Day Forty-three … Wednesday 2nd May
Barcelona to Gatwick
After a fantastic buffet breakfast with an international spread and lots of healthy options, we decided to set off from the Tryp Airport Hotel and head to the airport early, as Hertz’s reputation online (and directly) was clearly unreliable at best.
We could find no clear information online about the location of the Hertz drop off at terminal one. We filled up with petrol and set off – first missing the airport off-ramp from the motorway, due to poor signposting, but with GPS managed to get ourselves back on track and to Terminal 1. Then we missed the entrance to the rental car return, more poor signage. The Hertz drop off was a shambles, one woman doing everything with a queue of at least ten people waiting. They didn’t seem to have any paperwork to do with our drop off, but the woman checked our car, no problems, we asked and were told there were no charges. Phew – off to the terminal for check in.
Our BA flight was ok – although we had to pay for a sandwich and cup of tea (£5 for a sandwich, £2:50 for tea). Apparently, this was introduced a year ago. We landed at Gatwick ahead of schedule – but then took an hour to get through immigration. There were three officers to process around 150 people, that rapidly grew to 3-400. One of them spent half an hour processing two young women, another was also processing people with special needs so in effect there was only one dedicated officer for the growing crowd. After several staff wandered around with clip boards assessing the situation (what was there to assess!!), they finally brought more staff on, but the whole process was excruciatingly slow and frustrating and compared dismally with just about any other modern airport you can think of. By the time we got through to baggage collection, an hour after we landed – all the bags from our flight had been taken off the carousel to make room for the next flights!
Then we had a ten-minute walk to find Avis, only to discover that their system was down worldwide, so everything had to be done manually. To make matters worse, our blocked credit card wasn’t accepted, so we had to use another card. A great introduction to modern Britain.
Eventually we got going in our Ford Focus, with GPS. After an event-free journey, we arrived chez Carole and Stuart around 6:30pm. Absolutely wonderful to see them after about eight years!
An evening of much catching up and reminiscing over an excellent moussaka and yummy coconut milk pudding!
Andrew rang Uncle Colin to make sure all was fine for our visit tomorrow.
Day Forty-four … Thursday 3rd May
After breakfast and more laughs and trips down nostalgia lane, we set off in convoy at 10:40am.
Stuart had an appointment, so we followed them to Tesco’s to get some money. We drove on to Uncle Colin’s for lunch. We allowed 2 hours but we had a good run – only a ten-minute wait at the Dartford tunnel (although we were uncertain how we were supposed to pay the fee online!). We arrived at 12:15 and to our delighted surprise, the door opened by Gavin!
Great to see him, and we had a good chat before Colin and Jill turned up. Then Gavin had to head off – as he’s prepping his flat for sale.
Colin and Jill both are well – we discussed a range of topics, political, social, family and otherwise.
After sandwiches, lemon tart and tea – and four hours of catching up, we bade our fond farewells. It’s always wonderful to see them.
We retraced our steps, back across the Thames to Tunbridge Wells. Again, we had a good run and arrived early. We called Barbara who was minding Fi’s two children but we were able to let ourselves in, take our stuff up to our room, have a cuppa tea and get ourselves organised. Andrew took the opportunity to call Jess as well as Dave and Mary to let them know we’d arrived safely in the UK and tee up meeting times.
Barbara got home around 7:30pm and we then headed out to meet Des Wilkinson for a pub dinner near his place, The Black Horse, Pembury.
Good food and great to see them both – must be around 36 years since we’d seen Des – we think in Noosa, Queensland!
Day Forty-five … Friday 4th May
After breakfast we drove to Chris’ place, bit tricky but we got there. Chris and Grace were there to meet us although Grace had to go to work soon after.
The three of us headed off in our car, dropping Kerrie off at the hairdressers, then Chris directed Andrew to where Richard lives – Chris had other things to do. Andrew spent a couple of hours with Richard who as always was funny, entertaining, intelligent and witty despite his various trials and tribulations (mainly medical).
I wrote down our new address for him and, for me, the name of a book on Australian history recommended to Richard by Tim. Sounds very interesting.
Returned to Chris’ house, but there was no sign of Kerrie! We walked around the streets with Rollo the dog looking for her. Eventually Chris spotted her on Church Rd, the right street but heading in the wrong direction. Kerrie had turned the wrong way and walked about two kms before deciding to return to the hairdresser’s. Unfortunately she was not that happy with her hair -a reasonable cut but the colour was a bit of a disaster – it started off orange!! – and had to be recoloured. But Kerrie handled it pretty well, and we headed off with Chris to meet Dave and Mary at The Leicester Arms near Penshurst Place.
A delightful location and an absolute cracker of a day. We sat in the garden and chatted away, looking at the beautifully put together photo book Dave and Mary had of their wedding.
Meanwhile, we entertained Rollo by throwing his ball for him. All good – until at one point, Dave threw the ball too far, it went through the fence and after Chris said it was of sentimental value and came from the US, Dave climbed over the fence and fought back nettles and blackberry bushes to find it – mission accomplished! Eventually entertaining Rollo was taken over by some kids, thankfully.
We stayed till about 5pm, finally bid our farewells to Dave and Mary, then drove back to TW. We chilled and chatted with Grace while Chris prepared chicken curry.
A most pleasant evening – talking politics and attitudes of the young (as seen by grumpy old men and women!). Fantastic curry and late to bed.
Day Forty-six … Saturday 5th May
After breakfast, we packed up the car and said our farewells to Chris and Grace who may come and join us at some point on the trip. Very kindly they gave us their UK road map and Lonely Planet Scotland. We set off for Portsmouth. Chris recommended we go via M25 and A3, which was mostly good apart from a few slow sections – classic UK traffic conditions. Still we made reasonable time – arriving around lunchtime. Our B&B was well appointed but had no reception, you let yourself in with a code, ditto the room, which was on the top floor up three flights of stairs and was smaller than we’d hoped for – sigh! To make matters worse, the drain in the shower was smelly. Queen Kerrie not impressed!!
Jessica walked around and we went to a garden café overlooking the nearby common and which had very good food, jaw-dropping range of creamy cakes but we held firm and resisted the urge to indulge.
Then we drove to Jessica’s workplace, Fort Cumberland for a personal guided tour. An amazing place – lots of history – it would take a lot of work to restore it as a historic place to visit but plenty of potential. The guard didn’t seem to be expecting us but let us in anyway and we walked around the ramparts, the buildings and disused quarters for the men stationed here in its heyday.
After needing the guard to unlock the labs where Jess works, we got in there as well.
Jess gave us a wee lecture on her work, what she does and showed us all sorts of bones, including the skull of an Aurochs.
As we were leaving, we spotted Fort Cumberland’s unofficial mascot – George the Fox. Almost tame, George who has a gammy leg is treated with sausages by the caretaker in winter.
We drove back along the beachfront, amused by the groups making use of their beach sheds and picnicking on the grass in front – very English.
We stopped for afternoon tea on the seaside of the road at a tea shop. It was a gorgeous afternoon, blue sky and we sat outside on the timber furniture enjoying the classic English scene and the view of the water.
The only negative was that when we asked for a pot of hot water to top up the tea, they said we ‘d have to pay – what happened to the good old -fashioned English tea with one pot of steaming hot strong tea and another of hot water, with plenty of milk! We took Jess back to her flat and had a quick look, she has a good-sized room, although could do with some more lounge space.
We headed back to the B&B, where we decided we needed a quiet night reading in the lounge, but it didn’t last long as a Spanish couple came in with a very hyperactive 3 year old!!
Unfortunately, the stench from the shower drain was getting worse – Andrew compared it to a Paris drain, so we had to have the bathroom door closed.
Day Forty-seven Sunday, 6th May
We woke up to sunshine streaming into our room from before 5am making the room unbearably hot. To make matters worse the shower didn’t work, to be precise only the hot water, too hot to stand under so it was gritted teeth, and a quick splash with a wet cloth. We spoke to the cleaner and complained about the shower – she said she’d let the owner know.
As it was such a beautiful day we revised our decision not to go to the Isle of Wight, (taking the car would have been very expensive) and went as foot passengers instead. Jessica met us at our bed and breakfast and we caught a bus to the ferry terminal train station. Once on board we sat up on deck with a good view of the relatively new Emirates sail tower as we went past.
We had bought a package ticket which covered the cost of two ferry trips, two train journeys up and back down the very long timber jetty the other end and bus transport around the island. Soon after we arrived at the island terminal the train departed but not with Jessica and Kerrie on board. Jessica had disappeared to answer a call of nature and failed to reappear in time – so Andrew jumped on board and waited for Kerrie and Jessica to walk the half mile to town.
Kerrie waited for Jessica whose jaw hit the ground when she saw the train disappearing down the pier. The next train would not be until the next ferry arrived so Kerrie and Jessica had no choice but to walk it which was not that hard. In fact, Andrew was nowhere to be seen when they arrived at the shore front as he had not expected them for ages.
They eventually found one another through texting and after checking the bus time-table and realising we had fifty minutes to wait we had coffees and scones at the pier café, watching humanity go past, taking stock of the now faded but once glorious harbour front buildings and taking photos of sea-side belles in one of the classic comic scenes where you stick your head through a hole in a painted board.
Finally, the bus to Osborne House arrived and after a 20-minute journey through towns and countryside we were deposited outside the main road entrance. It was a glorious day, perfect for walking through the gardens and visiting this sumptuous “holiday house” for Queen Victoria.
Albert took charge of the property after they bought it – at the suggestion of Sir Robert Peel – and supervised the construction of their retreat between 1845 and 1851.
We toured the house first, gifted to the nation but all the furnishings and artwork remain the property of the Crown, which means that the rooms are all pretty much as they were.
That included the bed in which Queen Victoria died, above which is a large, sombre plaque commemorating her life placed there by her family.
Highlights and idiosyncrasies were the Queen’s bathroom, a hand-operated lift installed for the Queen in her later years and a set of miniature table and chairs for the children, next door to their nursery.
There was also an entire section devoted to India including paintings of Rajas and dignitaries and a vast dining room decorated in Indian style with ornate carved ceilings and ornaments.
Under Albert’s supervision, the manor had modern technology such as electricity and plumbing with hot and cold water.
The manor house is in the perfect setting, looking down over classically set out gardens to the sea where the Queen would bathe from the comfort of a bathing machine that could be wheeled down into the water.
Having toured the house, we walked around the exterior, admiring the gardens, serenaded by a chamber orchestra that was playing in the courtyard.
By then, it was time for some refreshment at the café back at the entrance where we were served with all the panache and customer consideration that the British hospitality worker can muster (ie none).
We decided we had time for a walk around the park surrounding Osborne House, given some information and handy hints by one of the English Heritage staff.
We started with the walled garden. Outside was a bed of stunningly varied and coloured tulips.
The entrance was through a large doorway which had been the front entrance to the original manor house that Albert knocked down to build Osborne House – but since he hated to waste anything, he used as much of the original materials as possible.
From the walled garden with its geometrically laid out beds, tropical greenhouses and an espaliered orange tree that is apparently the only one in Britain grown outside to bear fruit,
we sauntered around the park, with superb views of Osborne House from all sides – as apparently intended.
By now it was time to catch the bus back to Ryde. We saw a ferry at the end of the wharf and raced to the station to catch the train but inexplicably the driver shook his head and took off, apparently he was not going to delay the train for anyone or anything – what a misery.
We decided to leg it the half mile along the jetty, arriving in a lather only to discover that the ferry was full and a queue in front of us were all going to have to wait for the next one. So, we had a cup of tea, sat outside and admired the views in the changing light of a summer evening, as a waitress went around offering glasses of iced water.
Back in Portsmouth, we caught the bus back to where were staying, refreshed and then walked to a Japanese restaurant which Jess knew and where we’d booked a table for dinner.
