Prunus and sakura

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It’s cherry blossom time again. Although many of the trees whose blossoms we now enjoy in gardens and parks originate in Japan, we do have our own cherry trees, amongst which is the wild cherry or gean as it is called here. The name gean seemingly originates from the French word guigne, meaning cherry. In Scotland, because of the Auld Alliance with France we have numerous words of French origin. Perhaps not surprisingly many of these words have connections with the kitchen and with food.

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The gean is the ancestor of our cultivated cherries and produces fruit that is often bitter. However one year we collected handfuls of cherries from a nearby avenue of gean trees as their taste was so sweet and juicy. It’s not usual for these even to ripen as the birds like them and strip them from the trees before fully ripe. This gives the gean or prunus avium its other name – the bird cherry. According to an article I read recently the resin that seeps from the trunk of the gean used to be prized by children as chewing gum, but I must say I haven’t heard of that before.

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In a previous garden we had a morello cherry tree (Prunus Cerasus), also known as the sour cherry because of its more acidic fruit. Many jams and conserves are made from morello cherries, though I don’t remember ours ever fruiting much – perhaps because we live a bit too high for growing most fruit which is often caught by late frosts. We had one such frost a couple of nights ago, in the early morning. When our morello did fruit, the cherries were scoffed by the birds before even fully developed.

The trunks of cherry trees are easy to identify with, typically, shiny bark in a deep reddish-brown with prominent cream-coloured horizontal lines which makes them quite distinctive.

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Cherry wood was often used in furniture making, with its wonderful warm reddish brown colour. Gathering sufficient must be challenging as these wild cherry trees tend to grow singly or in small groups, often away from other trees. So finding enough to make pieces of furniture must have made the items expensive, especially as geans are not long lived. Some buyers, particularly in the Highlands, may have looked askance at items made from cherrywood as in certain places the gean was considered a witch’s tree and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

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Sadly cherry blossom, whether of the Japanese or gean variety, is a short-lived wonder. For a very brief period it brightens our gardens, streets and countryside, a welcome sight in early spring. In Japan, where the blossom is called sakura, they celebrate the blooming with outdoor festivals and parties, but in Scotland we just enjoy their fleeting blossom, often battered by winds and rain as well as burnished by sunshine, before the white and pink petals drift to the ground and carpet the grass or pavement with creamy white or sweety pink, gone for another year.

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Posted in Dorothy Bruce, The environment | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stormy break

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Long time since I’ve posted. Time has run away and left me trying to keep up, though difficult to pin down exactly what has kept me so busy.

But a holiday to escape the worst of the winter and a sleety, cold and miserable Easter Sunday has provided a window for another blog piece.

Our recent trip was booked on a whim. Forecasters warned of another cold spell bringing significant snow. Perhaps it was the cheerful display of snowdrops that had raised our hopes of spring, or perhaps it was just that winter had seemed to drag out its dark, gloomy, wet, snowy and cold months, and we desperately felt the need for some sun and warmth And bright colours.

So one week we booked cheap flights and accommodation, and the next we flew off to Madeira early on the day the snow was to descend.

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We were in the second top floor, so the view was great.

We hadn’t got out first choice of apartment hotel, but what was offered looked pretty spectacular when we arrived on a warm, sunny afternoon. Our apartment was in a stunning location in a circular building on the rocks by the Atlantic. With its floor level windows looking out over the churning water it seemed as if we were in the bow cabin of a liner. Even the front of the balcony was glass, so no interruption to our sea view even when sitting.

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First things first, and we made coffee and sat drinking it on the balcony taking in the view. Then across to the nearby supermarket to stock up on food and wine, grateful we hadn’t far to lug it along with the occasional bottle of Madeira – after all, when in Rome…

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One of the other buildings in which the bar and one of the restaurants were housed. It’s in a traditional Madeiran style – very different from the one we were staying in.

The following day was very breezy, with the sea churning and waves battering and booming against the rocks, but we went exploring along the coastal path, past shops, restaurants, the Lido, hotels, and more hotels under construction.

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From our apartment we had noticed a helicopter flying back and forth along the coast, and on our walk we noticed it had been joined by a boat, a lifeboat, and a couple of smaller boats tossed like litter on the water. This continued all day and the following day. We concluded someone must have been swept from the shore and this was a search for them. Various paths close to the water as well as the hotel swimming pool were closed off. Being too close to the force of the waves obviously was not recommended. But from our eyrie we watched mesmerised.

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Out of focus…but it was moving pretty fast and was some distance away.

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The lifeboat can be seen here.

We had come in search of sun but for the next ten days or so we had storms. The wind soughed through the windows making a loud eerie whistling noise: the rain battered the glass and found its way through between it and the window frames soaking the carpet in the dining area; and the boom of the sea against the rocks reverberated through the whole building.

