Over the last few months in the evenings and at weekends, I’ve been working on redesigning the Pittenweem Properties website for friends here in Anstruther. The site launched a couple of weeks ago.
Pittenweem Properties offers high-quality self-catered holiday accommodation and property management services in and around Pittenweem. They currently manage properties in Carnbee just outside Anstruther and Pittenweem. But their portfolio is growing and for good reason — the properties they own and manage are to a very high standard and in a beautiful part of Scotland: the East Neuk of Fife.
I’m back today from a whirlwind tour of three of my closest friends from National Youth Choir of Great Britain (NYCGB) days to Manchester, Wokingham and London.
On Thursday I traveled down to Manchester to see my “gr8 m8” Danny Curtis. Dan’s parents very kindly took us out for dinner in the evening: Italian. (The food, not his parents.)
On Fridaymorning Danny went off to work while I stayed in to watch some DVDs and get some writing done (I’m trying to write another book, you know). In the general absence of suitable-height tables in his house, I found a tallboy (chest of drawers) that was just right to be used as a standing desk. I got about 1,500 words written, which I was pleased about.
On Friday afternoon we drove to Wokingham in Berkshire to stay with Mike and Rachel Jeremiah. How wonderful to see Mike again twice in the same year — I used to live across the road from Mike in 1995 on Camberwell Road, London.
Saturday saw us catch a train into London, amongst some very well-dressed boys and girls heading to Ascot. There we were met by the Revd Jonathan Coore and his youngest son (my godson) who took us to see the parish he is now rector of. This was followed by a drink in a café at the Oxo building on the Thames and a walk back to Waterloo to meet up with another NYCGB contact, Julian, for lunch. Then it was back to Wokingham for an excellent home-made curry beneath an electrical storm.
We left Wokingham at 08:45 this morning and “Emma” (my CoPilot GPS) guided us back to the M4, A404 (trunk road not found!), M40 and M6 to allow me to catch my train from Manchester Piccadilly at 14:16.
At the station I met a friend, Patrick, from Join Me Edinburgh days which was wonderfully random.
As I’d managed to get a really cheap 1st class ticket I rather enjoyed sitting in relative luxury (well, a seat to myself and as much leg-room as I could eat) and get some more writing done, as well as tuck into a new book about how our minds are organised.
All in all, a pretty good few days filled with friends, a little singing and much laughter.
Yesterday the prog rock concept album Misplaced Childhood by Marillion (then fronted by Fish) turned 30.
Thirty?! How old does that make me feel?
I remember the summer that it came out. My cousins Alan and Colin were into Marillion, I recall, which is what put them on my radar.
During the summer of 1985 my family went on holiday to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. It was an extravagance and looking back my favourite get-right-away holidays while I was a kid: it was a fabulous experience. We were, I recall, in part celebrating that my dad had survived three brain haemorrhages in the spring of 1983 (“Beware the Ides of March!”).
I remember standing outside the John Menzies in St Peter Port gazing at a window display that included a large cardboard cut-out of the boy from the cover. The whole thing captured my imagination: the artwork, the title, even the name of the band (Marillion is a shortening of the Tolkien collection The Silmarillion).
It wasn’t until a few years later before I actually listened to the album. It’s still one of my all-time favourite albums, and by a long margin my favourite Marillion album.
In the summer of 1989 I flew out to California for eight weeks, courtesy of one of my many American cousins, the late Charlotte Anderson. It was my first flight on my own, and my first visit to the United States. What an amazing experience! I hung out mostly in Healdsburg (about 70 miles north of San Francisco) but we took a number of road trips: down south to Monterey; then on to Disneyland and Universal Studios at Los Angeles; boogie boarding at the beach at San Juan Capistrano; back north and inland to Yosemite National Park; up north as far as Crater Lake and Medford in Oregon where I witnessed the most amazing lightning storm I’ve ever seen. During the two months I went water-skiing, boogie boarding and rode my first (and last) rollercoaster (in the dark!). I also met up with family.
About an hour’s drive north-west of Healdsburg, cradled in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County lies a small town called Boonville, population 715. It has its own folk language called Boontling. It was also home to a good few members of my extended family, also named Anderson. One weekend Charlotte drove me up and dropped me off, I was to meet and hang out with Bruce and Ling, and their two sons Zack (a little older than me) and Ben (a little younger), and another cousin, Jamie (much younger than me).
Bruce ran the local newspaper, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, the AVA. He is still its editor. The newspaper’s motto is “fanning the flames of discontent.” I wouldn’t say they go out of their way to invite controversy, but they don’t exactly shy away from it either.
I love this photograph of me with Bruce, taken—I think—in his office. I was a little intimidated by Bruce at the time, I have to admit. But I sat and listened to him for hours, he was incredibly well read and really interesting.
