Why spending a month away is different

We have been in Orkney for a while now. The first couple of weeks were very like any other vacation. We had our sons with us and we went to see all the famous tourist attractions, such as the Ring of Brodgar (standing stone circle) and Skara Brae (neolithic village). It was a great break. But it was not really why we came here, and this week has felt different. It has been wet and windy all month, but this week particularly so. So there has been more hunkering down in front of a fire, and less tourist stuff. I have read a couple of books, and watched some new films. It is very chilled.

But I am not the kind of person to sit still for long, so I have been out discovering the less famous sites in Orkney. It is a quite incredible place, full of history. At low tide we walked across to the Brough of Birsay, where the vikings became Christians and started a monastery. Near Finstown, I climbed down through a roof hatch into Wideford Chambered Cairn, hidden on the side of a hill, where Neolithic people buried their families. We found the ruins of a rare circular church, at Earl’s Bu, next to a Viking drinking hall. Despite sideways hailstones in a gale, I found the Brock of Borthwick, an ancient tower on the edge of a cliff. It feels as if there is history around every corner here.

These are the kinds of places you never have time for in a short vacation, the kinds of places known by locals. And I have found that talking to local people has been another difference. Perhaps also because we are out of season, I feel that we are treated less as outsiders on this trip. I have met fascinating people. I had a personal history education session from a guide at Maeshowe visitor centre. I found out about Stromness in the Royal British Legion Club. The local butcher knows me by name.

I even heard about a place called “Happy Valley” which I have not seen in any of the tourist books, and has no signposts. Orkney has very few trees and has quite a bleak landscape. So 70 years ago, a man called Edwin Harrold bought a cottage on a hillside and over his lifetime, built a special garden around it, with trees, flowers, brooks and waterfalls. When he died, he passed the property on to the council and it is maintained free to visit. I am guessing that few tourists discover this special place, and when I went to see it, I felt there was no-one for miles around.

So it does feel different. Indeed, Mandy & I have been considering staying even longer. I suspect we will decide to come back to civilisation for December, but we do feel privileged to have shared these very wonderful islands for a little while.

When was your very good year?

I was listening to Frank Sinatra’s ”Very Good Year” this week, and it made me consider which has been my best year. Frank talks about meeting girls at 17 on the village green, 21 in the city and at 35 in their limousines. He then talks about being in the autumn of his years and feeling like a vintage wine. The song became an enormous hit and is still amongst the ones he is most famous for.

When I was 19 I had left home for university and was living in London. I was loving the independence and the freedom to make my own choices. I was doing some studying but also spending a great deal of time at the student radio station. My future was open with so many options. It was a very good year.

When I was 22 I left Uni, started a career in IT and married Mandy. We were just kids and knew so little of the world. Many people told us we were far too young but we were so in love and so excited about the future. It was a very good year.

When I was 26 we moved to the Netherlands. We had two very young children and spoke no Dutch. But instead of being scared, we were excited. Everything felt new. I loved my job. I had remote access to the computers with a 2400 baud modem – 27,000 time slower than the speed I have in this remote cottage in Orkney. It was a very good year.

When I was 37 I joined the Halifax Bank. I had spent many years as a consultant and working for a “real” company felt fresh. Our boys were 11 and 12 – old enough to do almost anything, but before they turned into surly teenagers. We lived in Yorkshire, such a great county for countryside and straight talking people. I learnt to ski, to fly, to dive. It was a very good year.

When I was 48 we bought a house called Monkroyd, in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. It was the house I had dreamt of as a child, a Victorian mill owner’s mansion. It had secret rooms, open fires, two large cellars. Mandy was back close to her family in Burnley. I was commuting to the great city of Manchester. The boys had left home and we were enjoying our space. It was a very good year.

When I was 55 I was leading a very large team running payment operations for Nat West. It was my perfect job and a great way to end my working career. Fascinating challenges and a leadership team that could meet any challenge with energy and positivity. We were living in Scotland near Edinburgh, my favourite city in the world. I also got a chance to spend a lot of time in India, my favourite country in the world. It was a very good year.

I am now 57 and Sinatra’s “autumn of years” is probably appropriate. Despite a stuttering start in lockdown, retirement has been amazing. After many years of making choices that narrowed future options, suddenly we can do anything we want, whenever we want. Mandy & I have spent so much time together and remarkably we have found we still enjoy each other’s company.

I have had so many very good years.

Which was your best year? Let me know.

