Fire and Snow edinburgh, 22 february 2009

One wintry night, we cajoled a log fire alight in the little cottage we had for the weekend at St Abbs. Outside, the wind whipped snow flurries around the cliffs. Later, snug in bed, we listened to the BBC and heard the breaking news of fires raging uncontrolled through the tinder-dry bush towns of Victoria. We reached for the phone and rang family on the northern edge of Melbourne to check they were OK. Robert and Lesley were, but vigilant.

A memorial to fishermen lost at sea at St Abbs reminded us of other disasters as the Victorian fires raged

Fire and snow and the extremes of weather have been in the news a lot since we last wrote. Snow and ice brought Britain’s transport systems to a halt and many schools were closed, to the delight of some and the anger of others. Salt became a precious commodity as roads were rendered impassable. The worst of the weather was “down south”. Here in Edinburgh the snowfalls were the best for decades but we two were not inconvenienced but rather quite enjoyed the novelty of the squeak and crunch of fresh snow underfoot and the spectacle of children playing in it. But we felt a peculiar sort of homesickness as we watched from afar the horror and tragedy unfolding in devastated Kinglake, Marysville, Flowerdale and other places where the hot summer is far from over. Today, Australia is in the headlines here again as its day of mourning brings people together.

Snow brought young and old out to play in Holyrood Park

Meanwhile, Edinburgh has become a second home and we are acting more and more like locals. We find ourselves choosing to walk old favourite routes on our afternoon walks. Each fortnight, we go along to a home group of the Priestfield church. Scottish political life, weather reports and accents are not only familiar but increasingly comprehensible. The street atlas and bus route map are left home more often then not. The first snowdrops and crocuses are appearing like old friends. The frequency of new additions to the bird list has almost, but not completely (witness the red-breasted merganser), sputtered to a halt.

Edinburgh’s capacity to surprise is still strong, though. We are still discovering new places. Bit by bit, we are completing a walk along the Water of Leith with its variety of vistas from the industrial to the idyllic. We have now circumambulated Arthur’s Seat and found new corners of the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, stopping on both occasions to watch birds skating on ice. The Scottish Mining Museum left us with a healthy respect for the patient fortitude of mining communities and their pit ponies, working in cramped, dusty and dark conditions. The extent of our physical courage has been to peel off our many layers of clothes to go swimming each week in the beautifully heated Royal Commonwealth Pool.

A swan on frozen St Margaret’s Loch

Now and then, we still act like tourists. When our friend Sue visited from London we thoroughly enjoyed joining her in a rental car and being her navigator and tour guide. The three of us fluked a sunny weekend to visit Aberfeldy, in the geographical centre of Scotland, on the Saturday and to the Dawyck Botanic Gardens and Melrose Abbey in the borders region on the Sunday. We arrived back in Edinburgh just as the snow started to fall. By Monday, we had a winter wonderland. It was touch and go whether Sue's train would be running that night as the country's circulation froze up in sympathy with its economy.

Geoff preparing to navigate the return of the rental car

The following weekend we took a trusty Scottish bus to St Abbs, a village on the southeast coast. Last year, we went on a Saturday walk around the cliffs there with a group of friends from St Peter's church, so it was good to have another chance to explore the place a bit more. It was bitterly cold and very windy but that didn’t stop us walking the ancient Creel Path linking the village to Coldingham, long the home of fishermen and monks. Eventually, when we noticed that even the cows were safely indoors and that the birds hadn't returned to nest on the cliffs yet, we decided to follow plan B. We curled up with the weekend newspaper next to the log fire. When it came time to leave, we took the bus further on to Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the long-disputed Scottish–English border, where we walked the ancient ramparts around the town. The train home from there was so fast (compared to the circuitous bus service) that Chris hardly had time to check her email on her iPod, using the on-board wifi, before we drew into Edinburgh Waverley station.

St Abbs village clinging to the cliffs

Back in January we made a quick visit to Geneva to to catch up with friends and put the finishing touches to the report of the WSCF senior friends gathering. We settled in just in time to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. Most of our time in Geneva was spent at the ecumenical centre (in Chris’s case) and some of the time in bed with an upset tummy (in Geoff’s case). Geneva also provided snow, looking particularly beautiful as it fell on the grounds of Le Cénacle, our favourite hotel, once a convent. The Museum of Natural History offered us welcome shelter when the snow was at its heaviest. It was there that we celebrated the news of Siana's arrival in Queensland, number eighteen of our great-nieces and -nephews.

A jellyfish fashioned from glass in the Museum of Natural History in Geneva

Bit by bit, we are preparing to return to Canberra. We have gone as far as weighing our worldly goods to see what we can cram into our suitcases. But we have stretched the boundaries by delaying our return another month. (Don’t laugh!) The plan now is to fly straight to Brisbane for niece Catherine and Justin’s wedding and from there to return to our Canberra roost on 8 May.

Did you solve the dingbats in our last epistle? R | E | A | D | I | N | G is “reading between the lines” and Hell 2 Heaven 1 is “paradise lost”.

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