The Midi

No time to post anything cultural today; I’m off to the south of France, e.g.:

…and tonight I should be dining somewhere like this:

Yeah, I’ve had enough cold weather for a while, although apparently a cold front has swept through the place, making the weather more like Hardy Country than the Midi. (I know, I know: First World Problems.)

Tomorrow: Monaco, or maybe Provence. (I’m in the hands of Longtime Friend & Drummer Knob, so I have no idea where we’re going or what we’re doing. Pics to follow, if I can get decent wi-fi access on the road.)

No Cottage No Cry

Got back to the Englishman’s Castle (i.e. farm) last night after a four-hour journey from Cornwall in the pouring rain (see: Britishland Weather, Normal Autumn Edition). Of course, after leaving the cottage at 3pm and this being Britishland Autumn, only one hour was completed in daylight and the rest in Stygian black dampness. Fortunately, The Englishman is well versed in the Dark Arts of driving a Land Rover in such conditions which is a Good Thing because as any fule kno, Land Rovers have totally inadequate and shit windshield wipers which, at any speed over 20mph, simply wave about feebly over the glass without making much contact. Being a Stout Bulldog, however, The Englishman didn’t seem to notice, even when negotiating the terror known as traffic circles (“roundabouts”) along the A303, which runs from Cornwall all the way past Stonehenge, ending I-don’t-care-where.

Of course, after such a journey some sustenance was needed, but rather than go to the King’s Arms (which could only have ended badly), we settled for a curry and a couple beers at a fine Indian restaurant in Devizes.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. This is.

Had my landlord called me earlier to say that the next scheduled guests had canceled their stay and would I like to stay in Boscastle for the next few days, I would have sung the Hallelujah Chorus. Why? Well, I like singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the best of times, but mostly I would have sung it because my stay in the cottage, far from being the ordeal I thought it might be, turned out to be one of the best times of my life. This was not just because Boscastle is beautiful (it is) or because the locals are very friendly (they are) or because I liked being on my own (amazingly, I discovered that I do).

It was a great time because of the cottage itself. I’ve not given a proper description of the place before because I wanted to do the place justice after I left. So here goes.

It’s called “The Old Store House” because that’s what it used to be back in the 19th(?) century. It’s a really old building, and lies smack bang on the banks of the river, just before it empties into the harbor and estuary:

It has three bedrooms and can house five people (two double beds and a single, across three bedrooms), and has two bathrooms upstairs — excellent showers and a bathtub. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The place, inside, is absolutely gorgeous: stone and tile floors downstairs, and carpets upstairs. Here’s the kitchen and the living room:

…and the pictures don’t do them justice at all. (By the way, in the bookcase are an incredible selection of dime novels in hardback; Loyal Readers will know of my love for the genre, and suffice it to say that I read four during my stay.) Simply put: I could live there quite happily for the rest of my life — and I should point out that my good friends the Sorensons (who took me there and stayed a couple days) are of the same opinion.

Enough of that. To my Murkin Readers I say: if you’ve ever thought of visiting Britishland, you have to visit Cornwall, you have to visit Boscastle, and you have to stay at The Old Store House. To my Britishland Readers I say: book your stay for next year (here). But I should warn you all that The Englishman has already booked out fifteen weeks (nearly four months) of next year, so do not procrastinate.

And I’m told that almost all the people who’ve booked their stay are “returners”, which should give you an idea.

This is not a plug of gratitude to The Englishman on my part — although I am pathetically grateful to him for getting me in there at such short notice. This post is a service to my Readers, because I promise you, you will love the place, both the town and The Old Store House.

If you do manage to get in, email me and I’ll give you all the inside scoop: where and where not to eat, tips about local beauty spots, and where to shop. Now get going.


P.S. “Sharon’s Plaice” [sic] just up the road from the cottage has the best fish & chips I’ve ever eaten. The fish comes from that morning’s catch, and fresh potatoes are likewise dropped off daily from one of the local farms. Last Saturday night there were about fifteen people (I among them) standing in the chilly rain, patiently waiting for their orders to be filled.

It was the third time I’d been there in five days.

Oh, and the Spar Foodliner across the street sells Wadworth 6X.

