Port Ellen" I had left at Dad's house before moving to Japan - a Signatory bottling that had always been a bit of a disappointment, but somehow it was nice to revisit this having actually been to this distillery now (albeit long since having stopped production).
- [Thursday 13th September]
Today was the three year anniversary of the day Chie and I got engaged (although you'll note there was actually no mention of it on the blog entry for that day - I didn't feel this was a very appropriate way to announce it at the time!).
So, call it a cliche if you will, but this evening we decided to return to the location where this historic event had taken place - Primrose Hill. We didn't stay that long, as we were both a bit hungry, but we had a quick sit down in more-or-less the same spot we'd sat in three years earlier, had a quick review of the past three years ("well, it could have been worse...") and then headed off to find some dinner.
We walked up to Belsize Park and Hampstead from there - where I used to live back in 2000/2001 - and our return to this charming (and pricey!) area of North London was predictably full of nostalgia. It occurred to me every almost every pub, restaurant (and even some of the shops and street corners) had a memory attached to it. Like the place I once spotted Bill Odie, the doctor's surgery where I took by ingrowing toenails, the North African place Ali took us to eat hideously over priced cous cous, or the recording studio I always used to boastingly point out to people (it's where George Michael records - although in hindsight I'm not sure why I was quite so proud of that!).
We had a vague plan to have dinner at a Japanese restaurant that we'd never made it to while I was living there, but on a quick perusal of the menu it didn't look particularly vegetarian friendly, so we changed our minds.
Instead we found ourselves wandering up a delightfully atmospheric little alleyway, and lo and behold at the end of it our adventurousness was rewarded with a fantastic little pub, that as far as I could recall I had never been to back when I lived in the area - The Holly Bush. It ticked all the right boxes - great location in a hidden away backstreet, nice old building, lovely interior, good atmosphere, decent beer, reasonable prices, and even the food was pretty good - I really enjoyed their vegetarian sausages (spinach and cheddar) and mash. Altogether an extremely satisfying find, which made for a very pleasant night out.
- [Wednesday 12th September]
Not much to report really. Made Japanese curry for dinner, and then spent the remainder of the evening watching things on TV, some recorded, and some live (for a change). Included in this was an episode of Heroes. This show seems to have received rather a lot of hype, which I initially found very off-putting, but I have found it to be actually quite entertaining, even though I have only seen a few episodes, probably in the wrong order, and don't really get what is going on exactly. Probably my favourite thing about it is the Japanese character (conveniently Hiro is actually quite a common name in Japan, so seemed an obvious choice).
I also watched a documentary on BBC Four about the effect of Protestantism on politics throughout history. It was interesting that the show identified many socialist political movements over the years were actually founded in Protestantism - from the initial formulation of the Labour party here in the UK, to the civil rights movement in the US - both Keir Hardie and Martin Luther King were Protestant preachers, it transpires. Not that this necessarily matters all that much, I just found it interesting.
- Yasujiro Ozu
- [Tuesday 11th September]
This morning was something of a struggle, following the previous evening's "inappropriate conduct for a school night". I had a very big and hearty lunch though (including some very good cauliflower cheese with some wild mushrooms and roast potatoes on the side), and in the afternoon felt much better indeed.
I was very much keen on having a quiet evening in, although I did have to stay behind a bit in the evening for a team meeting (via video conference) with our guys in the US. There has been a bit of a reshuffle over there, and we seem to have a new manager who talks very fast and rather incessantly and switches from one subject to the next without really giving you a chance to digest it all.
For dinner I knocked up novel sort of a pasta dish - spaghetti in a sun dried tomato sauce, some Quorn pieces, with fresh spinach and mozarella. It was quite nice.
