Corncrake on a stomp

Captured tonight, through somewhat foggy windows as a result of a salt encrustation following today’s cool and misty weather (and not because I haven’t cleaned them in absolutely ages), a corncrake in rare disco mode.

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Interspersed with moments of more classical corncrake posery (still and erect, and with as haughty a demeanour as can be managed by a bird that is pure comedy to look at), this one was engaged in somewhat odd flurries of wing flapping, throwing itself around the grass and, well, dancing in the spotlight cast by the brief moments of early evening sun. What animals get up to when they think you’re not looking, eh?

I suspect this is, in reality, a young bird that is testing out its wing power as well as its energy levels – and for very good reason too with a flight to the African savannah ahead of it in just a few weeks. No short hop, that, from the north-west tip of South Uist for a bird that you’re not sure would actually make it across to the other side of the bay without wheezing, potentially falling apart without a Tuffers-style break of some kind.

But, ahead of all that, it’s nice to see that s/he is also a bit of a chip off the old block: inhabiting her/his father’s favourite north-east triangle of the garden and, crossing through the corncrake-sized gap in the fence repeatedly, showing the same healthy disrespect for border fences. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to style and comportment (see below, passim). Other corncrakes I’ve heard recently – but ours: not a peep in the last few months. One suspects one hasn’t needed to – ours has definitely got himself sorted.

As for the imaginary soundtrack for our new, young corncrake’s Sunday night fever, well – it could be anything from cajun fiddle- and ‘tit fer-led psycho hoedown mayhem to something a little more modern. But I can’t get past the Brothers Johnson’s mighty Stomp (Everybody make it to the top…) – any excuse to refresh this one is just fine by me.

(Nicely shows off my newly-repainted fence, too 🙂 )

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Outer Hebrides and Shetland: a tale of two archipelagos

Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.

A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.

Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.

The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.

GDP Shetland and Eilean Siar

(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)

And, to rub it in further, Shetland has fewer people: 23,080 (only Orkney is smaller in Scotland) compared to 26,950 living on Eilean Siar, so the gap in per capita GDP (£38,160 plays £22,190) is a canyon of 72%.

The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.

Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.

A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.

What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.

I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):

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And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:

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And so it begins (again) …

Wandering around the side of the house this afternoon after the hail had melted away in the warmth of the sunshine, topping up the bird feeders as I went with additional sunflower seeds, I couldn’t help but notice this, just before I put my size 8s right on it:

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The dimensions – likely to be about 3cm, top to bottom, when whole – but more the pale blue colour without markings make me think this is a starling’s egg, carried away from the nest to avoid attracting the attentions of predators (though not too far away, I suspect). It looks as though our gang nesting in the walls of the old byre have a hatchling. Well sheltered it would therefore have been there, not least against today’s north-westerlies, but it’s been a cold week even before today’s hail.

Looking forward to the new member joining the gang in due course and, when old enough, being put to work on the usual lawn scarification duties – starling beaks probing the grass for leatherjackets and other tasty morsels are a great help in keeping the moss at bay!

Have also been seeing a lot of the male hen harrier these last few days; usually, it’s the female we see (and probably five days out of seven) but the male – presumably on breadwinning duties with the female on eggs or otherwise engaged – has recently been a daily visitor. Outside the breeding season, he seems to hunt elsewhere so it’s likely to be the prospect of an easy meal, with other mouths to feed, which have brought him hereabouts. In contrast to the female, which quarters the ground in a mazy flight from about 10′ up, twisting this way and that and looking largely for mice and voles rather than the local birdlife, the male’s tactic is to fly in low and very fast, scattering everything in an absolute panic, including a bunch of oystercatchers dozing in this evening’s sun in the shelter offered by the wee beach just down from the house, suddenly appearing, unseen and at pace, among them. He’s not interested in the oystercatchers – they’re far too big, for one thing – or indeed, it seems, in the rest of the wader population occupying our shore, but he does seem to enjoy waking up the neighbourhood. And so he ought.

UPDATE 11 May: walking around outside today, there were *a lot* more shells scattered on the grass and an unholy amount of high-pitched peeping screaming ‘feed me’ coming from the byre. Hoping therefore to get a lot more scarifying done this autumn!

Also saw the female hen harrier fly determinedly past about an hour ago, too – so it looks like the male’s doing a spot of house-keeping and -sitting tonight.

From the croft: Easter Sunday 2019

From aquamarine to turquoise to deep sea blue, here’s Good Friday’s sparkling colours of the sea looking north at low tide:

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Today, however, the mist has descended and we’re back to a uniform overcast dullness of greys.

