Blog Action Day an’ all that…

Forgive me, I’m climbing on my soapbox again. Well I have to join in with  worldwide Blog Action Day, don’t I? Especially as I’ve just had the privilege of attending a live reading by Linton Kwesi Johnson, thanks to the dynamic team up at Teesside University. Who else to flag up world action where it counts than the quintessential Kwesi Johnson, who came to poetry and the spoken word through a fundamental sense of injustice, i.e. racism?

It was interesting (and brilliant!) to hear a little of his journey through politics and human rights as well as his personal journey through creativity and literature. This is a guy who I’ve long revered for his persistence, and his courage to stand with his head above the parapet….because isn’t it so easy just to keep your head down and pretend the less acceptable side of life might go away?

You might wonder why a white middle class gal like me would be so concerned about black human rights…after all, I was grammar-school educated followed by a three year stint at university, not to mention further years of post-graduate study. What gripe have I got?

The answer is clear. My gripe is that I’m human. And I have the compassion and vision that accompanies an ability to put myself into other people’s shoes… Linton Kwesi Johnson was the child of the Windrush generation. I was the child of people who fought in the second world war, people who’d suffered at the hands of Europe-wide politics and greed, and who lived in poverty.And when I say Europe, I’m including Britain.

The community amongst whom I grew up were farm and factory workers, each with their own small battles, and yes, I remember walking to school in the rain wearing cardboard in my shoes when the soles had worn through. So maybe I didn’t need to step into other people’s shoes after all…

I had the impression from Kwesi Johnson that to some extent he’s handed over the baton with regard to racial battles. Certainly things have come a long way since the 1985 Brixton riot. But it’s an unpalatable truth that prejudice in the UK is still an issue, especially in the light of the Brexit vote; white against black, black against white, second generation immigrant against new immigrant, the issue against Jews, against women, against gays and transgender, not to mention disability and age. Reminds me of John Lennon’s immortal words of protest no time for fussing and fighting (We can work it out, The Beatles.) Maybe prejudice is a natural part of the human psyche…maybe it springs from a fear of what we don’t understand, a fear that something will come and steal what we have, plus a strong natural bent to lay the blame for our ills directly at someone else’s feet. Basic psychological instincts moulded by a culture that has lost sight of more authentic values of care and compassion.

If we had any insight, we’d not only try on other’s shoes for size, we’d also pull on their smelly socks in order to at least try to understand how they feel and begin to try to improve things further. Maybe we should start right now by turning towards a stranger and giving them a smile, whoever they are and irrespective of their external appearance.

Gung-ho about the bung oh…

Here I am at last, back from France, and if you ask me about my summer, please don’t mention the bung…bit like mentioning the war in our house at the moment, but seeing as it’s now been mentioned…

Perhaps I could be very artful and tell the story from the bung’s point of view, though I’m not sure the consequences would be suitable for children, even though the narrative idea sounds kind of…well…childish… Oh well, isn’t it true that we adults do sometimes behave in a manner inappropriate to our age? But then, who the heck’s judging…. Probably my adult children, I imagine, when they read this.

It began with arrival in a dark, dark wood near Saint Laurent Sur Sèvre, place of pilgrimage and odd English people who go walking in the rain…

dsc08278Yes. I said rain. First day out, land of pilgrimage or not……we got so wet it seemed like the choice was either to join the missionaries….

dsc08287…or to venture further south in search of sun…and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve done that…so off to St Pons, it is. Interesting place, bung or no bung…After all there is a dungeon which almost spells bung…

le-pons-le-donjonWe did have a great meal in the square, listening to live music…but then it was back to the tent, and not only had we no bung, which meant sleeping on the ground, but also some people had arrived and decided to park their caravan within an inch or two of our tent, even though the campsite was almost empty. Children and strangers coughing are not on my list of lullabies. Anyone know why people do such things?