The main event of the evening was watching a rather superb old Japanese film by Yasujiro Ozu - Higanbana (the English title is Equinox Flower). It was apparently his first colour feature. Whilst in Scotland we'd also seen an earlier black and white film of his called Tokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight). I think they were both made in the 1950s, the style of the two films was noticeably very similar, and many of the actors were the same too. It's bizarre for me to feel a since nostalgia at this kind of film, as not only was it before I was born, but in a country I didn't actually grow up in... and yet I found both films very endearing (despite the rather unhappy ending in Twilight).
- Back at Work and Out for Beer
- [Monday 10th September]
Was back at work today after my week off. I had been a little apprehensive about it after a week without checking my mail etc, but I suppose in the end it wasn't so bad.
In the evening, in a rare and unexpected turn of events, one of the guys on my team asked me if I'd like to go for a beer. He'd been invited to go along to a night out organised by another department to say thanks for some help with recruitment, or something like that, and apparently I was welcome to tag along too.
Even though I explained very clearly at the start of the evening that I hadn't actually helped with the recent recruitment drive for that department, and was just tagging along to keep my team-mate company, somewhat regardless I was plied with free drinks all night, which I found very difficult indeed to decline, but felt somewhat guilty about.
So it was great to get out for the evening, and meet some new people - or at least get to know people I already vaguely knew a bit better. However, I hadn't really foreseen it would be a full evening's session - I'd assumed it was literally just a quick drink or two - so had skipped dinner, which is always a mistake in this sort of situation. I ended up really fairly drunk, if I'm honest, and I suspect towards the end I was probably talking rather a lot of crap to these colleagues I - as yet - don't really know so well.
On leaving the pub I had the proverbial "bag of chips on the way home", and then proceeded to feel rather disgusted at myself for my evening's diet. Beer, chips and nothing else. A terrible way to go on!
- Mirror, Mirror
- [Sunday 9th September]
Chie had very wisely suggested that at the end of the holiday we should leave a day spare, in London, with no particular agenda, to give us a chance to rest prior to going back to work.
I spent the morning industriously sorting through my holiday snaps, in an attempt to get them up on the web, and mid-afternoon we headed out to do a spot of shopping.
Our interior design consultant (i.e. my 88 year old Grandmother) had suggested a number of areas for improvement on her first visit to our flat, and we had gradually been working our way through these over the past few weeks in an attempt to make a more homely environment - packing some of the boxes away, putting some pictures up, getting a nice wall clock, putting a cloth on the table, and so on.
Two of the remaining items on the agenda were to get a full length mirror, and some cushions. Whilst in Edinburgh we had popped into a shop which had just happened to have each of these requirements, and both to our liking. Luckily this shop also had a branch in London, which was very convenient given that there was no way we were going to have brought a 30KG mirror all the way back from Scotland with us.
So we bought the mirror and a couple of cushions for the sofa. We initially planned to have it all delivered, but then on enquiring how much it would be, it turned out cheaper just to pay for a taxi ourselves. So the two of us walked out of the shop with a large and fairly heavy (30 kilograms to be precise) box and, given that we never seem to want to make life easy for ourselves, decided to go and get lunch first before heading home. Actually that wasn't really that much of an ordeal - we just went into a branch of Subway, but we must have looked a bit odd. Outside this Subway seemed to be something of a blackspot for taxis (lots passed, but they all had their lights off - although I can't help but wonder if they did this deliberately on seeing the huge box we had). Eventually we decided to give up on that spot, and walk round the corner, where either there were just more available taxis, or we were at a vantage point in that they couldn't so easily see us first and turn their light off. A decidedly unhelpful taxi driver stopped for us, and I can't help but wonder if he added some kind of supplement for having the big parcel, despite not lifting a finger to get it into or out of his cab, as the fare seemed to come to much more than I ever remember previously paying to get back home from the city centre. Anyway, it was still cheaper than having it delivered I suppose.
So we then spent the remainder of the afternoon assembling our mirror, which was actually more than just a mirror, and has a little draw, some shelves, and a place to hang clothes. These things always look trivially easy to begin with, and then end up taking hours to put together. We got there in the end though.
