Winter Apples


If Dickens’ Mr Bumble had the good sense to pooh-pooh one of the Law’s many paradoxes, what would he have said about modern art? Probably unprintable.

A long time ago I worked dispassionately in the printing trade behind a huge window opposite a Belfast art gallery. One morning a van pulled up and some new exhibits were unloaded. Among these was a mid-20th century kitchen chair, in itself as artistically plausible as any object in the universe can be. But rising up through its seat was a disturbing wooden point, like a huge thorn, painted to give the impression it was running with fresh blood. Blasé gallery staff set about positioning the hideous thing on display where it surely unnerved the public walking by on the street and gave small children nightmares.

But hey ho—it’s art. Maybe the artist regularly smoked a banned substance and found his inspiration and creativity in that. Who knows. And who should care.

There’s a lot of this artistic lunacy about. Did you hear about the everyday industrial skip, creatively outlined in “glowing yellow”, that was placed on a street as part of Brighton’s arts festival? According the event’s curator, “It is just amazing how [the artist] can transform ordinary, everyday objects into something extraordinary.” What’s absolutely amazing is the £90,000 taxpayer-funded grant that made it possible. It’s perhaps surprising that no one threw the artist in it. But once again, it’s art.

It’s art, and it’s modern.

And so is a pile of used nappies (diapers if you’re American), bricks laid out in rows, a dirty unmade bed (“littered with dog ends, condoms and underwear”), and a huge black rectangle, all of which were successfully exhibited at one time or another. As was a pickled sheep, and a frozen blood head—whatever that is. Some years ago an artist on TV turned himself into living art by taking off his clothes and becoming a hat stand and somewhere to park a bicycle. Seriously.

Sometimes normal people mistake so-called art for literal rubbish, and who could blame them. A sculpture made from polystyrene, resin and cement was thrown out by waste disposal workers. Staff at Tate Britain in London very reasonably threw away a sculpture they thought was a bag of waste paper, which in fact it was.

Back in 2001 a cleaner removed an exhibition after it was mistaken for rubbish that needed cleared up. “The collection of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays was said to represent the chaos of an artist’s studio” (newspaper report). In the 80s what was thought to be “a very dirty bath” was scrubbed clean by a conscientious gallery worker in Germany. Such industry is commendable.

Photographic Art

What about photographic art? While there’s plenty of twaddle to be found here too (particularly in black and white it seems, judging by the magazines), it can be a wonderful way to create a visually arresting image. I had a go at one myself, and in an unrestrained moment of inspiration and originality called it Winter Apples. See what you think. Would you hang it on your wall? I thought not.

ISO 800, 1/160, f4.

Art and photography will meet wherever you want—what’s your vision? Here the intention was a stripped back artistic representation depicting fruit stubbornly clinging to bare branches, despite the bitter arrival of winter. Sharpness and tonal range can be overrated and technical excellence shouldn’t always be the goal, but that’s no excuse for creating imagery that’s the photographic equivalent of a pickled sheep.

The image I used was a passing grab shot over an old wall. Even with a mid-zoom lens it wasn’t possible to get close enough to frame the detail I needed without trespassing. Although metered from a mid-tone and underexposed by 1/3, the camera still managed to lose important highlight detail in the apples. Working on the cropped image in software, the matching apple tone and colour were added to the hot spots from elsewhere then feathered and subtly faded.

In a new layer a copy of the image was darkened and the original apples were allowed to show through by careful use of the erasure tool. Another copy was then drastically brightened several times and blurred before the application of a merge mode. Finally, magenta, green, red and blue were targeted and reduced.

Increasing the pixel dimensions of this image (interpolation) means it’s possible to print to whatever size I like. It’s also possible to scan a smaller pro lab print to retain good quality in much larger sizes. This approach is often overlooked.


Control the Range of Focus


There are various creative techniques that will make your images more interesting. Controlling the range of focus is one of the most elementary, but it can be a little confusing.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field is the area of apparent sharpness in front of and behind the focusing point of the lens. Depth of field does not extend equally either side of the focussing point but rather extends farther behind it than it does in front.

Although a lens can only focus on one subject at a time, the range of apparent focus, or sharpness, can be extended or reduced by adjusting the size of the hole through which light passes. This hole is known as the lens aperture. If the aperture is large, f2.8 for example, there will be less apparent focus than if the aperture is set to f16 (the bigger the number, the smaller the hole).