I love Orkney

I am writing this at dawn, sitting in my lounge overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow in Stromness. Stromness is the second town in Orkney and for the next month we are staying in a cottage that once who have been owned by a fisherman, with its own pier and tiny beach to launch the boats. Dawn here is currently a very civilised 07:40 so I have not had to get up early to see the sun rise. And boy is it beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures from a few days ago:

Since we arrived last Saturday, we have already fallen in love with this wonderful set of islands. It is true that you can have every season here in thirty minutes, and some of the landscape can be bleak. Very few trees grow here for instance. But because it is an archipelago, around every bend in the road, over every brow of a hill, you come across the most stunning views.

One of my sons, Tin, near Kitchener’s Monument after a torrential shower
The beach at Scapa, after a whisky tasting at the distillery

Out of season it feels as if we have the islands to ourselves. For instance the Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic set of standing stones, as impressive as Stonehenge. But in Stonehenge you would be surrounded by coachloads of tourists, and kept a long way from the stones on fixed visiting paths. At Brodgar it was just us.

Ring of Brodgar

Quite a few restaurants are now closed for the season, but that has not stopped us finding the most wonderful food, including what we have cooked for ourselves. Sorry vegetarians, but picking our own lobsters straight off the fishing boat was wonderful. My son Tin is trained as a chef, and they tasted sooooo good.

Yum

I have to go now. A ferry awaits to take us to the island of Hoy, for another stunning walk, and my other son, Rob, is arriving for a few days. This is going to be some month.

Who would go to Orkney in November?

I am very excited. We are currently travelling up to Scrabster at the top of Scotland. Tomorrow lunchtime we take the ferry over to Stromness in Orkney for the next month For anyone that does not know, Orkney is a set of islands north of the Scotland mainland, and south of the Shetlands. Orkney is a popular summer tourist destination, when it has daylight from about 2am to midnight. In winter, Orkney tourist attractions close, it is windy, wet and dark. So why on earth would we want to spend a month there?

The original retirement plan was to go in February, after stopping work at the end of the year. It was meant to help wind me down, hunkered in a cottage with a warm fire as the rain and winds blew around. Well the last lockdown put and end to that plan. In February we were not even allowed to leave West Lothian. Instead the retirement got kicked off properly with our long narrowboat adventure – more to come next year. But we still really wanted to visit Orkney, and November is much like February.

There will still be many archeological and historic sites to visit, amazing walks and views, great food and drink. And there will still be plenty of hunkering. We are super excited. Next week I will let you know whether reality matches my imagination. Orkney here we come!

End of part one?

We are back in Scotland. The narrowboat is safely moored near Market Harborough and ready for the winter. Our long trip is over.

For the past few years my retirement plans have centred around spending time on the narrowboat. We reckoned that by the end of the trip we would know whether Mandy and I still get on, whether we actually love boating or it was just a dream, where we want a house, and what we want to do with our future.

So how have we done?

The good news is that Mandy and I still get on. We have rubbed along very nicely being together 24 by 7 in a small space. We have discovered that we absolutely love to meet friends and relatives, but we also love the times when we are moored in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company.

We also have found that we do love the canals. We love seeing something new each day, the beauty of the countryside, the history of city centres, the pace of life, the community. It feels very sad this week that for this year it is over.

In terms of where we want a house we have not made so much progress. We absolutely love Scotland. Where we live now is very convenient, but Fife or the Highlands are also very appealing. We have also considered moving back to northern England to be nearer friends and family, and nearer the canals. Alternatively we could live on the boat 12 months a year, but for now that feels too scary for me. Maybe a house with a mooring for the boat. We have certainly spent time discussing options this year, but are not a lot further forward on a decision. No rush I guess.

What about our future? No decisions there either. But I think we have made progress. We have found that in retirement there is no need to make long term plans. We know much of what we are doing this winter (Orkney in November, Swinton Park for Christmas, maybe skiing). And we know we want too spend six months on the boat next year. That is enough for us.

So probably 5 out of 10 against our goals for this summer, but the way we both feel is more like 10 out of 10. It has been a tremendous time and we want more.

Have a great weekend. Pete

Ten reasons life is sh*t. Ten reasons it isn’t

I can’t decide whether to be glass half full or glass half empty this week.

Let’s consider the facts. First looking at the bleak side:

  1. We have given up hope that the Scottish government will allow us to travel in March or April for the Orkney holiday we originally planned for January.
  2. My wife Mandy and I have not received a vaccine invitation, but our younger son, Tin, who is just 31 years old, has. No idea why.
  3. The sunny weather promised for this week has turned into low cold cloud. So much for spending time in the garden.
  4. The backup disk for my PC has failed, and the new one does not work.
  5. We bought 3 cubic metres of wood for the fire, and it will not burn.
  6. The heating is not working in our boat.
  7. My niece is going to have her first child in a few weeks, and we aren’t allowed to see her.
  8. Having spent several days last week trying to sort out funding for my Dad’s care home, I still do not know whether the council will allow him to stay in the one where he is now.
  9. The things I have been doing this week, such as painting and reading, are a waste of time.
  10. I am really missing the people contact I used to get at work.

Reframing these in a more positive way:

  1. We have rebooked Orkney for the whole of November. As with our original plan, this should be dark enough to catch the Aurora Borealis at least once.
  2. Our son is super lucky to get the vaccine early, and for Mandy and I it should be just a few weeks away. So close!
  3. Monday was a lovely day here and looking at the crocuses, spring is definitely coming.
  4. There are many reasons to hate Amazon, but if something doesn’t work, they replace it without quibble.
  5. I have 3 cubic metres of wood stacked neatly in my wood store, and by the autumn it will be perfectly seasoned.
  6. Pierre, the best narrowboat mechanic in Scotland, has promised to fix my heating this week, so I may be able to get back there at the weekend.
  7. All being well, the reopening of Scotland will allow me to travel up to Fife to see my niece and her new child very soon.
  8. Wiltshire council have agreed to pay for a bed for my Dad, and if his current care home does not have a “council bed” available, we can pay a top up. He will not have to move.
  9. The things I have been doing this week, such as painting and reading, are relaxing and good for my mental health. They are exactly the kinds of things I never had time for when I was at work.
  10. I am not missing at all being on constant zoom meetings. My time is my own.

What do you think? Half full or half empty?

Is lockdown damaging your mental health?

A couple of things have made me reflect on my mental health this week. I read an excellent blog from someone managing depression. I won’t share it here because it is personal but it reflected on how difficult it is to balance taking ownership for solving mental health issues yourself, with the need to ask for help. The author is in the final year of university, with the stress of coursework and exams reinforced by demoralising rejections for job applications. That would be the same in any year, but layer on a lockdown when the opportunity to get out, get away and get support is more difficult, and depression looms all too easily.

The second thing is much more positive for me. For some reason this week I have had quite a few friends reaching out to check in. It is amazing how much difference it makes to receive a message asking how you are. I have certainly found this lockdown the hardest. I am not sure if that is because now I am retired, I do not have work to distract me; or if it is because vaccines make the end seem so close and so far at the same time. But the small contacts with friends have certainly helped. A lesson for me that I should make more effort to stay in touch. Not a strength for me!

My wife and I have been talking about what we do with our plans for this year. We were meant to be staying on Orkney for six weeks and then travelling the English canals in our narrowboat. Realistically the Scottish government seems to be saying it will be summer before we are allowed to travel. Perhaps we should see more of Scotland and postpone moving the boat. Or move it at the end of the season. We are just looking forward to the time we can make decisions without restrictions.

Has the lockdown affected your mental health too? If so, how are you managing it? I’d love a comment to hear from you.

Are you missing people too?

When I retired I knew I might miss the routine of work, the self-identity it gave me, and the money. I also I expected I would miss my friends at work. But I did not realise how much I would miss just being with other people.

Of course the pandemic lockdown has made things so much worse. Had we been able to follow our plans we would be in Orkney right now. That was deliberately a long break to decompress from working, but I would have been seeing new places and meeting new people. In particular I was hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, so you can imagine my envy when there was a spectacular display on Monday night.

Orkney Ring of Brodgar this week (photo by Anne-Marie Clouston)

When I was at work, very often from 0730 til 1730 I would be back to back in meetings, whether face to face or zoom. I honestly did not think I would miss them and in many ways I don’t. I love that I now have the freedom to do what I want and not just what my diary tells me. But I do so miss being with other people. I love my wife and my son. But I want the stimulation of talking to others.

I know I should not complain. There are many people very ill and dying from this plague. There are those shielding or self-isolating that have no-one at all to talk to. There are many who would love the peace that I have. But boy I miss people.

How is it for you? Are you in a busy family squeezed together and self-schooling, where my complaint sounds like heaven? Or do you miss people too?