For dinner we had a simple Japanese meal - miso soup, rice, and a few odds and ends that were hanging around in the fridge, including some very well femented kimchi.
- End of the Holiday
- [Saturday 8th September]
So today was the absolute last day of our holiday - by bedtime we were back in our flat in London - but on our way back we did have one final treat, and a completely unplanned yet very nice one at that.
We had breakfast and checked out of our hotel in Inveraray before 10 (pretty good going by our standards) and were back on the road once more. We had basically just to take the car as far back as Edinburgh, where we'd drop it off and then go back by train from there.
On the way out we'd taken the rather boring Glasgow route to the West coast, but on the way back I decided instead to forego the M8, and go along smaller roads to the North instead, taking us via Crianlarich, Lochearnhead, and the down through Stirling.
A few miles before Stirling, we passed through a small and unassuming place called Doune. As we were driving through a road sign pointing off to the left caught my eye. Initially we just drove past it, but the words reverberated somewhat in my head - Doune... Castle... Doune... Castle... Castle... Doune... Doune, Doune, Doune Dounety Doune-Doune-Doune and then it clicked - Doune Castle was one of the main filming locations used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You can imagine the screech of tyres and the abrupt U-turn (it's good that you imagine them, because that didn't actually happen - instead we just turned round quietly and slowly in a pub car park).
It's lucky that I had recently watched one of the special features on the DVD of the Holy Grail, in which Messrs. Jones and Palin revisit some of the filming locations, or else I might not have realised the significance of this most hallowed of places.
We had a fairly thorough wander around, and I tried to remember as best I could which bits of the castle had been in which scenes. Some bits looked vaguely familiar, whereas other bits were immediately apparent - such as the gateway through which Lancelot charges as he begins his indiscriminate slaughter of wedding guests, or the staircase atop which Michael Palin's character says "This is a wedding, it's supposed to be a happy occasion, we shouldn't be bickering about who killed who...". It was a fabulous feeling to be able to remember those immortal lines in the actual place they were originally uttered, and stand in the same spots where my comedy heroes had once stood. The little ticket office / gift shop place even had a halved, hollowed out coconut you cold take around with you. I was in a kind of heaven.
Concious of the time though, we didn't stay too long, and after our little tour we got back in the car and motored on towards Edinburgh. Chie had wanted to see the Forth Rail Bridge, and I managed to find a pretty good viewpoint on the way into Edinburgh to take a look at that, although following that I did manage to get us pretty lost somehow (one of those times where you know you need to get back on the motorway, but all the junctions seem to be exit only.
Still, eventually we did manage to find our way, dropped the car off around 3 as planned, and then following a quick bout of shopping in Marks and Spencer we got on the train back to London at 4.
We went back by standard class (unlike our somewhat more refined outbound journey), and I really noticed the difference - my comparison it felt really cramped, noisy and overcrowded... but I guess for 14 quid for a single ticket you can't really complain (mental note - book all future train tickets a long time in advance!).
It was getting on for 10 o' clock at night by the time we finally got back to our flat. We were really quite knackered (thanks to a few, ahem, purchases, my luggage had become rather bulky and heavy), but in full of that sort of satisfied feeling you get at the end of a great holiday.
- Islay's Northern Distilleries, and Back to the Mainland
- [Friday 7th September]
Today was our last day on Islay. We were booked on the 3:30 ferry back to the mainland, giving us the morning to fit in two last distilleres - those at the North of the island (and conveniently near to the fery port - Port Askaig - from where we'd be departing).
The first of the two distilleries was Caol Ila - a strong contender for my favourite Islay malt. The distillery was rebuilt in the 1970s, and is noticeably modern and industrial, but the location is still rather fantastic - looking out over the sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura. We went on the tour here, by now a very familiar routine (!) - but still interesting nonetheless.
