“From Oceans to Embassies” a Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave – a colourful, cultural globetrotting journey (braving wars and typhoons along the way)
While on a Mediterranean cruise in 2017, I was delighted to read Gillian Angrave’s travelogues, “Venice – The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller.” In this series of personal guides, Gillian shares her love affair with Venice, the art, culture and heritage, with humour, enthusiasm, knowledge, passion and quirky anecdotes.
At the age of 10, Gillian began travel writing in youthful earnest when she won the Cadbury’s national competition for her essay, “Life on a Tropical Island” – a rich imagination more than personal experience!. She followed her childhood dream to travel the world for work and has now browsed through her diaries and photo albums to compile a captivating memoir of her globetrotting life in “From Oceans to Embassies.”
Part 1 is a fast paced introductory scamper through Gillian’s family life, school days, learning languages, playing sports and then an interest in driving and fast cars. With three A levels, including French and Spanish, as well as secretarial qualifications, in 1967 Gillian joined P & O – the Peninsula & Orient Steam Navigation Company – in the role of Junior Woman Assistant Purser.
In a brief history of the shipping line it’s interesting that until the 1970s, P&O passengers emigrated to Australia or visited family and friends overseas as the only mode of transport. After the launch of affordable jet travel, the ships changed their regular routes from crossings to cruise itineraries for leisure.
How she came to board the SS Canberra with little notice to pack and prepare in January 1968, is a marvellous anecdote, setting sail on a four month world voyage. We learn about her life on board from blue and white uniforms (fashionably designed by Hardy Amies) to the daily routine of the Pursers Department in charge of reception desk, food & drink supplies, immigration and finance by day, to cocktail parties and dinners at night.
Gillian was first given the job of “Berthing Queen,” allocating cabins and dealing with complaints from passengers including 1st Class guests requesting a more luxurious Suite. Not always easy.!
What is most revealing is the fact that there were few professional entertainers employed and so the pursers doubled up as song and dance men and women. Creating costumes and choreography, they performed such themed shows as Music Hall, Hawaiian nights and a night at the Moulin Rouge.
Life on the ocean wave is not complete without experiencing gale force weather – “We hit the eye of the storm,” she recalls, when they encounter a Typhoon in Japan.
Read all about her favourite ports from South Africa to Australia, and hopping around idyllic tropical islands from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. Staff were allowed to enjoy some shore excursions to see historic sites, shop for souvenirs and go on Safari. On a trip with four colleagues to the Natal Game Reserve, unfortunately their Dormobile van broke down. They had to get back to Durban before the SS Canberra departed as ships do not wait for passengers or crew. …
Gillian cruised the world on two P&O ships, SS Canberra and the SS Oriana over a seven year career, during which time her salary rose from £35.15s to £58.15s a month. At least alcohol on board was relatively cheap – 12 shillings for a bottle of gin. I expect a G&T was essential after a long day’s work.
An important aspect highlighted is that this was tne era before the Equality Act and WAPs were treated unfairly compared to the senior male pursers in charge. Women were offered no pension rights and had to leave at the age of 40. With no chance of a long term career or promotion, Gillian decided to disembark and seek another route to continue her itinerant life.
Next port of call was joining Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service on 5th July 1976 at the Foreign Office, London – the start of a high flying career, based at various British Embassies in Asia, South & Central America and Hungary. Gillian had to sign the Official Secrets Act which is a lifetime agreement so there are no Government revelations here!.
Enter the world of Ambassadors, Consuls and Embassies and its vital role covering assistance to British citizens and ex pats overseas, international promotion of trade, defence and culture. Her first posting was Manila, capital of the Philippines where administration work was balanced by formal lunches and receptions. At a Christmas Dinner with the Ambassador, she had to try the Filipino delicacy, bats’ wings!. There was also the chance to play golf on neatly mowed greens in glorious sunshine. Around the world, she continued to visit many golf courses – occasionally lurking with scary wildlife – finally awarded great succcess at the Blue Danube Club, near Budapest.
More adventures when working at the Embassy in Lima, Peru, giving the opportunity to visit the Amazon basin and the majestic heights of Machu Picchu.
