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Archive for the ‘Famous Scots’ Category

One day last week the weather forecast showed the whole of Scotland under cloud apart from one little triangle in the Aberdeenshire/Banffshire area on the east coast.

Chasing forecasts often proves a futile business in this country, but as it happens on this occasion the forecasters got it bang on.

Delightful assistant no.1 and I hopped into the motor and sped off in the right direction, stopping en route at the splendid Balmakewan, where we partook of light refreshments.

A flat white with coffee and walnut cake for my delightful assistant:

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Imagine sinking your teeth into an extremely light, soft and delicious coffee sponge cake with unbelievably fluffy icing that melts as soon as it hits the tongue, and you’re part of the way to having the Balmakewan coffee walnut cake experience.

I had a very hard time choosing what to have, as Balmakewan always has a painfully extensive selection of delectable goodies on offer, but in the end I plumped for this coconut affair with blueberries and raspberries through it, accompanied by a first class decaf flat white:

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We decided to share these two items and while the coconut cakey thing was certainly very palatable, we agreed that the coffee walnut cake was outstandingly good.  I’m sure I’ve never had fluffier butter icing in any cake.

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A delicious duo with first class flat whites to wash them down with.

We left Balmakewan feeling that our day had got off to an excellent start. The weather was not particularly good but we had high hopes for our destination.

Around about lunchtime we reached the twin towns of Banff and Macduff, which lie on the Moray coast, and headed for Duff House.

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Duff House is a rather magnificent Georgian building designed by William Adam in the 1730s:

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Today it’s used by the National Galleries of Scotland to house some of their artworks, with the building being maintained by Historic Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council, but it was originally built by a chap called William Duff (aka Lord Braco, later 1st Earl of Fife).

William Duff had a large family, and even though the side wings Adam designed were never built, I expect the 50 rooms they ended up with were quite sufficient.

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Room for a small one?

I thought the building had many lovely features, but the curving staircases at the front were a particular favourite:

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Due to a broken pelvis that continues to heal slowly, going round the inside of the house with all its floors and stairs wasn’t really possible for my delightful assistant, but there was one area of the building she was very capabale of reaching.

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A sign to gladden the heart – tasty morsels this way!

Inside, the tearoom had the same sort of feel I’ve noticed in other National Gallery tearooms, being light, airy and tastefully decorated. The history of Duff House was written up on the wall in a timeline with photographs, which made for interesting reading.

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The menu was not extensive, nor did it cater particularly well for vegetarians, but there were various sandwiches to be had and I opted for egg while my delightful assistant went for tuna. I’m pleased to say that the sandwich far exceeded my expectations, being freshly made on very tasty brown bread and served with a delightful little carrot salad.

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One very nice surprise was that there was ‘proper’ tea, by way of leaf tea popped into long teabags of the sort that appear to be getting more popular in Scotland’s tearooms.

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We ordered a pot of Assam and a pot of Darjeeling and they were both tip-top. I often find I’m squeezing out the last cup from a teapot when I take tea, but in this case I had to leave some as there was so much to begin with (I managed three cupfuls):

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I don’t take sugar, but I liked the way it was served at Duff House, in a little kilner jar with lid (no flies landing on these lumps) and tongs on the side (hygenically encouraging people not to dive in with their dirty great mitts):

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The facilities at Duff House were another fine feature of the building, being nicely tiled in green and white with pull chain cisterns above the loos:

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After lunch we waved goodbye to Duff House and made our way along the coast to have a look at the two little villages of Gardenstown and Crovie, but I’ll save those for another post.

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When you’re trying to write something that’s proving very awkward, blogging can be a great respite.

Today I’ve been attempting to rewrite the synopsis of my first novel, which has been something of a millstone round my neck for the past couple of months. (For anyone not in the know, a synopsis is brief outline of a story.)

Depending on who you speak to, when submitting a novel for publication the synopsis should be anything between 1 and 10 pages long, but the ideal size as far as I can gather is about 2 pages.

The difficulty is that my book is 363 pages long, so in writing the synopsis I have to identify the salient points and condense them into less than 1% of the whole book. It might sound easy to write less rather than more, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be.

It took me 6 months to write the book, and I have a horrible feeling that it could take me the same length of time to write a synopsis I’m happy with.

