Still no joke… ten years on from an exploding Icelandic volcano

‘Hey,’ said my friend Darko, ‘You can’t get back home!’ on finding me, as arranged, one mid-April evening in a hotel bar in Plzen, located mid-way between Prague and the Czech-German border broadly in the direction of Nürnberg. We were there, with other colleagues, to participate in an annual, albeit travelling, conference. I suspected Darko, known for his jokes, was pulling my leg – but ‘No – really: look!’ The TV was showing shocking pictures of a spreading ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland which soon led to airspace being closed, flights grounded and airports shuttered.

Hidden Europe, the regular English language publication dedicated to slow travel and to taking the train wherever possible, and published by a Berlin-based editorial bureau, reminded me this morning that it’s now just over ten years since those events saw me engage in some ‘slow travel’ of my own as I sought some way of returning north-west to the UK as the ash cloud was making its own, fairly leisurely, way south-east.

At a time of a lockdown caused by a different set of circumstances entirely, and with short-haul air travel again being viewed as not so much at a crossroads as at an end, assisted by sustainability concerns, it’s interesting to reflect on how things might have changed for travellers now faced with similar disruption.

I wrote about my experiences at the time on Connected Research, a WordPress blog I used to maintain (daily!) while working as a researcher for Connect and then Prospect. I’m deliberately not linking to it as the blog itself is not so much ancient as pre-historic, although you can still find it easily enough if you’re that motivated. The focus of my post was that, at a time of a communications revolution under which corporations were rapidly saving money for shareholders by locating customer services online, away from central, accessible locations (or at call centres whose lines were constantly engaged), information (and support) was almost unavailable with the result that travellers were being abandoned to the outcomes of their own, frequently poor choices and to chance. So much for customer service in the information era.

My own return journey took me in a rather circuitous way via Prague, Nürnberg, Berlin and Amsterdam (I had flown by KLM and laboured initially under the naive assumption that it was up to KLM to get me home again, or somehow ‘look after’ me) as I sought some resolution in the context of a rapidly dawning realisation that I was being abandoned entirely to my own devices amidst highly-influential stories (perhaps, indeed, sourced from a good deal of theatre; Hidden Europe is probably right there) of people paying exhorbitant sums for cross-border journeys.

This sort of return would be surely less likely to happen today: information is much more widely available to people on the move; ‘roam like at home’ has made data services more accessible to travellers; and smartphones are more ubiquitous than the ‘feature phone’ I then had, offering maps of somewhat less-than-familiar locations and access to pages offering advice on rights, as well as things like Twitter (which I joined six months later), providing hints and tips both from official as well as unofficial ones about what is, and is not, happening on the ground. The evident result of greater information is that critical choices at a time of immense disruption are likely to be better informed. Advice about the impact of CV-19 on impending journeys today features clearly on corporate webpages – see, for instance, the current KLM one.

On the other hand, it is not clear that travel companies have become more adept at the sort of decisive decision-making that lends itself to the ability to make definitive alternative plans in such a situation. Public accountability via things like Twitter can often produce turn-arounds when corporates become aware that they are losing a particular public relations battle – and that’s a clear advantage of the medium – but what is still more likely to prevail, at least in the first instance, is a fear of the outcomes of practical decisions, not only in the sense of claims for compensation, and this tends towards corporate blame-shifting, indecision and sclerosis. In my case, my airline was – like many others – caught on the hop and, as a result, it became invisible (though, perhaps, not as bad as some). Clearly, companies need time to sort themselves out when pressured by this sort of thing and, in the context of volcanic eruptions, the situation changes all the time. Lessons may well have been learned in the meantime – both as a result of Eyjafjallajökull as well as CV-19 – but whether these extend to clarity and decisiveness among corporates is a moot point. [Edit: it’s clear, meanwhile, that the UK government – Tories then as now – hasn’t got any better at repatriating people stranded abroad, with organisational incapacity, communications failures and a desire to save money at its heart.]

Incidentally, returning to Hidden Europe, my experience was not that Eurostar had plenty of seats available. In Nürnberg, Eurostar had no capacity at all from the Saturday afternoon until the Tuesday (and then only in first class) while, returning to the centre of Amsterdam on the Monday afternoon from a fruitless trip to Schiphol, I chanced on a travel agent who told me that a Eurostar had only just been released for the following day, and who wasted no time in booking me on it. An overnight coach from Berlin to London would have been interesting, though.