Moving on after a few years to Guatemala during a time of political conflict and their claim over Belize, this was a dangerous mission with a seriously terrifying outcome.
There are fascinating insights into Embassy work, such as the Diplomatic Bag to transport official documents – it has its own passport, cannot be opened or x-rayed and personally carried by the Queen’s Messenger or Embassy staff.
Gillian was stationed for three years in Chile during the regime of President Pinochet, the country governed by martial law; then in April 1982 came the devastating news of the Falkland Conflict between Argentina and the UK. However, despite serious political concerns, social life seemed to be an entertaining whirl of official social events and Scottish country dancing – who knew that that there is a strong Scottish heritage in Chile?
More travel trips such as to the icy terrain of the San Rafael Glacier in the remote South Patagonian fjords.
Another posting was to Mexico City, where, when not at her desk, there was time to keep fit on the tennis court and golf course. The British Embassy, Mexico City is illustrated above on the front cover. And here there was a thrilling encounter with none other than James Bond, aka Timothy Dalton who was in town for the filming of “Licence to Kill.” Assisting the actors and crew, (trading tea and baked beans with 007), Gillian must have felt akin to being Miss Moneypenny or M in H.M. Secret – rather than the Diplomatic – Service!.
Working for the Diplomatic Service for nearly thirty years, certainly brought extraordinary opportunities to meet Royalty, Government Presidents, Ambassadors and film stars, and making very dear friends within the team of colleagues. But equally, there were worrying situations coping with mosquitos, malaria, snakes, alligators, typhoons, earthquakes, civil war and serious illness, far away from family and home.
“From Oceans to Embassies” is compiled with meticulous detail, vivid descriptions and vivacious enthusiasm; this is a page-turning narrative taking the reader along on a thrilling, rollercoaster ride to learn all about her exhilarating journeys by land and sea.
An enriching life indeed, which was predicted when Gillian was just three years old. Chapter 1 of this Memoir begins with a charming anecdote related years later by her mother. A Romany Gypsy had knocked on the door selling clothes pegs. Thankful for the threepenny bit, she offered to read her fortune: “You will have two daughters, one will be musical and one will go over the seas.”
Her younger sister grew up to enjoy a musical career as a flautist and and Gillian circumnavigated the globe for nearly 40 years, her destiny was written serendipitously in the stars.
“I count myself so lucky and privileged to have sailed the Seven Seas and been sent on postings with the Diplomatic Service to such exciting and interesting countries. Travel has been my constant companion and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world. I intend to keep travelling for as long as I can” Gillian Angrave
“From Oceans to Embassies” A Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave
Purchase price: Hardback, £14.99 and Paperback, £11.99 (plus £3 p&p)
available from Amazon and Waterstones
Also direct from – https://www.gillangrave.co.uk
Also, highly recommended:
“Venice : The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller” by Gillian Angrave (3 volumes)
Purchase price – Paperback, £9.99 (plus £2.87 p&p) from Amazon and Waterstones.
After retirement from the Diplomatic Service in 2005, Gillian became, and still is, a Registrar of Marriages in West Sussex. She continues to love travelling, photography and writing books and memoirs. She also has many interests – bell-ringing, modern languages, gardening and golf.
Citrus-scented with the tang of a salt-sea breeze, Fidra Gin is a summer day on the beach distilled in a bottle.
The glorious Gin Craze has no sign of slowing down with a fine flourish of Artisan gins across Scotland to capture a sense of the wild landscape. Speciality, small batch distilleries now pepper the Hebridean islands – Barra, Isle of Harris, Colonsay – and all around the coastline, from Seven Crofts, Ullapool over to Rock Rose, Caithness and south to Fidra Gin, East Lothian.
The founders of Fidra Gin are two friends, Emma Bouglet and Jo Brydie who brought together their respective experience in investment banking, corporate hospitality and as business entrepreneurs. Sharing a passion for gin they were motivated by the story of three women who craft Lussa Gin on the island of Jura. At the Scottish Gin Awards 2017, they met Walter Mickelthwait of Inshriach Distillery who offered expert advice and assistance. And with this perfect nspiration, “our gin dream was born!”