Luckily we had brought books to read and a small library of books left by previous visitors was available. So that, trips to the supermarket, and attendance at a cocktail party organised by the management was how we spent our time. And the spacious apartment meant we didn’t feel hemmed in.

On my birthday a card and a bottle of sparkling wine was delivered. We decided to keep it till we could enjoy it on the balcony.

On one reasonable, though still windy day, we climbed the hill to the bus stop and went into the centre of Funchal. My husband had bought me a bunch or orchids for my birthday but had promised to buy me some jewellery in a little shop where I usually bought something when here. Today didn’t disappoint and I selected an unusual necklace. Outside we sat at a table and ordered coffee and some Madeiran cakes whilst watching people coming and going beneath the trees, window-shopping, and exploring. This time last year we had revelled in the Carnival, but this year that had been earlier – just as well given the weather for the participants would have been frozen and wind-battered.

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I just love these decorated pavements.

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The weather had battered many of the flowers that can usually be found blooming at this time of year, but these hardy ones seemed to be unaffected by the wind and rain.

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The bad weather didn’t seem to affect the bananas which are possibly more prone to reacting to low temperatures than rain. We certainly enjoyed eating plenty whilst there.

Then at last the clouds broke and we glimpsed the sun. Determined to make the most of our time we sat on the balcony, huddled into jackets, clutching our books in case they blew away. As well as reading we watched from our bird’s eye view activity around the swimming pool. First a guy wearing a wetsuit and with scuba gear dived to the bottom and pulled up sticks and bits of rubbish that had been swept in by wind and waves. Then the pool was emptied, leaving inches of silt on the base.

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With plastic shovels a couple of guys painstakingly shovelled the silt into a bucket that was carted to a guy on the edge who dumped the sludge into a wheelbarrow. When full he trundled it to the edge of the paving and dumped it over the edge onto the rocks.

Cleaning came next. With a brush attachment to a hose he inched his way around the pool, scrubbing and sloshing, spraying with cleaner and scrubbing and sloshing again. Eventually the pool was refilled, but for days after sand would appear from inlets, forming floral patterns in the water. So out came the pool cleaner and sucked up the offending dirt. Meanwhile sun beds had appeared and hardy humans stripped off, even ventured into the pool that must have been freezing.

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The Lido pool had also been cleaned and refilled but we didn’t see anyone venturing into it.

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At last the good weather arrives.

Over the next few days, the weather became warmer, and eventually as we were about to leave, the wind dropped and we briefly experienced the sun and warmth we had come for.

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The morning we left we sat and enjoyed the sun whilst waiting for our transport to the airport.

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4000 years young

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We were in the centre of Heraklion in Crete. Our bus had dropped us here so we could wander the streets and take in the atmosphere or visit the Archaeological Museum to see artifacts from nearby Knossos prior to our visit to the site.

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A street in the centre of Heraklion.

We had come prepared, so rather than waste time eating in a café, we lunched sitting on a bench beside the Archaeological Museum. Had we known, we could have gone into the Museum and sat in their garden to eat our sandwiches and salad but then we rather like watching people out shopping or strolling.

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The Museum garden. The pillars are similar to those at Knossos, linking the home of the artefacts with the site they came from.

The Museum is modern, light and airy, made from materials that complement their collection. And as it was the end of the season it wasn’t too busy, though we did occasionally have to be creative in finding ways to photograph objects.

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This made me think of Henry Moore.

Luckily photography was allowed as long as flashes weren’t used. As we had a limited amount of time and much to see I ran around snapping everything I could to have a record of vases and containers that had me gasping in delight.

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The more I look at this design the more I wonder if it represents something in nature – leaves, snails, or even a kneeling woman?

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Swirls were popular, but must have been difficult to paint so accurately.

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The sun or a large flower?

Nearly 4000 years old and yet many of the items looked fresh and modern in their designs and colours. In some of the portrayals of animals and people I even got a glimpse of a sense of humour in they way they had been drawn.

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I seem to remember this bowl was metal – bronze? Loved the heart-shaped lip. Such thought and care went into the design of these objects.

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Love these long spouts like the beak of some birds.

A civilisation with none of the amenities we take for granted, yet they could produce wonderful items in bronze, clay and metals.

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The Minotaur of Greek mythology was supposedly half man half bull, so bulls feature predominantly in imagery.

It wasn’t only decoration of items that enthralled me, it was also the way they decorated themselves. Jewellery was here in abundance, made from coloured stones, gold and other materials. Necklaces were obviously an important fashion item, along with bracelets and earrings to add that extra touch to, going by the frescoes, lavishly patterned clothes. And there were clasps to hold those fancy items of clothing closed.

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Another jug with a long spout.

Recently, when recounting my surprise at the designs to a group of people, one, a male musician, said it wasn’t surprising for they were the same people as we are, and their creative instincts would have been the same. I realised he was of course right.