In other wildlife news this Easter Sunday:

* our gang of starlings continue nest building and repairing in earnest, though the pair in the prime starling estate in the chimney pots of the adjacent (and empty) cottage has certainly been harrassed, if not predated, by the ravens

* a pair of pied wagtails continue scouting for a nest site in the stonework of the old byre and other ruins

* we have had a male blackcap visitor (which I’ve tried to encourage, with some success, by rolling an apple under the central ring of daffodils)

* five black-tailed godwits (2M, 3F) were on the shore yesterday, presumably on a pitstop before continuing off to their breeding territories on Iceland and the Faeroes

* formerly part of a pair, but now alone, a single brent goose has been making a daily appearance around teatime at high tide, having presumably got detached from the migrating family group

* last year’s Easter bunny made a brief re-appearance on the immediately neighbouring croft on Thursday (OK, it may not be the same one)

* both the female but also the male hen harriers continue to drive the waders into a panic, despite rarely being that interested in them, with, on one occasion this week, a small wader in hot pursuit, successfully driving the female up and over the nest sites

* the shelducks have paired up, with the male getting a bit feisty with the mallards, while groups of eider are also starting to form

* the neighbours’ sheep have started to give birth, the first few in the good weather of the last week with most, it seems, typically hanging on for the poorer weather to come in the next

* a large, presumably dog, otter crossed the road in front of us at Baile Garbhaidh on our road back from Barra yesterday, from the seaside of Loch Bi to the loch itself, briefly visible on the surface of the water before disappearing in search of a late supper, leaving only a trace of bubbles.

Meanwhile, both daylight and the grass grow longer, the yellow flag iris is getting taller and the nettles are starting to grow – perfect cover for the corncrakes on their ungainly, ever-unlikely return from Africa. They’ll be back, soon enough.

In the meantime, Happy Easter one and all.

24 hours in Brussels

I had a quick trip to Brussels last week immediately ahead of the European Council which offered a ‘flextension’ get-out-of-jail card on Brexit (much to the amused interest of people who I’d told where I’d been). (And which, of course, we’ve used immediately for parliament to go on recess.)

Brussels is a place I’ve been going to more or less annually for trips, conferences and seminars, and other events, since about 1994 and I both know it reasonably well (as far as anyone can ‘know’ any city), and like it: it can hide its charms, to some degree, and these might also be somewhat idiosyncratic and easy to mock, as Channel 4’s Travel Man (coincidentally on a repeated showing on C4 Sunday afternoon) clearly uncovered without a great deal of effort. Walking down on arrival at the Gare du Nord to my hotel (yes, I know…), I met the sight of a young man openly making good, if unofficial, use of a street planter in performance art tribute to one of Brussels’s statues (maybe this one, or perhaps this one).

But the airport is well located, just fifteen minutes by train (of which there are five or six an hour) from the centre of Brussels, and without charging rip-off fares; and even the automated passport barriers work without supercilious staff suggesting I take off my glasses like I’m intentionally using them as some sort of disguise (BA/Heathrow Airport seriously take note). And how you can not like a place whose baggage hall has a jukebox:

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Unusually, I managed to get from these islands to where I wanted to be the same day (morning flight from Benbecula-Glasgow; a short wait for a flight from Glasgow-Heathrow T5; and then a slightly longer wait than flight from T5-Brussels), though the downside was that this meant this trip was one of the shortest I have ever made (little more than the aforementioned 24 hours, from late afternoon one day to just before dinner the next). I was there for the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal, with discussion of many interesting ideas, articles and innovations coming the way of our subscribers in 2019/20, but no visit to Brussels would be complete without a meal at Bij den Boer or without sampling a few beers.

24 hours either side of a busy and important meeting didn’t deliver too much opportunity for the latter. (And gentle rain in the evening, persisting more heavily right throughout the next day, didn’t encourage much in the way of trekking or, indeed, of photos.) However, I did manage to make Brasserie Omnibus, a cafe bar  with a train theme, my local for the duration, serving a rather good, if sweet, Tripel Le Fort (plus a welcome little dish of bar snacks); while a nearby hotel bar delivered a proper temperature Rochefort Trappist 8 (which currently makes Belgium’s top 50 beers on Rate Beer), offering plenty of chocolatey goodness; while a wander around the corner from Bij den Boer to Cafe Merlo offered some new-style small-batch craft beer via Brasserie de la Senne, whose Zinnebir (a Belgian blonde) provided citrusy dryness to the post-dinner chat with colleagues wondering what the heck was happening with Brexit (my only new observation being that the UK is – or at least was, last week – a country in a state of open revolt in search of a revolution). All beers from bottles, by the way.

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So, with a tinge of sadness – this being (possibly, who knows?) my last trip to Brussels as a ‘free’ citizen, it was a farewell to the city of Brussels with at least a hopeful au revoir/tot ziens. ‘Til next time then, comrades (if the creek don’t rise).

Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

We’re in the middle of a mini-spell of dry, sunny and calm weather – which makes a change from an autumn which has so far been marked by a surfeit of rain and persistent gales and otherwise high winds. This morning saw barely enough wind to make the grasses lean and a clear sky which, in combination, made the bay free even of ripples of movement and which lent the water a milky sheen, a suggestion of and almost an absence of colour. It was a return to the best days of high summer.

Here, looking north-east from the kitchen door steps, and echoing this site’s new header pic (although this was taken to catch the reflections of late afternoon sun) we have Eabhal and Ruebhal in the centre of the frame (and the Dark Island turbine) but what is taking centre stage is the sea, streaked blue and translucent in the shallows of a retreated, but just off a neap, tide (with water levels low but a high tide line) and with a texture starting to be shaped by a growing breath of wind. The turbine, pointing south, and a sole oystercatcher at the bottom of the photo provide the only movement.

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Some three and a half hours later than the noon at which this photo was taken, and a short bike ride mostly finished, I stopped at Loch Bi just at the Aird A’Mhachair side of the Ard na Monadh road, with the sun due to set less than 40 minutes later and offering photographers full golden hour mode. A little cloud cover offered both a way of catching the sun’s rays as well as a means of allowing me to point the camera at the sun, with a stronger wind providing ripples across the water of the loch – mostly freshwater but with a component of salt water provided by very narrow channels funnelling through from Loch Sgioport – and lending it the creased look of silver cigarette packet paper.

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After so much rain and wind, days like these – and there a couple more yet to come – provide essential points of recharge, both for nature and for ourselves, anchoring us into a sustaining reassurance of calm amidst the headlong tilt at the senses presented by the hammeringly persistent rain and wind.

Test your STEM credentials here

This is one of my favourite roadside signs, advertising what is an ‘architecturally distinguished and well-appointed‘ hotel, a stop on the West Highland line and also on the route of the West Highland Way (although it’s not one of the recognised overnight points). There’s two of these signs in place (this actually being the one on the southbound carriageway of the A82); the northern-bound one, just following a recharging stop for our electric car in Crianlarich or Tyndrum, is placed just after one welcoming you to the Gàidhealtachd and before the road winds up over the Water of Tulla and on into the peatbog wilds of Rannoch Moor and the awe-inspiring grandeur of Glencoe; the place that, among other things, has launched a million Christmas shortbread tins and, these days, a million Skyfall selfies, whether Aston Martin or Nissan Leaf.

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Snapped last weekend here through the windscreen of a car moving at speed, this has long been a signpost for me, heralding far more than just locational positioning but representing a physical divide between lowlands and highlands, and (going north) a mental one between the old and the new, and particularly a point in response to the islands’ beckoning call.

But, about checking for those STEM credentials: looking at the sign, and amidst its gentle advertisement for a dimly-lit cosy bar, basking in the warm glow of a log fire, bare boards on the floor and a pint of the landlord’s finest on the table in front of you, what was your initial reaction?

1. Hmm. Bridge. Wonder if I can get a game?

2. Bridge, eh: do they still play that thing? Maybe I can watch for a bit and see how they do it…

3. Bridge. Yes, but beam, arch or suspension? (The answer is here.)

If you first thought (1) or (2), then possibly a career in STEM is not for you; if (3), your country and, of course, your union, absolutely needs you. Sign up as quick as you can.

Primaries, Uist-style

Some bold primary colors from Friday last week here on Uist, with the red of the dinghy and the blues of the sky, the sea and the prawn boat complemented by the green kite of the kite surfer, brilliantly catching the late afternoon sun.

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Truth to tell, we’ve not had a lot of days like this recently – May and June were lovely on Uist but July and August – in contrast to the heatwave across most of the rest of the country – has been cool and damp. Today, we’re back to grey clouds and rain, and, with the schools also going back tomorrow, and us also lighting the first fire of autumn, there is an end-of-summer feel about the place and this sort of picture is likely to become increasingly a rarity. For this year, anyway.

We also don’t get a lot of kite surfers off Mol Mor (the beach at Kilaulay, on the opposite shore of this photo). The spring tides we’ve had in the past week not only strand the prawn boats when moored and not in use at low tide,  but also expose the rocky reefs that radiate out from the beach like the bony spines of long-buried dinosaurs. These are hazardous to boats and to kite surfers alike, unless they really know what they’re doing and, with our winds, there’s always the danger of a mis-calculation or a mis-step which might well bring disaster or, at least, a nasty gash on the leg. However, the tide is pretty full here, submerging the reefs under a cover of water that might, to some degree, act to cushion a fall, so this one seems to be aware of the potential threat.

More days and scenes, including kite surfers with colourful kites, like these would certainly be very welcome; although I know how envious just about everyone else is of temperatures as cool as 16C (61F) and an afternoon of steady, and refreshing, drizzle!