Disconnected

It says something for my state of mind that when I saw the headline “May and Hammond at war over worst budget build-up in history”, my immediate thought was “Why are Captain Slow and the Hamster arguing over their show’s budget, and where’s Jeremy Clarkson in all this?”

Of course, the headline refers to some nonsense about UK politics and the “May and Hammond” referred to are not James and Richard, but BritPM Wossname May and the Lord High Chancellor of Whatever, Philip Hammond.

Cut me some slack: I’m out of touch here in Nether Boonies, Cornwall, and the UK’s budget battle is about of the same interest to me as the love life of that fat comedienne who’s related to Chuck Schumer. (Okay, maybe the budget thing is a little more interesting, but you get my drift.)

Now: what’s for breakfast?

Solitude

My friend Doc Russia is a very intelligent man. When we got the final diagnosis of The Mrs.’s cancer — that it would be a question of months or even weeks, not years — Doc told me that he was not going to let me stay by myself “in some little apartment, looking at four walls” (his words).

So, true to his word, when the end finally came, he moved me into his guest room where I’ve been ever since — except for when I’ve been living with Mr. Free Market’s family and The Englishman’s family, that is.

Until now.

Now, of course, I’m staying in Cornwall in a lovely cottage owned by The Englishman, and for the first time since February this year, I’m completely on my own.

So how does it feel, this living by yourself thing?

Many people talk of how when they finally come to live on their own, whether after death of a spouse or divorce, that there’s a wonderful sense of relief — that being on one’s own means that all your time is your own, that you have freedom to do whatever you want, even that you find things exactly where you left them, and so on. Last night, for example, I felt a little tired so I went to bed at about 9pm instead of my usual midnight-ish bedtime. Big mistake. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to need less sleep — or, to be more precise, a measured amount of sleep: about six to seven hours — so going to bed at 9 meant waking up at, yes, you guessed it, 4am with absolutely no chance of going back to sleep. Shit.

After a while, though, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t need to go back to sleep. I had nowhere to go in the morning, no place to be, and nothing that absolutely needed my attention. It’s called retirement, and I’m retired. Furthermore, if I were to feel tired later in the day because of my early awakening, I could just take a damn nap because I had nowhere to go, no place to be, and nothing that absolutely needed my attention.

Having established all that, there was only one thing to do, of course: I fell asleep in seconds and woke up just after 9am.

Then I walked downstairs after doing my Morning Things (meds, etc.) and walking into the kitchen, to find everything exactly as I’d left it the evening before: tidy (I’m a tidy person by nature) but with stuff lying on the counter that I would need to make breakfast. I still needed a few things so I walked up to the little grocery store and bought them, and when I got back to the cottage I put everything away and made myself breakfast. Which is when yet another realization came to me: this will be the pattern of the rest of your life.

I also don’t have a car, which means I can’t spend my days driving around the countryside like a dervish, being too busy to think. Now I have to take my time, literally, and in that time, all I really have are my thoughts for company.

Let me get one thing absolutely clear, at this point: I don’t mind being by myself — or at least, I’ve never minded being by myself before. The problem is that when you’ve lived as close to someone as I lived with The Mrs. for over twenty years, you get used to being not alone; and when you love your companion, that constant companionship is not a burden, it’s addictive.

For the first time in my life I feel alone, and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

This won’t last, of course. At some point I’ll either get used to being on my own, or else a miracle will occur and I won’t be on my own anymore.

This post, by the way, is not a cry for help, nor is it a gloomy one. In ten days’s time, I’ll be driving along the Midi with one of my oldest friends, and after that, I’ll be spending Christmas and New Year in London with an even older one. My time in Cornwall is therefore just an interlude, but it may well prove to be the most important part of this sabbatical.

But Doc sure called this one right. At this point, having spent so much time in other people’s homes and having been so busy doing things like hunting, carousing, watching cricket and football and driving all over the place, the shock of February has pretty much worn off. Had I moved into an apartment back then and spent my days looking at the walls with a future that was going to be just that, I’m not sure I could have coped. No, let me tell the truth here; I would have fallen apart.

Instead, my friends, my wonderful, caring friends have given me the chance to recover, a time to heal and a time during which I could put my mind at rest.

Now I’m ready to move on, to face what the rest of my life may bring me, and I promise you all, I intend to live it to the full.

