Thursday 28 April 2016

Palace of Holyroodhouse: a very personal revisit

September 1988. Under grey skies in Edinburgh, 20 year old me stood in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, next to the plaque on the floor telling visitors that this was where David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots' Italian Secretary, was murdered in 1566. I was in shock, in awe. Here I was, standing right where this momentus event happened. A direct link to the past. And a feeling that had been developing over the last few weeks as I had been travelling about the UK, was finally realised.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

* * * * *
At 16 I needed to leave my abusive 'family'. So one day I dropped out of high school, got a job, and 3 weeks later I moved out. I never returned. First I worked in supermarkets, large and small, as a 'check-out chick', and then in a factory sewing the ends of table cloths. I was 'free' but bored, and depressed. I was desperate to find something else. I took a day off ill and by some sheer luck, I walked into the local job centre and got an interview for a job in the city at a merchant bank. I became a mail girl, and slowly starting working my way up the very lower echelons of office admin.

Into my 18th year a flat mate handed me a book called The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. I devoured this and the other books in the trilogy, and fell in love with the Arthurian legend. For the first time I had a goal beyond just surviving: I wanted to save up to visit the UK and visit some of the places I learned about from the many books I had read on King Arthur and the legends.

I did save, but in the meantime I also met the man I thought (we thought) I was going to marry and have children with. In fact, I wasn't too sure about the children, but that's what was expected. I was happy. Certainly happier than I'd been. I still wanted to go to the UK. He didn't. He wasn't interested at all. Like he wasn't interested in visiting art galleries, so I stopped doing that. I was happy. I was. But I still loved the Arthurian legend and still intended on going to the UK, even if on my own. I went on my own.

A month shy of my 21st birthday, I was on a bus touring the UK. Stonehenge, Tintagel (Arthur's birthplace), the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales(!), the isle of Skye in Scotland. I kissed the Blarney Stone and tried to dance a Scottish jig. The world was so much bigger than it was before; I don't mean physically, but in my head.

As I travelled the UK I became increasingly fascinated with the land and it's history. Each place I visited I left wanting to know more. At Land's End I sat on a heather covered hill overlooking the sea and the landscape spoke to me. For the first time in my life I felt like I had found home. A place I could belong. As the trip continued I become emotionally overwhelmed with something I couldn't name. I was reaching out, trying hard to work out what it was that was there to be heard. Then Edinburgh and Holyrood.

The tour guide gave us the story of Mary Queen of Scots and took us to her bedchamber. He went into more detail about how one night Lord Darnley, Mary's husband, entered with some retainers, grabbed David Rizzio, who Darnley thought she was having an affair with (she wasn't), and dragged him through Mary's other chambers and finally stabbing him multiple times, leaving him on the very spot next to which I now stood.

Plaque image on Pinterest. Portrait via Wikipedia.

As I said, I was in shock. And suddenly everything became clear. I wanted more. I wanted to know more, about history, about everything. I wanted to be more and I could no longer be who I was. Or, I wanted that, but more too.

Everything changed. When I returned to Australia I decided I was going to go back to night school and study for my HSC (equivalent of A levels). Well my boyfriend wasn't keen on that and tried very hard to dissuade me from going. We were going to be getting married eventually, and have children. I didn't need an education. But my travels to the UK and the feeling that coalesced at Holyrood wasn't going to go away. Although it was frightening, our relationship ended a few months later. He wanted a break whilst I sorted myself out. I was confused, but agreed. But once I was free there was no looking back.

So at 21 I started the first of 3 years of night school, studying for my high school certificate whilst working as a full-time temp. I was an average student, but I enjoyed learning. After this I returned to England, living in London for nearly 2 years, doing the 'Aussie working in London travelling Europe' thing. I loved living in England, I loved the UK as a whole. I wanted to stay, it was home. But I also wanted to learn more.

Thanks to a friend, Kathryn, who after many years, finally convinced me to apply for university, I eventually did, and at 26 began life as a mature-aged student of History at La Trobe University. This time I studied full time and worked part time for 4 years. By the end of my degree an average student had become an A student. I got 86% for my thesis on a Tudor gentlewoman, and was 3rd in my year.

In my last year at university I met my partner Kevin. Together we decided to move to the UK and did so in 1998. I was returning home, for good.

The middle window on the left turret holds the room Rizzio was in with Queen Mary
and her ladies, from where Darnley dragged him before murdering him.

