Four days in Fife

More like three actually. But the alliteration makes it sound like a romantic film or a heist movie. We drove up Friday and this photo was technically taken from the disputed land between the two signs. There were recently photos highlighted on social media of the grass being uncut in this area with the Scottish side as neat and trim as the eighteenth green at St Andrews. Of course, it wasn’t laziness on the English side: I was happy to explain we were participating in #NoMowMay to protect the bees and the butterflies. Thank God for hashtags and insects who take the fast lane to get their pollen.

Disputed lands

On arrival we had to stock up with Scottish delicacies before visiting my in-laws. As well as Irn Bru, Empire Biscuits (below) are another favourite – often enjoyed by Edinburgh detective John Rebus. However, I’m expecting a rebrand any time soon as this name surely won’t last.

Empire biccies

We stayed at a former distillery manager’s house on the Fife coast, around thirty minutes from Edinburgh. We stayed on the top floor and there was great artwork everywhere. For a few short days I got to live the dreamy life of a writer with not much writing to do. It was perfect. I had Pantone coffee cups, modern art featuring Irn Bru bottles, views of the Firth of Forth, the atmosphere of a house built in 1805 and a fantastic spiral staircase. I had lots of creative ideas and didn’t do much. Perfect.

That staircase

The house is wonderful and lies at the foot of a hill overlooking the beautiful Firth of Forth. At night we watched huge tankers leaving Leith and planes taking off and descending into Edinburgh.

The house

This is the view of the hill out back. It’s quite a climb and has tremendous views of the Forth and coastline and men in salmon and gunmetal diamond-patterned sweaters thwacking golf balls over gorse.

The view out back

We went to a local coffee shop and had this delicious flapjack. It was the kind of coffee shop where they take this kind of thing very seriously. You have to choose between chemistry sets before they make your drink. I asked for a Mellow Birds with a dash of UHT and they threatened to throw me out.

Chemistry set coffee

On arrival at our house two of these beauties below were waiting for me. I love whisky, thankfully. It amuses anyone younger than forty to learn my Irish doctor prescribed a dash of scotch in my bottle to calm me when I was a baby. He’ll be pleased to know he helped me form a lifelong habit, although I no longer wear a romper suit to partake (that’d be weird). Slainte!

We only had three days but we walked miles of coast, sucked up the sea air, and saw plenty of my wife’s family. After three deaths (losing her father, uncle and nephew) in the last two years it was great to welcome two new (very young) members into the family and meet for the first time. I wasn’t allowed to indoctrinate them into the whisky habit yet, but there’s time. (It’s no longer the 70s sadly).

Scottish wine

Peace. Tranquility. First draft.

I haven’t posted as much recently as a result of writing around 73,000 words in just under 4 weeks. I almost have a first draft but, funnily enough, no title.

So I’ve written around 3,000 words per day but can’t decide on 5 or 6 for a title. A new work project begins shortly so I wanted to push myself and take this opportunity. I don’t usually write so fast but have found ‘outrunning’ the story fun, if exhausting.

I’ve been to North Wales recently (more of that soon) but Cannock Chase last Friday was a delight. We sat and drank tea and listened to the stream and the birdlife. Pics of the special place are below. It’s lush and beautiful now but was once a training camp for many Commonwealth troops preparing for the trenches of the Great War.

I hope that – despite the problems you may have to deal with – you are also enjoying some peace and tranquility.

I saw pebbles instead of words….

Stafford’s Market Square needs some love…

Work has begun on the Shire Hall. It’s going to become a ‘business hub’ and got a mention from Boris in the House a few weeks ago. As written previously I’d much rather have seen an arts venue or cinema or, better still, a place for people to play music, perform stand up comedy or poetry, in a safe environment. Towns like Stafford need to do so much more for younger generations if they’re not to leave for Birmingham, Manchester or London.

However, at least the building will be occupied as it’s been the focus of the town since 1795 and is beginning to look bedraggled. High Streets the length and breadth of the UK have suffered due to online trading, covid and other issues. There are cuts to budgets too. But Market Square is the town’s centrepoint and it is being neglected. For years the stones have been patched with black tarmac, giving the impression of a toothless grin or a broken old chess board. The phoneboxes are rusting, graffitied and scratched. There are weeds growing on the Shire Hall steps and pigeon poo all over the entrance and steps to the building. Market Square used to be a delight at Christmas or at the summer cycling events or concerts and it still scrubs up well when busy. But it badly needs some TLC as can be seen from the pictures below. I do see this elsewhere but I also see towns and cities – nearby Lichfield for example – looking much better. Perhaps we need a Transition movement and this has to be driven by communities.

I’d love to see the Market Square looking great again. Times are tough which is why it is more important than ever we take pride in our environment and heritage.

Slogans and logos and branding, and vinyls covering empty shop windows simply won’t do.

As an update there are plans to improve the square and North end of the town. Report here – https://www.staffordbc.gov.uk/news/staffords-market-square-vision-unveiled

There are no concrete plans yet but hopefully this will address the recent neglect and enhance the attractiveness once more.