One morning over breakfast, Bruce came down from his ‘tree-house’ office with a stack of mail that had arrived for the newspaper. Amongst it was a letter from a couple who had passed through Boonville a few weeks before. It transpired that they had recently adopted a baby and when they had stopped to fill up with gas the infant had inadvertently dropped their toy rabbit out of the car. It wasn’t just any rabbit, it was the rabbit, the rabbit of comfort, the rabbit that stopped them crying while they were upset, it was I-WANT-RAAAAAABBIT! There was a letter explaining the torment that this poor family was now experiencing sans rabbit, along with a five dollar bill and a plea to make a few posters, get them photocopied and paste them up around town. Proper wild west stuff with a reward and everything. We joked about the letter over breakfast, and soon after I got packed up, Char came to collect me and I headed back to Healdsburg.
A few days later the post arrived and Char opened her subscription copy of the AVA. A few pages in there was the letter about losing a rabbit. I smiled. I’d read that letter myself. But to be honest, that’s not really what had demanded my attention on that page. It was the 4″ x 6″ photograph of a toy rabbit with a pistol to its head that had caught my eye, with a caption beneath that said something like “Send five more dollars or the rabbit gets it!” Brilliant! Why aren’t more newspapers like that?!
In 2002 and again in 2004 I travelled with Jane to California to stay with Char. We had amazing holidays, and once more Char was adamant that I should get in touch with my generation of the family, and so I did. Our cousin, the novelist, Robert Mailer Anderson very kindly put us up in his guest accommodation both times and we met up with and hung out with Robert and Zack and Jessica, and Wayne and Margaret and a whole host of others. We had such a brilliant time, with such lovely people. And we should have gone back again after that but we moved house, and then the IVF treatment started, and we had children and… well, last month they came over here.
I love my American family: they are warm and loving and accepting and never too far from laughter. Before we travelled down to the Scottish Borders I was a little apprehensive that we might be gate-crashing their party, despite what Robert had said to reassure us in an email. I needn’t have worried. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and over the next few days there was a steady trickle of people arriving. Zack, Ben and Robert had been part of the advance party; then Nicola (Robert’s wife) arrived with the children; and shortly after Bruce and Ling arrived with their daughter Jessica, her husband Ryan and two children; and lastly Bruce’s sister Judy turned up with her husband Charlie.
I cycled up the drive, through clouds of midges, from our holiday lodge to ‘the big hoose’ (it was about a ten minutes’ walk) shortly after Nicola arrived with the children. They were running around the grounds playing tig, or whatever young Americans play these days. As I pulled up outside the house I teamed up with Zack and Ben and we laughed and joked until one of the girls, Frances, ran up saying that she had touched something and her hand had come up in a rash.
“Ah, that must be a stinging nettle,” I explained.
I hunted the nearby border beneath the dining room and quickly found one.
“One of these,” I explained. “They sting, so stay away from them. However, if you do get stung look for a docken leaf.”
Again I hunted amongst the foliage beneath the dining room window and tore one off.
“Place this on your hand, on the sting. It will soothe it and cool it down,” I explained, suddenly feeling like some kind of mediaeval wizard or the monk Cadfael.
“Wow! That’s cool,” said Ben. “One plant that’s an antidote to another plant.”
Selkirk Common Riding
Each morning we met around the (tremendously long) breakfast table and ate together and laughed and shared stories. Each evening we did the same over dinner. Robert, who was fulfilling his duties as the 2013 Selkirk Colonial Society Standard Bearer joined us when he could—boy! that was one full schedule he had, packed with late night after late night. It was lovely to catch up with him when I could, and I was disappointed that I had to leave one morning when he and Bruce had just got their teeth into a really meaty conversation about American politics. I was back in Boonville in ’89. I wanted to hear more, but family duties were calling.
Of course, what we were all there for was to support Robert at the Common Riding. On Wednesday evening I travelled into Selkirk for the Colonial Bussin’ concert, where Nicola bussed the flag (put ribbons on it) in a very graceful way (as they kept remind us) and Robert received his standard bearer’s sash and flag for the Common Riding on Friday morning.
After the concert I got to attend the Colonial dinner, something that I’d seen my Mum and Dad go out to for years as I was growing up. Finally I was allowed to go, and I’m so glad that I did. What fun Zack and Ben and Frances and I had sitting at the top end of a table that extended about three-quarters of the way down the Lesser Victoria Hall. We sat beneath a California flag that Charlotte had donated a few years before she died. She would have been so proud of us all being together.
My Mum surprised me at one point by going forward to present a gift to Nicola, from a former Lady Busser to the current one. I leaned in to Frances and said, “That’s my Mum and your Mum!” She smiled. I was so proud of my Mum that evening, and so proud to be a part of this family. I wish my Dad could have seen it all too. He’d have been in his element.