A spectacular day.
(Post script – we had had a text from the owner saying the shower was sorted – to be continued)
Day Forty-eight … Monday 7th May
We tried the shower and it still didn’t seem to work, in frustration Andrew wrenched one of the two taps and bingo, we had control of the temperature – one tap does on/off/flow control, the other controls temperature – although there was nothing to indicate any of this on the taps or in the information that comes with the room, and with the multitude of shower tap combinations and permutations – you’re never sure.
As we were having our breakfast downstairs (no breakfast included), we saw the owner, Charlotte and explained why we were somewhat unhappy. Her response, while sympathetic was more along the lines of how we’d had a bad run of luck! A hot spell was responsible for the smelly drain, the shower handle needed lubricating and apparently our bed is King size – UK version!!!!. She made the point that for the price we’re paying, we couldn’t really expect more. Maybe.
We packed up the car, Jess came around and we drove to the Historic Portsmouth Dockyards – which is huge. We had no idea – clearly you could spend a couple of days in here and have plenty to see.
As it was we opted to pay just to visit the Mary Rose exhibition, which was extraordinary. Commissioned by King Henry VIII as part of his plan to expand the British Navy, the warship had an illustrious career lasting 34 years, until its demise during the Battle of the Solent with the French in 1545. For reasons still open to conjecture, the ship heeled over and sank rapidly and only 34 men survived out of hundreds.
The story of the ship, its rediscovery by underwater explorers and archaeologists in the 1960s leading to its eventual recovery with thousands of artifacts is brilliantly displayed and told, assisted by people dressed in period costume with fascinating snippets of information.
Especially interesting – and gruesome – was the collection of medical equipment used by the ship’s surgeon back in the 16th century as well as some skeletal remains.
Although it had been possible to see some of the Mary Rose – the exhibition as it is now, was only completed in 2016, so very fresh and new with opportunities for interactive fun.
We had lunch at the museum cafe, where the cappuccinos featured Mary Rose designs,
and took photos in front of the Victory, which we’d have to do another day next time we visit Portsmouth.
We dropped Jess back at her flat and said goodbye – but not for long (TBC), then drove to Smarden to visit Nick and Diana and Edward. The drive took about 2 and a half hours in stunning weather through classic English countryside.
They put on a wonderful BBQ – perfect weather for it and we whiled away the evening with tales and memories. Lovely to see them after so many years.
A nightingale serenaded as the summery evening came to a glorious close.
Day Forty-nine … Tuesday 8th May
We woke up to a country chorus of birds singing and a slow start. Our first task was to put load of washing on before Diana cooked croissants in the Aga oven for breakfast.
Harriet came around, a surprise visit, with her daughter Lucy to say hello. She is forty (gosh where did those years go!!?) but looks wonderfully young and could easily pass for thirty. Lovely to see her after so long.
She and Andrew had a great chat about raising children – never easy and even less so in today’s culture of constant entertainment and gratification. Kerrie went with Nick in his car to Headcorn to post a birthday card to Otis and go to the chemist. This also involved making an appointment to see a local GP, the surgery was in a bit of a state as the farmer had put down compost on the field opposite and the entire building smelt of blood and bone. Nick noticed a Spitfire flying overhead.
So we paid a brief visit to the nearby Headcorn airfield, used during WW2, where one of these iconic fighter planes was on the ground.
On Nick and Kerrie’s return four of us went for drive to the picturesque town of Rye, familiar territory to Nick and Andrew from their younger days and Nick and Diana suggested we try a pub lunch at the William the Conqueror on Rye Harbour.
The day was stunning so we sat outside, near the boats in the harbour enjoying the sun, the smell of the sea and the sound of the seagulls. Nick’s chilli con carne was enormous – and apparently excellent! As were all the meals.
We had intended to walk around the old township of Rye but we were running behind time so Diana drove us around town instead, past the quaint shops and tea ‘shoppes’ and a new tourist development on the sea side of the town that wasn’t there in the 60s but is designed to fit the character of what was originally one of the Cinque ports.
Nick and Andrew reminisced about their old pub haunts before we drove past Andrew’s old family home in Iden where he lived in the 1960s.
It’s no longer called Durrants but otherwise was much the same except for the garden where various trees were gone – walnut, conker and yews. Andrew jumped out of the car to get a closer look and got talking to a guy walking past called Dave Rogers who knew the Charmans, Pettits Lane, the village shop (Pettits?) and the Strangeways who apparently now own much of the land in the village.
We headed back to Smarden through familiar countryside, talked of the Webbs and Nick and Andrew cycling to Tenterden to see a film, then to Tescos for a shop as we were making the salad for dinner.
Kerrie found her way to the GP and chemist in Headcorn thanks to the Satnav. Andrew used the time to research and write an extensive email to Dolphin and Whale about their invoicing and pricing. Nick cooked another BBQ although we were all pretty full from lunch so didn’t really do it justice. Chatted till 11:30pm, finding out more about Edward’s job in marketing for a rural magazine group.
Day Fifty ….. Wednesday 9th May
We got up in time to have a last chat with Edward before he headed off for work. After a breakfast Andrew and Kerrie went for a walk with Diana, their dog, Damson and along the way picked up another dog, Boris that Diana had kindly offered to walk. Diana took us down country lanes, past farmhouses and across fields. The sun was shining, the dogs had a wonderful time sniffing and running full pelt, and for us there were still some bluebells out – England at its best – and, up above there was a Spitfire doing aerobatics. If only England was like this every day.
We had a cold collation for lunch, reminisced over some photos and Kerrie took over the battle with Dolphin and Whale, urged on by Nick and Diana. Then Diana had to go for a meeting so we took photos of us all as a memento of our visit, said our goodbyes and headed off for Cambridge.
An uneventful drive, we got through Dartford Tunnel again after a bit of queuing, arriving in Cambridge late afternoon.
Acorn Guest House was on a main road, one of many bed and breakfasts in close proximity to one another and parking was a nightmare. It been advertised by Booking.com as a four star bed and breakfast but according to whose criteria we don’t know. It was yet another converted three storey terrace, with every room on every floor turned into a bedroom, except for the dining area out the back. We were on the first floor at the back which meant dragging up bags up a narrow staircase and down an uneven vintage carpeted corridor that smacked more of hostel for the homeless. Kerrie was determined not to complain despite the fact the carpets were circa 1950 as were the doors and fittings, and you had to be a contortionist to use the bathroom and could hear the person next door cough and sneeze. It was hot but the windows were frosted glass to hide the development next door and could only partially open.
With a sigh of resignation, we walked into town across Midsummer Common and Jesus Green. Andrew had to keep reminding Kerrie that cyclists in Cambridge had right of way as she proceeded to jump from side to side to avoid getting knocked over. We passed a group of chocolate-coloured cows grazing on the common which seemed so strange to see in the centre of town. We walked down a curved street of terraced student houses and through the windows you could see students beavering away on their computers (it’s exam time) or in their kitchens having dinner. We wandered around the town centre, bringing back memories for Andrew, 46 years since graduating and 40 years since last here, with Chris Hill in 1977 or ‘78.
As Andrew noted, the centre was more upmarket these days, more chic restaurants and branded shops. We finally found a place to eat – Cau, South American flavoured.
Part of a chain but good, healthy food. On our way back, we spotted the Cotswold Outdoors shop and noted for tomorrow.
Day Fifty-one …..Thursday 10th May
It rained overnight and the temperature dropped a fraction but otherwise the weather was holding. We couldn’t face having the £10 breakfast at the B&B, the greasy smell of cooked eggs and bacon wafting up from the kitchen below was enough to put us off. And the dining room was reminiscent of our stay in Guernsey many years ago. We ate in the café opposite which had a range of healthy options including a turmeric latté, which tasted remarkably good. Kerrie had found a car park up a the street, avoiding a £20 car-parking fee or a fine as just about everywhere in Cambridge was resident parking only.
First destination was the Cotswold Outdoors shop, just past the iconic Round Church, not cheap but a fantastic range of clothing and outdoor gear and good quality. For the first time in about 50 years Kerrie had both feet measured precisely with notes taken and at the mention of bunions was offered a boot specifically made for feet with bunions!! It was like Cinderella, the boots fitted like a glove, perfect.
Next stop was the tourist office then on to the Fitzwilliam museum, a beautiful old building full of art and antiquities and it was free which was even better.
There was a temporary exhibition of great British pottery which Kerrie was particularly keen to see given her interest in pottery.
We started with the museum’s small but beautiful collection of Impressionist art (one had been given in lieu of death duties!)
A couple of striking works by Rodin..
and exquisite pieces of French and Bohemian glass work.
To remind us of humanity’s long-held passion for creativity and artwork, there were blown glass flasks from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD from Cyprus.
We had a bite to eat in the café, where the average age of the those eating there was about 90; we brought it down to 87. We could have spent a fortune in the shop but resisted, apart from a couple of wee things to take to our next hosts. Back for round two of the glass and porcelain exhibitions, which were exhaustive and extraordinary, including delightful historic English ware.
In a markedly different style were beautiful ceramics from South Korea dating back to the 12th century.
The display and variety of objets d’art seemed endless.
Amongst the exquisitely gorgeous, there were also examples of the grotesque, reflecting the realities of life in the late middle ages, early renaissance times. A plate depicting a young man showing where he has a plague boil on his thigh,
and the Rabelaisian scenes of life portrayed by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in his Village Festival.
Eventually we were museumed out.
So we started on the college trail, with first up Pembroke. Andrew went in to renew his acquaintance with his adopted college ( courtesy of a certain character we shall call “Two Shed Jackson”) for whom he played rugby on one occasion and where he frequented numerous drinks parties. Their summer Pimms cups were legendary and potent.
Kerrie needed five minutes break and stayed outside. We sauntered down Trumpington Street, past St Catharine’s College, Andrew’s Alma Mater which was closed for exams, so we paused only for a photo.
Then we proceeded to King’s College where groups of students were offering themselves as guides to tourists – we declined their services. Andrew’s CAM card worked, giving us access to the college and chapel and saving us the £10 entry fee.
We sauntered around the park-like expanse of King’s and watched punters navigate their way along the river with varying degrees of success.
Here as elsewhere on our trip, we were struck by the volume of tourists and how much they clutter up sites of beauty and interest, as well by the commercialism that pervades everything. That included the – to Andrew – tackiness of students busking for business on streets as “gondoliers”.
King’s Chapel was a welcome haven of peace and tranquility; although neither of us is religious, we couldn’t help but be moved by the soaring grandeur of the fluted columns and fan vaulted ceiling (the largest in Europe and sometimes described as one of the wonders of the world), the muted patterns of light cast by the stained glass windows and the sense of history.
We took one last photo of the chapel’s exterior which emphasised its Gothic architecture, with its finely carved spires reaching for eternity.
Outside, a statue of King Henry VIII honours the Tudor patronage of one of Europe’s finest late medieval buildings, started by Henry VI and completed during Henry VIII’s reign.
By now we were ready for some refreshment, and Andrew felt we should have a cuppa in the well-known and much-loved Copper Kettle Tea Shop opposite Kings. However, this turned out to be a disappointment. Being renamed the Agora Copper Kettle should have been a clue. Bizarrely it’s now run by a Turkish family who sell Turkish cakes and bangers and mash. The tea was fine thankfully.
Next was Corpus Christie, down a narrow street.
We entered via an ancient wooden door, only to discover we’d come in the wrong way – this was the exit to the college. But a kind porter let us in discretely.
Thence Trinity where Tennyson and Newton are buried in the chapel.
And finally St Johns where Andrew’s Camcard saved us a tenner as well! We walked through the college and across the river, admiring the famous Bridge of Sighs, built in 1831 and named after the one in Venice.