Anyway,  the poor lonely little bung spent a long night in a bag somewhere in the bowels of the car, while…well…I won’t go on…needless to say, there was little sleep had that night… and the following day we headed off for Jonzac…dsc08309

…an interesting town, though not all the inhabitants are pretty…

dsc08316The main thing was that we managed to find a mobile home to rent for a few days (obviating the need for the bung) at a great site called Camping les Castors

The site was very French, great pool and close to the town. There were also some lovely walks around, plus the sun was shining. Things were definitely looking up. Apart from  the poor bung who was languishing somewhere…

dsc08318There were some great concerts in the hall next to the mairie, and also some interesting art about. Then it was time to set off for our house-sit…

dsc08436A week of dogs, cats, chickens and a great swimming pool, plus a chance to explore Chef Boutonne (meaning source of the river Boutonne, not the chef with the button) and Melle. Go if you can. Interesting place!

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Then, having managed not to accidentally murder any of the aforementioned animals, it was off to just north of Pornic, where we found a great one-star campsite, cheap, basic and wonderfully clean and friendly with the most fantastic restaurant just round the corner…

dsc08461There were however some poignant reminders of war…the rocky teeth designed to put off invaders…

dsc08452…numerous pill boxes…

dsc08459 and reminders of the blockships and deaths of various navy personnel during the second world war. Difficult to move on from when you’re aware there’s still the same old stuff going on all over the world…

However, on the brighter side, there was an interesting tradition of fishing…

dsc08491…fantastic engineering…

dsc08496…fine calibrated sun dials in case we really needed to know the time…

dsc08514…all the moules you can eat…

dsc08544…and fabulous sunsets…

dsc08466    dsc08549…oh, and in case you were wondering, this was all courtesy of a fully sprung airbed…yes, the prodigal bung had returned and all was forgiven. Well, nearly…

 

Eye Watering stuff…

Any novelist will tell you that the prospect of not working on your novel is far more alluring than actually sitting down to write it. In fact I’m sure I’ve touched on this issue previously. Over the years I’ve heard all sorts of brilliant and successful writers (A.S. Byatt amongst them) extolling the virtues of housework, interrupted only by the pleas from their agents to get on and write the b………. thing.

So, one day, when indulging myself with one of my too frequent moanings to a good friend about not being able to get on with my latest literary ramblings, the idea came up that I would retire for a week to a flat just north of the Scottish border for a self-styled writer’s retreat. Great! I would get so much more written there

Blog 1 Ayton

In my excitement, I failed to remember two things: one that it’s a writer’s affliction to be curious (and enthusiastic) about absolutely everything, and secondly, quite often (and in my case, read that as extremely often) writers like to walk and think at the same time in order to plan the next literary steps.

I packed the car and beat it past the Angel of the North and the Farne Islands, past Berwick and over the Scottish border to find my allotted accommodation in a quiet village. Oh, and the occasional red lion…

Blog 3 AytonInternet was available, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on one’s willpower. Mine was worthy of an Olympian Gold. Neither email inbox or Facebook were accessed prior to at least one p.m. Writing was done. Then exploring had to follow. And I’m not talking virtually. Out into the real world of…well, old cigarette machines, if you must know…juxtaposed poetically with rails for the disabled…

Blog 2 Ayton I soon got into the swing of things and headed for St Abb’s Head with its nonvertiginous sheep…

Blog 14 Aytonand the beautiful coast around Coldingham Bay…

Blog 4 AytonI couldn’t resist a trip round Berwick-upon-the-famous-Tweed, with its fortifications and moving borders…

Blog 6 AytonBlog 7 AytonBlog 8 Ayton

DSC08237…which over the centuries we have made such an effort to cross…

Then there was this particularly swanky spiral staircase…

Blog 10 AytonWith the aid of a book of walks, starting point Coldingham village, I managed not to be in front of that laptop for quite a bit of the week. I saw red deer, blue butterflies, any number of wild flowers including my favourite…harebells…not to mention a couple of beautiful inland lochs.  I even came across this…

Blog 11 Ayton…a stone, carved out to make room for a vinegar rinse into which visiting families in the time of the plague could drop coins to disinfect them in return for food from the villagers. Enough to make your eye water…

Blog 5 AytonAnd if you don’t believe me and you remain convinced I was slaving over a hot laptop and not walking that lovely coast at all, I even managed a selfie…sorry about the grimace!