After purchasing a 5 litre still called Sadie, the most important aspect was to use locally grown ingredients sourced from sand dunes and hedgerows along the East Lothian seashore. After careful experimentation in Emma’s kitchen to select the best blend of botanicals, Fidra Gin was launched in September 2018.
The name Fidra is taken from a tiny uninhabited islet – a puffin and seabird sanctuary – just offshore from Yellowcraig Beach, near North Berwick. An ideal location as the seashore along here has a colourful spiritual history!
Gullane, Aberlady Sands, Dirleton Links, Canty Bay and south to Eyemouth was a gold coast in the early 19th century, where smugglers raided and wrecked ships for barrels of Dutch Gin and French brandy. Imported food and drink (salt, tea, coffee, chocolate, currants, sugar) was highly taxed and the challenge was to escape the exciseman with a cargo of valuable contraband.
As a child, Robert Louis Stevenson played pirate and smuggling games, hiding in caves and coves along the sandy beach at North Berwick.
He later recalled his summer holidays here an essay: “a genial smell of seaweed, two sandy bays, a file of grey islets .. a wilderness of hiding holes alive with popping rabbits and soaring gulls.” ‘The Lantern Bearers’, RLS, 1888.
Fidra lighthouse was built in 1885 to the designs of his father Thomas and his cousin, David Alan Stevenson – Robert visited the island to observe its construction.
This was during the time when he was writing his famous seafaring adventure story, “Treasure Island” about pirates, buccaneers and buried gold. The map of his fictional Skeleton Island has a similar horseshoe shape to Fidra with its inlets and rocky bays.
Most imaginatively, the vintage illustration of the island on Fidra Gin labels is like an old treasure map too, featuring the Lighthouse and ancient ruins of Castle Tarbert & St. Nicholas Chapel. This evocative Label was designed by John Smart of Collaborate Creative which won the silver medal at the 2019 Harpers Design Awards.
The tall, slender style of the glass bottle also celebrates the shape of the Stevenson lighthouse, with a charming gift tag around the neck to explain the story behind the name of this Coastal Scottish Gin.
Fidra Gin is made in small batches using six key ingredients – juniper, elderflower, lemon thyme and thyme, (these two types of thyme are grown in Jo’s garden and Archerfield Walled Garden) as well as locally foraged sea buckthorn and rosehip. The task of extracting and infusing the selected essential oils, floral, herbal and citrus flavours is a creative, technical process – with perhaps a touch of magical alchemy!.
While currently crafted under the expert guidance of Walter Mickelthwait at Inshriach Distillery, Aviemore, Emma and Jo have secured premises with plans underway to make and bottle Fidra Gin at their own distillery in East Lothian.
Just a year after its launch, in September 2019 Fidra received a Highly Commended medal in the best London Dry Gin category – voted 5th out of 45 finalists – at the Scottish Gin Awards.
So let’s get going to sample, test and taste this award winning Gin.
On the nose the aroma is juniper-rich with a fresh, earthy-pine fragrance; on first sip, the initial mellow sweetness, from the elderflower and rosehip, gives way to a subtle salty tang which is cool, crisp and so refreshing.
Sea Buckthorn is a medicinal plant high in Vitamin C, also known as Seaberries; the fruit has the aroma of pineapple and is now a fashionable ingredient in gourmet dishes as seen recently on Masterchef. As a key ingredient of Fidra Gin these tart berries, foraged along the sand-dunes, bring an aromatic, citrus flavour with a whiff of the salt sea breeze.
For a G&T, Jo and Emma suggest keeping it simple, just ice and a slice of lemon with a premium tonic; a garnish of a sprig of lemon thyme will add colour and further zingy freshness.
An ideal choice would be Fever Tree Mediterranean Rosemary and Lemon Thyme Tonic which has less quinine and lighter in flavour. The taste of Italian sunshine.!
13th May is World Cocktail Day so I have enjoyed trying Fidra Gin in a selection of my favourite classic cocktails. I started with a Gin Martini – not quite as dry as Noel Coward insisted: “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.”