It had been a glorious day and we took full advantage of this early harbinger of summer, wandering along the backs, in the late afternoon sun, past a number of narrow boats, many looking the worse for wear. As we passed Scudamores, the famous punt rental company, again we saw students touting for business as punting guides on the river.
We had dinner in The Old Spring pub along Chesterton road, not far from the B&B – it turned out Jessica knew it. Jessica arrived in Cambridge later in the evening, travelling by bus from Portsmouth and staying with a friend. She would be joining us in the morning.
Day Fifty-two…..Friday 11th May
We met Jessica at Stir coffee shop across the road for breakfast – as it turns out, this used to be her favourite coffee place, owned by an Australian, and close to where Ruben lives.
We packed up the car, bid farewell to the Acorn (not on our list of places to revisit!), filled up with petrol and drove into town. After a couple of false turns, we found the carpark close to the Cotswolds shop where Kerrie picked up and paid for her new walking boots plus a T shirt. Then we set off for Norfolk.
A beautiful day, as our GPS guide (Lucy) took us across country avoiding traffic snarls on a lovely drive. We’d told Inez and Laurie we’d arrive early afternoon so even though we were making good time, we decided we’d stop for a bite to eat. So when we passed a village tea shop, Andrew came to a screaming stop and reversed back down the main road to drive into the car park.
A funny combined little café and post office in the Norfolk village of Elmham , we had a simple but delightful meal, salmon sandwich and great coffee. Andrew nosed around the post office shop and noticed they sold Eriksen watches which he’d heard about somewhere. Turns out there is a couple that live here who are madly horological, they buy the specialised parts (Japanese precision timing mechanism etc) and design and assemble their own watches which they sell on the internet around the world. Andrew liked the design and at £20 felt there was little to lose in buying one.
We drove on past vast intensively farmed fields with no hedgerows, but we also saw a paddock with free range pigs each with their own tiny house. Inez had warned us to watch out as the speed dropped suddenly and often and there were speed cameras. We soon arrived at Sheringham and Jessica guided us to Laurie and Inez’ place, having visited them once before. A friendly robin in the garden greeted us.
Over numerous cups of tea we chatted in kitchen after which we walked down to the seafront with Inez while Laurie prepared a BBQ dinner. The coast here was famous for a ship wreck not far from shore and Inez pointed out the fences in the water holding back the rising mounds of rocks the tides had brought in.
Kerrie went down to the water and put her hand in to test the temperature – not bad – and just to say she had experienced the sea front. There was one lonely surfer sitting on a board but not a wave to be seen. Along the promenade there were extensive murals including one commemorating the discovery recently of a mammoth.
We passed several more, cleverly using the sea wall as a background to celebrate the local fishing industry.
We started our return journey via the main boat yards and past cute seaside cottages.
Sheringham has a very attractive high street with many traditional shops, one of which especially caught Jessica’s eye – although she resisted temptation. It took Andrew back to his childhood in England. Sheringham is a traditional seaside village but it’s so far retained its charm, without descending into that tacky, tawdry atmosphere so typical of many of Britain’s coastal holiday towns. However, those days may be numbered – with a recent Tesco supermarket nearby the quaint local shops may not survive, sadly.
We continued on to Sheringham’s twin train stations, one famous for its steam trains and Thomas the Tank Engine weekends, conductors dressed in period uniforms and other 19th century touches, the other the end of the line for the Norwich train. On the western side of the station we walked past and admired some grand old homes that had been built in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. One had an extensive beautiful garden – Inez thinks it’s bound to be sold and sub-divided. What a shame!
Back home, Inez gave us a quick guided tour of the garden, which is delightful.
Laurie meanwhile had been slaving over the BBQ and produced a sumptuous meal. With his wickedly dry humour, he had us laughing uproariously.
We considered eating outside but lovely a day as it was, it wasn’t quite warm enough.
So we repaired inside where over a leisurely dinner, we chatted about times old and new, and so to bed. Delighted to be in a such a large bedroom and staying with almost family – Andrew’s father and Inez’s father were friends in the Middle East before either got married and Keith apparently gate-crashed Andrew’s parents’ honeymoon. Later Keith and Millicent lived in the village next door to Angmering where Allen and Barbara retired. These memories and stories bind us together deeply in a way that can’t be measured or understated; they provide connectedness in a world that often feels increasingly ephemeral and disconnected.
Day Fifty-three …..Saturday 12th May
A slow start with cup of tea in bed, clothes laundered and a bright sunny day to dry them. Laurie and Inez drove us to Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads, where they very kindly and generously hired a motor boat for four hours.
We put-putted our way along the river past some beautiful thatched cottages and splendid houses, with ducks and geese sidling up to the boat in hope of a bite to eat.
All delightfully peaceful and restful.
Everyone took a turn at the helm – maximum speed 4 knots!
The plan was to stop for lunch at the Swan pub but it was already crowded when we arrived and we were told there was a 40 minute wait for food, so despite having a table, we decided to move on, not wanting to waste too much of our allotted boat hire time.
We decamped to a smaller but attractive restaurant further along.
Inez tried their specialty of the day – fish finger sandwich! Not sure it was a tearaway success!
On our way back we noticed beautiful wood and stone work on some of the older cottages, dating back to 1695.
Back on our boat we chugged our way back to Wroxham, able to do 5 knots in this direction.
We saw a huge house and estate bordering the river for sale and wondered how much (£1.3 million it later transpired which actually didn’t seem too bad for the property).
Kerrie and I fantasized about winning lottery (again) and buying ourselves a wee batch on the Broads. Ah well, dream on.
The weather was turning, but we thought we’d have a warming cuppa back at the wharf – the tea seemed a trifle weak, then Andrew noticed that tea for two was actually one tea bag in one pot and only hot water in the second. Seems the poor girl forgot – what happened to the great British tradition of steaming hot strong pots of tea with multiple teabags and a second pot of hot water for top ups!!
That evening, Inez prepared Rendang, a delicious Malaysian dish. A fabulous dinner in their formal dining room and after, we withdrew into their drawing room, lounging in comfort and chatting on about Brexit, what’s wrong with the world etc. Not sure we completely sorted it – but made a start!
Day Fifty-four….Sunday 13th May
A rainy start to the day, so we spent the morning catching up on our blog. In the afternoon the weather cleared up and we all went for a walk through Upper Sheringham, admiring the old cobbled stone church and houses.
Inez and Laurie took us to Sheringham park, grounds of the former owner of the local manor, the Upcher family. Now the park is owned and managed by the National Trust. We walked up through the hotel’s gardens and into the park – expansive with a mix of woodland, meadows and masses of rhododendrons.
We stopped to take some photos with the gorgeous hues of the rhododendrons as a backdrop.
As the sun shone its dappled light through the newly leafed trees onto patches of bluebells, once more this felt like the England of old.
The head gardener has to check the state of the trees at regular intervals as there was a tragic incident where a teacher took a group of students to shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm and a branch came down, killing one of the students. Hence, we noticed plenty of evidence of pruning! We walked a circuit (after some discussion about the direction we were taking!), through meadows and a string of cattle, meandering lazily along.
It could have been a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel. We passed the old manor house which we’d spied from a distance.
and made our way back to the Old Rectory for tea and scones.
There was time to take a few more pastoral shots in evening glow of what had turned into a gorgeous a May day.
We sauntered back through the village, returning to Inez and Laurie’s lovely home.
Dinner and another evening of reminiscing, looking at old photos of our parents in the Middle East and lively conversation.
Day Fifty-five …..Monday 14th May
Sadly, it was time to go. We packed up and went into Sheringham with Jessica and Laurie took us to a shop where we bought a birthday card for Serena.
Inez and Laurie met up with us on the platform to see Jessica off on the train back to Portsmouth, quite cute as the platform can only take three carriages.
Kerrie and I said our fond farewells to Laurie and Inez, then set off for Norwich International Airport – a minor drama when Andrew missed the turn off at the roundabout and we were trapped on a motorway for 3-4 miles before hitting another roundabout where we could retrace our steps. Phew. Returning the hire car was very simple, no paperwork, just handed over the keys! How different from Barcelona!
We thought flying out of Norwich would be a doddle, but we were wrong. We went through security, apparently at the last minute, and for some reason they decided to give both of us the works. They emptied every single thing from both our backpacks, opened and inspected everything, even wanting to open a box of perfume we’d bought for Serena’s birthday (Kerrie refused). For the first time since purchasing her camera in Singapore Kerrie had her camera kit emptied and her cleaning solution put in a separate bag before having her brand new, unopened sun tan screen confiscated and I was told my eyedrops should have been in a plastic bag!! They took away our empty packs and tested them for chemical contamination. Talk about overkill. At the end – with all our stuff scattered along the bench, they said we could repack our bags – which of course took quite a while, with the airline staff shouting at us to hurry up as we were the last to board. No stress!
As we were boarding, we saw baggage handlers looking closely at our checked bags before loading them on, and when we picked them up the other end we saw they both had red labels saying ‘do not load without checking with dispatcher’ – very odd!
As it happened, the flight was half empty and the hostess told us not to worry, there was plenty of time! However, our dramas weren’t quite over – the pilot of the turbo-prop plane was either new or cavalier, and take-off was so wobbly with the plane veering violently from side to side that Andrew closed his eyes and gripped the seat in front! This was the worst take-off either of us had experienced. Thanks Logan Air!
Our flight was only to Manchester where we had to change planes for Inverness, a jet this time and a much smoother flight, thank goodness, which meant Andrew could in the family tradition, write the customary poem in Serena’s birthday card. As we flew across the border country, the landscape steadily changed, a sense of wilderness and ancient, eroded rocks and hills.
With a hint of snow in the distance.
We arrived in Inverness on time and posted the card to Serena at the airport. We noticed a poster warning anglers coming from overseas to wash their gear before fishing in Scotland to avoid bringing in diseases and organisms that could destroy local stocks – wonder if they do that in New Zealand – they should.
Dorothy and Rob came to meet us – and we piled into their Ford and drove for an hour and a half through stunning mountain scenery, mostly without trees.
The only flash of colour from the brilliant yellow gorse.
We stopped to breathe in the Scottish air and celebrate our arrival in a new country and the beginning of another, very different adventure, to be shared with our friends.
The further west we drove, the wilder it got and more remote until we reached Inchnadamph. Here was our home for the next four days, a very sweet little cottage, by a babbling burn, just up the lane from a country hotel but otherwise in the middle of nowhere with the nearest shop 23 miles away.
Apparently, this part of Scotland is regarded as one of the least inhabited, most remote parts of the British Isles!
Rob prepared great dinner while we unpacked.
Day Fifty-six …..Tuesday 15th May
Inchnadamph – walk to Sandwood Beach
Cloudy with the threat of rain but we were all keen to venture out and make the most of our time in the Scottish Highlands; we drove north to walk to Sandwood Bay, across bleak moors.
After an hour the rain set in and didn’t really stop, a shame as the beach was beautiful in a desolate, windswept way. A sense of authentic wilderness.
Tired and cold, we decided to have lunch, sandwiches, malt bread and a welcome thermos of hot tea, which we had in the lea of a sheltering boulder.
Afterwards, we trudged along the beach, past a dead dolphin, looking back along the coast to admire a giant rock stack off the headland, through the salty haze.
We were just about the only people there, with the beach virtually to ourselves. The wind and rain made it difficult to truly savour the rewards of our hike but the stark beauty was still worth it.
Each alone with our thoughts, we wandered along the expanse of the beach, until tide and rocks barred our way.
The geology of this part of Scotland is incredibly ancient dating back three billion years and hence the rock types and formations are diverse and fascinating, with an extraordinary range of differently coloured and patterned pebbles and rocks.
It was time to head back, so we made our way through the sand dunes to the trail home. We were walking into the wind now as well as the rain, so not that pleasant. A few other hardy trampers out there too. On the way, we spied the ruins of an old farm house, rumoured to be haunted.