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Gorgeous, isn’t it! But I wonder how on earth they made it.

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The decoration at the top is like a bird’s wing.

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I assume this is marble.

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There were a few of these basket-style containers. This one is decorated with flowers and leaves so perhaps belonged to a woman.

Creativity has threaded itself through the entire human race from the earliest of times. Though the materials used to express that creativity may have changed over the eons, from painting on cave walls to computer graphics, the urge and need to express the world as we see it, to embellish it and ourselves, has not changed.

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The king and queen obviously and what seems to be members of the daily or court. No idea why they are holding their hands up as if in surrender.

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A ceramic trunk, presumably for keeping clothes. You do have to wonder how they made and fired such large items.

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This trunk with its intricate design of figures must surely have belonged to the king or queen.

The Minoans even had ceramic baths, and even here they gave rein to their creativity.

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A wonderful friendly octopus adorns a ceramic bath covered with designs representing the sea and sea creatures.

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Round the inside rim of the bath swim images of fish.

Upstairs in the Museum we admired the remains of frescoes from Knossos, their colours still surprisingly vibrant, showing a proud, confident people who had a close relationship with animals and the world around them, and who appreciated beauty and good design.

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Love his headdress. It looks as if made with coloured feathers.

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Three fashionable women.

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From her eyes and red lips this woman looks as if she is wearing makeup.

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A man gathering something. At first I assumed it was plants, but given his blue colour I wonder whether he in in the sea, and the surrounding plants seaweeds.

I still can’t help being bowled over by what I saw of their civilisation.

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Knossos

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This autumn we spent two weeks in Crete. Staying not far from Heraklion we knew we had to visit Knossos. We could have visited by walking half a mile along a narrow yet busy road with no pavements or verges and taking a bus, but we decided on the easy option of a guided tour, especially as the bus would pick us up from near where we were staying, and as the tour prices were reduced as it was the end of the season.

The day was overcast but still warm, good weather for being shepherded around an archaeological site. We had come prepared and brought sandwiches so found a bench near the archaeological museum in the centre of Heraklion and munched our sandwiches while we watched the bustle of visitors and locals out shopping. Then it was into the museum to see what had been unearthed at Knossos. I’ll tell you about that in a later post as I want to set the scene first.

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The street that leads from Freedom Square to Lion Square.

Our tour bus whizzed us through the afternoon traffic towards the site with our guide telling us about its history, in both English and German, inbetween conversing with the driver in Greek.

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All tour guides appear to favour umbrellas. It protects them from the sun and enables them to be found as they can be seen above the crowds.

A straggling crocodile from the car park to the site entrance along a dusty pavement, and we arrived at what is one of the oldest sites we have ever visited. Here other groups were gathered in anticipation. We were glad our guide was distinctively dressed with her umbrella hoisted high so we could identify her in the melee. Not nearly as busy as in high season, thank goodness, so we had a much better opportunity to actually see the ruins.

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The site of Knossos, whose name comes from ancient Greek references to the major city of Crete, has a long history of human habitation, beginning around 7000 BC. It is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe’s oldest city.

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The palace complex of Knossos, built between 1700 and 1400BC, was designed to serve as a civic, religious and economic centre, becoming the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. Most structures were constructed on top of previous structures, around a raised Central Court on the top of Kephala Hill on the outskirts of Heraklion.

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The red columns would originally have been the trunks of cypress trees, used upside down so the columns were wider at the top than the bottom, as has been done with the concrete replacements.

The site was excavated by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and his team, beginning in 1900, the work continued for 35 years. Sir Arthur unfortunately got carried away in trying to figure out what the buildings were like and how life was lived at the time. His reconstructions, in which he used concrete to replace wood which had rotted, has earned the site the nickname of the Concrete Disneyland. Looked upon with horror by modern archaeologists, Evans’s reconstructions nevertheless provide a possible inkling of what the original buildings might have looked like.

One surprise was the use of colour with natural pigments used to create wonderful frescoes often covering entire walls. The frescoes at the site are replicas, what remains of the originals still retaining their vibrant colours on the walls of the archaeological museum.

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You can see from this that the Minoans had a wonderful sense of design. Their everyday objects such as jars and containers are all imaginatively decorated.

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This is the Throne Room with its walls decorated in a very modern looking woodland scene with griffins.

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The dolphin fresco. Many of the objects found on the site are decorated with dolphins, octopus, fish and animals.

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In Greek mythology, King Minos, the ruler of Crete, dwelt in a palace at Knossos.The king instructed Daedalus to construct a Labyrinth in which to retain his son, the Minotaur.

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These giant containers would have been used to store olives, olive oil and other foodstuffs.

