Delightful assistants disappear

One sunny spring afternoon delightful assistants no.1 and 2 arrived at Abernethy Forest for a health-giving walk in the fresh air. They set off to explore the area around beautiful Loch Garten.

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A strange thing started happening as they walked through the forest.

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Slowly but surely they began taking on the appearance of their surroundings, camouflaging themselves like flounders on a sandy seabed,

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until, eventually, they became entirely invisible.

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As they moved out of the trees they spotted a rock on a little beach. Maintaining invisibility had been exhausting work and they needed to rest and get their strength back. They sat on the rock and gazed out across the loch in the sunshine,

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and revived themselves for the next leg of their adventure.

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Back in the forest, delightful assistant no.2 went to take a closer look at the bark on one of the trees. Despite his advancing years, he often doesn’t know his own strength and he had barely laid his hand on it when there was a terrific crash. Delightful assistant no.1, who hadn’t been paying much attention to his movements, was horrified to see the cause of the disturbance.

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‘Oops!’ A contrite delightful assistant no.2 owns up to his misdemeanour.

Thinking they’d better leg it pretty sharpish, they moved swiftly away from the scene of the crime.

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After a while they became tired and needed to stop for a rest. Just at the right moment an attractive looking seat appeared.

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After the tree incident they were slightly nervous about sitting on the seat. Would it stand up to their combined strength?

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They decided to risk it, and sat down rather gingerly.

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Thankfully, all was well. The seat was made of solid stuff and the assistants were able to relax nicely.

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Having had a good rest they got up and made their way back to where they’d left the car.

As they walked along a capercaillie popped up out of the woods. Next to the capercaillie was a small perch upon which a visitor might rest awhile. Very gently, being careful not to knock the poor bird over, delightful assistant no.2 sat down.

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He spoke softly to the bird, assuring it that he meant it no harm.

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The capercaillie seemed to welcome the attention and the two of them became firm friends.

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The delightful assistants arrived home that evening having thoroughly enjoyed their visit to Abernethy Forest, but I think I’m going to cut back on the amount of spinach I give them from now on, just to be on the safe side.

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Categories: Nature, Photography, Scotland, Trees | Tags: , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the phenomenally successful Discworld novels, as well as a number of first class children’s books, died yesterday aged only 66.

I was first introduced to his writing nearly twenty years ago when a friend recommended the Discworld book, Reaper Man.

reaper-man-1 I loved it and have since read many of his other books, including some of his excellent children’s novels.

His first novel, The Carpet People, was published in 1971 and he went on to write more than 70 books in the next 43 years. That is pretty extraordinary by anyone’s standards.

In an interview in The Internet Writing Journal in 2000, Terry Pratchett had this to say about writing:

Everyone finds their own way of doing things. I certainly don’t sit down and plan a book out before I write it. There’s a phrase I use called “The Valley Full of Clouds.” Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree. At this stage in the book, I know a little about how I want to start. I know some of the things that I want to do on the way. I think I know how I want it to end. This is enough. The thing now is to get as much down as possible. If necessary, I will write the ending fairly early on in the process. Now that ending may not turn out to be the real ending by the time that I have finished. But I will write down now what I think the conclusion of the book is going to be. It’s all a technique, not to get over writer’s block, but to get 15,000 or 20,000 words of text under my belt. When you’ve got that text down, then you can work on it. Then you start giving yourself ideas.”

I’ve read quite a lot of advice about writing, much of it from accomplished authors, but Terry Pratchett’s attitude particularly inspires and enthuses me.

Dedicating your life to fulfilling and enjoyable work (which, ideally, produces a nice income) is one of the things that makes life worth living. Terry Pratchett loved writing, and people loved reading what he wrote. It was the perfect scenario.

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Categories: Books, Inspiration, Writing | Tags: , , , | 26 Comments

Puddings

The delightful assistants and I lunched out today at the consistently excellent Gloagburn Coffee Shop near Perth.

Gloagburn coffee shop

Gloagburn Coffee Shop near Perth.

After enjoying fairly substantial main courses we all felt inclined to finish off with a pudding.

Delightful assistant no.1 went for a fresh fruit pavlova. Although it’s not shown in this picture, there was a little jug of pouring cream on the side. She slooshed the cream over the pavlova and polished it all off nicely.

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Fresh fruit pavlova (with hidden jug of pouring cream).

Delightful assistant no.2 chose an apple and almond cake, nobly refusing the offer of cream or ice cream to accompany it.