Finally, we got back to the car drenched and weary, Andrew’s hip joint feeling somewhat sore. We went looking for a café, and eventually found one in Scourie – hot tea and tasty rock cakes.
Feeling somewhat restored, we headed home for hot showers and dinner – prepared again by Rob. Excellent – yum!
Day Fifty-seven …..Wednesday 16th May
Inchnadamph – Handa Island wildlife sanctuary
As the weather was predicted to clear we decided to spend the day at the Scottish Wildlife Trust run Handa island sanctuary, famous for its sea birds. We got away about 8.30 and arrived at the Tarbet harbour car park near Scourie just as a zodiac was about to depart.
We dropped a fisherman at his boat on the way and after about another 15 minutes turned into the beach but at the last minute the driver said it was too rough and we headed and around to another bay.
We were met by two volunteer rangers from Germany (there for a week), who dragged a step ladder out into the water and helped us off the zodiac.
After a briefing about the island, its natural history, what to expect and what to do and not do (fall off steep cliffs, mainly) we set off on the trail that takes you around the island.
The Nikon binoculars turned out to be a great investment as did Kerrie’s Sony camera with its amazing zoom lens.
From tiny orchids and beautiful caterpillars to aerobatic fulmars and scheming great skuas – it was a magnificent day of watching wildlife.
Including this Arctic Skua, a migratory species on its way north.
We walked across the island, passing ruined remains of old crofts. The island once had a small population of farmers and was also used as a place of worship and burial ground for mainlanders.
Our first stop was a viewing point from the sheer sandstone cliffs rising dramatically from the Atlantic and the Great Stack of Handa.
The nesting colonies of kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills were alive with noise and action.
Sheer rockfaces somehow offer perch and purchase for thousands of these birds, in hierarchical order of species from top to bottom. An estimated one hundred thousand birds come here to nest each year – their guano droppings staining the cliff faces.
No sign of puffins – which was apparently due to the late spring – they were all out hunting for food, the nesting and egg-laying hadn’t started yet.
The weather was fabulous – bright sunshine, blue skies and seemingly limitless vistas over to the western isles.
As we circled around the island, following the cliff line, we had a sense of a truly wild place, perfect for bird life – but how on earth people survived here is a source of puzzlement.
We paused to take photos of a natural “infinity pool”and a wary Great Skua.
By then it felt like morning tea time so we stopped for a cup of tea and biscuit, watching skuas as they cruised and strafed the cliff tops, on the look out for unwary parents and a tasty meal of egg or chick.
It was time to slowly wend our way back to the bay where the zodiac was scheduled come to pick us up – we wanted to make the 1:30pm return trip. A pair of Great Skuas performed their mating ceremony with their own distinctive exhibition of partnership and aggression.
Puffs of cloud hung lazily in the sky, creating a hazy gauze of summer over the stunning panorama.
We followed the path, walking back down towards the coast and our rendezvous.
On the way, we paused to soak up yet more scenes of natural beauty.
We just made it to the beach with a few minutes to spare – surprised to see one visitor having a swim in the chilly waters. Speaking with her later, it turned out she was a young doctor and adventure enthusiast, and that she had been taught science by Rob in high school. Small world!
Our decision to catch the earlier of the two return boat trips was extremely fortunate. We climbed on board the last boat before the tide became too low to beach the craft and take on the passengers. Others on the island had to wait several hours to get back to the mainland.
As it was, when we arrived back at Tarbet, the tide had ebbed so far, the zodiak couldn’t make it to the jetty.
There was only one thing for it, we had to take off our boots and socks and wade ashore..
At least for some, that was the only option – all apart from Kerrie who asked for a piggy back from the skipper. Brave man!!
We had hoped to have a seafood meal at the acclaimed restaurant where we docked– but it had closed for an hour – possibly to prepare for the dinner guests?
A shame but we had brought a picnic lunch with us just in case, so we settled on a wooden seat overlooking the harbour and munched away.
A great day. On our way back – we couldn’t resist taking shots of a couple of local signs, particularly one pointing to a beach and burial ground, perhaps at the same location. How jolly!
Back at our rustic cottage, Rob and Kerrie checked to see if all our bags and theirs would fit in the car – just!
Andrew wrote to Nicole at Brooker about Hertz and the SAS flights/baggage allowance.
Day Fifty-eight …..Thursday 17th May
Trip to Ullapool
A much brighter day, thankfully. We decided to have a quiet morning, resting up, doing our blog and some much-needed washing. Rob and Dorothy head out for a 13 km walk up a nearby mountain. Nicole has replied overnight, bad news, unfortunately the Hertz invoice is correct – GPS plus second driver charge! Bugger. It looks like we might be able to wangle an extra bag on the SAS flight to Oslo, but we’ll need to check with them, we may just take our chances and hope it’s all ok if we stay under the total weight allowance. Our only visitors in this out of the way spot were some local birds, like this male Siskin, attracted by the bird-feeder,
and a runner or endurance hiker who’d taken a wrong turn was heading up the drive – Kerrie alerted him to the error and off he loped.
Rob and Dorothy returned, with photos showing the cottage as a tiny white dot in the valley below, confirming just how remote we are!! We all headed off to Ullapool for a spot of shopping and dinner. We looked around an outdoors shop and R and D showed us their favourite gear, called Páramo – very nice although rather expensive. Kerrie bought new water-proof hiking trousers as her waterproof over-trousers were cheap and useless. Many of the houses in Ullapool are B&Bs, the main source of income these days.
We wandered along the harbour, watching ferries come and go.
This one was on its way to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
We settled in for a cuppa at a seaside hotel and admired a string of very expensive sports cars lined up along the road – Aston Martins, Jaguars, Ferraris – apparently the rich and privileged like to tour the North West 500 to see how fast they can do it.
By now it was dinner time, we drove around to a hotel specialising in seafood which was very pleasant, although disappointingly they had no langoustines (a local delicacy which is a cross between a prawn and lobster, looking somewhat like a freshwater crayfish). Dorothy and Rob said they went to this restaurant about twenty years ago and it hadn’t changed. The décor and tone were very 1980’s.
We sat in the glassed-in area, bit like a conservatory and a combination of fabulous weather and the late evening setting sun turned it into a hothouse. We asked to have a door opened into the garden, enjoying the good food, pleasant ambience and long summer day.
Instead of going straight back home, we meandered along the coast, stopping to take photos of the landscape as it changed moods in the evening light.
We particularly liked the atmospheric and grimly-named ‘Deep Freeze Mountains’!
Rob suggested we drive on just past Inchnadamph to where there was a ruined house and castle by a loch, for sunset pictures. A great idea. The early 18th century laird’s house must have been very grand in its day. Unfortunately, the McKenzie family’s support for the Royalist cause and the extravagant lifestyle of the lady of the manor combined to drive family into financial ruin and after only ten years, Calda House had to be sold.
Close by, perched on a knoll beside the loch were the remains of the 15th century Ardvreck castle.
We saw some deer grazing on the heath in front of the castle, the perfect foreground for a photo.
Except, Kerrie thinks she may have picked up a tick while she was kneeling in the grass for some low angle shots, as she later found her legs covered in bites.
The sun was setting, creating a moody, backlit scene, fitting as the castle was rumoured to be haunted.
A glorious evening, a palette of golden light and Scottish history ended the day and our sojourn in Inchadamph.
Day Fifty-nine …..Friday 18th May
Journey to the Orkney Islands along the NW 500 route
It’s farewell to our wee Inchnadamph cottage.
We head north today to Thurso to catch our ferry to the Orkneys, so we packed up all our gear and crammed it into the car – Rob using every square inch of space to fit four people and eight bags and containers. We squeezed ourselves into the back seat, barely able to see each other over the stack of baggage in between.
Winding our way through stunning scenery past isolated houses and villages, gorgeous deserted beaches, the driving was slow as many roads are single lane with passing points for cars to pull over to allow oncoming traffic to squeeze past. We stop for a coffee near Cape Wrath, the north-westernmost point of mainland Scotland, a wild and remote moorland landscape that is home to a military training centre where the navy practice with live ammunition in a specified area – the remainder being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation.
We followed signs for a café, tantalisingly calling itself a ‘chocolaterie’ down a winding village road and into a revamped military enclave where there were arts and crafts shops….And a great coffee shop which also made its own chocolate!
We enjoyed a great coffee and Andrew bought a packet of organic dark chocolate shards with ginger! Yum!!
Back on our way on the NW 500, we saw signs as we were driving for the Cave of Smoo and there was a carpark in the village so we pulled over to take a look.
Walking down wooden steps to the beach, we could see a large cave right at the end of the cove and it turned out to have evidence of Vikings using the cove and cave to undertake ship repairs, dating back to 12th century. Entrance was free, although there was an option to do a tour further into the cave system by boat but we needed to press on. Outside, as at so many places these days there were piles of ‘balancing rocks’.
We continued on, Kerrie snapping away as we drove, gorgeous scenery at every turn. Finally, she got her shot of a sheep and a red telephone box!
We drove around a large bay and passed through a number of remote seaside villages, Bettyhill was especially pretty.
We had a picnic lunch by a causeway as the weather turned a bit overcast and dreary.We stopped at a vantage point overlooking a loch, Loch Eriboll, one of the deepest in Scotland at 60 metres and used by the Royal Navy as a safe and sheltered anchorage.
A small headland extending into the loch had originally been the site of a lime kiln.
From here the countryside became more stark, the winding road crossing a plateau with ancient eroded hills and scattered with lonely tarns.
When we stopped to soak up the solitude, the experience was spoiled by the worst kind of human laziness and disregard for the environment.We came to a viewing point, where we noticed a small enclosed area planted with flowers called the Marie Curie Cancer Care Field of Hope.
Ironically, it overlooked Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment in the distance – condemned in 1998 and now in the prolonged process of being decommissioned, all waste materials expected to be removed by the late 2070s, but not fully decontaminated till 2300!
Another quirky item was a recharging station for electric vehicles – virtually in the middle of nowhere.
We reached Thurso with time to spare – a somewhat bleak, grey and depressing town that’s seen much better days. Home to the famous Caithness stone, it had been a centre for flagstone production, shipped around the world.
We walked down to the harbour and beachfront, which wasn’t very inspiring. The ruins of a grand old house lay on the other side of the river mouth, a reminder of the town’s glory days.From the beach we sauntered into town….
where Andrew bought himself a new bumbag in a hunting/fishing shop.
The only hint of glamour on the otherwise dour-looking street was in a bridal shop window, touting the wedding of Harry and Meghan.We grabbed a tea and scone in the museum café, Kerrie captivated by a cute dog tied to a lotto sign. Toss up as to which captivated her more!
By then it was time to drive to the ferry terminal. We got in a queue to wait, still quite early so we did some more blogging in the terminal building. We drove on board at 6:30pm and set sail at 7pm.
Dorothy had prepaid dinner on board, three courses for £17, good value, so we went straight to the dining room and tucked in.Afterwards, we headed up on deck for fresh air,and watched as we approached the Orkney cliffs, burnt orange by the setting sun and lighting up the Old Man of Hoy, a famous rock stack. Perfect for pictures..We took dozens of photos as we passed, the light forever changing.We sailed past Scapa Flow – the famous anchorage for the Royal Navy’s grand fleet in World War I.As the sun sank lower, we watched fulmars gliding effortlessly against the dappled golden light shimmering on the sea.We entered Stromness harbour in perfect conditions, calm seas, late in the northern evening, reflections in the water’s surface giving the scene a surreal sense of total tranquility.Stromness is very quaint, like a ‘toytown’.It looked gorgeous in the late afternoon sun with reflections in the millpond surface of the harbour.We drove up to our B&B, about 2kms out of town, overlooking Stromness and which turned out to be modern, very well appointed and reasonably spacious. We talked through our plans for tomorrow then headed to bed.