Many cameras have a special button or custom function setting that will allow you to see the effect of depth of field by closing down the lens to your chosen aperture. However, it’s not always easy to see the effect through the viewfinder.

Depth of Field and Depth of Focus Explained

Depth of Focus… is the distance by which the lens can be moved towards, or away from, the film when the subject is in focus without producing noticeable confusion and blurring of images on the final print. In practice some latitude is permissible in focusing a camera accurately, because the human eye does not notice a slight confusion in the image on a print.

When a distant object [A] casts a sharp image on film the image of a closer object will not be sharply in focus for it will be cast sharply behind the film at point B1. On the film itself the image of B will take the form of a blurred circle of confusion [A1]. But as the diaphragm of the lens is ‘stopped down’, i.e. made smaller in diameter, the circle of confusion will grow smaller and the depth of field will thus be increased. The smaller the diaphragm stop [aperture] the more sharp will the image of all objects, near and far, appear on the film.

Depth of Focus is sometimes called Depth of Field but this is wrong because, though the two are related, they are not the same thing. Depth of focus, as we have seen, is inside the camera whereas depth of field is outside it.

Eric de Maré (1910-2002)
Photography, (out of print)

Wide-angle lenses

A lens’s angle-of-view also affects the range of apparent sharpness. Wider lenses, or wider focal lengths on a zoom lens, will extend the range. A landscape shot, properly captured with a 20mm wide-angle lens set to a small aperture, will appear to be sharp from the foreground to the horizon.

Longer focal lengths

The sharpness range can be greatly reduced with longer focal lengths and larger apertures – an effect that can be used to isolate a subject from a distracting background or draw attention to the subject by blurring what is in front of it and what is behind it (selective focus).

Macro lens

The perceived range of focus with any lens decreases the closer the subject is to the camera. This very shallow range of focus presents unique difficulties when using a lens designed for the photography of small subjects. The camera should be perfectly steady and the subject still.


In more simple terms, the aperture setting, the lens’s focal length and the shooting distance, all work together to affect the appearance of sharpness in your images.

Hyperfocal Distance

You achieve hyperfocal distance with any lens/aperture combination by focusing on the nearest point to the film plane that keeps the farthest point of the scene (infinity) in focus. This technique is useful when using a wide-angle lens for landscape photography. Hyperfocal distance is thought by many to maximise depth of field. Maximum depth of field can mean a tripod will be necessary to keep the camera perfectly steady. Built-in stabilisation technology will help too.

Grips for the Fujifilm X-E2 and X-E1

The trend for compact camera kits shows no sign of abating and, ironically, neither does the need for grips to make camera bodies larger and more comfortable to hold.

I don’t have particularly large hands but after using a semi-professional DSLR for years I found myself struggling with the design of the mirrorless Fujifilm X-E1. It all seemed a bit too fiddly at times. Of course Fujifilm had a hand grip readily available—currently it’s the MHG-XE—fancifully priced at around £65.

Just to be clear about it, it doesn’t come with gold plating and won’t have your name engraved anywhere. Thankfully independent manufacturers were quick to produce X-E1/2 hand grips for the working class at rational prices. The excellently machined grip pictured above is from Andoer® and is available for around £18. It would be nice though if the main surface was textured for extra grip.

Thumb grips are available too that slide into the flash unit housing. Using both together certainly makes a camera more manageable and I wouldn’t like to do without them now.

You may want to consider bending the thumb grip very sightly away from the camera body (see below). In my opinion it’s more comfortable overall and keeps my thumb a few millimetres back from the command dial. Perhaps this particular thumb grip could have been a slightly different shape and a little longer? But you can’t please everybody.

The Mint Below the Seat (and other poems)

On Shadowy Stanzas

There’s nothing like amateur poetry for offending talented sensibilities. So, if you’re truly talented you won’t find much to enthuse over here!

If nothing else, sombre and reflective poetry is honest. Are you arrested by poems like The Toys by Coventry Patmore, and John Hewitt’s very sobering A Father’s Death? We all should be, but not everyone can. We should all understand the why of poems like these.