There was a lot of singing that evening, which took me a bit by surprise. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like singing. I was in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain for about eight years, but it was like hanging out at the Prancing Pony inn with a bunch of hobbits and dwarves! More singing! More drinking! More singing! But it was brilliant. At one point, near the end, Robert got up with Frances and they sang a fabulous, eerie, gothic American ballad, something that they sometimes sing at bedtime. It went down a storm.
Then on Friday morning we got up at pointlessly-early o’clock and did the Selkirk Common Riding. Reuben and Joshua were incredible. For about five hours, Reuben walked pretty much the whole way round, Joshua got carried for a bit of it, Jane about broke her back carrying Isaac in a sling the whole way. I was so proud of them all.
Robert did everyone proud casting the Colonial flag in the Selkirk Market Place at the conclusion of the festival, which you can watch on the ITV website along with a short interview with him.
The following day the wider family gathered at Hoscote House for a buffet meal. What was rather fun was that Judy and I worked on a copy of the family tree so we could all identify where we sat on it, and we could see graphically how we were all related to one another.
Then we gathered for the obligatory family photo on the steps of the house and then we all went our separate ways.
I was sad to leave. I miss not having so many people around the breakfast table. I miss the jokes and nonsense conversations, I miss finding out more about these amazing people with whom I’ve spent less than a month of my life in their company but who have accepted me as one of their own, and who I regard as close to me as my nuclear family. I guess I miss them because I love them. And surely that’s a good thing in a family, even one as wide and extended and scattered and… odd as this one.
Nearly three weeks ago we packed up our car, loaded the children into it, attached my bike to the back of it and drove south in search of fame and fortune. Or Hoscote House at least, and a group of 16 cousins of mine from California who had flown over for the Selkirk Common Riding. It was one of the best holidays we’ve ever had.
The reason for the trip was that my third cousin (my great-grandmother Georgina and his great-grandfather Robert ‘Honolulu Bob’ were brother and sister) novelist, screenwriter and philanthropist Robert Mailer Anderson had been elected Colonial Standard Bearer for the 2013 Selkirk Common Riding, exactly 100 years after Honolulu Bob had held the same office.
About 18 months ago I emailed Robert and his wife Nicola, who live in San Francisco, and said that we were planning on coming down to the Scottish Borders to support them.
Do you have any ideas at this point where you guys might be staying? We don’t want to gate crash your party but it might be nice to be near, to meet up.
Robert replied a couple of hours later saying
we are renting a manor [Hoscote House] and you are more than welcome to join the family there. Isn’t that what this is all about?
And so we graciously and gratefully accepted Robert and Nicola’s kind offer and on Friday 7 June we rolled up outside Sycamore Lodge and moved in for the week.
It was a fabulous wee holiday cottage: three bedrooms, one en suite; a generous family bathroom; an open-plan living room and dining room, with a galley kitchen off it. It was comfortable, and as the week wore on we appreciated the space that we had away from the “big hoose”, particularly when getting the boys down to sleep at night.
The “big hoose” was a ten minutes’ walk up the drive. And boy! was it big. The 16 Californians who flew out to this remote backwater in the Borders of Scotland were accommodated there quite comfortably.
When they could find it, that is. And they weren’t driving in a vague vicinity of the place for two hours, crossing every river they could find. Whether it was at a ford or not. I’ve never seen someone so traumatized about a car journey. And don’t rely on the GPS: it directs you to Martins Bridge (which was being rebuilt):
or across another ford!
Built in the 1850s Hoscote House sits in its own 450 acre estate about a 25 minutes’ drive from Selkirk—through umpteen open fields, across many a cattle grid, and after the obligatory stand-off on the road with the local wildlife (I’ve rarely felt as nervous in my car as when I was slowly edging forward towards a young heifer with about twelve cows to my left and a rather concerned-looking bull to my right). But it was a beautiful place to spend ten days (the midges aside), with mostly great weather, and definitely with the most wonderful company.
Our boys met their American cousins for the first time and they all seemed to just click, particularly Reuben (4) with his Californian counterpart Callum (6). It was brilliant, such a joy to witness. They just took themselves off into the trees and bushes on the estate to climb and explore, to build dens and gather sticks. Even the memory of it now brings a tear to my eye. They were in their element, and we were content that they were safe… just as long as they didn’t wander too far into the sheep field on the other side of the drive.
Inside the house was generous and homely: two sitting rooms (one decorated entirely with padded tartan walls); an enormous, and always far-too-hot conservatory; a small office with a seating area outside it which became Internet Corner™ as it was the only place in the house you could get a WiFi signal; a billiards room; a huge kitchen, with a to-die-for farmhouse kitchen table; and a dining room that comfortably sat all 21 of us.