Day Sixty …..Saturday 19th May
Great night’s rest, another sunny day, starting with breakfast in the front room at 8am. It turned out the young couple who normally run the bed and breakfast were away in Dublin for weekend to see Ed Sheeran in concert and an aunt and her husband had come across from their farm and (former lighthouse) homestead with their children to look after it. The aunt was apologetic about everything, but the porridge was great followed by haggis and scrambled eggs from their farm – the brightest yellow we had ever seen!
We piled into the car and took off for our sight-seeing day on Orkney’s main island. First stop was Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic village which was uncovered in 1850 following a huge storm. We noted here and in many other places around Britain that sites of historic significance were frequently conserved with financial assistance from the E.U. So much for “what has the EU done for us”? Shades of Monty Python. It became a bit of a running joke – although one with a bitter and sardonic edge – in light of the Brexit fiasco.
The museum included a re-creation of one of the houses as it would have been 5,000 years ago with stone beds, central hearth, larder and “mantle piece” to put important belongings on and a tiny door.
There was a collection of animal bones used as cutting and sewing tools; this would have been a fascinating dig for Jessica.
Then a walk through paddocks took you to the beachfront where the original site was excavated by archaeologists in the late 19th century; the man in charge was V. Gordon Childe, an Australian, the first Chair of Archaeology at Edinburgh University, a Marxist who, fortunately for the site, was rigorous in his methods.
The view was magnificent but the location back then would have been very different, the climate was warmer, the sea much further away and the surrounding land used for farming and livestock. Archaeologists concluded that people lived here for centuries in an extended family group with their homes partially underground, connected by passageways, doubtless to protect them from inclement weather during the long winters. Buried beneath the sand dunes for millennia, the tiny village is remarkably well preserved.
We reflected on the extraordinary adaptability of the human species, our will and ingenuity allowing us to survive and thrive in such remote, inhospitable locations so many years ago. How did they get here – and why?On this day there was a circular group of stones on the beach but they were not historic. We were told that school children visiting the site are encouraged to create their own sacred stone formations and this was one of them.The visit also included a tour of Skaill, the grand manor house originally built for a bishop and which belonged to the laird who discovered the Neolithic site.In the dining room there was a dinner set on display that had come from one of Captain Cook’s ships and which he reportedly gave to the family, presumably during a visit.
The house had also hosted a visit by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Other curiosities included a maritime chest, a four-poster bed (the bishop’s), the original front door which still had the bolt across it and an unusual round table with a series of lockable drawers – this was for the laird to collect rent from his tenants, each drawer being for a separate tenant.
Thank goodness Skara Brae had a great café so after buying a tweed hat and puffin mug for Kerrie and deciding not to splash out on a pair of woollen designer wrist warmers selling for £110, we had morning coffees to digest our visit. Rob and Dorothy are both keen bird watchers so we went to one of several Royal Society for the Protection of Birds hides in the Orkneys, this one called the Loon hide beside a wetland where we saw a variety of water birds including pink footed geese as well as some curlews.
Then we drove to Marwick Bay and walked through the nature reserve up to Marwick Head to see puffins.
There were no puffins to be sighted. Still, the views were spectacular as were the wildflowers.
The walk up the cliff edge was rewarded with a historic monument at the top, a crenellated tower erected in honour of Lord Kitchener who died in a naval tragedy during WW1. The vessel carrying him to a secret rendezvous with the Russians with over 700 men on board sunk when it hit a mine laid by a German U-boat.
Tragically, there were only twelve survivors.We wandered around the impressive monument, unable to enter, before heading back.
As we descended back to the bay, we had spectacular views down the western coastline as the wind came up causing spectacular waves, with spume flying backwards – caught in the wind.
On the beach, Kerrie spotted a rusting hulk of iron, remnant of a shipwreck, perhaps.
We returned to Skara Brae for some warming soup. Kerrie took the opportunity to buy a second hat and Andrew bought a wee guide book to the Orkneys for reference.
Leaving Skara Brae, spring was in the air – as were the springing lambs!
Determined to make the most of our day and keen to visit more of the Neolithic sites, we drove on to see the Ring of Brodgar, a circular arrangement of twenty seven menhir-like stones, some as tall as 4.7 metres or 15 feet and all calculated to be six degrees apart around the ring’s circumference.
With a diameter of 103.6 metres (340 ft), the Brodgar ring is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. Many were carved at the top to have a pointed tip, perhaps to better project a shadow at certain times of the year. Apparently, the stones are different geologically, suggesting they were brought from different parts of the island and involved a number of peoples or groups, and so required considerable community co-operation and planning.
Silhouetted against the skyline, the stones conveyed an ancient sense of mystery and mysticism.
We went on to visit the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, massive and imposing.
An incredible amount of work went into erecting these two stone circles, with recent estimates putting the number of man-hours for the Brodgar and Stenness rings at between 85,000 and 200,000.
From there we walked the short distance to the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, an equally impressive example of Neolithic culture dating back 5000 years. Recent archaeological studies put these structures at a time pre-dating Stonehenge and alongside the early Egyptians and suggest that the Orcadian Neolithic people were the centre and source of European Neolithic culture. Truly remarkable.
We rested up at our B&B, then went out for dinner in Stromness, Kerrie taking the opportunity to capture life on a Saturday night.
We dined at the Hamnovoe restaurant, recommended by some fellow tourists at the B&B. It was indeed excellent, delicious scallops, hand-picked by divers and pan-fried!
Full of seafood and Orcadian history we retired to our B&B as dusk finally fell.
Day Sixty one…..Sunday 20th May
Since we’ve booked to leave the Orkneys in the afternoon, we packed up and left our bags at the B&B and drove to another RSPB bird watching hide on Birsay moor. It was quite tricky to find but after a few false turns we got there, bizarrely alongside huge wind turbines.
You wonder what genius (or neoliberal luddite) saw fit to give permission to erect the turbines immediately adjacent to a conservation zone set aside especially for rare and endangered birds!
Rob and Dorothy had hoped to spot some red-throated divers but despite sightings by other people according to the logs, we saw none today. We did however see grey-lag geese, and fleetingly two hen harriers, a male and possibly a female. These moorland hunters are in desperate trouble according to the RSPB; in 2013, hen harriers failed to breed successfully in England for the first time in almost half a century and in Scotland, their numbers fell by 20% between 2004 and 2010. So, it was both rewarding and reassuring to see them here.
We bade farewell to Birsay Moor as Rob had booked us into a guided a tour (the only option) of another major Neolithic site, called Maeshowe at 12 noon. We got there in plenty of time – and it was good we had booked ahead as the tour was full.
They bussed us to a carpark near the site then we walked a couple of hundred of metres to a mound in the middle of a field.
From the outside it didn’t look that exciting but then as we had to bend over double to waddle our way through a two-metre long entrance tunnel to reach the chamber, we sensed somewhere very special.
This ancient burial chamber built some 5,000 years ago is credited as one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs. Incredibly, the entrance passage to Maeshowe is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, so that the light illuminates the tomb’s interior. The architecture is extraordinary. Constructed using huge slabs of stone using no mortar, just geometry, the stones are layered inwards to create a pyramid shape. The design and construction are so finely calculated and the rocks hewn and placed so precisely that the burial chamber is as solid now as it was when first built. The only weakness that can be found, as the guide pointed out, is from Victorian excavators who entered the chamber from the top, following the likely entry point of Vikings in the 1100s and installed a 19th century roof – which leaks!
The story of the Vikings is fascinating. A group of armed men and women, led by Earl Harald were on their way to attack another Earl but were caught in a violent snow-storm. It appears they broke into the Maeshowe burial chamber and took shelter for several days. We know this as they left a number of what we would call graffiti: writings, motifs and emblems carved into the stone walls of the chamber. The most famous carved motif is of an animal that many claim to be a dragon, others see it as more likely a lion or wolf. Either way the carving is clearly done by a person skilled in the art.
The writing is in runic script, one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe. The writings have been translated by linguists – some are basic, of the “Erik was here” variety, some bawdy, others more informative, and revealing there were women in the group. Intriguingly, there is confirmation of the event and the time in the Orkneyinga Saga written in 1200AD.
There was something magical and mysterious about being in the chamber, designed by people over 5000 years ago, lost for thousands of years, rediscovered by Vikings and then lost again till Victorian times.
The hour’s tour which seemed to pass swiftly was fascinating and very worthwhile. There were no photographs allowed inside the chamber, so when we returned to the visitor centre, we bought a copy of the Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1200AD by an unknown author, the only medieval work to have Orkney as the central place of action.
Afterwards we still had time before our ship sailed back to the Scottish mainland so we decided to try and find a special place described by another guest at the B&B – a bluebell garden. Rob had taken note of the directions and we set off – not entirely sure if it actually existed or if we could find it. However, down a lonely track in the middle of nowhere leading to what looked like a small copse, we found what we were looking for. And it too was magical. You pass through an old gate into what looks at first like an abandoned cottage and garden.
It turns out this is Happy Valley, an inspirational garden created by a man named Edwin Harrold. He had no right to the house or the land upon which the garden was developed, but no-one bothered him and he was left in peace to create his garden. When he died the landowner passed the cottage and garden to the Orkney Islands Council to maintain and it is largely looked after by volunteers. Our timing in May was perfect as the garden alongside a brook is carpeted with bluebells, a profusion of blue, lilac and white flowers.
Surrounded by trees in an otherwise treeless landscape, with a small stream and some remaining stonework this is a tiny oasis of beauty and tranquillity.
We returned to the B&B, collected our bags, thanked our hosts and headed into Stromness for lunch – an excellent crab salad at Julia’s. Kerrie wound up talking to a woman’s whose husband had worked as marine salvage expert on the wreck of the MV Rena off Tauranga. Small world.
While we waited for the ferry, we wandered around, Kerrie taking some last-minute photos of Stromness, noting some of the curious local names!
We boarded our ferry mid-afternoon, very few people or cars on this return journey.
Sailing back in hazier conditions, we returned to Thurso, somewhat drowsy after two big days.
Rob then drove a couple of hours to our B&B at Dornoch. This turned out to be well out of town, a modern house surrounded by a small forest, very peaceful and pleasant – apart from the owner’s barking dogs! Still, it was warm and comfortable, so we showered and had an early night.
Day Sixty two…..Monday 21st May
Dornoch to Skye
A rainy day, after a hearty breakfast of salmon and eggs, we packed up and continued on our southward journey.
We decided to take the B&B owner’s advice to detour via the sight-seeing route along the coast. Look out for seals on the sandbanks he advised – and there they were.
At least forty harbour seals were lounging on a couple of large sandbanks, some characteristically with tails and noses in the air.
While others popped their heads out of the water.
The Dornoch Firth Harbour seals are the most northerly population to use sandbanks as haul-out and breeding sites.
As we followed the coastline of the Moray Firth, the largest firth in Scotland – Inverness sits at the head of the firth – Rob pointed out the massive structures of North Sea oil rigs. This is where many are brought for maintenance.
It was still raining when Rob and Dorothy dropped us off at Inverness airport, kindly loaning us their thermos and mugs. We did hurried farewells and dashed in to find Avis and organise our hire car for the next week.
Doing the paperwork, the Avis guy said he needed documentary evidence of our home address, which initially flummoxed us but then Andrew remembered our international driver’s licenses – which had the information wanted – at last they have a use!!
We decided we’d pay for a portable GPS in case we needed help finding our way around the highlands and set off for Skye. Disconcertingly, the GPS looked pretty dinky, the map didn’t move in synch with the car as it travelled and the arrow indicating where you are went off the map. Not a great start! We followed the verbal instructions however and hoped that would work. Rob had told us that if we found ourselves re-crossing the bridge on the northern side of Inverness we’d be going the wrong way. That’s exactly what our dulcet toned GPS guide did – direct us back across the bridge. Hmm!