* * * * *
A couple of months ago, Kevin and I decided to go to Scotland for a holiday and this included a week in Edinburgh, thanks to an offer of free accommodation of our friends Anne and Mick. Kevin knew a bit about my 'Holyrood history and the David Rizzio plaque' and on discussing it I realised I needed to visit again, the first time in 28 years.

I'll be honest and say that I kept underplaying the importance of Holyrood in my head. It meant something to me once, but no reason it should continue to do so. We queued for tickets and made our way around the palace. As we got closer to Mary Queen of Scots chambers, I got nervous. I was making too much of this in my head, it will only be disappointing. We climbed the stairs. I was exhausted when we got to the top. I have ME after all, and was already tired, both from physical and emotional exertion. I looked around, listening to the audio guide, and suddenly it was almost like I was 20 again. Only this time I knew the story.

At the entrance of Holyroodhouse

We moved into the chamber where I knew the plaque was, but I couldn't find it. In 1988 it was on the floor, but it wasn't there anymore. I eventually found it, but it was on the wall. I was relieved to find it, but confused. I'm sure it had been on the floor. I have such a strong visual memory of it, of me standing next to it, my shoes almost touching the brass. That visual memory has carried me through all these years, so I was a little stressed that I remembered it wrong.

Kevin suggested we ask one of the staff in the room, so I did, and spoke with Catriona. I explained my confusion and wondered if anyone knew if the plaque used to be on the floor? She didn't know. I said it didn't matter. But she was intrigued and was trying to think of someone who might have been working at Holyrood for a longer period than she had. Catriona used her walkie talkie and made an enquiry. A mintue or so later someone got back to her and she was able to tell me, yes, it did used to be on the floor, but was moved for health and safety reasons to the wall where it is now displayed.

It seems a silly thing, but I was so relieved. I remembered it right, it was all as I recalled. As David Rizzio was connected to Mary Queen of Scots, I was connected to his plaque and that direct connection with history that so left me in awe and led to make such big changes in my life.

I thanked Catriona for making that effort for me. I was almost in tears. I was really very happy. I left the room where David Rizzio was murdered, my life in full circle. I'm 48 now. Life might not be perfect, but it is good. And I continue to learn.

Postscript: Not everyone will experience the same connection to the past that I found at Holyrood, but everyone does have a connection to their past, their history. I believed that it is only by understanding our history that we can move forward to make a better future. History matters.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Garden visit: Logan Botanic Gardens

I've long wished to visit Logan Botanic Garden, situated on the most southerly point of Scotland. Thanks to the gulf stream it has a warmer climate than one might expect this far north in the UK, and therefore plants from the southern hemisphere flourish where you least expect it.

Our visit was blessed with the most amazing weather, clear blue skies and sunny, close to 20 degrees. It felt like summer even though it was only mid-Spring.

Upon entering the garden, to the left we were bowled over by the c. 100 year old Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill' (campbellii x campbellii ssp. Mollicomata). A magnificent magnolia with flowers larger than both my hands together.

Throughout the garden, Kevin and I were both struck with how Australian it felt. So much like the Dandenong's outside Melbourne, or many parts of Tasmania. I think the balmy weather helped complement this feeling.

Eucalyptus coccifera - Tasmania snow gum on the left, with Cordyline australis to the right, and Kevin

The snow gum felt so familiar, but then I did spend a lot of my childhood in Tassie.

I love the texture and colours of the snow gum trunk. 

I confess that I'm not normally keen on Cordylines. But seeing them at Logan I realised it was context that mattered, because under the blue sky and amongst the gum trees, they worked. The first photo, with the sun coming through, I recalled hot days and squinting from the sun always in your eyes.

Magnificant Dicksonia antarctica in front of the blooming rhododendron. This is how the Dicksonia is meant to be grown and seen.

Polyepis australis, from Argentina. Gosh I wanted to play with peeling this bark. With intense will power, I did refrain. Ok, maybe I played with a small piece...

Many more gum trees. Eucalyptus subcrenulata

Eucalyptus delegatensis

Eucalyptus pulchella

Not labelled, but magnificent.

Gum trees and ferns in the 'Tasmanian Creek' area, though this also could have been the Dandenong's again.