Blog 12 Ayton

Silent Water

I feel as if recent events have silenced me. Somehow it’s all been too shocking, too disappointing. Gobsmacked is the word for it. I thought it was a Yorkshire word, but a quick google claims a Scottish heritage. Of Northern origin, any road. In any case, it expresses the feeling. Silenced, with an edge that’s both ugly and plainspoken, with a vague wryness.

So, as usual, it’s in water that I seek solace and try to recover my voice.

Whitby Harbour, for instance…

DSC08018 compressed…which instantly reclaims all those old metaphors of safety and the danger of the wild open sea. And all those wrecks just beneath the water out there. Which is a bit like Europe at the moment, isn’t it?

Then I turn inland…to Mallyan Spout….oh, no, my poetic brain’s pumping with the long fall of droplets from top to bottom…

DSC08025 compressedMaybe I could settle for a small water in the middle of the open moor…transmits a kind of peace, doesn’t it, this silent water…though I’m trying to ignore the storm clouds….

DSC08035 compressedOne way or another, we’re all going to have to face up to the future…

From Fret to Froufrou

blog draft froufrou

I wonder if any of you fellow word junkies out there go through fads in words. Mine, like all sensible infatuations, usually last for a few days before I’m on to the next one. At the moment it’s froufrou. Yes. Frilly and elaborate, which for anyone who knows me is probably the antithesis of what I stand for. Who knows why I chose froufrou. Maybe some gentile speaker from radio 4 permeated my ear canals at 6 a.m. before I was properly awake.

What I can tell you is that froufrou most definitely did not match my mood during the recent sea frets on this North East coast. Certainly up until today, over the past few days I’ve been feeling as if I climbed into a deep chasm of doom from which I will never escape. I haven’t been able to see the field next door to the house, let alone the poor cows, apart from the closest of them who’ve been sitting miserably in the damp mud, having pummelled away all the grass, it’s been so wet. I haven’t been able to see the lane, the trees, or the sea. Events I’ve planned to attend have been called off because of the weather. And the forecast seems nothing better than a promise of an hour’s sunshine sometime between now and 2018.

So why, in the midst of this dark misery do I come up with froufrou?

I call it survival instinct. After all, it’s not just the pea soup outside. Even if I switch the TV on I’m bombarded with items of disaster, bloodshed and greed. Judging by conversations with others, it’s not just me feeling it. I’ve heard people say that they don’t listen to the news, because they can’t bear it. In psycho-speak, that’s called avoidance. And, in my opinion, it’s not a solution. For two reasons. One, because it’s a refusal to take any responsibility for what’s going on in the world, and surely we, as members of the human race, all bear some kind of collective responsibility to work towards our fellow travellers (although it’s a mistake to take on too much personally as this can lead to mental breakdown). And Two, because avoiding facing up to bad stuff actually increases our fear of it. The more we dive under the covers, the more scary the big wide world can seem.

So, as usual, the conventional wisdom lies towards the middle ground. Is froufrou, then, the middle ground? Aren’t I being just a teensy-weensy too fluffy, considering all that fog? Well, my take is, even in the midst of all this gloom, we can allow ourselves some joy. And I mean joy without guilt. So why not indulge in some frills and ribbons? Nature’s certainly doing it – you’ve only to look on the grass verges to notice the razzmatazz of red and white clover, stitchwort, vetch, silver stars of groundsel seeds, endless varieties of grasses, cow parsley and May blossom, to notice a little natural froufrou. Oh, and by the time you’ve done that, you’ll notice the sun’s come out. Which gives you some moral fortitude both to contribute to brightening the wider world and to cope better next time the fog comes down.

 

Poets of the bovine ilk…

You know what us poets are like – always looking for a writing opportunity or an audience upon whom to inflict our rhythms. Who better then to attempt to impress than the cows in the field next to our kitchen who, hoping for perhaps a tasty forkful of sileage or two, gather eagerly by the fence when I wax lyrical whilst loading up the log basket. I guess the sound of it must be similar.

DSC07949Seldom has an audience appeared so enthusiastic. What, then, shall I choose to declaim? Frost? Yeats? Shakespeare? Or something from someone a little bit less dead?

I begin with Ogden Nash – you know the one….The cow is of the bovine ilk etc, etc. This seems to go down quite well. The audience push their noses closer to the poet. One even begins to urinate. This I take as an indicator that she finds Nash’s little ditty amusing, and wonder if this is the origin of the phrase (letters omitted for the sake of decorum) p***ing itself.