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Moist and almondy apple and almond cake (no cream).

I was the only one who had a good look at the cake counter, but I did what I always knew I would do and went for a scone. On this occasion it was a fruit scone, served with butter and raspberry jam.

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Fruit scone with butter and raspberry jam (I was offered cream in place of the butter, but I thought of my arteries and declined).

We chatted away companionably during our savoury courses but, as delightful assistant no.1 has often remarked, conversation tends to cease during pudding, and so it was today. I, for one, was lost in a sort of scone-filled paradise, concentrating solely on the delicious morsel on my plate.

When it comes to awarding points for things I usually like to leave a little room for improvement, so that a really good example of something might only get 8 or 9 out of 10. However, this scone was so utterly magnificent that, despite coming hot on the heels of a baked potato, I am unable to award it anything less than the full 10/10.

When I mentioned this to delightful assistant no.2 he suggested that I had been in ‘scone nirvana’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Sconirvana.

Categories: Perthshire, Photography, Pudding, Scotland | Tags: , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Daffodils and chocolate

Last April I happened to pass a large patch of beautiful daffodils outside Strathtay Parish Church.

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Strathtay Parish Church with daffodils.

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A carpet of yellow beauties in front of Strathtay Parish Church.

Strathtay is a pretty little village situated in Highland Perthshire. I’ve often thought that if I had a spare million or two I wouldn’t mind taking a leaf out of J K Rowling’s book and splashing out on one of the local mansions.

The area is one of the destinations the delightful assistants and I often seek out, particularly in the warmer weather, and the fact that the neighbouring village of Grandtully contains an award winning chocolate shop and cafe is certainly an additional lure.

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A well filled cup of hot chocolate at Legends of Grandtully.

It’s not only daffs that Strathtay is good for either. Come May the roadside banks break out in a profusion of bluebells.

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Bank of bluebells in Strathtay.

One of my aims for the year is to visit Strathtay in both April and May and get some more snaps of spring flowers. As it happens I also have what could be considered a voucher for the chocolate shop. On a recent birthday I received a note from the delightful assistants. I’ve got it stuck on my pinboard to remind me of pleasures to come.

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The difficulty of how to spend this voucher has been bothering me for the past week (a pretty pleasant sort of bothering, I admit). I’ve considered several of my favourite chocolate treats, but I haven’t yet been able to make up my mind.

In any event, while I mull over this important decision I think a trip to Strathtay might be in order. It’ll be a while yet before the daffs appear, but thankfully the chocolatier and cafe are open all year round.

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Strathtay Parish Church hiding behind trees and daffs. Chocolate just out of sight.

Categories: Chocolate, Daffodils, J K Rowling, Perthshire, Photography, Scotland | Tags: , , , , , | 26 Comments

Intriguing sights no.7

There is a field near where I live that is surrounded by a wire fence, as pictured below.

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I don’t know if you noticed, but attached to a rope near the top of the fence is what looks to me like a snail hanging by its shell.

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I’ve walked past the fence innumerable times, and every time I pass this section of it I’m surprised anew to see the snail. It’s been there for years, the same snail in the same position.

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As intrigued as I am to think that a snail could a) hang onto a rope in this manner, and b) remain there for years on end, I’m even more intrigued to find that it isn’t in fact a snail at all.

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Categories: Blairgowrie, Intriguing Sights, Perthshire, Photography, Scotland | Tags: , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Battle of the flaky chocolate confections

If I were to list my top ten Cadbury’s chocolate bars, the following three would certainly be in it: Twirl, Flake and Time Out.

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Each of these bars exists as the result of a serendipitous event. Back in 1920, inside the Cadbury’s factory, one of the employees noticed a curious phenomenon. When the moulds used for making chocolate bars were full, excess chocolate dribbled over the edges in a thin stream. When it cooled, the stream formed thin flaky layers of chocolate. These layers proved to have a nice texture for nibbling. Enter: Cadbury’s Flake.

Ten years later, someone had the bright idea of combining Flakes with ice cream, and the ’99’ was born.

Image courtesy of ebay.co.uk.

Image courtesy of ebay.co.uk.

There’s an entertaining newspaper article about 99s here, which refers to the problem of ‘angle-angst’ suffered by those who are concerned about how the Flake is stuck into the ice cream. But I digress. Back to the treats in question.

Flake, Twirl and Time Out all contain the same flaky, layered milk chocolate to a greater or lesser degree.