Given the chance too many poets, inexpert and otherwise, have a tendency to emphasise misfortune and misery. I’ve stopped writing poetry. Reading through it again it’s too often marred by suffocating melancholia, and I’ve come to hate that so much.

I cherish the nuances and vivid beauty of nature, and feminine charms, and many other things, but just look at what’s escaped into my poetry instead. For some of us there are weighty truths that resonate more than others: “When reaching for life’s roses we bleed among the thorns”; “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain*”. Focus on these traits and we sink too easily. Accommodate that negative twist in your nature and you’ll spend too much time in the sucking quicksand of oppression.

Cutting Roses by Daniel Ridgway Knight. Be careful.

Cutting Roses by Daniel Ridgway Knight. Be careful.

Over the last couple of years, with more than a little frustrated assistance, I’ve learned I need to complain less and be hopeful more often. Melancholy complainers wallowing in their mood swings don’t inspire confidence and can’t help the tearful along a dark worrisome road.

Life moulds us and many struggle to fight back. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. Before frailty threatens dignity, many among us become badly damaged and unavoidably reflective. If you’re into positive thinking you’re unlikely to want to spend too much time with folk like these. They know too little about temporal joy, peace and hope. Such things are occasional flashing sparks that briefly fly high from burning lives. Souls like these need love and support.

I can’t see around the next steep turn in the road, but my enlightened aim points to somewhere beyond this life. I’m determined to be more hopeful, or at least try. Life is short. We didn’t choose to be here but we can choose how to live. Use everything to build your character so you can do better the next time—if there is one.

*Bob Dylan

Beautiful Strange

Woodland walks with my wife

After days of ripped lives,
Awakened and whole.
Beautiful strange.

Set still, though hidden through
Nights too long endured,
About the closed-up home
Nature moves suffused.

Whether we struggle ill
Or lie longer weak,
Papery poppies bend,
Birdsong scorns the stark

Towers of western rain clouds.
Woodland scents rise through
Full-leaf branches shading
Deep paths love turns to.

Healing ways drawing us
To vivid and bold.
Beautiful strange.

The Mint Below the Seat

(For Claire)

When I was small I swung my legs
And sang a silly tune.
I counted yellow ladybirds
While Nana cleaned her rooms.

When I was young I laughed and played
Below rain-darkened skies.
I never knew a sorrow borne;
I rarely wept and sighed.

I never saw cut flowers decay
In vases on the sills.
I never sensed the curse of time
That stole my games and thrills.

When I was ten each loving touch
Would ease my pain and fear.
I’d yet to sit through bedside ills
That whispered death was near.

Now older I can understand
That hardship bars my way,
That those I love may someday leave,
But I will have to stay.

Once I was young and liked to pluck
The mint below the seat,
While Granda clipped the garden hedge
And swept below my feet.

Visiting on a Winter’s Morning

To set aside these binding knots I rise with,
I wish I could pull on a heavy coat and
Walk the sunlit hill to my grandparents’ house.
At the door I’d turn on the red polished step to look
Back along the path to the gate,
And pause, leaning on the unsullied days of childhood.

Loved in the ordinary things again
I would gladly sit by the fire with a cup of tea,
Hot coals and sticks popping and hissing
On a frosty November morning.
Worn slippers, a pipe, crochet on the chair,
The squeaking pulley over the stairs, so often laden with washing;

At the wee window a burst of slanted light through the net curtain
Casting warm hues on each familiar smile.
Such endearments are lost now,
For life flickers low in the absence of comforts passed.
Not even these earnest tears can carry me where I’d rather be,
Though, for now, my memories hold.

In Stone

Now I’m not diseased meat on the medical table,
Tethered and frightened, unsure of my frame.
Now the sting and the bite of life-threatening terrors
Are destroyed like a beast nobody could tame.


The gist of the matter at a glance,
Experience strolls while children prance.
Ample wisdom uses knowledge well,
Intellect glories but cannot tell.

Hot blood is fed by thrills and spice,
Bald heads, contented, are not enticed.
Age in a margin is rarely sought,
Youth in a hurry cannot be taught.

It Goes On

In the valley’s warm morning air, I unexpectedly remembered someone.
An early thought before the sky was heated summer-blue,
As soft as trodden moss, gentle like the smooth arcs of mist wisps
Aimlessly down from the lake.