Writing the actual book was a picnic compared with writing the synopsis.

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A lovely picnic courtesy of The Donkey Sanctuary (www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk)

Despite not being entirely happy with it, last month I sent out my synopsis to a couple of agents.

On the plus side, I received my first rejection yesterday.

Strange, you might think, to refer to this as a positive result, and prior to receiving it I’d have said the same. I was fully expecting my first rejection to make me feel miserable and dejected. I admit that it did come as a bit of a disappointment, but it also made me feel curiously buoyed up and encouraged.

It made me think about all the other authors who’ve had rejections (and from what I’ve read on the subject, that would appear to be pretty much every author who’s ever submitted a manuscript). I’ve had my novel rejected, ergo I must be a proper author.

Comparing it to receiving an OBE might be stretching things a bit, but I definitely feel as if I’ve joined the ranks of a noble and esteemed group of human beings.

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The library of my dreams: Sir Walter Scott’s study at Abbotsford. If you haven’t visited Abbotsford I can highly recommend it. It’s undergoing renovations at the moment but is due to reopen this summer. http://www.scottabbotsford.co.uk

Admittedly, I’m no closer to publication as a result of this rejection, but most of the books I’ve read were written by people who were, at some point, in the same boat.

On a completely different note, another strangely positive thing happened here today.

Several weeks ago my mum fell and tore some ligaments in her groin. Since then she’s been hobbling about in great pain, impatiently waiting for the injury to mend itself.

Last week, her doctor sent her for an x-ray and today she got the results. The x-ray clearly showed that it wasn’t just ligaments to blame for the discomfort she’d been feeling, she had in fact broken her pelvis.

She was inordinately pleased about this; her first broken bone, aged 77!

In response to her jubilant reaction, we celebrated fittingly with tea and cake.

Tea and cake to celebrate delightful assistant no.1’s first broken bone

I think I put too much lemon curd in the middle because it was determined to escape wherever possible.

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According to the boffins at the BBC weather centre, Tuesday the 7th of May has been the warmest day of the year so far in Scotland.

It also happened to be the day I earmarked for a little day out with the delightful assistants.

Our first stop was Le Jardin Cafe at Kinross, about 45 minutes into the journey.

It was over 4 hours since I’d had my breakfast, so I was ready for a little something, and I opted for a pot of tea and one of their delectable apple and cinnamon scones:

The two assistants chose coffee and fruit scones. The scones were accompanied by dishes of outstandingly delicious apple and plum jam, which were heartily consumed.

Suitably refreshed, we buzzed off on the road again into lovely sunny weather, heading for the county of Dumfries and Galloway.

Due to misunderstanding my road atlas, I didn’t quite manage to reach my desired destination and ended up not in the village of Moniaive as intended, but 40-odd miles away in the town of Moffat.

Moffat is a place that offers several attractions to the tourist, one of which is a big sheep (a ram, in fact) on a plinth above a drinking fountain in the town centre. Rather curiously, it has no ears, and apparently never has had any:

The Moffat Ram – a trifle deaf perhaps, but a fine fellow nonetheless

It was sculpted by celebrated Scottish sculptor William Brodie, and gifted to the town in 1875.

Another point of interest in the town is the Moffat Toffee Shop:

A Moffat institution, not to be missed.

This splendid shop has been in existence (although not always on these premises) for about 120 years, and is still run by the same family who started it up in the late 1800s.

I’m getting ahead of myself here but after our lunch, which I’m about to detail below, the delightful assistants and I entered this haven of confectionery, where I captured them attempting to make off with two large tubs of sweets:

Assistants trying to abscond with stacks of sweets

They managed to restrict themselves to 200g bags of two types of sweeties, and I purchased some deliciously melting praline delicacies, which I meant to photograph before we wolfed them yesterday. I do still have a bar of interesting chocolate to try, however:

A treat still to be savoured.

To get back to the proper order of things, before we went into the sweet shop, we wondered where we might partake of a little luncheon.

Although Moffat is a busy tourist centre, particularly in the summer when coachloads of visitors appear, it’s not what I’d call a hot spot for tremendous tearooms.

Given this state of affairs, we decided we’d try one of the hotels for our meal.