Owie

The tear of my left knee’s lateral collateral ligament (LCL) is only partial, according to Doc Russia. Nevertheless, it’s bad enough that I need 6-8 weeks’ “light duty” (as we called it in the army).

This means that I will not be able to make the Portledge high bird shoot in Devon with Mr. Free Market on Wednesday, because the shoot involves scrambling along muddy hillside paths and steep climbs and descents and both he and Doc Russia have banned me from any such foolishness. So High Bird Shooting will remain on Ye Olde Buckette Lyste until sometime in the future, and all my shotgun lessons at Barbury and Royal Bisley were for naught. (Not wasted, of course — lessons and practice are never wasted — but for this event, irrelevant.)

I’m even wearing a knee brace just to get up and down the stairs at Free Market Towers.

Other than a sprained ankle as a boy, this is the first time in my life that I’ve suffered any kind of serious physical injury.

And I don’t bloody like it.

The Hill

The area known as the Angus Glens is a hard, unforgiving place. Here, just south of the Cairngorm National Park, the climate is brutal in November, and it shows in the faces of the locals: pinched, weathered and stern. The wind is icy, and it always blows hard — gusty, intense and with speeds of 25mph all the way up to gale strength. The daytime highs hover around 34°F (wind chill: 25°F), plunge to 28°F at night, and the cold is bone-chilling; damp and icy, clothes do not dry out even inside, needing assistance from radiators or a blazing fire in the hearth, and boots hardly ever dry out even then. In Scottish terms, it’s late autumn.

It gets worse as you climb up into the hills. The temperature drops to well below freezing and the wind chill, on any day, falls to about 18°F. There is always moisture in the air: mist and fog on the warmer days, icy rain most of the time, and if a cold front comes through, driving sleet and snow.

That’s in the air. On the ground, conditions are even more brutal. Mostly, the hills are covered with heather which is soft and springy underfoot — it’s like walking on foam rubber — but it is horribly uneven, and without strong support from your boots, you will not cover more than a dozen yards without turning your ankle, or worse. Falls are frequent, because the heather hides dips in the ground, grass tussocks and tiny spring-fed streams of icy water trickling down into the Isla River. You can fall forwards, backwards and sideways depending on where you place your feet, and the only good thing about the heather is that it can cushion your fall — unless, of course, you happen to land on one of the many rocks which dot the landscape, sometimes peeking out from the heather, but mostly concealed under the foliage. Where possible, you try to avoid the lichen-covered rocks because they are as slippery as hell. There is no level ground. You are either walking uphill, which places unbearable strain on your thighs’ quadricep muscles and calves, downhill which plays hell with your knees, or sideways which can strain your ankles to the breaking point, even in good boots.

It is a place where, as Mr. Free Market succinctly observes, things can go wrong very, very quickly and very, very badly.

I scrambled in these hills and fell three times during the first few hundred yards, with no ill effects other than injured pride. Doc Russia, who was with me, only stumbled a couple of times (“because it’s not my first rodeo up here, Kim”) while our guide, Head Stalker Dougal (of whom more later) strolled about like he was on a garden lawn, texting his girfriend. I went uphill about half a mile, downhill about the same, and sideways about two miles. Then we arrived at the place where we would have a clear shot at a deer, only to find that the herd had moved off and were now at least a thousand yards away, invisible over the brow of a hill. So we set off in pursuit, back up the hill and sideways just under the brow for about a mile. On a few occasions, the pain in my knees was so bad I had to call for a couple minutes’ rest. Then Doc would help me back onto my feet and we’d set off again. We were going back down the hill, guided by Mr. Free Market’s radio commentary from his position in the valley, where he could see the herd.

Then, disaster. I fell sideways, only this time the tread in the heel of my boot caught in the heather and I twisted as I fell, tearing the lateral collateral ligament in my left knee.

It was just two hours in on Day 1, and my week’s hunt was over.

Doc helped me down the hill — we were unreachable except by helicopter, and no helicopter was going to fly in those conditions — so there was nothing for it but to suck it up and go down the hill about half a mile, across the stream at the bottom, and up the hill on the other side to the waiting Land Rover. I held onto Doc’s arm for dear life (Dougal’s pitiless comment: “Ye look like a fookin’ auld married couple”) and somehow I made it.