Shire Hall with banners
Banners announcing the Business Hub
The Square
Tarmac like missing teeth
Phoneboxes in distress
Patching
Aethflaed never let the grass grow beneath her feet
Pigeons toilet

Satnall Quarry and Hills

Sunday’s walk was the Satnall Hills, high ground on the edge of Cannock Chase close to the Shugborough Estate (once home to Lord Lichfield)

Quarry face

The car park is beneath the quarry face. There is still a large working quarry on the Chase but these smaller sites once provided sand and gravel. I think this was Nicholls’ quarry.

Quarry from the car park

Climbing through the trees we emerged in heathland marked with signs to keep dogs on leads to protect nesting birds. Beyond that was the forest below – oak and horse chestnut and beech and sycamore and newer commercial species. Hard to imagine this land in the 1930s without trees.

Wooded slopes
Image from the 1950s of the Chase at Satnall Hills courtesy Staffs Past
Track

However, as we can see from this Staffs Past Track photo, this is how it once was. Nearby was Brocton Hall Golf Club before it moved to its current home the other side of the village. This has always been a popular part of the Chase due to its close proximity to Stafford. People would travel to Milford Common for days out. There are tremendous views through the clearings in the trees across the Trent Valley towards the Staffordshire Moorlands and Derbyshire.

Mighty horse chestnut

The hills were known as Satnall by Robert Plot, writing in the 17th century. Tim Cockin, writing in his informative and thorough The Staffordshire Encyclopaedia, suggests these hills were once topped with Scots pines planted by Thomas Anson to commemorate his brother’s world circumnavigation in ‘Centurion’ in 1740-44. Satnall Hill is highest at 475 feet or around 145 metres.

Tagged, numbered
View through the trees

On the high point there’s a covered reservoir, pictured below. It can take some finding as it’s surrounded by trees and gorse.

Covered reservoir
Gated entrance

Far underneath the edge of these hills lies the 710m-long Shugborough tunnel. High-speed trains pass through here at around 100mph. The tunnel was built, and the main road moved, to keep it away from Shugborough estate.

The Soup Kitchen

People have eaten at The Soup Kitchen in Stafford for hundreds of years, but under very different circumstances. It’s a popular place to meet friends or family and grab something to eat and drink. In an age where there are so many franchises on the high street it can be difficult to find independents, but the Soup Kitchen is well worth a visit.

Looking down Church Lane

It’s located in Church Lane, in Stafford, just off St Mary’s churchyard. Stafford town centre is quite small – it was once walled in – but this is the historic, well-preserved part. As well as the ancient churches of St Mary and St Chad, the Ancient High House and almshouses are nearby (and written about elsewhere on this blog).

The building is very old, dating back to the 16th century. In his book, The Ancient Town of Stafford, Alfred Middlefell writes that in 1881 number one Church Lane belonged to Joseph Griffiths and his daughter Margaret Owen, a dressmaker. Number 2 was the Soup Kitchen, opened by Lady Salt of Baswich House, who was devoted to looking after the poor.

Nursing care was provided and, Middlefell notes, a blanket club was run for the poor with around 150 blankets handed out each winter. By 1903 number 2 became a lodging house for actors at the nearby Playhouse. In 1920 it became an antiques shop before it became the Soup Kitchen once more. It is run by Duncan Sandy and has seating for around 300. The staff are very friendly and helpful and the food is great. More of that shortly. There’s more info here – http://thesoupkitchen.co.uk/about_us.htm

In such an old part of town, close to the churchyard, there may be some restless spirits or at least rattling crockery. BBC Stoke reported in 2014 that a ghost ‘affectionately known as Ethel’ would turn hot plates on and off and objects would fly from shelves. An apparition has also been reported in the entrance hall. It’s a fascinating building with booths and snugs and nooks and crannies. There are rooms that can accommodate many people – it’s popular for afternoon teas and family gatherings for christenings etc – but there are quiet, private tables and a small roof garden.

Branded teapot

They have branded teapots and cups, saucers and mugs which are popular with visitors. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon tea a few weeks ago and today stopped in for tea and cake. The Soup Kitchen can get very busy but it was quiet this afternoon and peaceful upstairs. We sat with views over the rooftops and The Swan hotel. It’s interesting to imagine who has lived here and sought refuge here in the last five hundred years. There are plaques on old houses in the town to commemorate soldiers who left their homes for the Great War. There is a plaque here as houses ran all down Church Lane.

Jammie Dodger Blondie

This is a new home-baked addition and was delicious.

Closeup of the Austin

Duncan drives this Austin in on weekends to help advertise the business (and provide a focus for selfies). I like it as it reminds me of the Anthill Mob, but perhaps it has Foyle’s War feel to it in keeping with the tea and scones. They also have a bicycle with a floral basket as part of the friendly, nostalgic feel which is a pleasant alternative to many coffee houses. I’ve been visiting the Soup Kitchen for decades and also enjoyed returning when I lived away. My in-laws love to go there when they visit from Scotland. I hope it remains as busy and enjoys many more years.

The Soup Kitchen car and Church Lane

There are some great photos and a write-up by BaldHiker here, which really capture the atmosphere. https://www.baldhiker.com/2015/08/20/stafford-church-lane-and-the-soup-kitchen/

The Soup Kitchen is open 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday.