Spectator: A terrible year for ice-creams

WE’re on the west coast of Scotland, where it’s doing that thing when, one minute, you can see Mull out of the window and, the next minute, you can’t see the end of the garden. The rolling grey mist is a magical thing. Let’s not call it rain.

The rest of the group has gone out in a boat with mackerel lines, a daily adventure that has met with remarkably little success this year. They need to catch some fish or we won’t have any lunch and will have to make the second journey of the day to Lochaline, where we’ll be buying ‘vennie’ burgers or black-pudding baps.

 This will be popular with the team, although the woman who runs the burger bar is never happy -even when 10 tourists descend on her waving £5 notes. Yester-day, I asked her how trade has been in this glorious summer-despite today’s drizzle, it’s been so hot that we’ve had to sit in the house for shade, before gathering the energy to get to the sea to bathe, which is definitely a first.

Not so good,’ she said. ‘There’s not many tourists. It’s too expensive.’ She went on to say that she’d seen an eight-day tour of the Hebrides advertised in a magazine, an all-in trip taking in Barra and the Uists and costing £800. ‘And when you turn the page, there’s a cruise to Lake Como for eight days, which costs a fair bit less.’ With a ‘what do you expect?’ shrug, she returned to the frying onions as a queue of happy tourists was building up behind me.

She reminds me of the man who has the ice-cream van that sits outside my youngest son’s school in Hampshire. As I’ve spent many years collecting children from there, I’ve had long chats with the Italian who sells us 99s and he’s a fair match for the burger lady when it comes to resigned shrugs and bleak outlooks.

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The tourists are never plentiful, trade is always down, he’s always going to jack it in and concentrate on his eBay account. He spends four months in Italy and, next year, next year, he’s just going to stay there. But, each year, he comes back and, although this may be the first year in seven that we’ve had more than three consecutive hot days, I get the impression that, what with Winchester being a tourist destination and the fact that he’s perfectly placed to get a lot of children badgering their parents at pick-up, trade is pretty brisk. Last term, there were so many sunny afternoons, his queue snaked around the corner, but he assured me that it’s been a terrible year for ice creams.

For the past two days, two blue vans have appeared in the little bay where our rented house sits. As it’s at the end of a four-mile bumpy track, any vehicle is unusual and we’d been fairly surprised when, on our first day, a car arrived when the tide was at its lowest. The taciturn couple said they came from Connel 30 miles down the coast and were visiting this spot as it’s the birthplace of their neighbour.

The chat wasn’t particularly forthcoming, but it emerged that they were also searching for winkles while on this pilgrimage and they looked pretty efficient with their sacks and buckets, picking their way with concentration through the seaweed for a couple of hours. The Connel neighbour story seemed more and more unlikely as they ret-urned the next day with the vans, sons, daughters and two Chinese people. This team spent many hours filling sacks. And the next day, they came again. ‘But it’s a terrible year for wink-les,’ they said.

The seasonal trader isn’t someone who declares ‘Aye, business is booming, never better… plenty of people, everybody’s happy’ and it’s the holidaymaker’s job to temper this gloom by remaining wildly optimistic. Which is why the rest of our group is in the bay, bobbing about, mackerel lines out, hopes undimmed.

This is despite the grave assurance given to us by the local man in the fishing hotspot some days ago. It’s been a terrible year for mackerel.

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