It turned out there was another way, which took us west on the road to Ullapool – retracing our steps from the first day with Rob and Dorothy. It was raining solidly and we opted to go with the GPS, checking our progress on the hard copy route map which Dorothy loaned us.
It seemed fine to begin with but then the image on the screen disappeared altogether as well as the voice. Not good. We stopped and checked all the connections and discovered it wasn’t charging. The system plugs into the cigarette lighter socket – but the light on the charger wasn’t lighting up and clearly the GPS unit was not only not fully charged, it was not charging up either. Deeply annoying. We called Avis to let them know and after telling them we were too far away to get it replaced, we agreed to do without it and we’d be refunded the fee.
We pressed on and found a good restaurant for lunch which had the catchy idea of a quiz on the place mats to keep you amused while waiting for your meal, all to do with names of movies and movie stars. We took a quick look in a craft shop next door and found a wee present for a certain birthday girl!
We eventually spied the bridge that takes you across to the Isle of Skye.
After a hold up with traffic lights controlling roadworks at the junction at the village of Kyle of Lochalsh,
we crossed the bridge connecting the mainland to the village of Kyleakin on Skye. It continued to pour with rain as we arrived on the other side.
We followed signs for Portree, hoping to use Google maps to take us to our B&B in Edinbane. After fruitlessly going round and round a square in the centre of Portree, we worked out we’d passed our turn off and retraced our steps to the outskirts of the town and followed the road to Dunvegan.
By then, the rain had eased and it was a pleasant drive through increasingly remote moorland.
Somehow, we missed Edinbane (it didn’t look right?!) and drove all the way to Dunvegan. Finally, we worked out where our Edinbane B&B was – along a pot-holed road off the main road for a kilometre or two. Andrew finally realised that the Circle Hotels voucher actually has directions for how to find the B&B. Doh!
From the outside, Ronan House B&B looked like an ordinary house, so with some trepidation we knocked on the door. It was however the right place and our host, Anne gave us a warm welcome, showing us to our room and bringing us a pot of tea in the large and cosy living room. It’d been a long day and since we had had an excellent lunch we decided not to bother with dinner and have an early night. We talked to our hosts about ideas for tomorrow and came up with a plan!
Day Sixty three……Tuesday 22nd May
Isle of Skye
Breakfast at Ronan House was generous and filling – porridge, a full cooked breakfast including black pudding followed by tea and toast and freshly made scones. We were well set up for the day – which looked fine and sunny!
We’d decided on a circular drive around the Trotternish peninsula via the wonderfully named village of Uig. There was however a glitch. Alarmingly, our car was flashing a tyre alert, saying that the rear left tyre was low on pressure and required urgent attention. We asked our hosts who said there was a garage in Uig and we decided we’d take our chances there.
Although May is not peak season there were already a lot of tourists on the roads, and the roads are not designed for mass tourism. Many are single lane traffic only with regular passing points – all of which is fine for rural traffic but when you have umpteen tour coaches and strings of BMWs and Audis jostling for position it can get quite slow and frustrating. Patience is definitely a virtue.
We reached Uig, stopped at the local shop for a few essentials and found the garage. The left rear tyre was low on pressure for some reason so we topped it up and checked the other three which were all fine. Our only worry was if there was a slow puncture.
We continued on, stopping to admire the views out towards the Western Isles. It was a gorgeous day and you could see why Skye attracts so many visitors.
As we circled the peninsula, we came upon some ruins perched dramatically on a cliff top, looking out across The Minch towards the Isle of Lewis. This is what remains of Duntulm Castle, dating to the 15th century.
The site of power struggles between the Earls of Ross and Lords of the Isles, the castle has a troubled history with tales of incarceration and murder and at least three ghosts are supposed to haunt it.
It was abandoned in the early 18th century and today surveys a pastoral scene of sheep and a stream of curious tourists.
It seems that at every turn and wherever you look, your eyes and sensibilities are delighted.
Andrew’d been checking out possible walks and there was one that sounded amazing called the Quiraing. We turned off the coastal road and headed inland. We had been warned that the carpark at the top can get very full and there was a suggested alternative – starting the walk from a cemetery on the way up.
But we took a look and it seemed a tough option, with no clear track up to what seemed like sheer cliffs above, so we decided to take our chances with parking up top where we could see tiny figures silhouetted on the skyline.
We wound our way up a series of loops and arrived at the pass and could immediately see that parking was a nightmare – there must have been well over a hundred cars there already.
We nosed our way slowly along the snaking line of vehicles parked along the road’s edge – and luckily spotted a gap. We were in! We kitted up for our walk, we’d brought our boots and a pack plus a thermos of tea, some fruit and breakfast leftovers.
Andrew thought we should head straight up to avoid the crowds but we bumped into a couple coming down who said we would be much better off to take the lower track and come back either the same way or back over the top. Kindly they passed on their walking trail map which they’d used and which proved invaluable!! We discovered the walk is 6.8kms and can take 2-3 hours. It’s also rated as “hard”.
We went back down and joined the main trail, which follows the contours of the escarpment below the sheer cliffs we saw earlier.
It was fairly steep going, though clearly no problem for the local sheep!
It is a stunning landscape and you can see why it’s so popular.
We made our way along the trail which is quite narrow and crosses the occasional stream, eventually reaching an imposing rocky pinnacle called the Prison on your right, with steep cliffs and rocky scree to your left.
We consulted the map which indicated you should keep on following the track below the escarpment as it curves around to the left.
We kept on going as the track steadily climbed up to a saddle where you cross a style and then face the choice of going right to a cluster of rocky outcrops or left for the big climb to the top. We turned left.
It was a steady slog although we were walking on grass not rock so not too hard on the feet.
Whenever we stopped to have a breather and turned to take in the view, we were awestruck by the beautiful vistas.
Two thirds of the way up we stopped for lunch – a hot cuppa tea and sausage sandwich. Thanks to Rob and Dorothy for the loan of their thermos!
The views were amazing – those rocky outcrops now seemingly miles below us as we gazed around at a 180 vista over The Minch, the stretch of water between the mainland and the Western Isles.
We asked a young hiker passing by to take some photos for us, much better than the ubiquitous selfie.
Kerrie spotted a couple on the edge of an escarpment taking photos in what looked a precarious spot – as they say, no Instagram picture is worth dying for!
We pressed on to the summit at 540 metres marked by a stone cairn and soaked up the 360 views.
Strangely, we were completely alone, not a soul in sight which was initially satisfying, to have all this expanse and beauty to ourselves.
But then we began to wonder where everyone else was?? Hmm. Nevertheless, we decided we’d head back along the ridge to complete the circuit, even though we’d heard that the descent is slippery and slightly treacherous.
We could see some poles marking the route and set off through increasingly boggy ground. Still no sign of anyone else.
We followed the poles for half an hour and somewhat disconcertingly they curved around to the right – whereas we knew our destination and our car were down to the left. Uh oh!
But we stuck with the poles and they did follow the contour of the hills, eventually curving back to the left and finally we saw the road down in the valley below, where all the cars were parked. Hooray!
We followed the trail until we arrived back at the road we’d left some 3-4 hours previously – precisely where we’d parked our car. Phew!
We worked out that we’d taken the longer route, but in doing so had avoided the steep, slippery and treacherous descent. All’s well that ends well – although Kerrie had her moments of doubt. Not another of Andrew’s wrong turns and adventurous trails!!
We also worked out that we should have veered left at the top for views down onto the rocky pinnacles – but we were extremely happy (and impressed) with what we’d achieved, covering more like 8-9 kilometres.
We drove back down the windy road and re-joined the coastal road, heading south. Not too long after we reached the look-out point for the Old Man of Storr and thought we may as well take a look.
We hadn’t read the walk details so assumed (incorrectly) that there would be a shortish hike to a lookout. As it turns out, the shortish hike is just under 4 kms, mostly along a gravel track and through not overly beautiful scenery thanks to recent logging.
We got as far as a fence and could see a trail of people heading further uphill to various vantage points.
But really the best vantage point was way up, looking down on the Storr – and not only were we too tired but we could see that the light would be wrong at this time of day.
The views back out to the lake below and The Minch where a cruise liner left her smooth wake were much better.
So, we called it a day, crawled back into the car and headed down to Portree where we checked the tyres again – just to be sure. We hadn’t noticed any sign of a slow puncture and in fact there was no change in tyre pressure, even though the dashboard was still indicating a problem. Odd.
Back to Edinbane where we thought we’d try the local inn for dinner, recommended by our hosts. The food was fine but the price was disproportionate to the size of the portions.
That evening we chatted with fellow guests, a charming couple from Germany,
on topics that included the widespread dismay and consternation over Brexit, the beauty of the Scottish islands – they were heading next to Lewis and Harris in the Western Isles – cameras and television. Turns out the woman works for ZDF in Hamburg!
Overall, a fantastic day.
Day Sixty four…………Wednesday 23rd May
Our plan today was to drive west through Dunvegan and on to remote Neist Point on the far west coast to visit the lighthouse and for views up and down the dramatic coastline. It was another glorious day. The drive took us along real back country roads, mostly single lane and again not designed to take tourist buses and heavy traffic. It was slow going and took a couple of hours to get there. But it was worth it, the views were stunning.
Once again, there were already lots of cars parked up and down the approach road but we found a spot, parked and kitted up.
We followed the trail down a steep concrete path taking time to admire the views and look for wildlife with the binoculars. As luck would have it, Andrew spotted an animal moving on the rocks far below. Initially he thought it was a seal – but then realised it was an otter.
The otter must have been sleeping or resting on the rocks, woken up and slipped into a small pool then into the sea. We could follow it as it patrolled the bay, diving occasionally. It was wonderful to see one of these creatures in the wild.
We strolled on to the old lighthouse. Built in 1900, originally it was a manned lighthouse but is now an automated system. The buildings surrounding the lighthouse are all locked up and appear mostly disused, but you can wander around and get stunning views of the cliffs and waves pounding below.
From there we made our way down to the old landing point for supplies, Kerrie wandered off to take some photos and we both enjoyed the immensely peaceful location, gazing out at sea and cliffs and skyline.
The only blot on the landscape was the presence of that ubiquitous eyesore and environmental hazard, plastic rubbish.
We made our way slowly back to the car and headed towards Dunvegan, soaking up the delights of rural tranquility and wondering how on earth this world can survive the clash with mass tourism.
On the way, we looked out for a coffee stop and found a popular café. Kerrie started scratching furiously and discovered her legs were covered in itchy bites. No idea where from – Andrew was unaffected. Kerrie’s scratching was noticed by a nice Dutch couple who shared their tube of antiseptic cream for relief.
We drove on towards Dunvegan, watching with a mixture of amusement and head-shaking as a Chinese driver, failing to understand the single lane system and the passing places – tied himself in knots as he tried to negotiate the passing lane, got himself parked diagonally across it such that a tourist bus could not pass and had to wait while we negotiated our way around the Chinese driver first.
We decided against visiting Dunvegan castle which is mostly a ruin and pressed on to the “coral beach” at Claigan, recommended by our B&B host Ronnie. It turned out every man and his dog had the same idea, the small car park – really just a country road cul-de-sac – was jam-packed: campervans, queues of cars, people reversing, waiting for others to leave. Parking was a nightmare. There was a large sign up on a farmer’s gate saying no parking up the farm access road and to keep the gate clear. We moved a wheelie bin to park on the verge, our only option.
It was nearly two kms to the beach, longer than we’d expected with a steady stream of people going in each direction.
The tiny beach is pretty but not utterly remarkable. Supposedly, in the right light, it looks tropical – perhaps to the Scots but not really to anyone who’s experienced Australian and New Zealand beaches. But it was nice to be there.