Other connoisseurs prefer to swirl a little vermouth around the glass and then discard before adding the pure, ice cold gin. According to the eminent Bar tender, Salvatore Calabrese, the recipe is thus: 80 ml Gin with 1 – 2 drops of Extra Vermouth. A little strong perhaps?
This is the recipe I sampled: 50 ml, Fidra Gin, 15 ml Dry Vermouth into a mixing jug filled with ice. Stir (do not shake) and strain into a cocktail glass and then a twist of lemon peel. An olive or two would also suit Fidra to draw out the soft salty flavour.
Vermouth is a fortified wine infused with herbs, roots, bark and flowers and beautifully enhances the fragrant characteristics of Fidra Gin. This creates a marvellous Martini, the aromatic wine just taking the edge off the sharp strength of neat spirit, with a smooth bitter-sweet after-taste.
Fidra Gin has a carefully crafted, complex botanical balance blending perfumed, floral, citrus and salty notes. This gives the flexibility on how you enjoy it – either as a long, cold drink with ice and tonic, or letting the crystal clear spirit sing, almost solo, in a Martini.
As a regular traveller with Silversea cruises, a speciality cocktail was invented to celebrate the launch of a new ship in 2010, Silver Spirit – and remains a popular favourite tipple on board. Instead of Plymouth Gin in the original recipe, try this for a marriage made in heaven.
Silver Spirit Cocktail
60 ml Fidra Gin
60 ml St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
40 ml New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine
15 ml Lime juice
Add all the ingredients in a Cocktail Shaker filled with ice and thoroughly mix and pour into a glass with a wedge of lime.
St. Germain is the world’s first artisanal French liqueur, made with 1,000 fresh, wild, handpicked elderflower blossoms in every bottle. This delicate sweet flavour is reminiscent of peach, pear, citrus and a hint of honeysuckle. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a distinctively crisp wine with notes of grapefruit, gooseberry and cut grass.
A Silver Spirit cocktail perfectly complements Fidra Gin – simply divine. Alternatively, add a little St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur to a G&T to draw out the floral flavour.
Emma and Jo have certainly been on an exciting adventure around East Lothian, immersing themselves in the natural and literary heritage of Fidra Island.
“ The dens and sheltered hollows redolent of thyme .. the air at the cliff’s edge brisk and clean and pungent of the sea.” Robert Louis Stevenson
His childhood memory of the East Lothian seashore could equally describe the fresh outdoor aroma and taste of Fidra Gin. He would likely serve it neat, on the rocks. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Gin!
“Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,’ wrote Stevenson in 1880. ‘When the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father!’
Fidra is a Scottish coastal gin which artistically embraces the stunning seascape by distilling the essence of local herbs, flowers and salt sea breeze – like a summer day on the beach in a bottle.
For more details and where to buy Fidra Gin – www.fidragin.com
Facebook: Fidra Gin
Stop Press: During the Covid-19 lockdown, local home deliveries in East Lothian have been transported by bicycle and motorbike – a welcome gesture when bars and pubs are currently closed. When possible, a future plan is to use this 1970s Ukrainian Ural Motorbike & Sidecar for your supply of Fidra Gin.
Scotland’s seafaring life captured in evocative, expressionist artwork by John Bellany @ The Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
During May 2020 the Open Eye Gallery is showing an enchanting retrospective to reflect John Bellany’s celebration of Scotland in his art through his enduring passion to explore life and work on the edge of the sea.
This environment was engrained into his blood having been born into a family of fishermen and boat builders in Port Seton, East Lothian.
It was through his childhood observation of this close-knit, deeply religious community where he found his artistic voice.
Eyemouth was where he began to draw boats as a young boy and as he later recalled.. ”the hustle and bustle of activity, that was the core of my life. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. ”
He returned here again and again – such as to sketch this scene of a huddle of fishing boats, as a student at Edinburgh College of Art.
Overlooking Eyemouth harbour is the 18th century Gunsgreen House built by a local Tea smuggler John Nisbet. His grandmother was born here and Bellany was guest of honour in 2010 when Gunsgreen opened as a museum, where a few of his local maritime paintings are given pride of place.
Boats, fish and seabirds dominate his art, boldly illustrated in a dramatic expressionist, surreal style.