The myth of the Minotaur tells of Theseus, a prince from Athens, who sailed to Crete, where he was forced to fight the Minotaur, a terrible half man, half bull creature. Ariadne, the king’s daughter, fell in love with Theseus and before he entered the Labyrinth to fight the Minotaur she gave him a ball of thread to unwind as he went so that he could find his way back by following it. Theseus killed the Minotaur, and then to escape her angry father he and Ariadne fled from Crete.

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Posted in Dorothy Bruce, People of interest, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

As Greek as sun and sand

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It seems such a long time since I last posted, but the summer has just flown past. Can’t say why I’ve been so busy, nothing in particular apart from publishing a book for a friend (more of which in another post) and generally getting on with things and contributing to organisations I’m involved with. But having returned from holiday ten days ago, time to end the drought. As you can see from the title I’ve been in Greece, or Crete to be precise. Rather than telling you about where we went and what we saw, I’m whetting you appetites with this rather quirky piece.


We buy our wines and spirits from a wine shop or a supermarket. We don’t grow grapes in sufficient quantities in Scotland to make wine, though we do make whisky, our largest export, sending it around the world. Scotch. It takes the name of it’s homeland though some of the large makers and supermarkets are trying their best to diminish the Scottish brand by labelling it as British and draping it in the Union flag. That hasn’t gone down well. If there is to be a flag on it, then it should be the Satire, blue and white like the Greek flag. We even share a patron saint  with Greece – St Andrew.

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Gin and tonic. Gin seems a very English drink yet Scotland is now the UK’s largest manufacturer of gin, producing 70% of it. That’s sort of crept up on us in the last few years, and I couldn’t actually tell where gin is made. Whisky is different. In the not so distant past tales abounded of illicit stills hidden in remote highland glens by a peaty burn, or secreted in dilapidated outbuildings, cobbled together from an assortment of z-bend pipes and battered metal containers, gurgling away. But nowadays whisky is big business.

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The cost of whisky production is low, but the government through its duties and taxes makes a vast amount of money from it. So the amber gold is matured in barrels, often oak, in dark bonded warehouses, under lock and key, carefully regulated by the Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. I seem to remember when young that there was a reverence in voices as you passed such places on a bus, a hushed almost awesome mutter of “That’s a whisky bond.”

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So quite refreshing to holiday in a country where owning a patch of vines and grove of olives trees is the norm, and harvest time means closing up the summer holiday accommodation business or shop in a tourist area, and going off to pick your olives and your own grapes, turning them into wine, perhaps a little rough but satisfying when drunk along with home-produced and home-grown food. Goat perhaps or sheeps milk cheese, with tomatoes and aubergines from your own dusty plot.

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And just as you have to make the most of food so that it lasts through the winter months, turning meat into sausages and salamis, you ensure the grape skins left after pressing out the juice for wine are turned into another drink – raki. A firewater that differs in flavour according to the maker. This spirit never sees bonded warehouses or customs officials, not that I’m aware of, and is widely available, offered as a welcoming drink, a thank you for your custom, an invitation to join the party, or even as a product available in the local supermarket dispensed into a Greek-blue-capped plastic bottle. Home made raki is as much part of the Greek islands as sun and sand.

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Like a velvet cloak

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There are times when one regular outing can change into something different, a gem that quickens your pulse and provides the idea for another blog post.

This is what happened recently when I set off for a meeting in a venue that was new, one I hadn’t heard of despite its proximity, but which had me reaching for my iPhone as I had no camera with me. So the photos, taken in an interior that was dim for photography, may be rather grainy because I haven’t yet experimented with using my camera phone, but the opportunity was too good to let pass for some unusual (and sometimes abstract-looking) images.

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I assume this is the smaller of the two organs – the one from the original Palace Theatre, but it looks massive to me.

The venue was the New Palace Theatre Organ Heritage Centre in Greenlaw, a village in the Scottish Borders.

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An odd place, perhaps, for such a tribute to the days of silent film and the golden days of cinema, but one worth a visit to see the display of old cinematic equipment including commercial as well as domestic projectors, old cameras, a pianola, a wind-up horn gramophone with photographs and prints of the golden age of film adorning the walls.

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We inherited a Bell and Howell projector, similar to this, from an uncle. It and this date from the 1930s.

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A miniature piano. Its size can be judged by the electric socket in bottom right corner. Presume from buttons on top it plays. Forgot to ask.

The building in Greenlaw was originally acquired in 1991 to house a small theatre pipe organ, based on the remains of the Hilsdon organ from the Palace Picture House in Princes Street, Edinburgh. The picture house opened in December, 1913 and was later acquired by the family who had built the Playhouse in Leith Walk. The Hilsdon organ was installed in the Palace in 1929 when sound equipment was fitted, with the Palace then run in tandem with the much larger Playhouse.