Did someone say Plzen? Here’s my photo of the brewery gates from that trip:


And here’s where they used to brew beer in the couple of centuries before the 1839 ‘beer revolt’:


Brewing up a storm…

I chose yesterday as a brew day (though actually, on looking at the calendar, as well as at the weather forecast, I ought to have used a rare day off work to have been bottling my Belgian blonde, instead).

This was the second of my three 4.5 litre kits from Edinburgh’s Brewstore – the third may follow next week (oh, the joys of having two fermenting vehicles!) – and which bills itself as a ‘session pale ale’: a beer which, with the ABV being a tad lower, you can drink by the bucketload. This one’s in the American style and so packed with ‘zesty, floral American hops’ – almost certainly Amarillo and, I think, also Chinook (there’s two varieties in the pack).

As before, the packaging is admirably no-frill (especially around the milled barley), although this also extended this time around to the recipe instructions, whose glorious incorrectness required a fair bit of on-the-spot thinking as well as reference to the bible according to James Morton in order to magic these base ingredients into something wonderful.

IMG_5713 (2)

Specifically, the recipe called for a pre-boil volume of 8 litres, whereas 7 was expected; and with a hop addition schedule which identified usage of about one-third of the quantity supplied and which looked, to my semi-experienced eye, seriously underweight for a beer of the style. Now, it’s not unusual to get a degree of over-supply – but usually with the yeast (a 10g packet is about twice the volume required, providing (among other things) that you’ve kept it properly and you’ve not put off your brewday too far beyond the delivery). Over-supply of hops is a different matter though – and, indeed, I will be using them all, simply scaling up the amount specified in the recipe (both in the boil and, ten days or so down the line, for dry hopping) to the quantities actually supplied.

Expecting to get 4.5 litres into my fermenter, I was, some 45 minutes into a 60 minute boil, faced still with c.7 litres of wort in my boil pot and a further 2.5 litres wasn’t going to boil off any time soon, so I decided to extend the boil for a further 30 minutes. A 90-minute boil isn’t a bad idea with paler malts, not least since it facilitates greater caramelisation and therefore produces a maltier flavour – but it does concentrate the wort a little more: at the end, I still had 5L to squeeze into the fermenter, and that’s even after allowing for the extraction of a testing sample whose gravity was, as a result of the concentration arising from the extended boil time, way over target. So much for this turning out to be a ‘session’ beer, then: provided the yeast is allowed to do its job as expected, this is likely to pack a punch more higher than the expected 4.3%.

The background to my decision to extend the boil time was growing thunder and lightning arriving, as expected, but a little earlier than scheduled and with voltage dips already briefly dimming the lights on several occasions. Thunderstorms are not so usual here on the islands although power cuts are; and putting 2 and 2 together made the decision a somewhat fraught one. Indeed, no more than five minutes later, a brighter flash outside was accompanied by lights going off inside – although, as it turned out, the power was only off for a minute or so. If it had been for longer, I was faced with the difficult decision of tipping a lot of wort down the sink, eventually proceeding to feed the nettles.

As it turns out, the power going off almost exactly coincided with the time this picture was taken, from just north of the Creagorry Co-op, on Benbecula, the South Uist hills a faint outline and only a few miles from our house/brewery:


Photo credit: @RossMcClenaghan

It was indeed quite a storm which lingered until bedtime but whose crescendo was very much earlier in the day, as Western Isles Weather also faithfully reported, and coincident with my brewing. Full credit to all the workers at SSE who kept us going through the strength of all that.

But, no harm done – and, indeed, from tasting the wort in my sample jar, I have again high hopes for this one: very bitter but already (ahead of dry hopping) with a powerful, piney-yet-zesty hop aroma and citrusy flavour. Just need the yeast to do its work now: and, as I type, there’s a steady rhythmic thud from the airlock, which is a good sign that it’s happily munching its way through the sugars, turning my wort into beer.

And, after those little successes in working over somewhat-faulty instructions, time to think afresh about a little investment in some bigger kit (and more beer) 🙂

Western Isles: peeking out from behind the curtains

At this stage in the pandemic, the islands continue to be quiet. There remains a surprising amount of traffic on our road – four miles from the main road and virtually the end of the spur which takes us to our north-west tip of South Uist – but these are largely our crofter neighbours going about their business on the land or the seas; tourists, in their camper vans and following sat navs across the dirt tracks of the range and via connecting roads that suddenly run out of tarmac before the end, are absent. Unlike on Skye, our bigger and busier neighbour, key workers are a little less likely here on Uist to be mistaken as a tourist for taking a photo, and consequently given abuse.