Then I begin on one of my own. I’m practising for tonight’s Tick Tock event, not to mention headlining tomorrow night at Speaker’s Corner. Oh dear. They’re beginning to look a little bored. Gaze around. Rest their heads on other’s backs. Perhaps what’s needed is  a bit of back rhythm. I fill the coal bucket. Oh yes, that’s the ticket – a rhythmical intro and then the first stanza. I’m not sure whether the barbed wire is to protect me from the audience or protect the audience from the wild poet. Either way, I hope they’re taking it all in…

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The Life in a Day of a Novelist

Picture this: waking from a dreamlike sleep, the novelist wanders ethereally from her bedroom to switch on her word processor (such a dated term), then drifts down for coffee and a slice of toast before sitting down to three hours effectual and brilliant writing, which will definitely this time result in at least a 30th place on the best-seller list. Got it? Now scrub it.

Instead, you will note that said novelist has been having a run-in with her supplier of peanut butter, who, for the sake of diplomacy and a fear of the British judicial system, shall remain nameless.

Suffice it to say that said novelist, already nursing a literary hangover in which a London publisher has told her that her prose writing is “excellent” but “not for our lists” is now faced with a grocery delivery that is of slightly less use than a sandcastle in the middle of the Sahara desert. You get my drift (sand, not snow).

DSC07895DSC07897DSC07899

If the cardboard box had been in the middle and all the items taped to the outside of it the condition of the delivery might not have been much worse. Shampoo is oozing out of the upside bottles, cardboard cartons are torn, the bags of flour are all squished (fortunately covered in strong plastic packaging, so at any rate useable) and worse than that, there is peanut butter everywhere.

DSC07900And I mean EVERYWHERE! In fact the more the novelist endeavours to take the contents from the box, the more Everywhere it gets. It’s spreading like a flu virus, and there’s no vaccine against peanut butter. At least, not as far as she knows.

Of course, the peanut butter tub is fit for the bin, so she cleans up the rest of the “shopping” and puts it away. Then heads for the phone.

“I am not a happy bunny,” the novelist tell Customer Service, a nice man with a Geordie accent. And she relates the peanut flu incident. “And another thing,” she adds, having vented her wrath in a polite sort of way, you understand, “I am not re-packaging the peanut butter and sending it back to you.”

“We’ll send a replacement,” he agrees humbly.

And the novelist agrees to send pics (ah, the wonders of technology), so that they can look into the matter.

I can tell you, the novelist has done quite enough looking into the peanut butter matter and should really at least try to write a couple of words of her chapter before lunch. Which she does, though she can’t now recall if it was two or three.

And then of course it’s time to feed that poor overused brain. Somehow, she doesn’t fancy peanut butter, but she sits looking at the discarded tub by the sink thinking, “I can’t really throw that away, even it is contaminated. It’s simply not ethical.”

It’s then that the novelist has a brainwave. There’s a half-packet of a well-known brand facsimile of breakfast cereal – bought for one of her mother’s visits and grown stale and damp, sitting in a corner of the work surface. She peers inside, and in fact a spider seems to have made its home in the half-open packaging. She claws the claggy lumps of peanut butter into a bowl and scrunches in the stale cereal, adding a good dollop of water which seems to disappear faster than into a pile of cement powder. With not a little effort she stirs the mixture (not a mean feat) until she has what might turn out to be a perfect feed mix for the local bird population (don’t worry – it was no-salt and no-sugar peanut butter, and the cereal was low sugar content).

And finally the novelist goes out to the garden and dollops some of it on to the bird table. Do the birds like it? All she can say is, watch this space. She is. She can just spend hours looking out of the window thinking about peanut butter and watching the birds, instead of getting on with her novel.

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The lure of le Tour…Yorkshire 2016

Tour de Yorkshire time again, and I find myself on the bus heading down to Whitby in order to soak up the fantastic atmosphere.

I have to confess men in tights isn’t really my thing. But cycling? Oh yes, that takes me back to my days as a mini-teen rattling along on my second-hand blue Raleigh taking in country lanes and no-cycling paths as if there were no tomorrow, mostly (as I recall) in pursuit of boy-scouts who came to camp in the local manor grounds.