After that, to complete the set as much as anything else, we also popped into Bunnahabhain. We didn't have time to go on a tour, so instead just took a few photos outside, and had a quick look round the shop, and then we were on our way.
It appears there isn't a whole lot to Port Askaig - one shop, one rather ropey looking hotel, and a small handful of houses. I had thought after our morning distillery visits we might me able to just wait there for the ferry, but that seemed a something-less-than-exciting prospect, so instead we headed back to the centre of the island for lunch, and ended up back in Bowmore. We had a bite to eat at the Harbour Inn there, which was quite nice.
So we headed back to Port Askaig after that, and got on the ferry. I was really quite sad to leave Islay - even though we'd only been there three nights, I had immediately fallen in love with the place.
We were back on the mainland around 5:30, and drove from Kennacraig straight to Inveraray, where we were going to stay a night to break up the journey a bit. I'd booked us a room at the Loch Fyne hotel, which turned out to be quite a good choice, as they had a rather nice spa there, which we had all to ourselves. So while presumably everyone else was having dinner, we enjoyed lounging around in the hot tub, jacuzzi, swimming pool, sauna and steam room.
After the spa we headed out for dinner. We initially tried the Loch Fyne Oysters place, some way out of Inveraray, but apparently we were just too late for last orders, so headed back into the town centre again.
After a little wander around we decided on The George Hotel, and I was very pleased indeed. It was more of a pub in atmosphere, and had a fantastic interior with bare stone walls. The food was also really good - very reasonably priced, great local produce cooked with real imagination. I was very impressed.
- Having a Generally Great Time On Islay
- [Thursday 6th September]
I had deliberately left a gap in the busy schedule of visiting Islay's distilleries today, so we could have a day to just generally relax and do whatever we felt like.
Following a hearty breakfast, we headed out for the day. The only thing I knew about on Islay other than the distilleries was Loch Finlaggan - the seat of the Lord of the Isles. So, as this was pretty close to where we were staying, it was a good candidate for the first place to visit today. There's an island in the middle, which you can cross to via a series of rickety old bridges / walkways, over the more marshy parts of the loch. There wasn't a huge amount to see on the island itself - a couple of ruined buildings, and some interesting stone carvings, but the appeal for me was in the strange atmosphere of the place. There was something slightly magical about it, but in a way that it was hard to put your finger on.
The next major event of the day was a visit to Kilchoman distillery (OK, we did fit one distillery in at least then), although we took a very meandering route over there from Loch Finlaggan, taking in the Islay Woolen Mill, the Islay Brewery, one of the beaches on Loch Indaal, and a quick walk down to Loch Gorm on our way.
We arrived at Kilchoman with still a bit of time to spare before the afternoon tour started, and so took advantage of their very nice cafe for a late lunch.
I had enjoyed all of the distilleries visits we'd done so far, but something about Kilchoman was just particularly exciting for me. It is a new distillery - established 2005, and the first new distillery on Islay for over a century. It's on a much smaller scale than the others, all based on a farm, giving a bit of a glimpse of what distilling might have been like originally on Islay, before big industry got involved. Everything was in miniature - the whole operation fit into one relatively small building, from the malting floor, through the mash tun and wash backs, to the still room - with just one of each of the usual wash and spirit stills, and both quite endearingly petite. Apparently Kilchoman's output is about 1/10th of some of the other Islay distilleries, but the great thing is it is entirely produced on this one farm - even some of the barley is grown there - the other Islay distilleries import it from the mainland.
Kilchoman plans to release its first bottling, a five year old, in 2011. By the regulations of the whisky industry the stuff they have maturing in barrels today can't even be called whisky yet - it is just new spirit. They offer a taste of this on the tour (and also had miniatures available), and even this raw and wild spirit actually tasted really rather good. Our tour guide told us they have an offer where you can pre-order bottles from the first release in 2011, at a surprisingly reasonable price, and I am very tempted indeed. Roll on 2011!