For an unadulterated flaked chocolate sensation you need look no further than the original creation, the Flake. In its usual form it comes as a single length of flaky chocolate that crumbles very easily.

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Flake from above.

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Cross section of Flake.

The Twirl is more or less a Flake coated in a smooth layer of milk chocolate. It usually comes in a twin pack with bars that are shorter in length than Flake.

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Twin bars of Twirl from above.

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Cross section of Twirl.

Like Twirl, Time Out used to come in a twin pack, but nowadays I see it far more frequently sold as single bars in a multipack. Unlike Flake and Twirl, Time Out could arguably be categorised as a biscuit rather than a chocolate bar. My local supermarket stashes it in amongst the biscuits and not in the confectionery section. The reason for this is that in addition to the folds of flaky chocolate there are two layers of wafer, as seen below.

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Time Out from above.

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Cross section of Time Out. Note flaky chocolate layer sandwiched between layers of wafer.

Here are the three items together for comparison. At the top is the Time Out, in the middle is the Flake and at the bottom are the twin bars of Twirl.

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For many years I declared my favourite chocolate bar to be the Twirl. Although passionate about the taste of the Flake, its crumbly nature has often been a source of anxiety. I find it more or less impossible to eat one without dropping minute crumbs of chocolate onto my clothes, which then melt into small brown blobs in the fabric, which upsets me. In the past year or two I’ve rediscovered the Time Out, which virtually disappeared from British confectionery shelves for ages, and I began to ask myself if this old friend was a real rival to the mighty Twirl. The Twirl, incidentally, is one of Cadbury’s bestselling items.

There was only one thing for it: a taste test.

Having more chocolate than would be advisable to eat on my own, I issued an invitation to the delightful assistants to join me in this endeavour. They graciously accepted.

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Hot beverages were made and bits of chocolate bar were put on a tasting plate.

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We each tasted them in the same order: Flake, Twirl, Time Out, sipping at our tea and coffee between chunks.

As always, the delightful assistants took their jobs seriously. They tasted each morsel carefully,

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before making appropriate notes about the experience.

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Starting with the Flake, delightful assistant no.1 described a “pleasant texture”. Delightful assistant no.2 also mentioned the texture, with the following observation: “the taste comes late because the initial sensation is dominated by the texture, the roughness, the crumbliness, the dryness…”

Of the Twirl, delightful assistant no.2 wrote that the “taste of chocolate comes with the first bite” while delightful assistant no.1 noted that the “chocolate coating creates a more solid, less transient impression”.

Finally, the Time Out reminded delightful assistant no.1 of a Kit Kat and was, in her opinion, “less distinctive than Flake”. Delightful assistant no.2 had this to say of it: “the biscuit in the centre suggests that this is more than a chocolate treat: it is a meal, full of essential nutrition.”

When asked to rank the three in order of preference this is how they fared:

Delightful assistant no.1 - Flake, Twirl, Time Out

Delightful assistant no.2 – Twirl, Flake, Time Out

Lorna – Flake, Time Out, Twirl

In my case, there was quite a tussle for top spot and Flake only just edged it past Time Out. What surprised me a great deal about this was that, having tasted all three at the same time, the Twirl – for many years my preferred chocolate treat – was positively lagging behind the other two in third place. However, as I said to the delightful assistants (who have become well trained in purchasing the odd Twirl for me as a treat), I shouldn’t like this ranking to make anyone think I’m no longer interested in Twirls. I am extremely happy to consume Twirls and I still think them a tip-top confection.

Is this how things will remain from now on, I wonder, or will my allegiance change again the future? I think it would be wise to conduct regular taste comparisons to keep tabs on the situation.

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Amusing napkins for chocolatey fingers.

Categories: Cadbury, Chocolate, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

What to do on a cold day in January

At the end of January last year the delightful assistants and I took ourselves off to one of the surprising number of large parks surrounding the city of Glasgow. We opted for one of the smaller ones, Calderglen Country Park, in the town of East Kilbride about 8 miles southeast of Glasgow.

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One of Calderglen’s many attractions: a play park with impressive wooden structures.

The ‘glen’ in the name refers to a wooded river valley which extends for over 3 miles. The waterway that cuts through the glen is a tributary of the River Clyde that flows through Glasgow. As it passes through the park it goes by the unfortunate name of Rotten Calder River. Undeterred by the somewhat offputting name, we toddled along the riverside paths taking in the glen’s natural wonders.