It goes on, and I should smile at the memory-glow,
But a lone soul, so detached and vagrant now,
Is likely to sigh and fold against the rough bark
Below cool, dark boughs.

In Donegal Hills

(In Memory of CW)

In the soot-streaked wall the grate is warm and dusty white.
After the turf’s evening heat,
Two mugs and a plate sit on the chipped hearth.
Contentedly accepting the good chilled air
He’s standing unshaven at the open door,
Hands in deep pockets, shirtsleeves rolled high.

Close treeless humps of hills
Rise to clouded mountains beyond the tufted lane;
The foaming stream gushes darkly,
Gurgling on the withering browned slopes.
A windless sky, dense with low Atlantic greys,
May soon drop rain on his stark view,
Singular, and remembered often.

Vase Flowers

I’m weary of
flowers in my house this Spring,
beautiful but fading rootless,
stressing the dreadful companions
death and disease.

Better out-of-doors’ blooms in gardens,
or flung wild, fixed for vitality,
from seasonal life to life
where they belong,
not tied unfitly to hardship’s tears.

Blue Frost

Where the deep earth is cold
And tormented me,
Where barren nights of grief laid
Frost blue on the morning grass;
With my torn heart
Now dead with yours,
Can I ever rest a day
And say goodbye
At last?

From Early Love To This

Silent together on that first winter’s night,
Resting on the warm pillows of her breasts,
Newly bound to hope.

Then, like petals driven on a cold May wind,
The sweet blossoms of intentions and promises
Were torn out before their full beauty was seen.
Though contrite and miserably forgiven,
A carnal soul crouches low, hiding in shadowy corners
Having squandered treasures.
These are crushing burdens none should ever know:
From early days of deep love to a spirit broken
By stoking fires God’s clenching hands put out.

Perfumed dark hair lies tossed on clean bedclothes;
Godly thoughts and pure bodies are grafted.
They believe every tomorrow will be shared.

The Me in You

You’ve worked your brain so hard
Your conscience leaked out through.
“I’ve sought the Lord about it,
And this is what I’ll do.”

Necessity has forced a trip
With selfish slips and prayers amiss,
Steam-opened flesh out on a limb
Betrayed the Master with a kiss.

None dares to point the finger,
But what’s that fruit on view?
Call it anything but sin—
I see the me in you.

Shabby Suit

“City life is millions of people being lonesome together” (Henry David Thoreau).

Unholy are the calculations
hammering thoughts beer can-flat in a sinking mind,
digging in deep hollows for reasons
not torn up yet, that won’t ever.
Draw them out, then spin and weave them in,
donning flaws all the way fading
along cracked paths on the other side of the bare hearth,
wherever home was, and when.

Numb knuckles on the litter bin scatter soggy butts to
the endless tired watching again.
High cold drops are massing
to run over double yellow lines a shunned life is parked on,
shaded by a sickly avenue tree cemented in.
Wear that shabby suit out, denying what you are recalled when
others rage, deride, remind you, behind you, scorning faceless.
What remains can’t turn away younger, head sound.

In a sewn pocket finger-clink old coins your grandfather hid –
never spent, worth stealing.
Cross the road shopless, too worn to zebra back
to racks of gents’ coats reduced, none fitting a wasted size.
Flapping from the slicing wind the broken come begging when
barging in, elbows punching into a warm space.
Peer through sheltering glass
muffling heavy vehicles’ rumbling
and piercing-pitch school kids, flushed and careless.

Pain Harness

Pain exchanges distant for devoted
and so ignites love
Pain exposes true riches
and makes peace valuable too
Pain insists we beseech and blubber
Pain burns off clogging dross
Pain points at limitations we had ignored,
reduces us, crushes souls

It’s pain in the human frame
It’s pain we can’t ignore
It’s pain that harnesses and educates
It’s pain that plunders all

Pain buries us in frailty, mortality
Pain devises worthwhile goals
and ridicules every fantasy
Pain convicts
and announces crimes
Pain ponders the future fearfully
and obscures every horizon
Pain is revelation and uncertainty paired

Echoes of Protest and Pain

“Save, Lord, we perish,” was their cry,
“O save us in our agony!”