As I’ve written before, we continue to suffer the same lockdown as everyone else – and, indeed, in many ways worse than that since The Minch means we remain essentially cut-off: the airports have been closed and ferries remain open only for essential travel – and that’s, essentially, to allow food and key workers in (and the same out again). Some of our neighbours, with addresses on the mainland or elsewhere, haven’t been back here for months; while life for our neighbours with camp sites, caravans and B&Bs remains, just ahead of the longest day, an out of season quiet, empty limbo.

Nevertheless, the Scottish government has now started to ease the restrictions (here, by the way, is your regular reminder that Scotland is already an independent country), although people still need to remain around five miles from home for leisure or relaxation and, while shops have an end-of-June perspective on re-opening, this does not include ‘non-essential office, call-centre, culture, leisure and hospitality premises.’ Meanwhile, transport companies are starting to consider what opening up looks like: Loganair (‘we’re ready when you’re ready’) has started to offer some flights; the bus companies have a route map to move back to a regular timetable from being a virtually telephone booking service; and options are being considered for CalMac ferries.

While the message still quite clearly remains stay home, the tourist industry now has a perspective on re-opening, on 15 July, subject to a confirmation planned for 9 July (and is itself a reason for the travel planning now being done). This of course remains a thorny, potentially divisive subject. The tourist industry would like some level of re-opening before the season, and therefore 2020 as a whole, is lost completely; meanwhile, here on Uist and Benbecula (and Barra), we have still – as far as we know – had no cases of the virus: and long may it stay that way. It’s a quandary to which there is no compromise solution: tourism is clearly of major significance to the current shape of our local economy: across the highlands and islands, nearly one in three workers are currently furloughed – more than any other region in Scotland – and, while primary industry and the public sector accounts for much more employment in the western isles, tourism here has been heavily, if unfortunately edgily, promoted in recent years.

As an island (within an island group), we have several natural advantages which allow us to keep the virus at bay (if only that larger group had responded appropriately, and in an appropriately timely, less lazy, fashion, we might have been having this conversation months ago); and, at this point, the only ones bringing this thing in are, aside of the rumours surrounding the recent seventh case up on Lewis, likely to be tourists (here, this week’s New Zealand experience is salutary). While the rest of the Scotland and indeed the UK is contemplating a period of respite before a likely second wave that this respite itself is probably going to cause, we don’t want to be deploring the arrival of an initial wave. I don’t have a tourist business to run and I’m very sympathetic to those who do, but the potential costs (heavy here, for reasons explained before) surely outweigh the benefits, while an island group where there is a relatively high number of cases (it will travel rapidly here, should it arrive) may well quickly kill off next year’s business as well.

What’s also of some importance, to someone like me engaged with the idea of ‘to travel hopefully…‘ – that getting there is a fundamental, integral part of then being there – is the quality of the journey. Mandatory face masks on public transport, only passengers being  allowed in airport terminal buildings, ferries running at less than twenty per cent of capacity and airlines also with numbers restrictions, and both offering an experience of rows and series of taped-off seats and benches to ensure social distancing, amidst other invonveniences – clearly none of this offers an attractive travel opportunity. Travel has, in the past few years, and for a variety of reasons, represented an increasingly dispiriting, soulless experience and local transportation – getting to and from the western isles, and then around it in the leisurely way that is required – seems set to join the club. All necessary, of course – and I feel very much for the workers involved in that every day they go to work, who also need the confidence about exposure to the virus – but it offers an unattractive prospect.

As it is for B&B owners here too, one of whom told me only recently that her guests are regulars, having been coming for years, and who are always greeted with a hug. Not being able to do that under distancing rules leaves arrival and departure an awkward, unfriendly and unpleasant experience. Meanwhile, none of them either want to be the owner of a B&B whose guests were the ones bringing the virus in. On top of that, with ‘non-essential’ places – like museums, pubs and catering establishments – still shut, there’s little left for people coming here other than the outdoors. Nature is wonderful, and especially so here, but meeting people and enjoying their hospitality, and learning from them, is an essential part of the holiday experience and, if this is currently unavailable, the experience will be a partial, and incomplete, one and I wonder whether this, alongside the difficulties, increasing inconveniences and the cost of getting here, renders it also unworthwhile.

It might not be the end of travel, exactly; but travel is, it seems, likely to become for essential journeys only for the foreseeable future if for no other reason than the degraded quality of the experience. In that sense, the West Highland Free, in its editorial today (linked above), is right to wonder whether some ‘fresh thinking’ is required (and in the fairly short-term) about whether the region ‘should look beyond tourism and harness greater opportunities from the likes of agriculture, aquaculture, information technology and energy production’.