The first one we looked at is quite a landmark in these parts, indeed it bills itself as ‘The Famous Star Hotel’. I suppose it has good reason to claim this accolade since it features in the Guinness World Records as the world’s narrowest hotel.

The Star Hotel with a crow helpfully flying over the roof to give scale to the picture.

It’s only 20ft wide, but it’s one of the tallest buildings in the main street and it stretches out a considerable way at the back:

If you look along the side of the Star Hotel you find that it goes back a fair distance. I think it looks like a steam engine at the front with a string of railway carriages behind.

We mulled over the menu outside, but felt we needed a little more stretching of the legs before sitting down again and so wandered along to another hotel.

This rather magnificent building was designed by Robert Adam and was built in the 1750s for the Earl of Hopetoun:

There were several seating options, including the sun lounge:

But it was such a glorious day that we chose to sit outside:

The back of the building proved to have some nicely rounded walls. Our table was just behind the tall dark green tree left of centre below:

As is the norm in Scottish hotels, there was one token veggie option on the menu (a pasta dish, which is frequently the case), but I wasn’t in the mood for pasta so I plumped for fish and chips:

The assistants both went for cottage pie, which came with lovely baby carrots:

I must say, the fish was particularly good, the peas eminently edible and the chips nice and crispy. The assistants declared their meals equally acceptable.

Despite tantalising choices on the menu, we decided to save our puddings for a tearoom on the way home, but we did enjoy sitting in the sun admiring the Moffat House Hotel garden and an attractive little seating area that would be delightful with rambling roses growing over it and a cream tea spread out on the table:

On our way out of the hotel, delightful assistant no.1 spotted an extravagantly finished banister rail. This is part of the original, and extremely impressive, Adam-designed cantilevered staircase that spirals up inside the building. I imagine he made it swirl a bit extra at the bottom for aesthetic reasons:

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After leaving Moffat, we stopped to look at some fair weather cumulus clouds which were bubbling up from the skyline:

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As usual, my post is elongating beyond a healthy length so I’ll save our afternoon snacks for a separate article.

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After taking tea in Cupar the other day, my delightful assistant and I stumbled upon an attractive and interesting little hamlet, tucked away off a main road.

I was driving through it, slowly taking in its charm but not particularly intending to stop (the weather wasn’t terribly pleasant), when I saw something that isn’t very common in Scotland – a house with a thatched roof:

Thatched roof in Collessie

They do pop up here and there, but I think of this style of roofing as more of an English thing.

First I spotted the one above, and then I saw another:

Another thatched roof in Collessie

I don’t know if Collessie has ever been used as a location for films or TV dramas but I think it definitely has potential.

Collessie

It even has a little stream running under the road:

Collessie burn

There are some interesting old buildings, including this one which has tiny high up windows and a collection of pots, sticks and ornaments outside. It also has a thatched roof:

Interesting building in Collessie

The delightful assistant thought that Collessie could be listed on this blog as an Intriguing Sight, and we were certainly intrigued by the white dome-shaped structure below, which had logs stored in the lower part. I wondered if it might be an oven of some sort:

Curious domed structure

I don’t know quite why I find this next point so satisfying, but it gladdens my heart when I see buildings that can be accessed at different levels front and back:

Different levels in Collessie

We were walking up a little hill through Collessie, at the top of which stood a fine looking church. The churchyard dates back to the 12th century, although the present church was constructed in 1838. Apparently, this building was built because the previous one had started to sink into the graveyard, causing a dampness that was disagreeable to the congregation.

Collessie Kirk

Rather curiously, the churchyard wall had a yellow building stuck into it:

Sir James Melville's tomb

A plaque on the wall next to it declared the yellow building to be the tomb of Sir James Melville (1535-1617) and described him as “a distinguished soldier, courtier and diplomat during the 16th century”. At the age of 14 he was sent to France to attend a young Mary Queen of Scots, later serving both her and her son, James VI, in Scotland.

Sir James Melville plaque

I did try to enter the tomb but the door was locked. I know you can’t generally get inside graves and coffins, but somehow the idea of him being locked inside that building seemed a bit sinister to me.

The locked tomb

We didn’t spend much time in the graveyard, because it was rather chilly, but I did notice one particular gravestone. The white lichen on some of the petals and the yellow on the stamens seemed fittingly positioned:

Lichen on gravestone

If you ever happen to be driving along the A91 between Cupar and Auchtermuchty, I recommend the slight detour that takes you through the delightful hamlet of Collessie.