I've rather focused on trees, but there were some flowers too.
Tree peony, Paeonia delayayi

Bumble bee on Erica australis ssp aragonensis

Then there were more ferns and a wonderful Gunnera bog.
Blechnum cycadifolium

 Ferns and more Dicksonia antarctica

Gunnera manicata bog

Not forgetting the Wollemi pine, Wollemia nobilis

And some altogether excellent views such as this one over the formal pond.

We enjoyed a splendid time at Logan Botanic Garden. I'm sure the good weather helped, but I suspect it would still have the wow factor on a day with grey skies. We hope to return some day, during summer perhaps when more flowers will be out as well. However, just the trees in their own right make Logan Botanic Garden well worth the visit. So take a drive down Scotland's most southerly point and enjoy.

Accessability: much of the gardens are wheelchair accessible and there a lots of seats. They also have wheelchairs and mobility scooters available which you can borrow; the staff are really helpful about this. I used a scooter for part of the visit and enabled me to see more of the site that I would have done otherwise.

Monday 18 April 2016

Red Squirrel!

Red Squirrel!

Can you tell I'm excited?! Yes, we saw red squirrels today. Well, one red squirrel, lots of times. This was at the Kirroughtree Visitors Centre in the Galloway Forest Park, just up the road from our holiday cottage. What's more, it's a very short walk from the car park along flat surface making it easy for someone who limited mobility (as I have, thanks ME) or who is a wheelchair user. And you can sit down at the hide, as I did, and get pretty darned close to red squirrels without getting too tired (except from excitement).

Red Squirrels! I'm not sure I can really say anything sensible, as I'm so excited that I saw a RED SQUIRREL. So I'll let the video above and pictures below do the talking.

Well hello...

Here I'm doing a cute thing with my paws

Digging down to hide my nuts

You can't see me hiding my nuts, right?

I think I look rather fetching against the green

 Here I'm being PDC (pretty darned cute)

More PDC

Sniffing about for more nuts. I hope the birds haven't nicked them all.


Red Squirrel!

Thursday 14 April 2016

Sorrel and mushroom pasta

Sorrel is one of my favourite vegetables. It's a perennial vegetable, which means in hard winters it will come back the following Spring, and in mild winters as the one past has been, you can continue to harvest, though less often, throughout. It can be used just like spinach or chard, but I think it's even yummier than those, with it's lemony tang. A lot of people forage for sorrel at this time of year, when it's new leaves are fresh. If you grow it yourself you can continue to harvest most, if not all, year long.

This recipe is based on the classic French sorrel sauce, but adapted because I thought it would work with mushrooms and nutmeg. I've cooked this in both single and multiple batches (double, triple amounts etc) and it tastes just as good the second night. You just need to cook some fresh pasta and heat up the sauce the second night.

And no, this isn't going to turn into a cooking blog. It's just that after a conversation I had with other gardeners a couple of weeks ago, it was suggested that it would be good if the recipe could be published. So try it and see what you think.

If you would like to grow your own sorrel, I got mine (a non-flowering form of Rumex acetosa) from Alison Tindale of Backyard Larder.

Sorrel and mushroom pasta
 Serves 2

100g sorrel leaves, stems removed
100g mushrooms, sliced
1 garlic clove
150ml heavy cream
45g butter
30ml vegetable stock
80g pasta*
A pinch of nutmeg
Salt and white pepper to taste

1.      Cut up the sorrel by curling up a few leaves at a time and slicing them very thin.
2.      Slice the mushrooms.
3.      Put on the water for the pasta and start cooking it.
4.      Pour the cream in a small pot and bring it to a simmer slowly. Doing this will prevent it from curdling when it hits all that acidic sorrel in a few minutes.
5.      Meanwhile, in another small to medium pot, heat the butter, garlic and nutmeg over medium heat and add the sorrel.
6.      As the sorrel stars cooking, add in the mushrooms and stir often.
7.      When the sorrel has cooked down (i.e. turned an Army green), stir in the cream and bring the sauce to a bare simmer. It can get thick, so add the stock to thin it out. You can add more stock if you want the sauce even thinner.
8.      Taste the sauce and add a little extra nutmeg if you don’t like it too lemony.
9.      When the pasta is cooked, portion it out on plates. Add the sorrel and mushroom sauce on top, then serve.

*the amount of pasta is based on keeping the carbs down. If that isn’t an issue for you, then add more pasta. There will be enough sauce for a larger serving of pasta.

I use a gluten-free Rice and Millet spiral pasta, but wheat-based spirals or penne would work just as well.