I met the Chief of Clan Mackenzie

I had timed my drive up from Fort Williams via Loch Ness and overnight stay in Strathpeffer to fit one of the few open days at Castle Leod. Why, you ask? Because as an Outlander fan this is what you do.
And who greets me when I walk up to the castle entrance? Non other than the clan chief himself! John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Cromartie.

I was speechless. He told me about the history and urged me to go around the tree park. There is a rare and very old sequoia. Plus Diana Gabbaldon has planted a tree there. I was still awestruck and could only nod.

The castle interior feels lived in. Very unassuming but still impressive. The great hall is Regency style which was unexpected. So was the Edwardian billard room. I was clearly on Outlander time line in my head.

Impressive is also the collection of agates on display. The Earl himself collects, tumbles, cuts and polishes them. Majority is for sale.

Did you know you can become member of the clan and go to gatherings? Oh yeah! Check the website for details and fascinating stories about the Mackenzies:

The clan chief waiting for more visitors.
I hugged the sequoia… couldn’t reach around.
The upper two floors have water damage and need donations for repair. Supposed to become a rental accommodation. Imagine being tenant there! Donate, donate, donate!

Shovelling shit for a good cause

Back in September I volunteered at Lluest Horse & Pony Trust near Llandovery, Brecon Beacon National Park, Wales, for 3 weeks. This great charity rescues mistreated animals, nurtures them back to health, works on behaviour problems and tries to find guardian homes for them. Animals that cannot be rehomed will become permanent residents at Lluest Trust.
They also provide opportunities for people with learning difficulties to acquire skills and mental support from dealing with animals.

I had such a wonderful time there. The team is great, the farmhouse cosy (accommodation provided on site), the animals lovely, the surrounding landscape beautiful.

What a joy it was to be greeted every morning by the horses/ponies in residence. Putting out hay, then on to my favourite job: mucking out the stables. I kid you not. There is something about shovelling shit (literal shit, not some made-up corporate commercial stressy shit), something very simple but satisfying. Your brain shuts off. Your body works. You use muscles you did not need in an office job. Your eyes see a result, a measurable output (how many wheelbarrows full of shit per day). Not to mention being outdoors all day.
I am telling you, forget yoga, try shovelling shit. Good for body and mind.

I arrived just in time for their September Open Day. There was a dog show, a raffle, lots of cakes and sandwiches, photo opportunities with our resident unicorns and much more. A fun day all round.
Next event was a vintage tea party with the four lovely munchkins aka shetland ponies. This was a birthday gift for a 21 year old. Adults, twens and teens were equally excited to groom the ponies than feast while the munchkins did what they do best – munch grass.
On my days off I did trips to the local area: Roman gold mine, Roman amphitheatre in Carmarthen, Tenby, St Davids, and many castles.

Check out their website: and follow them on Facebook. They deserve your attention and definitely a small donation.
They have a wish list on Amazon. And if you are a coop-member you can chose them as your charity. Lots of ways to do something good.

If you prefer a more hands-on approach, go and volunteer there as well. Help is always welcome. Contact direct or via

View of yard from my room in farmhouse
Tea party
Nosy munchkin
Archie, resident mouse hunter
Wake-up call from Billy und Archie
Bring a pet to work day: meet Evelyn, albino giant African land snail.

Wind in the Willows – and so much more

Who does not know a willow on sight, those elegantly slim trees with long, flexible branches?
Did you know there are more than 400 known species of willow, also known as salix? Varieties range from trees to shrubs to creepers. Willows can often be found in parks near ponds or along rivers, making a wonderful, ornamental feature. They are also ideal for keeping waterlogged areas dry.

Thanks to the willow we now have a medicine that revolutionised pain treatments. An acid contained in the sap was the base for the later invented synthetic version known as aspirin. People in the older days would chew or brew the bark to treat fever and pain such as head- or toothache. Now we just conveniently swallow a pill. Worth hugging a tree for, don’t you think? Go on then.

In mythology and literature the willow is often connected with mysticism or life of one sort or the other. In the Northern Hemisphere the willow tree symbolises death or grief, whereas in China the willow stands for immortality and rebirth. In Shakespeare’s “Othello” Desdemona puts her fear and sorrow into “The Willow Song”. Hans Christian Andersen mentions in his story “Under the Willow Tree” an Elder Mother and Willow Father, under which the main character Knut finds solace. Similarities can be found in Disney’s “Pocahontas” where Grandmother Willow, a wise and ancient figure, is depicted as a speaking willow tree. Another famous willow is “The Whomping Willow” from the Harry Potter book series, a tree with attitude, standing tall in the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Other legends tell of witches crafting brooms from willow tree branches.