We were at a bit of a loose end as to what to do after leaving Kilchoman, so decided to just carry on down the road which goes down the West side of Loch Indaal, right to one corner of the island, to see what was there. We weren't disappointed - at the end of the road is a really idyllic little fishing village called Portnahaven, and our visit there coincided with what was probably the only spell of really good weather of the entire holiday.
We spent a couple of hours in this lovely little place in something of a daydream - it was just so tranquil there. We took a walk around the harbour, then stopped off for a quick drink in the great (but tiny) pub there, and then took a walk a bit further along the coast to sit on a clifftop, and watch the waves crashing against the rocks. Utter bliss.
We finished off the day back in Bowmore - the island's biggest "town" - where for dinner we decided to cheat and go for a curry - yes, to my surprise there were actually two Indian restaurants on Islay, and the one in Bowmore was actually very good.
After dinner we were treated to a bit of a sunset over Loch Indaal - and I think I made up my mind then that my new life's ambition is to come and live on Islay.
- Islay's Southern Distilleries
- [Wednesday 5th September]
The South coast of Islay is home to four of its distilleries - from East to West we have Port Ellen (sadly now closed), Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. All four of these would have to rank in my top ten favourite malts, and so you can imagine just how excited I was today to be able to see all of them for the first time.
Distillery number one was Port Ellen, and I realised when we woke up in the morning that we could actually see this from the hotel room we had stayed in the night before. The last cask of whisky produced here was back in 1983, but the distillery still forms a part of the island's most famous export - the warehouses are still used for maturing, and the maltings here (now on a large and heavily industrialised scale) are used to supply just about every other distillery on the island. As far as I know there aren't any tours on offer here, so we just saw this from the outside, but it was still a rather fantastic feeling just to be here.
Distillery number two was Laphroaig. We'd booked ourselved on the 10:30 tour, conducted by a former distillery worker named Jack, who was an absolutely excellent guide. We went on a fair few tours this week (and have been on other distillery tours elsewhere in Scotland and Japan), but Jack has to be my all-time favourite guide. He clearly knows every part of the process inside out, and his passion and enthusiasm for the subject seemed to be completely unshiftable, despite the fact he probably does the same tour every day throughout a large part of the year. At the end of the tour, I took the customary end-of-tour dram outside, to fulfil a little dream of mine - drinking an Islay malt out on the distillery's pier (almost all the Islay distilleries were built right on the coast to enable the finished goods to be offloaded by sea). It was quite simply fabulous.
Distillery number three was Ardbeg - although we didn't go on the tour here, but instead took advantage of their rather nice cafe for a spot of lunch. The tours of all the distilleries are at fixed times, and clashed with each other somewhat, so it was seemingly impossible to fit in tours of all of the big three in the same day. Still, we had a bit of a look around outside, took a few pictures, and really enjoyed our lunch here. Probably three distillery tours - with the same jokes about the happy draff eating cows, and the myth of the Angel's share - might well have been overdoing it in one day anyway!
Distillery number four was Lagavulin. Whilst the tour guide at Laphroaig set an impossibly high bar, the much younger guide at Lagavulin did make a pretty good go of it, and it was really interesting (to a whisky nerd like me) to compare and contrast all the little nuances in the distilling process of the two rival distillers. Particularly the angle of the line pipes (the tubes coming out of the top of the stills) - Laphroaig's slope up whilst Lagavulin's slope down, which apparently may account partly for the altogether more rascally flavour of Laphroaig when compared with its neighbour. Spirit bubbling up in the Laphroaig stills often dribbles back down again and has to make several attempts to get into the condenser, giving it more time to react with the copper. Of course, there were a whole bundle of other differences between the two which may also account for the different profiles, and whisky making appears to be such a black art that even the distillers themselves are often at a loss to explain why the end result comes out exactly the way it does.