The place was grand but not over-the-top, and not uncomfortably posh. It was certainly quirky with an old rifle and two bugles at the front door (perfect for announcing your arrival), and various stuffed-and-mounted animals around the place. A little odd, but rather in keeping with the place.
Bike – bridge and hill
The decision to bring my bike was a last minute one, having only discovered a couple of days before we left that our bike rack did actually fit our car (it was bought many years ago to fit to a rather smaller Vauxhall Astra hatchback). But I’m so glad I did. Each morning, sometime between 05:00 AM and 07:15 AM (depending on when I woke up) I would get up, change into my cycling gear and pedal out into the countryside.
On our first morning there I tucked the Orndance Survey map into my fluorescent yellow jacket and headed off into the mist to recce the area. I’ll cycle down to Martins Bridge, I thought to myself, just to see how it looks. It looked about two to three miles away on the map.
It wasn’t. It was nearer seven.
I could just turn around and head back, but where’s the fun in that? So out came the map and I discovered a ford (yes, that ford) with a narrow bridge to the left of it, which was only just wide enough for me to shuffle across.
On the other side was a hill. On the other side of that hill was Hoscote House. The contours of the map promised a climb and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Having left the house just after 05:00 AM, having had no breakfast, thinking that I’d just have a quick cycle around and be back in time for the boys waking up at 6:00 AM, I was still climbing the hill as it was approaching 07:15 AM. I remember thinking to myself, “should I be panicking now?” My main concern was that I couldn’t get in touch with Jane to let her know that I was okay. Although I had my mobile phone there was no signal.
As I climbed, and I have to admit that I got off at one point to push the bike up a particularly steep 200 meters or so, I rose above the mist and emerged into the most beautifully rolling countryside beneath a deep blue sky, scratched at here and there with wispy clouds. In the distance I could see the top of the fog that I’d ridden through and into which I would soon descend.
The eight mile climb, including through two get-off-and-open-and-close gates, led to a one mile descent. That was fun! Honking at sheep to get off the road, and racing past with a cheery “Thank you”. I rounded a corner having just passed a sign that read “cattle grid” I wondered to myself, “I wonder how far before I get to the…” BRRRRRRRR! as the cattle grid rumbling beneath my wheels provided the answer.
I rolled into the small car park outside our lodge, I dismounted, propped the bike against the wall and wobbled in through the open door. I’d clocked up about 14 miles, the longest cycle I’d enjoyed since before my various back injuries of the last two years. It was great to be back on my bike. And what a return. Over the week, and since, I’ve discovered that it has given me so much confidence in my ability on the bike. I just have to think back to that mammoth, breakfast-less climb and it assures me that I will reach the top of this hill, that I do have the energy to keep going.
Bike – Craik
Over the next few days I went out a further three times. The next trip was out to Craik, a small village in the middle of the Craik Forest and at the end of a dead-end.
After that I turned right into Craik Forest itself. I thought I’d put my mountain bike to the use that it was intended for and for 45 minutes I cycled steadily up a forest track, surrounded by thick woodland, on another glorious morning. It was hard going, but satisfying: ducking beneath overhanging branches, bunny-hopping over fallen trunks, and simply admiring the view. My plan had been to climb the track to a crossroads that I’d seen on the map then turn right and roll down the hill to approach Hoscote from the opposite direction that I’d set off from.
Conscious of the time, and my energy levels, I made a final push towards a clearing that was a few hundred metres ahead. Success! I’d reached the crossroads. Jubilant I turned the corner and … was stopped in my tracks. The path was littered with coniferous trees. Some had grown right on the edges of the track, so that when I started to cycle down it they whipped my legs and made me feel as though I was trying to cycle through a wardrobe or a car wash. And to add to the problem there were very small saplings growing down the middle of the track, between the ruts. The way ahead was impossible.
I turned round and went back down the path I’d come. It took me 45 minutes to climb up, and less than 10 minutes to descend. Mostly screaming like a little girl. “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” I heard myself shout. “I DON’T HAVE MY SPARE GLASSES WITH ME!” But actually, I really did quite enjoy it.
I’m surprised I didn’t wear my brakepads down to the metal. Even with me pulling hard on them I was still reaching 25 mph, with pot holes and branches to negotiate.
I had hoped to cycle to Selkirk one day but I simply ran out of time. So my final outing, the day before the Common Riding, was simply up an enormously steep hill to Roberton, and back down the gentler brae by the Borthwick Water. By that time I’d put in the uphill miles and so when I reached the top rather unexpectedly I said out loud, “Oh! Is that it?!”
Next time: Meeting American family, and the Selkirk Common Riding.