South West Scotland with alt-J

“I get the feeling this area is often passed by as people head up to the highlands, giving the whole place a placid, carefree atmosphere.”

For a significant family birthday, we chose to escape the humdrumness of home this year and hire a cabin in a remote part of lovely Dumfriesshire called Sandyhills. It was less than an hour over the border but already the scenery felt wild and exciting compared to bumbling old England. Where we stayed was 10 minutes’ walk from the sea and looked out over a small loch, meaning we were the first port of call for every Atlantic storm and every bright burst of Scottish sunlight. Even though it received more than its fair share of rain, the place was glorious. I would sit with a coffee every morning feeling incredibly cosy staring out at persistent showers on the loch. In a perfect coincidence, folky indie rock band alt-J happened to release their third album, RELAXER that week. It was just the sort of chilled and understated accompaniment I needed to enjoy my already quite pretentious hipster-y situation. I developed a routine of putting on Adeline and mulling things over in my head, trying not to think about the ridiculous snap election which was coming up that Thursday.

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The cabin.

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Exploring the cove – 100% candid shot.

Days that week were spent exploring the area and watching films in the cabin, as well as visiting the usually deserted indoor pool and sauna. I would go to the pool with my speakers and blast out I’m The One by DJ Khaled whilst doing a few lengths, then swelter myself to breaking point in the sauna. The beach at Sandyhills was one of those that stretches out for miles so you barely see the sea but can explore all the way along the cove without worrying about the tide. We were able to walk to Port o’Warren discovering hidden caves and rock formations as the sun beat down and we were battered by the strong gusts. I get the feeling this area is often passed by as people head up to the highlands, giving the whole place a placid, carefree atmosphere which seemed to be reflected in the local accent. There was no harsh Glaswegian inflection here; at the beach café we were offered “hwhite or black coffee” in a gentle tone that I hadn’t really come across on TV before. If you need to escape to somewhere close by that is quiet and unobtrusive, this is the place to go. We visited several towns and villages in the area including:

Kirkcudbright. Pretty harbour town with a castle and lots of independent art galleries to explore. Ate at The Belfry Café – a bustling and seemingly legendary establishment in which I ordered their exclusive “Scottie Dog” because it has its own logo. It contained haggis so I felt satisfied I had had a truly authentic Scottish experience.

Galloway Activity Centre. Canoe and kayak hire available to explore beautiful Loch Ken – highly recommended.

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Loch Ken.

Threave Garden & Estate. Perfect location for a country walk through woodland and along a disused railway with views across the valley. Helpful staff and a gift shop selling Traditional Scottish Things which I obviously lapped up.

Kippford. Near the mouth of the Urr River – sleepy and pleasant. Had a special “moment” seeing a young deer running around by the water which I ruined for myself by getting frustrated with the iPhone’s pathetic zoom function.

Dalbeattie. Not that nice. Every single building is grey. Pretty dull with not much to do.

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Dalbeattie.

I was doing the dishes listening to Radio 1’s “Power Down Playlist” the first time I heard 3WW, the lead single from RELAXER. It’s the sort of song that can make you feel high without the need to indulge in narcotics – a handy timesaver! It drifts along with guitar and piano held together by some form of percussion (possibly one of those eggs from Music in school?) with guest vocalist Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice chiming in towards the end. Another favourite of mine is Last Year in which the lead vocalist Joe Newman mournfully lists everything he did last year month by month, until it reaches his “funeral” in December. At that point the song takes a new turn as a female vocalist joins in and is followed by a gentle woodwind solo. It is funereal and clearly about depression, but the instrumental at the end has a faintly celebratory quality, much like the celebration of a life that a funeral becomes. The final song, Pleader, is a choral delight and resembling a hymn, it doesn’t fail to make hairs stand on end. If you’re ever in front of a sunset or something this needs to be blasted out. Adeline, for me, is the album’s highlight – a canon that weaves together the story of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman. RELAXER is only short but it triumphantly blends folk genres from several continents and a wide range of instruments, creating its own unique ambience. Yes, it can be bleak, but from this bleakness rises eight stunning orchestral pieces that really did resonate with the Scottish backdrop. I don’t think I could have chosen better.

Listen to RELAXER here.

Hull with Shakira

“Listening to Shakira sing about mojitos in Me Enamoré made it feel almost Mediterranean, until the sight of two pigeons mating outside Boots brought me back to reality.”

The two times I passed through Hull as a child don’t really count. Once to catch a ferry, once to go specifically to The Deep aquarium after winning tickets in the Summer Fête Raffle 2002, so this feels like my first real trip. It also happens to be the “UK City of Culture 2017”, involving a substantial media buzz which quite frankly I’ve become sick of to the point of actually having to go and see what all the fuss is about. A year ago I would have scoffed at the idea of going to soak up “culture” in Hull, but if Rough Guides have decided to rank it eighth best city in the world (just behind Amsterdam and narrowly beating Vancouver) then who am I to argue? To accompany me I am listening to Shakira’s eleventh studio album El Dorado. The album shares its name with a mythical South American city of gold, so setting off I was excited to see if any parallels could be drawn between this and the newly gentrified city of Hull.

The temperature on the day of my visit was in the mid-20s, so as I stepped out of the station enjoying the breezy sway of Coconut Tree and looked around, it felt as if I’d just touched down for a city break somewhere more continental than East Yorkshire. I was greeted at the tourist kiosk by two smiling women, who handed me a map and recommended I visit the new dancing fountains. I made a mental note but headed straight to a large modern shopping centre called St Stephens, where another friendly kiosk person pointed me in the right direction to some toilets. It felt clear straight away that the city is “on show”, ready for the influx of visitors to the various events they are hosting this year, the most imminent being Radio 1’s Big Weekend. The whole place has a feeling of pride and I must say I can’t remember the last time I arrived somewhere in the UK to such a warm welcome. Walking through the streets in the heat, listening to Shakira sing about mojitos in Me Enamoré made it feel almost Mediterranean, until the sight of two pigeons mating outside Boots brought me back to reality.