After leaving Lagavulin, we raced over to our accommodation for the next two nights - a guest house called Kilmeny near Ballygrant - in an attempt to get there in time for afternoon tea. Although we got there a bit later than we'd originally said, we were greeted very warmly by our host, and afternoon tea was all laid out for us in our suite. The suite was utterly fantastic - it was certainly in a totally different league to any B&B I had ever stayed in before, and I struggle to think of any hotel I've stayed at which had nicer decor. It really was quite beautiful, as hopefully the pictures attest.
Following our very nice afternoon tea, and a bit of a rest, we headed out once more for a bit of a drive and with the longer term aim of finding something for dinner. We'd asked our guide at Lagavulin for recommendations of somewhere to find good seafood, and she'd basically recommended the hotels at each of the major places around Loch Indaal - Bowmore, Bridgend and Port Charlotte. We took a look at each of these in turn, which as an added bonus also gave us a chance to have a quick look at two more distilleries - Bowmore and Bruichladdich.
We finally settled on the Port Charlotte Hotel for dinner, and weren't disappointed. We ate in the bar there, and although they did kick up a bit of a fuss about us ordering one item from the restaurant menu, they agreed to do it "just this once". So Chie was very happy - she had a good selection of seafood (scallops followed by chowder) and I also had a decent meal, a very interesting starter (tandoori feta cheese salad) and a sort of pasta bake for a main course. They also had a very good selection of Islay malts in there - and I had a good wander through their list, trying some interesting independent bottlings of Caol Ila and Ardbeg.
As an added bonus we made a friend in there - a Japanese lady named Sawako was also dining there tonight, and so naturally Chie and her got chatting. She had come to Islay on holiday by herself, all the way from Japan, driven purely by her love of whisky. I couldn't help admiring that, especially in the face of the transportation difficulties, the disappointing weather, and the sheer cost of it all. What a trooper!
- Edinburgh to Islay
- [Tuesday 4th September]
We checked out of our apartment at the Whisky Society around 9 in the morning, and with luggage in tow caught a taxi into the centre of Edinburgh to pick up the hire car Chie and I would be heading over to Islay in. Vera had decided to remain in Edinburgh a couple more nights, so once we had got our hire car we took her to the B&B where she'd be staying (in fact the same place her and I had stayed at eight years ago).
Then Chie and I were off, and out onto the open road. I'd decided to go the Glasgow route on the way there, so it wasn't such an interesting run for the first hour or so, but I thought it better to be on the safe side to make absolutely sure we weren't going to miss the ferry to Islay.
Our first stop off (save for a quick stop at the services to buy junk food) was in Inveraray. Here we had a quick spot of lunch - the ever reliable bag of chips - and I also bought a waterproof jacket, having realised the weather was probably not going to be all sunshine and blue sky for our stay on Islay.
We arrived at Kennacraig - the port from which the Islay ferry goes - a good two hours or so early, and were then at a bit of a loss for what to do. I had originally hoped I might be able to fit in a very quick visit to Campbeltown, but the Kintyre peninsula is very long indeed, and we didn't want to chance it. So in the end we just drove about half way down the peninsula, stopped to take in the view briefly, and then went back to Kennacraig again.
By 6 o' clock we were on the ferry, and leaving the mainland bound for Islay. The weather was pretty dreary unfortunately, but this did not entirely curb my excitement at finally being on the way to this place I'd wanted to visit for several years now.
Besides, I like boats. To this end, I initially ran around the ferry rather excitedly taking pictures of everything even remotely nautical, although after a while the novelty of that wore off, and it was actually a bit cold and damp outside, so was eventually persuaded to head inside.
We had dinner on the boat, which was something of an experience - having recently read Iain Banks' Raw Spirit I was already somewhat prepared for what the food was going to be like. It was a canteen, reminiscent of school dinners, with such delicacies as indiscriminate meat pie, a style of very British curry I thought had been relegated to the 1980s, and good old macaroni cheese (all served with chips and "veg"). It was splendidly bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Towards 8 o' clock, when I was back out on deck again enjoying a wee dram in the sea mist, I caught my first glimpse of Islay - even through the thick fog I could just about make out the black lettering on a large white building. After a couple of minutes of squinting I finally worked out it read "Ardbeg" - and shortly after another similar building along the coast read "Lagavulin". I was very excited indeed.