Pull me from this, like a bloodied knife deep in the gut
of a being I could blame.
Through loud Heavenly choruses you hear the violent raging
of minds exhausted by holy demands.
Thinking renewed, ever waiting, abiding, watching, denying –
our daily prescription for the disciplines of righteousness,
in the hope of spiritual fruit.
When strength is small, the heedful few are buried again
under heavy frustrations.

Cut me if I reach for God,
Tear when sunshine chases rain.
Harm me when my heart is pure,
Slice through if I’m wrong again.

The Will of Wisdom, when fused with fleshly ways,
will twist dispositions and shatter bodies.
Spirit of Christ within, without,
take, if fitting, all of life’s mire we are neck-deep in and,
by miraculous reforms, please breathe on the glow
dying after the fiery zeal.
In the friendless absence of realised love and peace,
through stumbling distresses in many weaknesses,
our deadweight afflictions crush us.

On and on we press,
Through all that God allows,
Though tears blot out The Way
And hands slip from the ploughs.

So, when our life is clouded o’er,
And storm winds drift us from the shore,
Say, lest we sink to rise no more,
“Peace, be still.”

Godfrey Thring, 1862



Colour Will Be the New Black

There are a great many things I don’t understand. There’s so much that doesn’t make sense.

The unimaginable vastness of the universe. The impossible size of an atom. How Darwin’s theory missed sheep. The dark and complex contents of a woman’s handbag. Daytime TV. Buttock tattoos. The Fiat Multipla.

Small cars with exhaust pipes the size of the Titanic’s funnels, fitted by youths whose jeans are three sizes too big. Towels and soap you’re not allowed to use in your girlfriend’s bathroom. Why anyone would go to John o’ Groats more than once.

And the existence of Keith Lemon.

Lately, too, I realised I didn’t understand why car tyres are always black, and I’ve discovered that things are slowly changing. Chances are that here in the UK you’ll never see coloured tyres, but they are out there and I’m guessing they will become more popular as technology improves and makes them safer and more robust. In fact, a Chinese manufacturer is producing them right now (see picture below).

My car is as common as chips and it’s painted visible-from-space red (a cheaper option at the time). So if I were 30 years younger I think it would look quite impressive with red tyres. I really would. Why not?

But there is one good reason why your car tyres are black and will be for quite some time to come. Carbon black. Simply put, and avoiding the boring history, during the early evolution of the tyre it was discovered that adding the chemical carbon black to rubber made it much more durable—maybe 100 times more. In tyres this greatly increased resistance to wear and made them less likely to fail at those points where the stress was most severe.

Carbon black is magical stuff. It also deflects heat away from more sensitive areas of the tyre, and protects against natural degradation caused by ozone and UV rays.

A long time ago they had a go at making tyres that lit up. Just the job if you want to stand outside in the cold and check for ladders.

A long time ago they had a go at making tyres that lit up. Just the job if you wanted to stand outside in the cold and check for ladders.

So over the next number of years we will probably see the creation of carbon red, or carbon green, or carbon blue. Of course you’d have to spend more time doubled over keeping your tyre walls clean. But I bet there were similar complaints when someone had the nerve to paint car panels anything but black.

The Golden Rule Pass

Apparently the Holy Bible is probably the most popular book in history—even surpassing that momentous literary masterpiece Fifty Shades of you know what. You might think the Bible is nonsense, fiction, God’s literal revelation, or just OK here and there. It’s found all over the place, even where it’s rejected or reviled. I own a microfilm copy. In the the Cold War era it could be smuggled into countries where religious material was banned. It can only be read under a microscope.

At a reduction of 62,000 to 1 this micro reproduction of the Bible is just 3x3cm.

At a reduction of 62,000 to 1 this micro reproduction of the Bible is just 3x3cm.

We live in a crazy diverse world that hangs a Christian label on just about anything. Millions are spinning their interpretations and opinions into every corner of society. Religious folk are doing good deeds, going the extra mile, nurturing the youth, brandishing weapons, dancing with snakes, speaking in tongues, wearing gorgeous vestments, carrying big crosses, going to meetings and study groups, gossiping in pews, and minute by minute quoting (and misquoting) Bible verses.

Here’s a particularly famous quote put three ways: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you; Whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them; Treat men exactly as you would like them to treat you.” The Bible says these words—often called The Golden Rule—were spoken by Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ. It’s stunning ideology, simple but powerful.