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King Edward Street, sadly no coconut trees.

What seems to be the focal point of the city is a statue of Queen Victoria next to the famous new fountains, surrounded by several impressive buildings including the City Hall, Hull Maritime Museum and the Ferens Art Gallery. At the foot of the statue were around a hundred bouquets dedicated to the lives lost in the horrible Manchester Attack which had happened a few days earlier. The atmosphere across the country that week had been one of tension and unease as people came to terms with the atrocity that had taken place on our back doorstep. The mood at the statue was of quiet reflection, but nearby in the fountains, children played cheerfully and posed for photos with a pair of police officers. It was the end of a dark week but I felt a sense of positivity and unification in that moment.

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The new fountains bringing happiness and joy.

The Ferens Art Gallery has apparently been closed for a year to have a massive refurb so it could be Hull’s pièce de résistance as City of Culture 2017. The result was several well-lit airy galleries under a glass roof, with an eclectic variety of work. I have to admit I couldn’t be bothered to stand around looking at paintings of 18th Century Europe, as I was keen to see those famous photographs of hundreds of blue-painted nude volunteers standing around in the street. The project by Spencer Tunick is entitled Sea of Hull and was commissioned by the gallery to commemorate – you guessed it – City of Culture 2017. Not wanting to ask a member of staff for fear of being labelled a “basic bitch” heading to the most popular piece, I strolled around the gallery looking for Tunick’s exhibition myself, until I found it in the final room I came to. The photographs really are striking and worth a look, not least for the comedy value of 3000 blue people standing around naked on a spring morning in Hull city centre.

Lunch was a Tesco Express meal deal enjoyed in the large shady Queens Gardens, where I sat directly between the avenue of trees that lead from Hull College to the centre. Before long, a wedding party arrived and stood in front of me to take photos and throw the bouquet, so I got up out of awkwardness. I’m not sure the moment would have been quite as special with me in the background, stuffing my face with the Hoisin Duck Triple (No Mayo). Leaving the park, I found my way to the Old Town, ranked #4 on Things to Do in Kingston-Upon-Hull according to TripAdvisor. The streets here are narrower and, on the day of my visit, eerily quiet, with Hull’s proud maritime history visible through the grandeur of its architecture. With Google Maps in hand I noticed I was now close to Hull’s number one attraction on Tripadvisor: the Streetlife Museum of Transport. It turned out to be as exhilarating as it sounds. In all fairness it was very well looked after, and I imagine would be thrilling if I were on a school trip aged eight, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea and by that point, I was a bit hot and bothered and getting sick of Shakira. I’d recommend instead going next door to Wilberforce House, birthplace of William Wilberforce, the leader of the fight to finally abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It is now a museum dedicated to his hard-fought campaign towards the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and educating people about the vile and inhumane way our country treated Africans for so many years. Entry is free and featured several rooms focusing on Wilberforce’s life and movement, as well as an exhibition on West African history and a pleasingly unabridged description of what the slave trade actually was. It’s important to be able to look head-on at our dark past, as this museum does, and fully acknowledge the countless lives ruined to make Britain so “great”.

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Wilberforce House.

After getting lost in the walled garden at Wilberforce House, I made my way along the High Street in search of some sort of sea view area that I assumed existed. As I arrived at a pier next to the iceberg-like structure that is The Deep Aquarium, I remembered that Hull doesn’t actually face the sea, it faces the River Humber’s mighty estuary which, for want of a more poetic description, is flippin’ huge. I bought an ice cream from Caffe Gelato (slow but friendly service), and sat on a bench facing outward, still in awe at the sheer scale of this place. Although the sun was beating down there was a constant barrage of wind, which didn’t help my perfectly rational fear of dropping my phone through the slats in the pier. The ice cream and the view made a lovely accompaniment to the rest of El Dorado, which unfortunately had become more of an obligation than a pleasure.

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The Deep Aquarium feat. man being sent down pier by his wife.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakira. I’ll be the first to stick on Hips Don’t Lie at a party, have been known to request Waka Waka in public on more than one occasion, and insist on resurrecting She Wolf every Halloween. But there is something about her distinctive voice that I feel gets grating by the time you’re on Track 6. The album does its best to stay interesting, with an impressive three languages used and plenty of featured artists including Maluma, Nicky Jam, MAGIC! (I thought we left them in 2014) and Prince Royce. The two main singles, Me Enamoré and Chantaje are certified pleasers and deserve more attention in Britain since we’ve suddenly woken up to Latin music following the success of D*spac*to. Other standout songs are When A Woman, in which she impressively belts out that a woman in love will “take you to hell and back”, and La Bicicleta, an irresistible duet with Carlos Vives that makes me want to grind away in literally any Caipirinha-serving establishment. A laid back song about living with a broken heart called Comme Moi inexplicably features twice – originally in French, then dumbed down to English. The album closes back in Spanish, with the heartfelt ballad Toneladas which is quite moving, but fails to live up to the legacy of 2011’s stunning Sale El Sole.

Shakira has said she made this record song by song, which could be the reason for the overall disjointed feel to it. Surprisingly though, the album blended pleasantly with a warm Friday strolling around Hull, although that could easily have been down to the weather. The party tunes are undeniably good, and while I did get bored of El Dorado quite early on, Shakira herself remains as legendary as the lost city of gold she named her album after. Track of the trip has to be When A Woman with its distinctive wailing chorus, although that doesn’t mean I particularly like it, it just stuck.

Listen to El Dorado here.