We arrived at Port Ellen at 8:30, and the mist was at its' thickest - we couldn't really see anything at all. I had been somewhat relaxed about printing out directions to our hotel (i.e. I hadn't), safe in the knowledge it was only a small village, and the hotel was on the seafront - so how hard could it be to find it from the harbour? Clearly I hadn't reckoned on this real pea-souper of a fog! We did eventually manage to find it, but only after I had to resort to the ultimate male humiliation and ask directions - much to the amusement of the locals with whom I enquired.
We stayed at the White Hart Hotel, which I'd wanted to spend at least one night at, as the famous whisky writer Alfred Barnard had also stayed there 120 years earlier (see here). I don't think it was in quite such a good state as it was when Mr Barnard visited - he "found the accommodation excellent and the attendants obliging". I wouldn't quite have used the same description, but I guess it met our needs. We popped down for a quick drink in the bar after putting our bags in the room, but it was very quiet, and we were somewhat tired, so we didn't stay long.
Still, the very average accommodation and even the dreary weather did nothing to quell my excitement about the next couple of days...
- Overground, Underground and The Fry-Up
- [Monday 3rd September]
Had another full day in Edinburgh today, although without anything very specific planned. We spent the morning doing a spot of shopping, then met up with Lucy and Martin for lunch at Henderson's - a vegetarian restaurant Vera and I had been to the last time we were both in Edinburgh, eight years ago. The food was good, but I was a bit cross about the "freshly squeezed" orange juice - it wasn't actually that freshly squeezed and two not-particularly-generous glasses came to an outrageous six pounds. If I do ever go again, I think I'll stick to tap water.
After lunch we popped into the Whisky Society's central Edinburgh venue on Queen's Street, mostly just so Vera could see what it was like (it has a rather grand interior) and of course to fit in a quick dram.
Later on in the afternoon, we left Vera to her own devices, while Chie and I went off to join one of those touristy guided walking tours. I was a bit embarassed to do this sort of thing, but was also very keen to see the vaults - an complex of passages and chambers beneath the streets of Edinburgh - and the guided tours were the only way to do this. I was the only British person on the tour. Still, my embarassment aside, it was actually rather enjoyable, our guide was very good indeed, and it was a great opportunity to see a fascinating part of Edinburgh that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to.
After our walk, we met up with Vera again, and following some deliberation decided to head back to Leith. We had originally planned to met up with Lucy and Martin again for dinner in the centre, but we were all pretty tired and didn't think we'd last out that long. So Vera and Chie went to buy some bits and pieces from Marks and Spencer, while I ran up to Royal Mile Whiskies to buy a bottle to get us through the evening (the Whisky Society in Leith is closed Monday nights) as well as for the journey tomorrow.
The apartment we were staying in came with some breakfast goods - eggs, bacon etc - which both Vera and Chie were very concerned about us not having used up. So tonight we had a big fry up for dinner, along with the bits and pieces from Marks and Spencers which were mainly for my benefit. The girls seemed very eager to do the cooking, so I pretty much sat back with a glass of whisky and left them to it.
Whilst cooking, Vera dropped increasingly less-and-less subtle hints about the lack of HP sauce. She really did seem very determined to have some brown sauce with her bacon and eggs, but alas there was none in the flat. Eventually I caved in and dashed out to get some - as dinner was basically ready at this point I was in something of a hurry, but actually the nearest open shop was some distance away. Consequently I have a fond memory of running through the streets of Leith with a bottle of HP sauce in my hand - I must have looked quite odd to the local residents.
It is hard to articulate exactly why, but this mildly farcical meal together at the apartment was surprisingly fun, and turned out to be a real highlight of our three nights in Edinburgh.