The detour also takes you past another church, Monimail Parish, just along the road from Collessie. Although, as with Collessie, we couldn’t get into the building itself, we walked all round the church at Monimail and noted that it was very well cared for. Every door was painted in black gloss and all the handles and lock plates were neatly touched up in gold paint.

Monimail Parish Church painted nicely

Monimail Parish Church

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If you live in the northern hemisphere, as I do, you might be longing for a bit of summer sunshine round about now.

The UK has been exceptionally wet in recent days, with numerous flood warnings and TV pictures of dramatic rescues by the Fire Brigade of people in cars stranded in deep water. It’s also been very dark, with constant heavy cloud, and all of this has made my thoughts wander back to happy summer days of sunshine and warmth.

Scotland is prone to a lot of cloud, but that doesn’t always mean it’s wet and cold to boot. One particular day in early August was quite cloudy, but it was one of those still, jacket-free days where the sun, when it does break through the cloud, feels gloriously warm on the skin.

My dear mama had told me about a tearoom in the little town of Thornhill, in Dumfries and Galloway, in which she and the pater had taken a very pleasant luncheon while on holiday in those parts.

Thornhill is a fair distance from where I live, and a bit further than I would normally venture on a day out, but since the weather was fine and we got an early start, I whisked the small assistant (said maternal parent) off south-westwards towards the Dumfriesshire hills.

This picture was taken on a different occasion, but as it happens to be en route to Thornhill, I’m bunging it in to give an idea of some of the scenery we passed through:

The Borders hills

We arrived there around lunchtime, but since we’d stopped for a snack on the way we took a stroll around the town to work up our appetites. I don’t appear to have taken any photographs of the main street in Thornhill and so I’ve borrowed this one from the excellent website, Undiscovered Scotland:

The main street, Thornhill

We ambled along the backstreets, which were quiet and had lovely views of distant hills, as well as some strange-looking trees:

Thornhill

Along one little street I was surprised to see a fairly impressive memorial, remembering one Joseph Thomson (Explorer):

Joseph Thomson, Explorer, Memorial

According to Wikipedia, this Thomson  (1858-1895) was “a Scottish geologist and explorer”, who not only has an African beast named after him (Thomson’s Gazelle) but avoided confrontations among his porters or with indigenous peoples, neither killing any native nor losing any of his men to violence.”

The same article claims that he is the originator of this apparently oft-quoted motto: “He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far.”

I can’t say I’m familiar with the quote, but at least now if I ever come across it I’ll know who said it.

Thomson was born in the village of Penpont, a couple of miles from Thornhill, and some time I would like to have a mosey round there to see if there are any references to him. I seem to remember that Penpont, despite its small size, also hosts an interesting looking tearoom, which gives me an added reason to investigate it.

The memorial has rather a nice bas-relief (if that’s the term I want) on one side, showing a lady holding an unfurled scroll displaying a map of Africa:

Bas-relief on Joseph Thomson memorial

Just beyond this memorial a sign caught our attention:

Coo Lane sign

The lane in question enticed us to walk down it:

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I’m assuming that the lane was named after the Scottish word for ‘cow’ because at the end of this lane there was a field, and perhaps in days gone by this was a busy highway for travelling cattle. There were no coos there when we visited, but there were some sheep, many of which were flopped out on the grass soaking up the rays:

Relaxing sheep

The delightful assistant and I were both very warm by this time, after plodding all over the place in the unusually balmy weather, and luncheon was calling.

The tearoom we were bound for was called “Thomas Tosh”, which I think has a splendid ring to it. I particularly like the idea of using the shortened version of Thomas and ending up with the name “Thos Tosh”. Unfortunately, I don’t know who Mr Tosh is, or was, but he’s given his name to rather a nice eatery.