While at first glance By the Sea is a simple, colourful composition of yachts on the river, a large seagull beside a a flush cheeked woman in a headscarf, study the symbolic detail: a crucifix around her neck, a church and a boat yard on the shore. This encapsulates the hard working outdoor lives of those who worked in these fishing ports.
As a boy John helped with gutting fish and smoking finnan haddock, images of which which lingered in his mind. Here in Sea Offering the fishhead, skinned fishbones beside a skeletal figure holding a sandglass timer – an alternative grim reaper.
By mythologising the fishermen’s world in his art, the subject of mortality is a recurring theme to reflect the Calvinist fear of death and the uncertain safe return after going out to sea.
Women are also a vivacious vital element in his paintings described as fisherlass, virgin, bride, seawife, maiden or diva – a constant muse.
In Listening to the Sea this glamorous lady is dressed in black evening gloves, cigarette between her lips, listens to the waves in her conch shell. Her gaze is sensual and seductive – is she listening to the call of her lover.?
A close study of Sea Maiden reveals that her head is wrapped with an oily blue-scaled fish with its gleaming eye and tail, to complement her long red pig-tailed hair. Sensual, soulful eyes are such an iconic characteristic of all Bellany’s serene portraits of beguiling women.
And here’s a joyous, rich red Amaryllis to brighten our days at home – through the window, a charming tranquil scene of a fishing port.
As an art student he visited a local bar patronised by Hugh MacDiarmid who advised him that in order to be true to others he must first be true to yourself. Impressed that MacDiarmid wrote in Scots,” Bellany knew how to be distinctive: ‘I’m going to paint in Scots.’
This is an evocative retrospective to showcase John Bellany’s mesmerising, mythical vision of Scottish seafaring life, culture and heritage. The son of a fisherman, a child of the sea, his art is true to that inheritance which inspires and enriches the imagination.
As an avid admirer of his captivating portraits and seascapes, I am fortunate to view a couple of Bellany’s wonderful, wild women of the sea, everyday at home.
Open Eye Gallery
John Bellany – May 2020
A Wild, Winter Voyage around the Hebrides is captured in wind-blown, salt-sprayed seascapes by Ross Ryan: “Batten down the Hatches” at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh.
Shannon, Fastnet, Rockall, Malin, Bailey, Fairisle. …: the solemn, somnolent reading of the Shipping Forecast broadcast each night on BBC Radio 4, may sound like a poetic lullaby if safely at home, but an essential warning of impending gales for seafaring folk.
The map of the Shipping Forecast is the starting point of Ross Ryan’s The Logbook (Vol 2) which charts his recent intrepid expedition on board MV Sgarbh, a vintage, 40-foot, wooden fishing boat.
As both an artist and yachtmaster, in 2017 Ryan set off from Crinan on a solo painting trip, the result of which was an exhibition, “The Logbook, A Solo Winter Voyage” at the Scottish Gallery in May 2018.
Inspired by this challenging experience, Ryan set off again on MV Sgarbh to explore Mull, Barra, Tiree, Islay and Jura over the recent winter season on his travelling Studio to compile an exhilarating range of work entitled “Batten down the Hatches.”
“This new collection of paintings is from two years of chasing gales, sailing to offshore lighthouses and discovering the people and their islands. As the world has also temporarily battened down the hatches, I hope this exhibition is a reminder of the beautiful seascapes of the West Coast that await for us”. Ross Ryan, 2020
For over 150 years, Robert Stevenson, his sons and grandsons, built the lighthouses around Scotland’s coastline from Bell Rock to Vaternish. Designed by Thomas Stevenson, Dubh Artach Lighthouse (completed 1872), stands on a basalt rock 18 miles west of Colonsay and 15 miles South West of Iona.
From The Logbook (Vol 2 ), Ross Ryan
“With the swell rolling us excessively, anchoring was out the question, as was making a landing. Soon it became apparent the only way to keep her steady was to steam slowly into the swell. The painting got a drenching as we passed through the Corryvrekan whirlpool. What was lost in paint was gained in an authenticating layer of salt. “
This misty, murky image – oil and pastel on board – perfectly illustrates the remote location of this majestic monument rising from the rough, rolling Atlantic. The shimmering clouds and frothing waves is most atmospheric and certainly authentic: you can almost feel the chilling, salt-sea spray engrained in the oil paint.