The hunt went on without me. Doc got one deer, Mr. FM another, and then the mist turned into dense fog as the temperature dropped to well below freezing. Even the tireless Dougal had to admit defeat, so we went back down to the processing station so that he and Mr. FM could take the quad bike and tractor back up the hill to fetch the two dead deer.

The next day would prove much more rewarding, for two of us at least. Mr. FM stalked deer on a neighboring estate and got one, and I went up the hill with Doc again, this time purely as an observer. Doc dropped five deer before lunchtime, whereupon the weather turned again and we had to abandon the hunt for the day.

And now a brief aside while I discuss the equipment we used, because it’s important.

I discovered that under the typical conditions on the hill, my 6.5x55mm ammunition would have been if not inadequate, not optimal. (Mr. FM has used the cartridge for years as his deer-slayer, and disagrees with my take, by the way.) The wind would have blown the 140-grain bullet all over the place, so even with the Swede’s velocity, its slender bullet and excellent sectional density, a 100- to 150-yard shot would be okay; but after a tiring scramble with racing heart and labored breathing,  a 300-yard shot (about the average shooting distance up on the hill) would have been iffy at best, disastrous at worst. So while the 6.5mm Swede is a decent cartridge for deer, on the hill it would require almost a perfect shot to make a one-shot kill — and I’m not at all that sure of my skill with a rifle, under those conditions.

The cartridge to use in the Angus Glens is, unquestionably, the .300 Winchester Magnum (as used by my companions).

Mr. FM was using the RWS Evolution 165gr RapidX-tipped cartridge (at 300 yards, it’s traveling at 2,309 fps delivering 2,178 with -10.4″ drop, from a 100-yard zero).

Doc Russia was using the Hornady Superformance 180gr SST polymer tip (2,533 fps, delivering 2,564 ft-lbs and -9.9″ drop at 300 yards, from a 100-yard zero).

Combat Controller used Federal Premium 165gr Trophy Coppertips (2,500 fps delivering 2,290 ft-lbs with a -10.4″ drop at 300 yards, from a 100-yard zero).

With any of the three cartridges, the .300 Win Mag bullet cuts through the wind with almost no effect, and the thump of the bullet’s impact sounds like a bass drum slap, even at 300+ yards. With the proper placement in the heart and lungs, it’s a one-shot kill with maybe a few staggering steps. With a less-than-perfect shot, the animal may make but a hundred or so yards before expiring, or at least dropping so it can be dispatched. Because Doc, CC and Mr. FM are all excellent shots, the vast majority (16 out of 19 deer in total) were taken with one shot. The RWS Evolution and Federal Trophy .300 WinMag 165gr-rounds are very good; the Hornady SST 180gr is magnificent.

Had I had the chance to take a shot with my ammunition under the same conditions, I seriously doubt that the outcome would have been the same. In fact, I’m positive that I would have screwed things up; and as much as I love the 6.5x55mm Swede, it’s not the cartridge for the Angus Glens — not for me, anyway.

More to the point, however, is this: the Glens have been a very humbling experience for me. The terrain and climate are one thing — those, I can deal with — and while injury is always possible, that’s an uncontrollable circumstance. (Combat Controller, of whom more later, once nearly broke his ankle on Day 1 of one of his earlier hunts here simply by stepping into one of those concealed streamlets I mentioned earlier.)

But climate and terrain aside, to take a shot at an animal under the conditions on the hill requires skill with a rifle that I no longer have. To be brutally honest (and the Glens will force that out of you), I need more practice and to have a great deal more familiarity with my rifle and its performance than I had for this trip. In that regard, my injury at the beginning of this week may have been a blessing in disguise — because chasing a wounded deer for miles in these conditions might have killed me quicker than I could have killed a deer.

The next time I visit the Angus Glens as Mr. Free Market’s guest, I’m pretty sure I’ll be bringing a .300 Win Mag rifle, with the Hornady SST 180gr feed. I will also be a better-prepared rifleman. This, I promise. Yes, I’ll be a year or two older; but I’ll also be about ten years wiser. The Glens do that to you, too.

To be continued, in more detail and with pictures… but in the meantime, here’s one of Doc (right) and Dougal fetching two of the deer carcasses Doc popped at 200 yards uphill.