But swiftly packing that all back in the far recesses of my mind where it shall quite firmly remain, I’m looking forward to an afternoon of excitement and fun, supporting these doughty athletes as they go speeding by.

So, we join some kind people who have offered hospitality and sustenance as part of the welcoming committee…it could only happen in Whitby, couldn’t it – a pirate readying himself to greet the hardy cyclists as they battle up and down the Yorkshire gradients…

Tour de Yorkshire 006At least something’s clear – it’s uphill all the way just here…

Tour de Yorkshire 002The bunting’s out…

Tour de Yorkshire 003and so are we…although it’s so cold, there’s someone battling to zip up her coat here…

Tour de Yorkshire 007With marvellous efficiency, the organisers are clearing the road…

Tour de Yorkshire 024…so, come on, what’s keeping the competitors?

Tour de Yorkshire 015Maybe a small matter of the round-about tour between Middlesbrough and here taking in rather too many hills for my liking. Even the helicopter’s sweeping in…

Tour de Yorkshire 017And at last, the adrenalin rush as the Sky team lead in…

Tour de Yorkshire 018What an atmosphere!

Tour de Yorkshire 019 Tour de Yorkshire 020…and we’re bashing our bodhrans and shaking our tambourines like there was no tomorrow, in an effort to encourage those poor calf muscles to pump just that bit harder…

Tour de Yorkshire 022     A total of 198 km is no mean feat for anyone… Tour de Yorkshire 023I reckon sometimes it’s more sensible to go for the couch potato option…

Tour de Yorkshire 025Thanks to our kind hosts!

Taboo to boot…

DSC07855 Yippee! I have just reached the ripe old age of sixty, which, I’m told and am readily happy to believe, is the new forty, with a possibility of twenty or thirty years ahead of me (much to the chagrin of the pensions department in general and George Osborne in particular, who is busy trying not to pay me the money that was promised to me when I was  a young and then a middle-aged professional… for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, just google WASPI). So, plenty of time to look forward to all the mischief and havoc I can wreak upon my unsuspecting readership.

So it’s something of a strange irony that soon after my birthday I receive through the post my introduction to the nation’s bowel cancer screening programme, which is designed so that I can keep claiming my pension for as long as possible. This is the big taboo that nobody tells you about and nobody wants to talk about, so if you’re squeamish, please look away now, though, you will have noticed I have given you some pretty pictures of the camellia in my garden to compensate for the somewhat malodorous subject matter.

On the front of the NHS information leaflet is a picture of a pretty cheerful looking guy with envelope in hand, and the postman just exiting the garden gate. “Oh joy,” the message the cartoon character portrays, “I’ve just received some sticks with which to poke my poo.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for preventative medicine and happily endorse screening programmes as an effective and financially efficient (go it, George!) method of managing public health, although I would say that the greatest approach to preventative medicine might be not to live at all, which rather defeats the object, wouldn’t you say? But seriously, speaking as someone whose Dad suffered from some kind of intestinal cancer, I think for the nation as a whole, catching symptoms early may well save a heck of a lot of pain. It’s just that a little part of me still says, he was in his eighties for God’s sake, and haven’t you got to die from something? We have to accept that us mortals are, well, mortal. We can’t prevent everything, and I don’t know about you, but death is certainly hereditary in my family.

So, when I obediently read the leaflet and the instructions about this stick and that tab and the smearing thing, I can’t help but imagine several thousand people fidgeting about on the loo, trying and not succeeding in having a perfectly normal start to their day. There will certainly be a lot of grimacing, with one’s mind being thrown back thirty or forty years to  children’s nappies, giving a whole fresh significance to playing “Pooh-sticks” (do forgive me!). As someone who has quite a lot of experience of black humour amongst health professionals (starting with the medics and dental students I knew back at university and working my way forward amongst psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, not to mention GP’s), black humour being an almost essential antidote to some unbearably sad stuff, I can’t help thinking this must be someone’s idea of a practical joke.