Dubh Artach translates as black rock, or indeed, black death due to the numerous ships wrecked on the fearsome Torran Reef. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about a memorable boat trip to see his father’s great construction which saved so many souls.
“A certain black rock stood environed by the Atlantic rollers, the outpost of the Torran reefs. Here was a tower, star lighted for the conduct of seamen. No other life was there but that of seabirds and of the sea itself …that .. growled … roared and spouted on the rock. “Memories of an Islet” RLS (1887)
A poetic description of the same scene recently observed by Ross Ryan for this semi- abstract sketch, First Flash, Dubh Artach: a dot of a star clearly shines on the horizon with a peachy glow of a dying sun below a threatening sky. With crafted layers and shades of pastel on paper, this is a stunning composition.
Scotland’s tallest lighthouse is Skerryvore, (Alan Stevenson,1844) on a treacherous reef of rocks, 11 miles from Tiree.
The bold, brash brushstrokes sweep a swirl of billowing cloud over the choppy sea, a place blessed with a mild sunny climate but strong gales, perfect for windsurfing.
This has an exquisite Turner-esque quality focusing on the same maritime motif – the wave. Here is the visible power of churning, crashing waves in luminous detail.
While the pioneering Impressionist artists painted “en plein air” to embrace the landscape up close and personal, Ross Ryan immerses himself even more in the heart of the action. The idyllic wee island of Vatersay is the most southerly in the Outer Hebrides, renowned for its sublime beaches and unspoilt natural habitat. Braving the weather, the simple black splashes of rain clouds are so realistic.
From The Logbook (Vol 2) Ross Ryan
“During the winter I painted from the shore, recording the sea in all her anger. Here is a force that could move a beach overnight and flick rocks like unwanted peas.”
On the North East coastline, Joan Eardley was also mesmerised by the vast sea and sky, setting up her easel on the beach at Catterline to express the energy and beauty of a ferocious storm.
On this voyage, Ryan followed in the wake of the Scottish Colourists to the island of Iona. Cadell first visited Iona in 1912 and then together with Peploe, this became their annual summer pilgrimage.
With a warm colour palette, these scenes portray the pure white sand, lapping waves and soft light of this timeless spiritual place.
There is the distinctive classic artistic style of the Colourists here in The Sound of Iona, with sculptured shapes and tonal light in a precise pattern.
Islay, “Queen of the Hebrides,” is renowned for its distinctive smoky-peat whisky and Lagavulin Distillery is located on the edge of a bay in the south of the island. An imaginative flurry of haphazard scratch marks denote the cloud-spattered sky on this grey day.
Time for a dram. Lagavulin 16 year old malt is described as ‘Lapsang Souchong tea, pipe tobacco, fishboxes, kippers and hint of kelp but always sweet’.
Sending a “Message in a Bottle” is an ancient tradition. Ryan’s own project has taken him on a magical mystery tour to Tiree and Coll to paint the spot where his bottles washed ashore and meet the treasure hunters.
With delicate detail and fine perspective, the calm tranquility of Red Rock Beach.
By enduring the harshest of environments, Ross Ryan’s collection of artwork, photographs and Logbook creates such a vividly illustrated narrative of his seafaring adventures.
“Batten down the Hatches” is a most timely subject – 2020 is the “Year of Coasts & Waters” by Visit Scotland. Take a virtual island-hopping voyage around the Hebrides at the Scottish Gallery and be inspired.
The Scottish Gallery
‘Batten down the Hatches’ – 29 April to 30 May, 2020
View the exhibition on line:
For further information on images, film footage, Ross Ryan’s travel blog and Logbook Catalogue, please contact the gallery by email:
While the gallery is closed, a selected painting from this exhibition is placed on an easel, changed by request, to view through the window.
The May exhibition also includes “My Border Landscapes” by Sir William Gillies and a tribute to the jewellery maker, Wendy Ramshaw.