Andrew unpacked our thermos of tea and bickies and had everything laid out ready for the afternoon picnic when Kerrie spotted a small herd of bullocks at the other end of the beach.
They slowly and determinedly made their way along the beach, with startled visitors unsure what to do, some following them along.
They came right up to us and stopped, bemused as if to say ‘you’re in our way’.
They were curious and snorted and snuffled, pondering how to pass us.
Eventually they did. During the impasse, as we calmly drank our tea, bullocks halted in front of us, everyone else at the beach was greatly amused, taking heaps of photos. Very funny.
We discovered their intention, getting to a patch of seaweed and salty rocks.
Then a group of Germans bizarrely started picking up stones from the beach and arranging them in patterns on the grass to create “nature art” – a “Venus Flower”!! Weird.
The two incidents made the trip worthwhile, however. We packed up and headed back to the carpark only to find a BMW had parked us in so tightly it took a 15-point turn with millimetres to spare to get out!! Grrrr!!!
On the way back, we saw more evidence of how local infrastructure and wildlife are scarcely prepared to cope with the torrent of tourists.
But then of course we were tourists ourselves, always ready to stop and snap a scene of natural beauty!
Sadly these days, it’s rare if not impossible to have a place to yourself.
We got back to our B&B where we did a good stint of blogging in the lounge. We chatted to Ronnie, our B&B host about tourism – how Skye is being inundated with visitors. They’re booked out months ahead and told us how last summer there was such an issue with tourists arriving with nowhere to stay and having to be put up in public buildings that police set up check-points at the mainland end of the bridge to Skye, refusing to allow anyone across who was unable to show they had accommodation booked.
Nevertheless we had had a memorable day on Skye and Kerrie took some shots of the gorgeous sunset, our final night on the island.
Day Sixty five…………Thursday 24th May
Skye to Achgarve
We packed and departed Ronan House just before 10am. It was another stunning day, virtually no cloud and the temperature was almost hot! We said our goodbyes to our host Anne who together with Ronnie couldn’t do enough for you.
Our route took us back to Dunvegan, along the same road where we had on two previous occasions seen a pair of highland cattle but had not had a chance to photograph them. They were in the same spot under a tree and for the first time no one else was there photographing them, so Kerrie jumped out of the car and got some classic close ups.
We turned south at Dunvegan and drove the scenic route down the west coast.
Our journey was full of contrasts – from peaceful, bucolic scenes where an individual sheep calmly had right of way across the road to look-outs where massive coaches disgorged tourists for their photo opportunity.
We continued on to the Cuillin mountains. At the junction where the scenic route meets the main route, there was a cute old stone bridge across a stream, the starting point for what looked to be great walks.
We didn’t have time today so we watched the crowds of hikers and tourists, one group led by a pair of Scots doing a comedy routine – one doing a commentary in a broad accent while the other dressed in a kilt with long hair tied back and all the other Scottish attire, acted out the folk story described.
We pressed on reluctantly, wishing we had time to explore the mountains but we had a big drive ahead.
Our last stop on Skye was to fill up with diesel, grab a few items from a supermarket and head off on the next leg of our Scottish highland journey.
There seemed to be more traffic around and we came to a massive queue of cars and trucks waiting to cross a one-way bridge – luckily for us they were coming from the opposite direction and we had right of way!
We took a secondary road that runs along the coast which would eventually connect with the road to Gairloch – and it proved a great option. It ran between heathland on the right and green fields and woods with glimpses of sea and islands to the left. We came to a picturesque village where highland cattle roamed freely.
Andrew had heard someone at the B&B mention Plockton – so we were headed there. Just before we arrived, Kerrie spotted a picnic table with beautiful views down to a harbour, so we stopped for a thermos of tea and a bite to eat – cheese scones and sandwiches we’d made from the generous breakfast supplied by Anne!
We drove on down into Plockton, a gorgeous harbour village, almost chocolate box perfect with cute cottages and wee gardens circled around a protected bay with a castle nestled on the opposite shore.
We heard later Plockton had been the setting for a famous TV series. We stopped to wander around and take some pictures of what was clearly a popular tourist spot – for obvious reasons.
By then it was time that we returned to our route north, re-joining the road we’d originally travelled on from Inverness to Skye, even passing the restaurant we’d lunched at and finally got onto the west coast drive that would take us to our next bed and breakfast. For a while it followed the coastline of Loch Maree with picturesque scenes all the way.
The loch is Scotland’s fourth largest, at 20 kms long, encircled with dramatic mountains and scenic lookouts.
We passed through Gairloch and checking the directions on our paperwork knew we had to keep on going.
We passed through more heath and moorland before reaching Laide, the village where we turned off to get to our B&B, at least we hoped so. We kept on for 3-4 kms down an increasingly narrow country road and lane and were about to turn around when we spotted the B&B’s name on a sign, The Sheiling.
It was advertised as a croft with spectacular views but that was really misleading. It was a modern looking farm house surrounded by a gravel driveway overlooking fields with distant views of the sea.
Our hosts were somewhat reserved, long-term local residents who said aye and took a sharp intake of breath at the end of each sentence. They were very sweet but quite rustic and our bedroom had clearly belonged to one of their daughters, shades of 1960s or 70s with shelves and cupboards on every side and dinky ornaments.
The room was comfortable although the bathroom was another one requiring a contortionist act to access. We weren’t going to have dinner but we saw an enticing menu in our room and asked our hosts who said it was from a nearby hotel located by the sea and had a good reputation. They kindly rang and booked us a table and after blogging in their sitting room we drove the 3-4 kms to the seaside village of Aultbea.
The Aultbea hotel was right on the seafront overlooking a beautiful bay, lit by the late summer sun. On the menu were langoustines, those famed giant prawns we’d missed out on with Dorothy and Rob – so we had to order some as a starter – four between us. They had been caught in the bay that day.
They brought a bowl for all the shells and an array of surgical-looking instruments for accessing the meat in the claws and legs. It was quite fiddly and took a while to make the most of this specialty. But we can now say we’ve savoured the local langoustines.
The food was good but the dinner was most entertaining mainly because of the waiter who hailed from the Greek island of Santorini. As soon as he heard our accents he said he had spent a fantastic year in Australia, had travelled in New Zealand and really liked the relaxed Aussie/ NZ attitude. He wished he had stayed there and regretted coming back and being stuck waitering in some remote part of Scotland. When Kerrie asked about the macaroni cheese he advised her not to bother as it was just straight pasta and cheese, not as good or tasty as you would make at home.
That was just the start of the surprising and peculiar service that evening.
After we’d dismembered the langoustines, the waiter seemed surprised when we asked for a dish of water to rinse our hands afterwards.
When we were halfway through our entrée he asked if we had finished eating yet…. Um no.
When Kerrie went out to take a photo of the sunset over the bay he said he wasn’t sure if we were about to do a runner or not!
Then a waitress served us our desserts without cutlery and ran off to get some but never came back.
The waiter forgot to bring a glass of water requested by Andrew but when reminded, lingered at our table giving an extempore rant about tourists and the changing nature of tourism in Scotland and the world. He advised us not to go to his home island of Santorini saying it was ruined by endless cruise liners with thousands of visitors.
The evening’s entertainment was augmented by a group of four diners next to us, two elderly women who we guessed were the mothers of the younger husband and wife, all with pukka accents. The mothers were quite chatty, asking where we came from and discussing the food and service while the couple were a bit stand-offish in that very English way. But in the end, we bid each other a good evening in a friendly fashion.
All in all, a splendid evening capped off with a magnificent sunset, as we strolled along the waterfront, admiring the cute stone cottages.
Back in our B&B, we went to bed to the sounds of lambs bleating and the haunting cry of the curlew. It was rural but a croft with stunning coastal views it wasn’t!
Day Sixty-six … Friday, 25th May
The curtains and blinds did nothing to keep the room dark and the sun woke Kerrie up about 4am. We each had a go in the bathroom-for-one before breakfast was served in a dining room set with two tables although there was no sign of another guest, with a cassette of Scottish folk music and songs playing in the background. Unfortunately, when the cooked breakfast arrived every ingredient had been fried and was soaked in grease. There was no point saying anything as it was obvious our hosts were trying their very best and as Andrew kept saying they were kind-hearted and everything was very clean.
After initially considering a walk before heading off, it was clear this wasn’t favoured by our hosts, so we packed up the car and set off on the lengthy drive south-east to the Cairngorms. Luckily it was another bright sunny day, fantastic for views. We continued along the coastal road to Gruinard bay – a stunningly wild and beautiful bay unspoilt by humans. Turns out it is a conservation area.
We stopped at a look-out where there were two campervans parked up for the night, one with special wee ramps to level it up. A third was basically a station wagon with a young woman still in bed – and clearly no facilities on board – which means they must be using the natural environment as their toilet and bathroom.
Annoyingly and typical of what we see here and in New Zealand, there was a camping ground no more than 500 metres along the road which was virtually empty.
This is a growing problem and one that Scotland is beginning to recognise as a major issue. It’s a tough dilemma – having successfully encouraged large numbers of tourists to come and enjoy Scotland’s natural beauty, they’re now realising that if you offer something for free (as in freedom camping), that’s what people will come for and take advantage of, spending as little as possible on accommodation and leaving a mess where there are no facilities or infrastructure to manage their needs. As in New Zealand, everywhere you go, you see toilet paper beside the roads and in the bushes.
Something needs to be done to address the fact that visitors (sadly) seem to have no respect for the environment and no sense of personal responsibility for their actions.
We continued on through spectacular scenery of gorges and sparsely populated country until we reconnected with the main Ullapool/Inverness road. Rather than go all the way to Inverness however, we decided to cut off and take back country roads winding through villages and farmland that took us eventually to Loch Ness – which is enormous!
We stopped for a cup of tea from our thermos and watched tourist boats plying the waters – Kerrie was sure she saw something strange in the loch, a mysterious unexplained shape!
Giving the large but touristy looking Loch Ness “Nessie” centre a miss, we carried on into and through Inverness, and since we were making good time, decided to visit the Battle of Culloden site, a little to the east of town. This turned out to be a fantastic place – an excellent, modern well set up historical centre with a blow by blow account of events leading up to the battle as well of course as the battle itself – told from both points of the view – the Stuarts and the Hanoverians. One key fact that emerged from the display was that this wasn’t a battle between the Scots and the British – it was between the Stuarts, wanting to overthrow the Hanoverian dynasty and restore the Stuarts to the British throne, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Hanoverians, in the person of King George II defending his kingdom.
We signed up for a guided tour of the battlefield, our guide speaking eloquently about the mood and emotions of the day, the hardships and challenges, reciting passages from poems and writings in Gaelic (pronounced ‘garrlich’).
Remarkably, the battle was over in 50 minutes, a total rout of the Jacobites by the forces of the Duke of Cumberland during which 1500 men died. Sadly, as winners often do, no quarter was shown and King George went on to pursue a policy of destroying the Scottish clan system and the heritage it represented.
Luckily for us, the Culloden centre is owned and managed by the Scottish National Trust and our membership of Heritage New Zealand gave us free entry.
From Culloden, we took secondary roads, passed the turn-off to Cawdor Castle (as in Thane of Cawdor from Macbeth – although Shakespeare’s use of Cawdor was fudged as the dates don’t match up) and on to our destination for the next few days.
We arrived at our Grantown on Spey guest house about 4.30pm, Kerrie desperately hoping this would meet her Savoy and Dorchester expectations.
It had sounded very good on the itinerary and was in the next bracket price wise so we were hoping it would live up to our dreams! As it turned out it was a grand old Victorian home opposite the war memorial in the square, on the corner in a prime position.
Although very grand it was homely, the owners were both former lawyers from London who had bought it about ten years ago to save for their retirement and they had photos and artwork around the place. The hallway and staircase had come in for particular praise and rightly so. The attached cottages at the back were now privately owned but had once belonged to the owner of the house and had been the servants’ quarters.