And yet, at bottom (sorry!), I know this screening programme is sensible, so like all the others, I shall be opening the bathroom window, then going off to post my mysterious little envelope back to the lab and looking forward to the results, hoping there’s still going to be a year or two left in which to wreak a little bit more mischief…

DSC07857For more info on the screening programme, please click this NHS link

Soaking in or soaking up Orkney…

With the Spring Equinox over and daylight stretching out its fingers, it’s time to make a journey north to Orkney. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for around twenty years. In fact, ever since my dear fellow poet and novelist Dorothy Cowlin sang the praises of these Scottish isles and read her Orkney poems at a poetry group I was privileged to attend with her. Indeed there seems to be so much magic and mystery, as well as history, surrounding these isles, it’s almost a must for a writer to make the pilgrimage to the old stomping ground of literary giants such as George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir.

It’s a glorious day to take the ferry, and we cast a last glimpse at Gills Bay…

DSC07496before heading towards St Margaret’s Hope, which is actually situated on the isle of South Ronaldsay…

DSC07490The crossing is superb and quick – good news for any landlubbers – and we enjoy the drive across the Churchill Barriers on to mainland Orkney. So far so good. The landscape is astonishingly beautiful, with our holiday cottage overlooking the Loch of Banks nature reserve, a marshland rich in wildlife, both feathered and somewhat more chloroplast in substance. A great place to watch the sun go down…

Bank of lochlandUnfortunately, that seems to be the last we see of the sun for several days, thereafter facing an endurance test of freezing rain and bitter wind…

Scara brae 1…although the weather does begin to clear as the week unfolds. We’re reliably informed that this is a “fine” week. In that case, I guess we should count ourselves lucky!

However, in true Orkney style we don’t allow anything as measly as a drop of rain to stop us from doing the touristy exploration thing. Off we go to the fantastic site at Birsay, crossing on to the Brough (island) at low tide…

Brough of Birsay 1…we wander around the ruins, which are said to date back to the Picts of 600 and 700 A.D., before being taken over by the Norse and the Vikings. There still seems to be some controversy over the church though…ah, small details give rise to big wars…

Brough of BirsayIt’s lovely that Orkney artist Dawn Mayes painted stones and left them on the beaches of Evie (on the other side of the island) and asked people to enjoy what they found for a few days before giving them a new home. We found this one tucked into a crag at Birsay…a strange bird indeed to lay such an egg!

Dawn Mayes stoneWe had time to visit the neolithic Barnhouse settlement overlooking Loch Harray and were treated to a superb talk given by staff from Scottish Heritage. This site is actually a replica (very authentic) as the ruins are so old they have been re-buried for protection.

Barnhouse Village Over the coming days we swallow up Stenness (next to Barnhouse)…

DSC07720…Maes Howe and Skara Brae…

Scara BraeScara Brae 2…Skaill House (good on a wet day)…

Skaill House…a random teapot…

Scara Brae 3…umpteen rock pools…

DSC07597St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall…

DSC07689with its crumbling pillars, a testament to the Orkney climate!….

DSC07669…sandy beaches…

DSC07740…rocks and wrecks…

debris near Warebeth of which there are many – an entire history of naval activity too involved to begin to go into here…DSC07585not to mention the Italian Chapel – a Nissan hut painted by Italian prisoners of war, which is a kind of memorial to peace.

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Orkney is a place of large expanses of water and wide moody skies…

DSC07737    DSC07822…and beautiful walks of course, with far too much to do to fit into one week. Stromness boasts its own memorial garden for those who prefer a more genteel aspect, dedicated to the former Bard himself (Mackay Brown), …and the Pier Art Gallery, which is a real find in inclement weather.George Mackay Brown gardenAnd, of course, there is always the pub. I can recommend Helgi’s in Kirkwall for good grub and friendliness, with a slight bent to the Viking in its windows…

Helgi s Kirkwall

The walk from Warebeth to Stromness is well worth it. You can look over to Hoy, across the sound where the North Atlantic Ocean battles for supremacy with the North Sea…looking towards Hoy from near Warebeth

towards Hoy

…but perhaps the most haunting place of all is the Ring of Brodgar, this ancient stone circle said to be up to 800 years older than Stonehenge and commanding views in all directions. Fantastic!

Ring of Brodgar 2

Ring of BrodgarLook, you can even see a ray of sunshine!