We crossed bridges,

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Delightful assistant no.2 descending the steps towards South Bridge in Calderglen Country Park.

watched water dribbling down rockfaces,

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admired clusters of snowdrops,

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and bark patterns on trees,

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and marvelled at the glen’s interesting geological structures.

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Delightful assistants drawn towards big lumps of rock.

It was such a bitterly cold day that we didn’t want to stop moving for fear of freezing to the spot. I did, however, manage to get the delightful assistants to pose in front of a small weir, a place at which delightful assistant no.1 was particularly pleased to find herself feeling taller than usual.

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An illusion, dear readers.

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Thankfully, there was a cafe close to where our riverside walk ended and we retreated there out of the cold.

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We ordered tea and toasted sandwiches.

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One particularly joyous aspect of the toasties was that they were triple decker.

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I should imagine that in the warmer weather Calderglen Country Park would be a popular place with families. As well as the riverside walks and play area, the park contains ornamental gardens, a small zoo, glasshouses, a golf course and a gift shop.

If it weren’t for the fact that there are so many other parks to be explored I might well go back to Calderglen for another visit. It was certainly a pleasant surprise and an excellent resource for the community of East Kilbride.

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Categories: Lanarkshire, Photography, Scotland, Snowdrop, Tea | Tags: , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

A life stripped bare

I recently finished reading the book, “A life stripped bare”. The author, Leo Hickman, is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and this book came about after his employer set him the challenge of trying to see if he and his family could live more ethically over the course of a year.

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He began his experiment by inviting three auditors into his home, to assess his family’s green credentials. The auditors consisted of a director of Friends of the Earth, the founder of the Planet Organic shops in London and a researcher at Ethical Consumer magazine. These three people went through Leo’s home, pulling things out of his kitchen cupboards, reading the labels on cleaning products and probing him about all aspects of his lifestyle. As I read the book I felt mighty glad that nobody was rifling through my cupboards in a similar manner, but some of the what they said was certainly relevant to me.

I admire people who make big changes to their lives in order to lower their carbon footprint or try to live in a more community minded way. My brother Fergus, who went missing in September, was one such person. On his website he recorded his thoughts about a variety of ethical concerns, some of which caused him a great deal of mental anguish. He suffered from depression, and in his darker moments felt overwhelmed by the huge scale of many of the world’s problems. He didn’t just worry about them, however, but made a concerted effort to do something practical in response. A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of him. It also made me think more about which aspects of ethical living instinctively appeal to me, and which I’d find much harder to take on board. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing, for example, that I don’t know where my bank invests its customers’ money, or if the companies I choose to interact with have a poor track record when it comes to human rights or environmental issues. Those things should matter to me, but because they don’t impinge on my day to day life I find it easy to put them to the back of my mind.

On the reverse cover of the book are the following three questions:

How often in life does convenience triumph over ‘doing the right thing’?

Can you really make a difference?

What does ‘ethical living’ mean anyway?

I now have a better idea of how to answer those questions for myself and I imagine most people would agree, in theory at least, that it’s worth trying to live more ethically by making choices that cause less harm to ourselves, to others, and to the local and global environment. An interesting aspect of the book is the inclusion of letters that were sent to Leo from all over the world. Although he did receive a few discouraging messages, the majority of correspondents were positive and encouraging.

The main message I took away was that although none of us can do everything to solve the world’s problems, we can each do something, and something is better than nothing. As Leo Hickman says, “you can’t save the world single-handedly, but you can make more of an effort than you did yesterday.”

I think I have now become more aware of what is meant by ‘ethical living’. If all we do initially is to give a bit more thought to our actions, we’ll be in a better position to have a positive effect on society. I hope I can not only keep that message at the forefront of my mind, but get into the habit of applying it in practical ways. I don’t think this book would have had the same impact on me had I not witnessed first hand someone deliberately living as ethically as they could. For that, I have Fergus to thank. Unfortunately, I can’t tell him about this in person but it’s a comfort to know that he’s left such a positive legacy.

Categories: Books, Organic, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Chocolate biscuit tasting challenge

After writing a recent review about the Polish chocolate biscuit sensation, Prince Polo, I felt inclined to set myself the challenge of tasting several wafer biscuits at once. In my review I mentioned the similarity between Prince Polo and the British Blue Riband biscuit. I also mentioned Kit-Kat, the king of wafer biscuits in the UK.