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The building housed not only a tearoom, but an art gallery and a shop selling gifts, crafts and food.  I believe it used to be some sort of church hall:

Thos Tosh indoors

Each table had a little stack of blue serviettes packed into a rack made from two sets of crossed teaspooons. From a distance they looked quite like the Scottish flag. You can see them at the nearest table in the picture above, and close-up below:

Teaspoon racks

We both chose to have salads, which were large and packed with interesting ingredients. The delightful assistant had a chicken salad:

Chicken salad at Thos ToshAnd I had a tuna salad:

Tuna salad at Thos Tosh

We were so full after our salads that we didn’t have room for pudding (a tragedy, since there were delicious looking cakes and hot puddings on offer), and so we tootled off back to the car and headed north for home.

About half an hour after leaving Thornhill we felt the need of a cup of tea, and ventured into Starbucks, which is handily just off the road in a service station at Abington. I don’t often admit to going to places like Starbucks, but I must say they do a very lovely chai tea.

Not being a very frequent visitor to Starbucks, I forget each time that I need to lie to the baristas. When I ask for a chai tea, they ask if I take milk. Being a reasonably honest sort of cove, I say ‘yes’, which results in them giving me what I consider to be a measly half cup. The problem with this is that a) I love their chai tea enough to drink a large quantity of it, and b) I only take a dash of milk.

My delightful assistant prefers the chai tea latte, which comes sweetened and puffed up with hot fluffy milk and the cup filled, as a good beverage should be, absolutely to the brim.

Here, for comparison is the difference between our two drinks, my black chai tea with a dash of milk on the right, and her chai tea latte on the left. I hadn’t drunk any of mine when this was taken:

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I’m hoping that by reminding myself of this recurring misdemeanour, I will have imprinted the nightmare of it on my brain, so that the next time I visit Starbucks I go in fully prepared for their misleading and devious questions.

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Yesterday I felt the need of an adventure involving tea, cakes, and a bit of Scottish heritage (I have to do this for my next book, it’s all work, work, work…) so I whisked my delightful assistant off to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of New Lanark, in South Lanarkshire (roughly central southern Scotland).

New Lanark is one of 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland (the only other one I’ve seen is Edinburgh’s old and new towns, so I think I should make the effort to visit the rest). It consists of a small village and series of cotton mills that were built in 1786 by a Scottish businessman called David Dale.  It sits low in a valley of the River Clyde, and was built there because of its situation next to the only waterfalls on the Clyde (water power being needed for running the mills).

The reason it’s now a World Heritage Site is due to the innovation and industry of David Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen. Owen was a social reformer ahead of his time, and came into partnership with Dale at New Lanark when he married Dale’s daughter.

This is the first glimpse you get of New Lanark if you park at the upper car park and walk down towards the village:

I don’t know if the bunting had been put up for the Jubilee, the Olympics, some other celebration, or if it’s always there, but in any case there were lots of brightly coloured little flags fluttering in the breeze:

Having travelled for more than 2.5 hours to get here, the cafe was calling our names loud and clear (I admit, we had stopped for refreshments en route, but it felt like a long time beforehand).  The cafe was the sort you find in a large visitor centre, not terribly inspiring but providing much-needed refreshments to weary visitors. Having had previous refreshments (hot chocolate and biscotti for me, coffee and croissant for delightful assistant), we decided to share a sandwich and then have a cake each.

The sandwich selection was very carnivore-orientated, but we found a cream cheese and cucumber option that suited us both. I was absolutely desperate for tea by this time and was delighted to find that the tea was just the way I like it – strong, flavourful and Fairtrade:

My only complaint about the tea was that there was only enough for one cup each in the pot for two. However, that was remedied by ordering another pot, along with a coconut tart, a piece of Mars Bar slice and a small pot of grapes:

The cafe had been almost empty when we arrived:

But was very busy when we left, it being the lunchtime rush, and we were glad to get away from all the noise.  It also meant that the exhibitions were nice and quiet for us while our fellow visitors noshed in the cafe.

The first bit we went to was an audio-visual display and we were taken round in little pods seating two people in each one. The pods were suspended from a track in the ceiling that took us slowly round the exhibition, with the voice of ghost child Annie McLeod telling us her story along the way. At the end of the ride I had my picture taken with Annie McLeod and two faceless ghosts:

At the moment, New Lanark is forming Chapter 2 of my book, and I intend to visit it again and see the bits we didn’t manage to get round (there’s a lot to see – too much for one visit, but thankfully the ticket allows you to revisit and see the things you missed before).

Since I haven’t seen it all yet I can’t be sure of my favourite bit of it, but certainly from my first visit the part I liked best was the roof garden on top of one of the mill buildings:

We spent a long time up in the roof garden, having it to ourselves for a while, and it was a welcome relief from the exhibitions. Unfortunately, I had quite a headache all day, and being up there at the treetops with the breeze and the sunshine coming out a little now and then, was blissful.

One of the features of New Lanark, at least that we found, was that it had a claustrophobic feel, due to its situation down in the valley. There is no doubt that it’s a fascinating and amazing place, and I’m looking forward to visiting again, but it was nice to get out of it after spending 3 hours there.

When we left the village and were walking back up to the car park, we saw a grassy path leading off entincingly above the valley, and felt an overwhelming urge to investigate:

It was beautiful, with very fresh air, an earthy smell and lots of wild foxgloves:

Looking down on New Lanark, I felt free up there amongst the trees:

Next time perhaps we’ll visit in a different season and see what else is growing along the enticing path.

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I found myself in Perth with delightful assistant no.2 yesterday. We were going to B&Q (a large do-it-yourself hardware emporium, for anyone unfamiliar with the company), and Perth’s central lending library, the A K Bell.

The A K Bell was closed for a few weeks recently, while it underwent a spot of refurbishment. I hadn’t seen the new look and was keen to take a peek, as well as take tea in the cafe and try to flog the library bookshop a copy or two of my book.

This is the library building from the outside. It was originally constructed as a hospital in the 1830s, and designed by a local architect called William Mackenzie:

It being quite late in the afternoon, the cafe was unusually empty, but as welcoming and delightful as I always find it:

I don’t usually admit to locations of tearooms on this blog, but it was difficult to do a post about the library without mentioning the tearoom, which is one of those featured in my book (if you haven’t bought the book to find out where my favourite tearooms are, you’ve at least got this one for free).

The tearoom has been decorated with quotes around the walls. They’re all worth a read, but I picked this Groucho Marx one as an example because it made me chuckle:

On this occasion, my delightful assistant chose a black coffee, I had tea, and we shared a large piece of Mars Bar krispie cake. He likes to have things cut up into small pieces, so I divided it into six bitesize chunks:

Suitably refreshed, we wandered into the newly done up library. This is the foyer, that has been spruced up since I last saw it, and now has the word ‘Welcome’ in silver above the entrance between the pillars:

There is  a painting of A K Bell on one side of the entrance hall:

And a colourful display of Scottish words on the other side:

Inside, the library has been much improved with new flooring and a fresh layout.

It’s a bit of a well kept secret (my delightful assistant wasn’t aware of it, despite having been to the library many times), but upstairs in the library there is a small bookshop section selling books of local interest. It was here that I was hoping to sell my own little book, and so we approached a chap at a desk near the bookshop and asked if he’d be interested.

It turned out that the person responsible for the bookshop area had left months ago and hadn’t been replaced, in addition to which the library had no money for buying new books (perhaps due to all the lovely new renovations?). So, rather than buying a few to sell, I asked if he might like to buy one copy for the library to have in their stock, but again there was a money issue and he hinted that they always hoped people would donate such books to them. He did say, however, that he would email a couple of library staff and see what he could do to try and get them to buy a copy.

Wrong-footed by this unexpected reaction, my assistant and I thanked him and wandered off. As we were ambling back towards the stairs, my quick-thinking assistant suggested that I donate a book and then at least the library would have one. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this myself, but regretfully I am a bit slow on the uptake sometimes.

Britain’s public lending libraries are something I am very grateful for, having made use of many of them over the years, and when I thought about it I realised that it would be a pleasure to give them a little book to add to their stock.  So, back we went to the chap again and donated a copy of the book.

I’m not entirely sure what happens to donations, but perhaps now if anyone wants to read about tearooms in the area without buying a book about it, they can borrow that copy from the A K Bell.

Back outside in the sunshine, we noticed a new display on the grass in front of the building. It was composed of artworks made from recycled glass, and a planted butterfly:

I feel strangely chuffed to have a copy of my book lodged in the A K Bell library, nestling amongst so many great works by authors I admire and have been inspired by.

Thank you A K Bell library, and all the other such fine institutions around the country that have supplied me with books to read for free. I salute you!

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