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The organ remained there until 1955 when it was removed to Hilsdon’s organ works in Glasgow where it languished for twenty years. Having been pilfered over the years for spares, the remaining organ was given to Gordon Lucas along with pipes from some other organs. The organ works of Henry Hilsdon Ltd in Govan, Glasgow built a handful of both orchestral and unit organs for Scottish cinemas. Hilsdon was regarded by many as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Scottish pipe organ builders.

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Gordon Lucas along with Larry McGuire purchased the Greenlaw property as a place to reassemble the organ. Part of the property had originally been a single storey cottage of two rooms with a thatched roof, extended around 1760 to form two cottages with its first non-domestic use by a wooden spoon-maker, then by a saddler and harness maker. An extension became a ‘side school’ for the Free Church of Scotland and around 1835 another extension was erected as the home for a retired Free Church minister. Later the property was used as one of the village’s three bakeries. Several transformations and changes of use later the building became an agricultural machine repair workshop, then a builder’s workshop before being bought as a granny flat. So a patchwork history for a building destined to become a ‘Palace’.

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Spectacular painted ceiling.

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Before the organ could be moved into its new home the property required extensive renovations to accommodate the organ pipes and to make the building suitable for purpose. By the end of 1993 the studio accommodating the organ was compete, and a concert was given for members of STOPS – the Scottish Theatre Organ Preservation Society. STOPS members were so impressed by the renovations they asked if they could use the premises as the Society’s new home, and so the idea of the ‘New Palace Centre’ was born with a formal public opening concert in October 1994.

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Pedals and brass knobs for which I’m sure there will be a technical name.

All was moving along nicely when the following year their organ world was turned upside down. The huge organ in the Playhouse, Edinburgh, the largest theatre organ in Scotland, was donated to them, on the stipulation it should be amalgamated with its little sister in Greenlaw. At that time neither organ was complete, a task Gordon and Larry had to address.

Adjustments were not only made to the premises but also to the organ, with a new console and wiring, a new five manual console with Stops, Couplers, Controls and Accessories with almost 1200 registers. The console, it is claimed, is surprisingly compact and easy to play. I leave that to others to judge.

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The organ from the Playhouse – the largest theatre organ in Scotland – the Unique Hilsdon Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ.

Like many works of art, temperature and humidity of the place of installation are important, so the building is continuously monitored electronically, and alerts generated if temperature or humidity vary from predefined thresholds. When the organ is required to be played, the three pipe chambers and auditorium must be at the same temperatures they were at when the organ was tuned to ensure the different divisions are in tune with each other. Quite an undertaking I would think, especially in our Scottish climate when we can experience the weather of four seasons in one afternoon.

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Additional sounds (piano? dulcimer?) all played from the organ.

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And no orchestra is complete without its drums…

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or its cymbals.

Since then work has continued at the centre to improve facilities. Gordon Lucas died in 2002 but Larry continued to plough time and money into its development so that today the centre runs a programme of silent films in the former studio which has now become a comfortable auditorium redolent of music hall days, though equipped to a professional standard with audio, video and stage lighting systems suited to a variety of uses. And centre stage when the curtains open is the Unique Hilsdon Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ.

After our meeting Larry flexed his fingers and played a piece, the rich sound enveloping us like a velvet cloak.

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The information for this post is taken from the Centre’s two websites – www.nptohc.co.uk and http://www.stops.org. Any mistakes are mine, so please read the information on the websites and visit the centre if you can.

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Summer gnashes its teeth

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For the last couple of days summer has gnashed its teeth in Scotland, girning and moaning in windy torrents and lashings of rain. The atmosphere has been decidedly frosty too with a cold wind making low temperatures feel even lower.

Somehow this summer weather spat is in tune with much of the political mood in a country which, on top of a referendum on leaving the European Union in which it voted 62% to remain, a bitter general election has left us in limbo.

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Waiting in expectation for the madness of the fancy dress parade to start.

The uncertainty of the turning of an expected huge majority at Westminster for the Tories into a nail-biting majority propped up by ten MPs from the Northern Irish DUP party, has riveted even those who usually shun politics to news bulletins and social media.

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The action gets underway.

The Tories and DUP want what politicians and journalists call a hard Brexit, that is a withdrawal from everything to do with the EU, although the DUP want a ‘soft’ border (one without customs or immigration controls) between Northern Ireland and Ireland which will remain an EU member. However, some of their Tory friends want to retain the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union without actually being members of either. The single market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – referred to as the “four freedoms” – within the EU. The market comprises the 28 member states, with a few exceptions and anomalies, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (through the European Economic Area Agreement) and Switzerland (through bilateral treaties).

The Customs Union basically consists of all the EU member states plus Monaco and some territories of the United Kingdom which are not part of the EU and a few other inclusions and exclusions. No customs duties are levied on goods travelling within the customs union and — unlike a free trade area — a common external tariff is imposed on all goods entering the union. The European Commission negotiates international trade deals rather than each member state negotiating individually.

