Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Another Birthday Holiday

Over the last few years, Sue and I seem to have established a tradition of having a short holiday to coincide with our birthdays. My birthday is in mid-March, and Sue's in mid-November, so being away at that time of year is no problem cottage-wise, though of course, we have to be prepared for whatever the weather might throw at us.

For Sue's birthday last year, we explored the north-east corner of Scotland. This year, we simply headed north. We rented a very spacious holiday cottage near the village of Tongue. To get there, I had a long-held ambition to drive the teeny road from Altnaharra to Hope - a road so minor that is not even marked on some maps of the Highlands. I was not disappointed by the adventure, and the weather was very kind to us, not only being dry, but providing us with the most spectacular skies to enhance the hundreds of photographs we took. We now know that the north of Scotland is a VERY big and very empty place, and we had an absolutely brilliant few days in the wild and deserted natural landscape that is Sutherland.

Sue is promising that she will eventually post some of her holiday photos here, so for now, I will just include a very few of mine below...

The Hope Road - Ben Hope on the right

The ruined settlement of Sleteil

Loch Modsarie

Yet another photo opportunity...!

Sunday, 11 October 2020

A Trip South In Testing Times

Due to travel and visiting restrictions placed on us all during the current and ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and also to work commitments here, I have not been able to visit family and friends in England since January. Nine months seems an awful long time not to see people you love.

So, at last, I have just managed to make the trip. I admit to having some level of anxiety about leaving the peace and safety of our very rural island and travelling into the overcrowded south. There seems little doubt that the virus is spread most readily when groups of people gather closely together for a period of time - so by avoiding such situations, I judged my trip to be an acceptable risk.

I drove down as usual, taking three days for the southwards journey so I could visit my cousin near Oxford on my way to Hampshire. I stayed in Premier Inn hotels, which I have always found to be clean and comfortable. I have to say, the level of cleanliness was even higher this time, and the room-rates were a bargain as the hotels struggle to find customers. Full marks to Premier Inn.

Full marks also to the motorway service areas, where clear markings and signage encouraged observance of social distancing rules. Other than a couple of take-aways, I did not visit any cafes or restaurants during my trip. I appreciate that such businesses will be having a dreadful struggle to make enough income to survive. I can only hope that Government support will be enough to see them through.

I felt most at risk in some shops. The biggest supermarkets, when not busy and with wide aisles, were not too daunting, but one particular smaller supermarket in Torquay was busy, and the aisles nowhere near wide enough for shoppers to keep a safe distance apart. I couldn't get out fast enough.

There were other occasions where I was aware that social distancing was not being observed. I passed a secondary school just as the end-of-day bell had rung. Hoards of children of all ages were pouring out of the gates, all massed together, shouting and talking, and none wore face-coverings. During the school day, I suspect they are kept apart in year-group 'bubbles', but when the bell goes... Then I was dismayed to see a group of mums who had just dropped-off their youngsters at a primary school, all gathered in a close bunch on the pavement, chatting together. Eating places looked crowded, too - though as I said above, I did not venture inside any of them.

Now I am back home, and a new raft of measures are about to be rolled out to try to stem the rising tide of infections. I have no fears for myself now - it is not difficult to pass several weeks here and see no more than a handful of people. But until the residents of the more crowded parts of our world see some sense and obey the distancing rules, keeping infection rates at the lowest possible level is never going to happen.

Heading south - Ballachulish

Heading north - Above Loch Loyne

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Harvest Coming Home

It has been a sensationally good year on the allotment. I think in part, the success of the crops may be a result of buying seed from a different supplier. Up until this year, I have always relied on Suttons for all my veg seeds, but I have often been disappointed by poor germination rates, and ultimately by poor plants. This year, I bought Thompson and Morgan seed. Has that made such a difference? Who can say? This year could just be a 'special' year. We will have to grow Thompson and Morgan seed for a few more years to be able to make any claim that one is better than the other.

The weather here in the spring of 2020 was mild, often sunny and mostly dry. There were no late frosts. Summer has been quite wet. We have had a couple of 60mph storms, but the allotment is reasonably well protected from the wind. 

Due to the coronavirus lockdown, I had more time than in previous years to lavish on careful tending of the soil, the growing plants, and the weeding.

The results... well ! The photos below tell the tale - and yes, I am sorry the grass paths on the allotment need a trim. I'll get onto that tomorrow...

The kale is just amazing, and really yummy. 
On the left are the brussels sprouts
- coming on nicely and will be ready for picking in a month or so.

The harvest from one row of potatoes...
On the right are the next ones to be harvested - four more rows...

The runner beans are by far the best I have ever grown at Roskhill, and possibly the best ever!

Do you remember my excitement when the carrot seeds germinated...???
Look at them now...!!!

The onion crop, hung out to dry.
The potatoes await being stored in hessian sacks.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Do You Write Reviews?

More and more these days, we are getting used to shopping online for pretty much everything. More and more, we have then become used to follow-up emails from the supplier asking us how we like our purchase, and urging us to write a review. I suppose there may be some value in such reviews if there are enough of them to paint an overall picture, as 90% of positive comments will indicate that the product is probably 'OK', even if 10% have left negative remarks.

I personally have a slightly uneasy feeling about anonymous reviews though. I am concerned that it is all too easy for a reviewer to leave unpleasant, malicious or unfair remarks in a similar way that online bullying can infect the pages of some social media websites.

When it comes to accommodation, in 'the good old days', providers who were registered with the scheme would get an annual Quality Assurance inspection from a representative of the national tourism board. This resulted in a private written report for the provider, telling them what they were doing well, what needed attention, and a public overall star-rating was then awarded. A 5-star rating was reserved for the very highest quality accommodation, and was rarely awarded. 4-star was 'excellent', while 3-star was 'good'. The most basic accommodation gained 2-stars, and 1-star didn't really exist.

All that has now gone, in favour of public online reviews written by the guests themselves. We market our cottages through Airbnb and Booking.com. Both of these platforms nag the guests to leave reviews following their visit, but there are differences in their approach.

Both operate a star-grading system, and both expect providers to maintain a star score of 4.8 out of 5 or better, otherwise penalties may be applied, with very low-scoring properties being unlisted from the platform - though Booking.com is slightly less draconian than Airbnb in this respect.

Airbnb ask guests to separately rate; accuracy, check-in, cleanliness, communication, location and value, and then give an overall quality rating - so a guest who rates using the old tourism board stars where 3-star was 'good', can easily leave a rating that results in a harmful average of under 4.

Airbnb also invites the accommodation provider (whom they refer to as the host) to write a review of the guest, and neither host's review or guest's review are published until both have written their reviews. This system is supposed to encourage guests to respect the properties in which they are staying, and to leave them tidy on departure, as hosts are likely refuse a booking request from guests who have poor reviews - though in practice, a guest with poor reviews can simply re-register with Airbnb under a new name and 'wipe their slate clean'.

For the host, reading positive review comments from happy guests is rewarding, and there is little doubt such comments encourage other potential guests to book highly-rated properties. On the other hand, negative comments in a review can be quite hurtful, especially if they relate to issues that could have been easily dealt-with if the issue had been brought to the attention of the host during the stay. Another irritation in reviews is negative comments about issues that we have no control over, like the weather, or the distance to the nearest pub. Thankfully, we have very rarely found ourselves reading negative comments about our own properties.

So - when I do leave a review for something (which I have to admit - I seldom do) I think carefully about what I say and how I say it. I would like to think that everyone does the same...