My favourite variety is the weeping willow due to its very distinctive, roundish shape. During my childhood I had one in front of my bedroom window. I could (and probably did) spent hours just looking at the branches moving like long hair in the wind. The leaves would flick in the breeze, showing their whitish underside. Sunlight would filter through them, bringing the tree to life, mesmerising me. During the flowering period, the tree looked like as if it was wearing curlers – or was inhabited by millions of hairy caterpillars.Caterpillars are pretty but turn creepy if there are more than twenty in one spot, therefore I preferred the curler version. I imagined the willow would have liked to be a corkscrew willow rather than a weeping one. I could relate to that, having had very long straight hair at that time (spaghetti hair as I called it) and was wishing for a mop of curly hair. I got my wish in the 80s but it was more poodle perm than corkscrew. One is never happy with what one has…

If you want to plant a willow close to any structure you have to take into account that they tend to spread their roots everywhere and often close to the surface to get as much water as possible. My willow lifted up the paving alongside our block of flats and of the carpark – a mortal sin. Also the sticky flowers (catkin) would drop on cars and were hard to remove – another mortal sin. I tried to rescue my tree but there is only so much a teenager can do against a chain saw. The front of the house never looked the same after the removal. I rescued two young twigs and just stuck them in the ground at my secret hide-out. They took root and have been growing quite tall since. Sorry, location is still secret.

Willows grow amazingly easy and fast. A reason why they can be grown as hedge and branches can be “harvested” almost yearly for making baskets, furniture or other creations.
Have you ever wanted a handmade wicker basket? Don’t be put off by the price. Just pay for it. I once tried making one myself (with emphasis on “tried”) and I assure you, the money is well spent. Basket making is a skill. So is creating any other willow feature.

On my sightseeing trips through the United Kingdom I came across some astounding art creations in the gardens of the National Trust house “Knightshayes” near Tiverton, Devon.
I recently contacted the local artist and the magnificent creations should to be on display again from Easter onwards. Enjoy!



Sandwiches, Sandwiches

I often get asked by my contacts in Germany, how I can survive on the British food. Well, actually, pretty good! Believe it or not, the supermarkets do offer similar food, it all just comes down to what you do with it. It is not all fish & chips here. I can still cook Italian pasta or Indian curry or Chinese stir fry or the traditional Sunday Roast with vegetable, potatoes (roasted, not cooked), gravy and – very British – Yorkshire pudding. If you ask me, forget the vegetable, have more Yorkshire puds.
The bread assortment isn’t great and contains more air than sustenance, I’ll give you that, but what the Brits make with it is worth tasting.

The Brits love their sandwiches. The Germans excel in unusual bread loaf varieties such as onion, sesame, spelt, potato, caraway, apple, buttermilk, and poppy seed. The Brits lead in toast varieties: white, Danish white, brown, seeded, half and half, farmhouse, crusty, tiger, malted, sliced thin, medium, thick, extra thick and for difficult kids with no crust.

Order a sandwich in a tea room or restaurant and it will most certainly come with some salad leaves for decoration and crisps on the side. Traditional fillings are egg-mayo, tuna-cucumber, ham-cheese, cheese-pickles, chicken tikka and bacon-lettuce-tomato (blt). For those you have no time for a cooked full English breakfast there is the all-day-breakfast sandwich on the go, a combination of sausage, bacon, egg and ketchup. You won’t taste the toast, it merely serves to hold the filling together. One of my favourites.
For the more adventurous taste buds there is brie with cranberry, hog roast with apple sauce, salmon and cream cheese, chicken-chorizo and roast beef with horseradish.

But the best and most unusual ones you have to assemble yourself.
For a carb overload try Chip Butty: Fresh or cold left-over chips (preferably from a Chinese take-away) between 2 slices of white, buttered bread (not toasted) with ketchup, brown sauce or curry sauce.
I was introduced to this sandwich by a British colleague. I am not a fan of the other carb bomb loved by Brits – baked beans on toast –  and therefore was very sceptic about this combination. But one bite and I was converted. Thank you Brad, for expanding my food horizon!

Another interesting sandwich version is the Fish Finger Butty: Yes, you’ve guessed it – fried fish fingers on white, buttered bread (not toasted), often with sauce tartar or  ketchup. What’s not to like about that?

Even though originally considered a work-class meal, these two sandwich variations are nowadays rarely found on pub menus. I happen to know that the “Black Boy” pub in Winchester offers Fish Finger Butty. The size of the sandwich was enormous. The pub itself is worth a visit. Every available spots is filled with collections of stuffed animals, bobbins, bottle openers, miniature whisky bottles and stickers (see Table Art 07.12.2015). Visit the toilet and get watched by hundreds of doll’s eyes glued to the ceiling while reading the remarks on the walls. Unusual and hard to forget. I can truly say, this pub has left a lasting impression on me.




Christmas Market – Winchester

Traditional sweets at Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

Traditional sweets at Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market

The popular Christmas market at Winchester Cathedral is open. Wrap up warm and have a stroll around the countless stalls nestling behind the cathedral. Marvel at the craftwork and sample from the many food stalls. Try the grilled cheese varieties, German sausages and the chocolate covered, flavoured marshmallows (gingerbread, rum, mint, orange – just to name a few). Or opt for some traditional candy floss and caramelised nuts. Top it all off with a leisurely round on the ice rink. A perfect day out.

Stall w citrus Stalls w cathedral