It is. Islanders tend to have several jobs, and for most – though far from all – tourism is not the only source of income, while tourism has come relatively late, but it is a healthy reminder that a diverse economy is a stronger one and that over-exposure to one or other sector will always leave people in a vulnerable position.

So, time to call sunset on this season, I think.

Talking of which, here’s one for you from last night, taken just before 11:

IMG_5686 (2)

And, as a bonus, here’s Ian’s fishing boat at twenty past ten last Friday night, resting up under a glorious pink-washed sky after a day’s hard work relieving the pressure on food deliveries in these times by bringing quality shellfish from the sea straight to our pots. Not only great work, but an important pointer to how things – the new normal – ought to be in the future.

IMG_5647 (2)

EDIT: 22 June – yesterday carried an article voicing similar themes and reporting also that ‘quiet voices’ among islanders were coming to the conclusion that the islands should ‘stay closed ’til 2021′. This blog adds one more such voice.

Brew Day: Belgian Blonde

Friday might well be the brewday of choice for the discerning home brewer – but Wednesday is perfectly possible, too. And, with a small gap on the work front, ahead of a busy couple of days coming up, today was the turn of a Belgian Blonde kit.

This is the first of three different kits secured a couple of weeks ago from Brewstore, an Edinburgh-based supplier of all things home brew since 1979. Currently closed to personal customers, as is the way of things during the current Troubles, the website offers a window, at changing times of the day and evening, during which people can place orders, and this came with pretty prompt service after one evening when I found myself, fortuitously, in the middle of one of those windows.

Continuing the minimalist theme of the Brewdog Elvis Juice kit I made a week or so ago – and which is still sat in my main fermenter, fermentation having (I hope) finished, and now absorbing the flavours of the dry hops I put in on Monday – this kit also provides only the basic ingredients and leaves you to get on with the job:

IMG_5637 (2)

Steriliser – nah: supply your own; kit instructions – check the website; flavour notes and tips – well, everyone knows a Belgian Blonde, don’t they: in this case, ‘classic Belgian fruitiness, lightly spicy and hints of clove’. Hoppier than I remember, and a little deeper amber in colour, too, if the contents of my gravity sample jar are anything to go by. Perhaps it’s just too long since I was last in Brussels. The handwritten labels, so I don’t mix hops or malt up with the other two packs I ordered, is a nice touch. And yes, the (vacuum-packed) hop (pellets) are in a little paper bag, of precisely the sort that your tuppenny mix (insert your own currency here) used to come in. The malt is not vacuum-packed – it’s in a poly bag with a hand-tied knot – but I know it’s freshly milled. And here, the yeast is at least a 10g pack: more than enough to give me another go at some future point. (At around a tenner, I should also say that it’s pretty well priced.)

And, actually, that is the point – Brewstore also offer a ‘recipe builder’ service so, in the future, I can order the hops and the malt that I need to make a particular beer, and in the quantities I want. That’s definitely one step closer to ‘proper’ brewing, once I’ve finished ironing out the process and getting my mistakes learning points out of the way.

With just the one set of hops, and all introduced at the start of the boil (or before, if you’re first wort hopping, like me), this was a fairly straightforward process (and I even managed to do a bit of cleaning up rather than needing to keep a close eye on my timings, otherwise pacing up and down, while the wort was on the boil). The tricky bit about a Belgian Blonde, so James Morton tells me, is in the fermentation, which has to be kept cool in the first 48 hours before letting the yeast rip. Keeping things cool in the Hebrides is not usually much of a problem – though, even so, while I managed to cool my wort down lower than I ever have done before, pitching the yeast at 18C, my demijohn is now sat in a bath of cold water at a steady 18C. Conversely, ‘letting it rip’: well, let’s just say I’m a bit less confident about that. At least the weather forecast is for sunshine over the weekend so, once it’s out of this initial lag, let’s see how the yeast gets on in the warmth of a Hebridean summer. (And another good reason for timing a Wednesday brewday.)

No brewday is ever quite complete without a panic or two – here, the major one was actually last night when I found out that the new silicon bungs I bought when the previous airlock got stuck in one (and snapped) wouldn’t fit my demijohn, no matter how much hot water, squeezing and swearing I tried. A quick online consultation with the very helpful and reliable home brewers over at the HomeBrew Forum confirmed for me within minutes that a freezer bag held on with a rubber band (if I wanted to have confirmation that fermentation was underway); or a bit of cling film (sanitised) and secured in place similarly (if I don’t), were more than acceptable substitutes. In brewing, there is no problem that no-one has yet come across – or found an answer to.

Life is probably a bit like that too, once we remember how to ask.