But, let’s be honest. We aren’t very good at living by dos and don’ts, no matter who tells us. We have a frustrating habit of breaking laws. It seems we’re made that way. If we could chat to old Moses the Lawgiver I’d bet he might get a bit grouchy and tell us to “ditch the Tablets and go get some therapy!” It’s our attitude and thinking that matter most—the desire to get it right rather than how wonderfully successful we are at it. To be willing.

Nevertheless, just humour me and imagine for a moment what would happen if willingly practising The Golden Rule became a church pass. What would happen if a religious person could only get into church based on his heartfelt and constant desire to treat others the same way he wants them to treat him? How many would be refused admission and go back home to drop their bibles into a drawer?

Think of all the things we would never do or say. Think how quiet church buildings might be.

Fit, or Fit For Nothing?

Keeping In Shape Using Free-standing Weights

If you think you’re in reasonably good health and have no back or joint problems, maybe you should think about training with weights for general fitness.

Free-standing weights have some appealing advantages. Many are uncomfortable with the concept of jogging—or whatever the trendy health freaks are calling it this year. Our joints won’t thank us for the concentrated abuse. Walking briskly, well away from heavy traffic, may be more sensible. Interestingly, a really brisk walk uses as much energy as running the same distance.

Cycling and swimming are also excellent ways to enhance overall fitness levels. However, some road cyclists should think seriously about the effects of pollution on their lungs. They argue that pollution levels can be worse in a car. That’s true, but the main point some seem to be missing is that without a mask the effort of cycling forces pollution deep into the lungs.

Without being a fitness fanatic, I train comfortably at home with free-standing weights every third day. I never work my legs partly because I currently don’t use squat racks (a safe support for the barbell). Besides, I find that the other exercises mentioned below work together to usefully toughen up my leg muscularity. I can also use an exercise bike.

Quite frankly, some people talk a lot of flannel about body-building and it puts many people off training responsibly with weights. When done properly it’s a discipline that avoids damaging extremes. In the past I have worked carefully and consistently with weights to ease muscular problems associated with my lower back.

Even when a very painful tilt in my pelvis—blamed, of course, on years of occupational “wear and tear” (hard work’s never easy!)—threatened to drastically reduce my overall mobility, I discovered that crunches* helped to strengthen the area of weakness to the point I rarely feel a twinge today 9 years on.

If you’re just starting out with free-standing weights there are a few basics that will keep you safe. Never use jerky movements or a heavy weight that your muscles haven’t grown into. Start light and work up. Machines are fine but I believe that free-standing weights (barbell, dumbbells, discs and a fit-for-purpose sturdy bench) are the better option as they allow your limbs full freedom of movement.

Dumbbells can be particularly effective: “…dumbbells require extreme control, utilization of many stabilizing muscles, coordination between muscle groups and total concentration. They have a lower range of motion than barbells or machines, and bombard deep-lying muscle fibers from many different angles” (McKean/Karhan, Hardgainer).

The typical fundamental exercises are very effective: the Barbell Bench Press, Squats (if you can do this exercise safely with racks), Dumbbell Curls, Dumbbell Rowing and Dumbbell Overhead Press. Each needs to be done safely within limits without resorting to the faster rocking movements that are so popular in High Street gyms and can unexpectedly lead to injury at some stage.

Do two sets for each exercise using repetitions that have you working hard without risking damage to your muscles or joints. Be sure to rest for one minute or so between sets and exercises.

While doing the Bench Press, don’t tuck your thumbs back with your fingers—the heavy bar and discs could slide off your palms crushing your chest or throat. It happens. Never bounce the bar off your chest. Use controlled steady movements for all exercises.

Never perform the Dumbbell Row without supporting yourself with one hand on a bench. It’s madness to perform any significant weight rowing exercise by stooping forward without support. I recently saw a well-meaning ‘expert’ doing this very thing on TV.

If you’re interested in training with weights to improve your general fitness levels take a look at the publications of Stuart McRobert. He’s a true expert. Get his book The Insider’s Tell-all Handbook on Weight-training Technique. His whole approach is geared towards training hard and safely for maximum muscle gains and strength. With care you can tailor his guidance to fit your specific needs.