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Like this go-cart driver, one body drives all EU trade deals.

With campaigning in the UK taking on an American hue, the referendum was fought on the basis of minimum information and maximum mount of spin and misinformation, much of which has now been acknowledged as, or in the light of subsequent admissions seen as, lies. So a largely uninformed UK electorate voted out of patriotic pride to ‘take back control’ of their country without having a clue what that actually meant (apart from curbing EU immigration), and whether this would see us also leave the single market and the customs union, and what the consequences of that would be.

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Trump’s proposed wall between the US and Mexico had obviously caught the imagination of Madeirans and featured widely in floats.

With the consequences now becoming clearer some voters are having second thoughts, and this was to some extent reflected in the Tory loss of support in the general election. Manifesto pledges to hit pensioners, a natural Tory-voting group, no doubt also contributed.

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Mobile wall.

Those who voted to remain in the EU have increasingly felt as if Trump’s Mexican wall had, in built form, floated across the Atlantic to position itself mid Channel, cutting the UK off from mainland Europe ­– a paywall as the heading photograph indicates. EU nationals who have over many years made their homes here, or who have moved for employment or to study, have become increasingly uncomfortable. Many feel they are being used by the UK government as bargaining chips in a battle which is not of their making; others no longer feel welcome in a country where they are settled with husbands, partners and families.

UK withdrawal negotiations have now begun amidst sweeping rumors of a lack of those with skills to conduct such complex negotiations. Remember the EU has conducted these for us for forty-four years since the UK joined the EU in 1973.

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The refugees in makeshift camps in Calais, attempting to cross to the UK, were not forgotten by the Madeirans. Refugees must also feel a Trump-type wall is being erected to ensure they are kept out.

The prime minister, Theresa May, who endlessly paraded herself as strong and stable was seen as weak and wobbly, hiding from voters during the general election campaign and only speaking to small groups of selected individuals in out-of-the-way secret venues. Even the press was only notified of these locations at the last minute to avoid placard-waving, slogan-shouting protestors. Her manifesto had barely seen the light of day before she handbraked u-turns on many of its policies and oversaw numerous PR disasters. Online, in quips and caricatures capturing her shambolic performance, the endlessly repeated phrase ‘strong and stable’ made May a laughing stock worldwide.

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Balancing acts are necessary in politics as in everyday life.

But against the odds, and against an opposition leader who roused himself and the electorate, including many young people, to slash the Tory majority and come close to winning, May held on. The confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP gives her a majority of thirteen, so enables her to pass budgets and major pieces of legislation including legislation on Brexit – providing she can keep both her own party’s Remainers and right-wing Brexit bravados on board.

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Strong and stable on which side of the wall?

May and a few of her cabinet are regarded as having Trump tendencies and slogans (make America great again, make Britain great again), so even though negotiations with the EU have begun, the pubic remains in the dark over what the UK government hopes to achieve, and in denial about what it is likely to have to accept. Daily, we hear one minister asserting one position, while another tempers that or even disputes it. We are like ping-pong balls, batted between opposing sides, swiped off the table, dropped on the floor, perhaps even stood on in the rush to control more of the game.

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Polls suggest if the EU vote took place now then Remain would win. Time to stop the madness surely.

So not surprising that the recent summer weather matches the mood of frustration, annoyance, despair, apathy, uncertainty and determination that pervades much of Scotland. The tempest of moods certainly swirls around and through the people I know in this part of the country, making it feel more like the chilly autumn of our dreams than the high summer of our hopes.

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Maybe a drink of Madeiran Ponch is what we need to help keep us sane whilst we hope that somehow Brexit can be made to go away.

Posted in Dorothy Bruce, Events of interest, Politics in Scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Primed and programmed

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This has been a very strange general election, coming as it does just five weeks after our local council elections. A snap election called by our Prime Minister who managed to overturn the 2011 Fixed-term Parliament Act to call it. The provisions of the Act determined that, instead of Prime Ministers calling elections at times best suited to them and their parties, general elections would be held every five years, beginning in 2015. For an election to be called outwith the five yearly period, a vote of no confidence in the Government, or a two-thirds majority vote would be required.

Caving in to the Prime Minister and her party, the major opposition party voted for an election to be held a mere two years after the previous election.

This election campaign period has been marred by two atrocities – one in Manchester and one in London after which campaigning was suspended in respect of those killed and injured, and their grieving and shocked families and friends.

As the political upheaval of changing party fortunes rampages its way through the polls, all spin differing tales. Platitudes, empty rhetoric, threats, promises and name-calling show what an empty shell politics has become. Instead of debating policies and issues, informing and engaging people, we have huge swathes of the population turned off by highly staged events, planted questions, a refusal to give answers and manipulation by the ‘dark arts’.