- North Berwick, Glenkinchie and Fireworks
- [Sunday 2nd September]
Today we met up with Lucy, who now lives in Edinburgh (she works here as a nurse), and had a very nice day out in and around the Scottish capital.
Lucy kindly offered us the use of her car, which Vera was especially pleased about, and so we chose today to go and visit North Berwick. I'd been to visit North Berwick once before with Vera, which, by strange coincidence, was eight years ago exactly to the day. Vera's mother came from North Berwick, and Vera spent some time here as a child, so the place has a special significance for her.
We found a nice little cafe there for lunch, and after that went for a stroll along the seafront. As it was a bit cold and windy we didn't stay for very long, but Vera seemed very pleased to have seen it all again.
On the way back to Edinburgh, it occurred to me we'd be passing nearby the Glenkinchie distillery, so I couldn't resist swinging by and poking our noses round the door. We didn't go on a tour or anything, but did take a look round the visitor centre, which had a very well made exhibition on Glenkinchie and the distillation process in general. We were also treated to a free dram. Whilst my taste in whisky usually veers towards the island malts (mainly Islay) and the big flavoured whiskies found in some parts of the Highlands (such as Clynelish), I have been known to quite enjoy a Glenkinchie for a change on occasion. I once had an extremely lemony dram of theirs at the Whisky Society, which was very enjoyable indeed.
After Glenkinchie, we headed back to Edinburgh, stopping off at Lucy's flat somewhere on the outskirts, to drop off her car and admire the view for a while. We got a bus from there into the centre of Edinburgh.
We had dinner at a seafood restaurant on Grassmarket (The Mussel and Steak Bar), where to our surprise our waitress was Japanese. This gave me some confidence that the seafood was probably fairly good, although I of course didn't have any of it, instead having a rather disappointing mushroom ravioli (the token vegetarian dish on the menu, and really overpriced for what it was).
The main reason for coming into Edinburgh in the evening was to catch the fireworks display, which I think was held to mark the end of the festival. Lots of streets were cordoned off, as you were supposed to go down to Princes Street and pay to watch it, however this seemed a bit daft, what with fireworks being something that goes on up in the sky, and Edinburgh having a very convenient hill from which to watch. So we stood on the Royal Mile, with a group of other freeloaders, and were treated to a very nice display indeed.
We got back to Leith around 10, and unfortunately weren't quite in time to catch last orders at the whisky society, which was a shame, but I suppose it is probably good to have a break now and again!
- London to Edinburgh
- [Saturday 1st September]
So today we finally set off on our long awaited week's holiday in Scotland. I was somewhat excited.
After the usual frantic last minute exercise of packing and tidying up the flat, we headed out and the three of us (me, Chie and Vera) got a taxi over to King's Cross. Owing to a slight misjudgement on my part we didn't have much time to spare once we got to the station, so basically just got straight on the train, and by 11 o' clock we were on our way.
Having booked a long time in advance, I was able to get us very reasonably priced First Class tickets for the outward journey, making it a very pleasant (albeit still somewhat long) run up to Scotland.
We arrived in Edinburgh around half past three, and following some deliberation on the train early, we decided it prudent to just get a taxi straight to the Whisky Society in Leith, which would be our base for the first three nights.
We didn't want to overdo it on the first night, so decided to just stay around Leith for the whole evening. Following a quick first dram (or two) at the Society, we headed out to The Shore (the road, not the restaurant) and dined at The Ship On The Shore, which was pretty much empty at 6:30, but the food was very good nonetheless. I had a stuffed tomato with chanterelles in it, which I thought was a very creative vegetarian dish (a nice break from the usual pasta or goat's cheese tart). Chie had chowder, and Vera had haggis (when in Rome...) and I think they enjoyed their meals too.
After dinner we headed back to the Society for a couple more drams, before turning in for the night.
A very pleasant first evening in Scotland.