Too many in the body-building arena are unavoidably influenced by what they read in mainstream magazines and websites. They become preoccupied with looks and a showy physique. But those who dig a little deeper find that increased strength and enhanced fitness levels are worthwhile and achievable goals.

In a year or so, with a lot of hard work, even a slim person can significantly increase his overall strength and fitness. It makes the daily grind a little easier. And if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, you’ll appreciate the benefits during strenuous hikes and climbs.

*Don’t rely on any form of exercise to ease back pain without first getting professional advice on your condition. Crunches are similar to sit-ups but safer. The body’s movement is slow and deliberate and targets stomach muscle groups that help to support the lower back. You might just get a six-pack too — depends on the fat…

A Ruined House in County Donegal

19th Century Rural House Design

While travelling in the more remote regions of the Irish countryside you will come across the weathered ruins of abandoned houses. Many have been questionably modernised or left hiding somewhere in the shadow of a bungalow. Some are used for agricultural storage, but others have been left untouched.

These modest buildings, or vernacular houses remind us of a time when daily life had few of the conveniences we take for granted today. Their existence demonstrates the considerable resourcefulness and DIY skills of the ordinary men and women who often worked mainly with the raw materials around them.

Owners and their family members and friends made good use of local stones, slates, crops, grasses, reeds, mud, sod and turf as they built and maintained the distinctive houses that are widely regarded as an integral part of the Irish countryside. And of course, they’re a hit with the tourists many of whom are hoping to see typical thatched cottages.

The long-since ruined example pictured below is located in the Crohy Head area on the western coastline of Donegal. (Sadly, a year after the main picture here was taken, dim-witted campers lit a fire below the main chimney. The wooden support burned through and the entire partition wall collapsed.) It probably had a thatch when first constructed, possibly replaced in time with slates delivered in relays from a Donegal mine. It’s difficult to accurately date most ruined rural houses but it’s likely that this example was constructed in the mid- to late 1800s and may have been in use for several decades in the 20th century.

Ruined House at Crohy Head

Modest rural ruins in north Donegal and elsewhere in Ireland, many of which were built in the 1800s, are single-storey structures often referred to as longhouses and typically had a kitchen in the centre with a bedroom at either side. They tended to be longer than they were broad mainly because trees were scarce and builders had to use fossilised wood found in local bogs. When a house was extended the new room was added to one end making the overall structure longer.

The rural longhouse was a natural—and necessary—evolution of the byre-dwelling where people and animals lived in one room. When closely examined the walls of our Crohy Head ruin reveal that the house was built in three distinct sections and modified to suit the periodic extension work; because it’s built into a hillside it’s unlikely it started life as a byre-dwelling, which typically had front and back doors.

From the end of the 19th century it became common for longhouses to be coated in layers of limewash (see top picture), although more remote buildings were normally left untreated. Limewash rendered longhouses with thatches have become a quaint, fundamental ingredient of popular Irish culture, although their intense whiteness does shine out like a beacon among the natural browns, greens and greys of the Irish countryside. The same is true of the unattractive rash of bright modern houses, bungalows and holiday homes now reaching into all parts of Ireland.

But whitewashing with lime is more than a cosmetic exercise. It was apparently introduced because it was thought to combat the spread of disease. Whitewashing does indeed have hygienic qualities, is “a protective skin” (McAfee, Stone Buildings) and is attractive. But stone houses that are not treated with lime blend very well with their natural surroundings. And it can’t be said that white limewashing is a necessity.

Anyone who has spent any time at all researching the history, construction and evolution of single-storey rural houses in Ireland quickly realises that they are an aspect of Ireland’s rich cultural heritage that has been significantly neglected. Even allowing for the inevitable prioritising of “funds”, it does seem as if more should be done to officially restore and maintain at least some of these old buildings before they crumble away for ever.


Clive Symmons and Seamus Harkin, The Disappearing Irish Cottage
E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways
Timothy P. O’Neill, Life and Tradition in Rural Ireland
Alan Gailey, Rural Houses of the North of Ireland
Patrick McAfee, Stone Buildings
Barry O’Reilly, Living Under Thatch
David Shaw-Smith, Ireland’s Traditional Crafts
Walter Pfeiffer and Maura Shaffrey, Irish Cottages