Money has always been instrumental in determining the outcome of elections, and dark money, from unknown sources, is now used by certain political parties to influence us. Added to that we now have big data and psychometric profiling. Information is collected on us all – on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. It’s collated and sold. Profiles are compiled ­– our likes and dislikes, what turns us on and off. These are used to target us with specific ads on the same social media sites, to push us towards the result paymasters desire. To me, it is a form of brainwashing. Constant repetition of simple, catchy phrases means they worm their way into minds to pop to the surface in response to questions. The public have become like robots, primed and programmed to react in the manner required. Frightening for democracy.

A major part of this circus is an endless stream of television programmes where selected members of the public put questions to those seeking election. Last week I was asked to take part in one of these programmes.

As I’ve never been part of a television audience with an opportunity to question or comment I decided to accept, although it did mean a two-hour journey, but husband agreed to drive. All went well until we reached the proximity of the venue. Here the directions and maps we had downloaded let us down. We knew we were beside the park where the venue was situated but could find neither gate nor signage, nor car park where we had been advised to leave the car. An hour and a half later, after driving round and round, up and down ramps, stopping to ask passers-by directions, and eyes glued to a pulsing blue dot on my iPhone, I phoned my programme contact. She couldn’t help but advised me to hurry.

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Eventually we found a gate. Locked. Only pedestrian access. I got out and started to walk as fast as I could through the park towards the building while husband found a parking space for the car. I thought I was getting nearer, only to discover an artificial lake spread out between me and venue. I arrived hot, thirsty and not in the best of moods.

One of the presenters of the programme, a clutch of notes in hand, was chatting with groups of audience members. About half an hour before the start of the programme we were taken into the broadcast area and shown to our seats. To me it looked as if the presenter seen in the reception area was identifying where certain members of the audience were sitting. This rang alarm bells with me as this was an event where the audience comprised politically active or supportive people. We had been asked how we would vote, along with numerous other questions before being accepted, and I wondered if there would be bias in the selection of those to ask questions. Politicians, one from all major parties, were seated in the front seats and provided with microphones.

Before the start we were briefed about clapping, and the two presenters did a number of trailers for the radio and television shows. Throughout this time we complained that we couldn’t hear what was being said, and, when we could hear, the sound was weirdly distorted. I put it down to the octagonal shape of the room and the large dome covering the whole area. An interesting feature, but it apparently mangled sound.

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During the filming, response was almost impossible because of the sound problem though the boom microphones obviously caught enough to broadcast. Should I clap or not? I raised my hand to ask questions, waggled it. The presenter looked straight at me and took someone else, someone who had already spoken. Was it one of the people the presenter had identified before the programme began?

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It soon became clear that my comments were never going to be aired nor questions asked. The same people were brought in time and again, and one politician seemed to get significantly more time than others – and seemed to have a much louder microphone.

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Broadcast bias or my imagination? Well, there are plenty examples of the former, but also numerous explanations and excuses given by the broadcasting company.

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Having left home just after four, we got back just before one in the morning, and all I’d had was a few sips of water. We hadn’t even had dinner. Was it worth it? Well, it was an interesting experience, but not I think one to be repeated any time soon.

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Madeira Wine – Rooted in history

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One of the many advantages on an apartment in the centre of Funchal are the number of places that can be visited without walking far. The old part of Funchal with its narrow streets and houses with wrought iron balconies sits alongside grand old properties given new leases of life beside wide boulevards and streets.

One of the oldest street in Funchal runs past the famous Blandy’s Wine Lodge, a must see attraction for most visitors. Last time we went we were too late for a tour, so we made sure we were in plenty time on this occasion.

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One of the oldest streets. It runs past Blandy’s Wine Lodge.

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Even manages to squeeze in tables and chairs for eating out.

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Then widens into a street of imposing houses and interesting restaurants.

But back to the wine lodge where we toured the visible attractions before our official tour started.

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The courtyard where you can sit and wait for your tour, visit the shop or the vintage room , or wander round a collection of old Madeira wine-making equipment.

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A grape press that must have taken some strength to operate.

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A hefty piece of kit for some part of the process.

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A bag (presumably animal stomach – didn’t ask) in which the grape growers transported the grape juice to Blandy’s. Nowadays the grapes are collected and pressed in a modern wine-making factory.

We gathered in the vintage room to await our guide and drool over the shelves of vintage Madeira. All bottles were for sale – at a cost. So only for the most special of occasions.

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Cabinets displaying bottles of vintage Madeira under the various names used by the company over the years.

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Wine name, date and company name are stencilled on in white paint, making the bottles very distinctive.

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I suspect even the dust may be vintage.

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These are under the name ‘Leacock’.

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Coming up for its century.