There are lots of chocolate covered wafer biscuits on the market, many of which contain layers of toffee or other flavours. If I were to attempt to include all of them in a tasting I would quickly feel a) overwhelmed and b) sick.

For this tasting, I decided to stick to basic wafer/chocolate combinations and chose the following five biscuits as my tasting treats:

Prince Polo   *   Blue Riband   *   Blue Riband Dark   *   Kit-Kat   *   Kit-Kat Dark

I hunted high and low for the Blue Riband Dark, which proved an elusive beast. After failing to find any, my original five biscuit list was reduced to four. Here are the biscuits, resplendent in their packaging.

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A quick description of each biscuit seems prudent.

Prince Polo4 wafer layers interspersed with chocolate cream, all covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate.

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Blue Riband - 4 wafer layers interspersed with chocolate cream, all covered in milk chocolate.

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Kit-Kat Dark3 wafer layers interspersed with chocolate cream, all covered in a thick layer of dark chocolate.

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Kit-Kat3 wafer layers interspersed with chocolate cream, all covered in a thick layer of milk chocolate.

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To assist me with this challenge I roped in my trusty associates, the delightful assistants. Delightful assistant no.2 has a great passion for biscuits of all sorts and was enthusiastic about participating. Delightful assistant no.1, while less keen on biscuits is decidedly keen on chocolate and particularly partial to a Kit-Kat. Coffee was prepared and the biscuits laid out on a tasting plate.

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We all sampled the biscuits in the same order: Prince Polo, Blue Riband, Kit-Kat Dark and Kit-Kat Original.

As we did this, we sipped at our coffees and made tasting notes.

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Delightful assistants assiduously making notes on chocolate covered wafer biscuits.

After munching through the biscuits, we read out our notes and were surprised by each other’s comments. For example, we all mentioned the sweetness of our first biscuit, the Prince Polo, but our opinions differed significantly:

Delightful assistant no.1 – “rather sweet”

Delightful assistant no.2 – “not too sweet”

Me – “not sweet enough”

And so it went on, with disagreements aplenty and definite variations in preference.

We each ranked the biscuits from 1-4, with 1 being our favourite and 4 our least favourite. Here are the final results in order of preference:

Delightful assistant no.1: Kit-KatKit-Kat DarkBlue RibandPrince Polo

Delightful assistant no.2: Blue Riband, Prince Polo, Kit-Kat, Kit-Kat Dark

Lorna: Kit-Kat Dark, Blue Riband, Kit-Kat, Prince Polo

One of the few things we did agree on was that the chocolate coating on Kit-Kats was noticeably thicker than that on Blue Riband or Prince Polo. As delightful assistant no.1 put it, the Kit-Kats were more like a sweet than a biscuit, whereas Blue Riband and Prince Polo were distinctly more biscuity.

I don’t suppose all this is of much use to anyone, but if it achieves anything it at least confirms that one really ought to try every possible biscuit for oneself rather than relying on the reviews of others.

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Categories: Biscuits, Chocolate, Photography, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

The world’s biggest hedge

About 5 miles along the main road south from where I live there stands a colossus of the botanical world.

The Meikleour (pronounced M’kloor) beech hedge is believed to be the tallest and longest hedge in the world.

Planted in 1745, this year it celebrates its 270th birthday.

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A bit of foliage, but not just any old bit of foliage.

The hedge is about a third of a mile long and has an average height of 100ft (varying from 80ft at one end to over 120ft at the other).

It’s looked after by the Meikleour Trust and, according to the information board nearby, “it is cut and remeasured every ten years utilizing a hydraulic platform and hand-held equipment, a complex operation which takes 4 men approximately 6 weeks”.

In the autumn the hedge can look spectacular, with leaves of red, orange and yellow. I’ve yet to get photos of that but at the end of May 2014, while it was all green and leafy, I toddled along there early one morning before there was much traffic about.

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Meikleour beech hedge looking south along the A93, Perthshire, Scotland.

 

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Meikleour beech hedge looking north.

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Meikleour beech hedge with a car for scale.

Close to the hedge is the small village of Meikleour where, as it happens, the delightful assistants once lived. I had parked there, and as I was walking back to the car several deer leapt out at me. After legging it across the road they ended up in a field. They were such delightful creatures that despite the poor quality of these photographs, I thought I’d pop them in anyway.

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Categories: Perthshire, Photography, Scotland, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

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