Orchids eh

One of the pleasures of living on the Western Isles is watching the predominant colours change as early spring evolves into late, and late spring into summer.

The yellows of the early wildflowers on the machair – the unique and highly fertile land environment specific to the Hebrides consisting of an alkali top dressing, drawn naturally from seashell fragments blown ashore by the winds as well as from crofters’ use of seaweed as a fertiliser, on top of an acid base founded on peat – give way firstly to whites and then to reds, blues and purples. Yellow flag iris, birds foot trefoil and buttercups – yes, and dandelions (grr); daisies, eyebright, bog cotton, water lilies, clover, yarrow and cow parsley; red clover, thrift, ragged robin, knapweed, cranesbills and harebell. The blurred boundaries between the arrivals and departures of the various colours lead to breathtaking displays of nature at its fertile, naturally cohesive best. As well as a real reward for not cutting the grass.

And they also lead, in summer, to orchids.

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The spotted leaves give this away as a heath spotted-orchid (thanks to Rebecca Cotton for the ID!) though orchids are notorious hybridisers and there could, as a result, be all kinds of things in this one’s particular DNA. In warm conditions, heath spotted-orchids can be up to 40 cms (16″) high and feature a cone, or pyramid, of up to 50 flowers, though orchids also come in dwarf varieties – as apparently this one seems to be: just two flowers and little more than a handful of centimetres high, as the daisy (placed here for comparative flower size, not height purposes – the orchid is shorter) highlights. And no more than a pair of those spotted leaves.

They’re also pretty hardy – this one was found right underneath a washing line in regular use, and on a patch of our own machair which is mown quite regularly; either or both of which might well account for this one’s cropped top. A similar specimen subsequently discovered a few feet away (and with a total of a massive four flowers) was right underneath one of the washing line posts and existing on a few centrimetres of soil cast cosmetically on top of the several inches of concrete in which the post is embedded and which has been recolonised by nature. Mind you, if it’s warm conditions that lead to taller and more plentiful flower spikes, the general weather conditions on South Uist might well indicate a more natural than human explanation for this one’s more stunted, but nevertheless determined growth.

In contrast to the rather fragile exotic orchids beloved of flower shops and home design specialists, that these orchids have to struggle to survive in tough conditions (aside of the comforting soil of the machair) makes them a more than suitable metaphor for the Western Isles themselves. On top of this, their diversity and ability to develop hybrid versions of themselves provide an inspiring route map for essential survival and regeneration. Together, all this leads to orchids fast becoming my favourite wildflower – hence my delight at finding versions right on our own patch!

On a June midnight

The heatwave currently gripping all of the country has also held sway in the Hebrides, with the last few days being sunny, and hot (21C yesterday), and the Met Office forecast for the next week for the Range here on South Uist being sunshine all the way with daytime temperatures varying from 18C to 21C (again above 20C!). Consequently – other than tonight, when a dreadfully thick haar has rolled in off the sea – the days are also very long: an official sunset time of 2231 and a sunshine-related golden hour to follow means that there is plenty of light in the sky and no need for electric lights until after 11pm.

I blogged last midsummer about how much difference there is between the apparent compass point at which the sun sets at high summer compared to the depths of winter – at just beyond midsummer, the sun sets well past north-west. The counterpoint to observing this high angle of sunset is that you can also track the movement of the earth around the sun as the days move from one sunset above north-west towards the sunrise of a new day before north-east. Being at a lower level of latitude than the Shetlands, where I have also spent midsummer and where the ‘simmer dim‘ means that the hours of darkness with the sun below the horizon are really only twilight hours, it does get dark here although it’s a soft, shadowy darkness rather than hard nightfall. You couldn’t, famously, read a book outside. And yet, looking to the north, the sky (on a good day!) has plenty of colour, with the fading, but still present, orange tones of sunset shifting across the sky from where the sun sets towards where it will rise and, above that, blue fading to black overhead. Once your eyes have adjusted, it’s apparent that there is still plenty of light and, for the birds outside, there’s therefore also plenty of reason for activity, usually based on something or other winding up the redshank, whose piercing, piping calls as nests, and territories, are defended against any and allcomers are the soundtrack to this picture:

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(Taken last night looking due north at about ten minutes past midnight.)

With the weather being so good, most of Uist seems to be engaged on the jobs for which you need a guarantee of sunshine (and no rain) – like painting the shed (its third coat in two years, despite us using, er, Ronseal ‘One Coat’ – maybe it’s the way I’m using it but my shed appears to be something of an example of a product not exactly doing what it says on the tin), and the perimeter fence (a job which is long overdue and which is a substantial enough task not to be wanting to add further coats every single year).

So, rare days indeed – and, after a day soaking up the ozone and breathing in the aroma of paint, what better than to settle back with a sizable bottle of your own, and really rather good, homebrew as day turns into this sort of midnight blue?