At the start of the tour we expected cool cellars, but instead found warm attics. Madeira, unlike other wines, requires warmth to age, so enormous wooden vats squat on well-strengthened floors on the first and second storeys of the wine lodge.

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Slowly maturing in the semi-dark warmth.

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Rows upon rows upon rows of wooden barrels filled with maturing wine.

Here too is a delicious aroma, not quite of Madeira but more of warm honey and herbs, a smell of summer fields and promises that belies the dark rooms with their rows of barrels.

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Strong floors are required for this lot. The size can by judged by the height of the man on the right.

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The company has its own cooperage to make and repair barrels. The wood was beautiful with a rich colour but rough texture. The smell was wonderful.

In the museum room videos show how grapes used to be picked by families and transported to collection centres. The grapes are still family grown on small plots as Madeira’s geography doesn’t allow for a more mass production approach. So the grapes that make Madeira continue to come from hundreds of small producers.

The museum has some fascinating old pieces of machinery, and displays of seals and labels as well as certificates. Unfortunately we didn’t get time to look in detail.

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A book showing some of the labels that were used at one time, all carrying logos of the many awards the wines have won. 

The end of the tour saw us in the bar area where we were each poured two glasses of Madeira of different kinds, sweetness and age. Most were happy to quaff and go, but I could have lingered to enjoy the experience.

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When in Madeira you definitely have to enjoy the local drink. Cheers.

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Flowers, succulents and croaks

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As spring arrives in the garden in our part of Scotland in this pre-Easter week, and flowers and shrubs blaze out in sunny yellows, joyous pinks and creamy whites, I think back to our visit a few weeks ago to the Botanic Garden in Funchal, Madeira.

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A lovely afternoon for a stroll amongst flowers and trees.

It was officially still winter in Madeira (though difficult to remember that given the mild weather) so we couldn’t expect vast arrays of flowers blooming their hearts out. But we weren’t disappointed by what we did see. There were plenty beds of flowers in bloom. This is, after all, a climate where bananas grow outside all year round and where the temperature rarely dips below 14°F even at night.

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Frilly trunks and an array of leaf shapes.

The Botanic Garden, like most things on Madeira, clings to a steep hillside. It borders the ravine down which fire raged during the bad forest fires in summer 2016. So it was fascinating, and heartening, to see blackened tree trunks with fresh new growth sprouting from the tops.

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Even after many month the ravages of the fires are still visible, and in may places will be for decades. You can just make out the cable car that runs from the waterfront to Monte.

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Blackened trunks, though happily these trees have survived to tell the tale. Others obviously weren’t so fortunate.

Much underplanting looked relatively new, so what was there was most probably also a victim of the fires, as was the nearby orchid garden which was sadly destroyed. Orchids are now readily and cheaply available in supermarkets here, but there’s something glorious about seeing them grow outside during months which, to us, mean short days and freezing temperatures.

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From one edge of the garden you get a grand view of one of the viaducts and tunnels which carry the main roads around the island.

I photographed the geometric area of planting in ruby reds and lime greens that all garden visitors snap, the photo which invariably appears in brochures, on websites and TripAdvisor.

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Winter but not as we in Scotland know it.

We passed on a path above and didn’t go down to try and identify the plants. Whatever they are, they make quite a stunning, and colourful, design against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The colour comes not from flowers but from leaves.

A favourite part for me was the area with succulents.

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Even here there were plants flowering in unusual colours.

I loved their size, the varied leaf shapes and often twisted forms of plants that I’ve only previously known as house plants, or rather succulents, prone to death by over-watering and chilly draughts, or growing leggy and sparse in search of Mediterranean sun.

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You can see how dry the ground looks due to lack of rain.

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You can judge from the man in the red shirt how tall these cactus are.

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These always remind me of Westerns watched when young on TV.

Wandering around the garden is a lovely relaxing way to spend an afternoon, though the bus journey is fairly hair-raising with narrow roads and hairpin bends, but the drivers are used to it.

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Lots of industrious spiders here obviously.

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Trapped in spiders’ webs, I assumed these were seed pods from trees, but I read recently about baby spiders congregating in webs. Don’t see any legs, though, so maybe they are seed pods or dead leaves. Anyone know?

Before leaving don’t forget to do as husband and I did and enjoy a half bottle of white wine and a couple of generous slices of delicious cake at the café while listening to the croaking of frogs in nearby ponds and taking in a view across Funchal to the ocean.

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Blissful way to round off the afternoon.

And then a pitstop before making our way to the bus stop.

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Male and female toilets were separate, but wash hand basins were all in this glass-fronted area looking out over the garden.

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Some privacy is provided by these rampant grasses.

And in case you thought I’d forgotten about the croaks, then this was one fine frog specimen in one of the ponds. Maybe if I’d kissed him he would have turned into a prince!

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Unbelievable how much noise they make.

Lovely afternoon amongst plants.

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