The room was a good size, nice furnishings and nice touches but the bathroom was a cupboard – quite literally. In order to provide an en suite they had installed a wardrobe sized compartment in the room to make a bathroom. The sink was in the bedroom. This was even tinier than the last one! What is it about us and minute bathrooms?
Grantown was delightful, built in local stone and planned and laid out with an enormous central square, wide main street, characterful grand houses, hotels and cute cottages.
The town has a fascinating history. Founded in 1765, by James Grant of Grant, later known as the Good Sir James, it is considered to be one of Scotland’s finest planned towns, a product of the Scottish Age of Enlightenment. Queen Victoria’s “very amusing and never to be forgotten” visit in 1860, her night in the Grant Arms being her first in a public inn anywhere, gave a unique boost to holiday-making in Grantown.
On the recommendation of our hosts, we went for a walk to a viewpoint above the town via a disused railway track and public pathways through woods and fields, a good way to get some perspective on the town and its surroundings.
Afterwards, we walked up and down the main street looking for a place for dinner and decided on The Wee Puffin, a cosy, family-run restaurant. Clearly popular, it was packed but luckily a table by a central pillar became available. From the minute we sat down, it turned out to be quirky and amusing.
The waitress was a teenager, daughter of the owner, who despite her looks was full of character. When one group went to pay their account, she kept swapping from the menu to the account (holding both six inches away from her face), saying that her mother had recently changed the prices and she couldn’t remember them. When we asked how things were going she said she was very stressed. We sat there for about 20 minutes before she suddenly looked over at us, put her hand over her mouth, gasped, and grabbed her pen and order book. She admonished us for being too polite sitting there and waiting, and said if we had complained she would have noticed us sooner. After taking the hand written order (no technology here) to the kitchen she ran back, grabbed our drinks and thrust them and a bucket containing napkins and cutlery at us before running away.
The vegetarian lasagne and veggie burger were both very good, and they were huge servings. A table of German men beside us (Kerrie’s chair was so close she could have been part of their party) were delighted with the size of their meals – one burger looked ten stories tall!!
We went for a brief wander round the square, amused by some signs in a bric-a-brac shop.
Then we retired to our room, cupboard en suite and bed.
Day Sixty-seven … Saturday, 26th May
Grantown on Spey
The morning started with cloud but fined up to another stunning day. After breakfast of salmon and scrambled eggs in the front room (hushed voices, one German man frowned at Andrew when his phone pinged), we worked on the blog and did some research on local walks. We picked one that went through the local Anagach woods bordering the river Spey. After getting a map showing the various woodland walks you could do from the visitor centre, we headed off on the longer blue walk – after chatting with a Scottish couple out for their regular constitutional. We talked about tourism and the causes of the current burgeoning global tide of tourists – the elderly man reckoned it was terrorism – the threat in various Mediterranean countries was encouraging people to visit safer places like Scotland. Quite likely. He also mentioned the possibility of seeing Capercaillies in the forest.
We set off in glorious sunshine, not a cloud in the sky and barely a soul in sight. This turned out to be one of the most peaceful, beautiful forest walks either of us had ever done – through that rarest of places – true native forest, a mixture of Scots pine, birch and juniper.
Mostly on the flat, it wasn’t challenging and although we didn’t see a Capercaillie we did spot a deer, various other birds and a tiny exquisitely patterned butterfly.
We had our picnic lunch sitting on a log in the forest and it was idyllic. A chaffinch came to take a closer look at our sandwich.
Our circuit took us back along the banks of the River Spey, a famous salmon fishing river where we saw eider ducks and goosanders.
The walk took around three hours, winding up at an old stone bridge, no longer in use, where a fisherman was fly fishing and some boys were jumping off the bridge into the water.
There was also a sign warning of the dangers of introducing invasive species and urging people to “Check, Clean and Dry”. Another example and message for New Zealand.
We continued on past some very grand looking homes built in stone with spacious gardens in bloom with rhododendrons and azaleas. We got back to our car mid-afternoon and decided to take a drive to the much talked-about Aviemore to see what it was like and have afternoon tea. We needn’t have bothered! The drive there was very pleasant but Aviemore itself was tackily commercial, thronging with holiday makers there for the weekend. It is (as we finally remembered) a ski-resort, but not one of the up-market kind. Strangely, despite the crowds and amazingly good weather, all the coffee shops closed at 4:00 pm. So we took the advice of the woman in the tourist information centre and went for a drive up past Loch Morlich, famous for having the highest beach in the British Isles and which was packed, like Lake Wanaka in mid-summer, on up to the base of the ski resort for a view of the Cairngorms.
We didn’t stay long, it was the end of the day and only one car remaining in car park – there’s nothing quite so drear as an empty ski-resort car-park in the off-season! We drove back to Grantown along the other side of the Spey through picturesque scenery and hoping we’d find a coffee shop open – but no luck, and when we got back, we found Grantown’s best one had just closed. We settled for a cuppa at the once grand but now three-star hotel on the square (The Grantown Arms – HQ for the town’s bird watching group!) which was virtually self-service.
For a change we went “Indian” for dinner – also on the square and another hilarious evening. The majority of the staff were Indian but there were also two teenage boy waiters (perhaps 15 or 16). They had no idea what to do and mostly larked around. The thin gawky one sneaked up to the other overweight one and clicked his fingers beside his ear on the other side and then walked away. One older Indian waiter seemed to be the only one who told them to do anything. The thin one came up and asked us bluntly if we wanted poppadums, how many, and did we want a tray of chutneys. The entrée took about 30 minutes to arrive, and in the meantime one waiter asked if we’d had our meal and were we finished while both the young waiters and a third waiter asked us repeatedly if we wanted the tray of chutneys removed. Very odd!
The main courses came one at a time, about five minutes apart, the thin one asked Kerrie if she wanted another drink before she had finished her first drink and then went to take it away when she said yes. Soon after we had received our dinners, he asked if we had finished eating yet and seemed surprised when we said we hadn’t. When we finally did finish he picked up Kerrie’s plate and dropped it so heavily down on Andrew’s, the unsteady pile almost went down Andrew’s front. He was struggling to carry the two dishes and when he turned around to take them to the kitchen knocked over a vase with water.
All in all, it felt like a scene from a sitcom.
The sad thing for a tourist town was that clearly they had not been taught anything about waitering and had received no training whatsoever. On the plus side, the meal itself was fine.
Sixty-eight … Sunday, 27th May
Grantown on Spey
Today was hot and cloud free, absolutely stunning with a high of 24 degrees. We planned a decent hike but as we continued to suffer from residual tiredness we booked breakfast for 8.30pm. We were obviously very tired as neither of us woke before 8.15am.
We ordered a picnic lunch and with a thermos of tea we drove part way along the road we would follow tomorrow taking us through gorgeous scenery
We passed throughTomintoul where Andrew took photos of the Malt Whisky shop he remembered stopping at back in 1977 on a trip with Chris.
The walk was in the Glenlivet estate, gifted to the nation. We found the carpark ok – but despite having two written versions of the walk, one from the internet and one from a guidebook, we missed the turn-off 200 metres after the walk started in a pine forest.
To be fair both versions did not accurately say where the turnoff was and the map suggested we were heading in the right direction.
After climbing several hundred metres up through heather, seeing what may have been a golden eagle but none of the features being described, such as walking through a forest of trees and crossing a stream (not a stream in sight, only a hare), we knew we had made a mistake somewhere.
After crossing two boggy fields, passing shooting hides and reaching a cairn at the highest point, we threw in the towel, picked a spot out of the wind and had our picnic lunch and cup of tea from the trusty thermos.
We watched a grouse watching us and then headed back down the way we’d come.
It had still been a good hike, a solid climb with views in all directions, so despite the frustration of failing to do the walk we’d planned – we decided to count it a success.
Two hundred metres from the car we saw the post indicating the turnoff we were supposed to have taken, but with a different coloured marker to the one in the online guide.
We decided to take a back road on our return and were rewarded with a rare sighting (for us). Hopping along the road in front was a small creature – initially we thought it might have been a ferret or weasel – but then it stopped and turned to look at us. It was a red squirrel – cute as a button! It kept bounding along the road, then climbed a fence into a garden and reappeared on a fence the other side.
We continued on this winding lane and eventually came to the bridge over the river Avon, built in the 18th century. We stopped, and after a look around set up on one of the picnic tables for another cup of tea and the second sandwich in our packed lunch!
We chatted with a Frenchman at another table, brewing up his lunch. Living in Stirling, he’s trying to make it as a stand-up comic – tough gig for a Frenchman in Scotland!
Kerrie went for a wander and came upon a grouse, close up. A chance to appreciate its beautiful markings, not such a dowdy bird after all.
We finally circled our way back to the Tomintoul road and headed back to Grantown.
We had planned to have afternoon tea in Grantown’s famous tea ‘shoppe’ and were disappointed to find it was again shut by the time we got there. Obviously we were not destined to sample its famed cakes!
We finished our day with a quiet read in the front room before bed.
Day Sixty-nine … Monday, 28th May
Grantown to Dundee
After another breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (tough life) we packed up the car and set off, bound for Dundee. Since we had all day to get there, we planned on taking our time, stopping to take photos of whatever caught our fancy.
Andrew consulted a brochure on National Trust places in Scotland looking for somewhere interesting roughly along our route. By chance there was a delightfully picturesque, fairytale castle towards Aberdeen, south of Alford – a little out of our way but quite do-able. It was about 40 miles to get there –the weather continued fine and sunny, so driving through the Scottish countryside, from the Cairngorms to the Grampians was beautiful.
We reached Craigievar castle and it looked just as picturesque as it appeared in the website photo. A classic tall, square castle, with turrets, ramparts, and a pinkish rendering, it did indeed look like a castle from a fairytale and not surprisingly it’s said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
We’d read that it was open but only for guided tours. We were in luck – there was a tour leaving in 25 minutes and our Heritage New Zealand membership got us free entry! The couple in front of us were from England joking that they were probably the visitors who’d travelled furthest to get there. We said sorry, but we’re from New Zealand, think that trumps England. Much laughter. We bought a gift for Rob and Dorothy as well as a guide and had a coffee in the shade of a tree.
The tour was excellent – a small group of just ten people. The castle has a fascinating history. Begun around 1576 and completed by c.1626, this iconic tower house is amongst the best preserved in Scotland.
The interior is in exceptional condition containing many of the original fittings, Jacobean wood panelled hall, armour and furniture – a real insight into life in the 16-18th centuries. That includes the fact that there is no artificial lighting beyond the ground floor and plumbing was only installed in the 1960s! And like any good fairy tale castle it has secret stairways, hidden doorways and hiding places as well as stories of a cruel, overbearing knight, red-haired Sir John. Notorious for his flaming temper as well as his head of red hair, Sir John liked to spy on his guests – he built the secret staircase which ran up beside all the bedrooms – and finding the son of an enemy clan leader in bed with his daughter challenged him to fight or jump. The unfortunate lad jumped to his death from the fourth story window and he is said to haunt the bedroom to this day.
We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the interior, only from the rooftop.
A pied wagtail eyed us curiously, as if to say, what are you doing up here?
We took some last snaps of this enchanting castle, before returning to our car.
We pressed on towards Braemar, chancing upon the lookout made famous by Queen Victoria. Called the Queen’s View it surveys a panorama of gently rolling Scottish hills, the lands of Cromar, the ancient Celtic province of Mar.
There are also Neolithic sites here which sadly we didn’t have time to visit. We drove past Balmoral Castle – it was too late in the day to do a tour and stopped in Braemar for soup and tea, served outdoors through a hatch from the kitchen.
Apparently this is the village where the Queen goes to church when she’s in residence at Balmoral. Some very posh looking homes around here.
Driving on, the landscape changed from green fields and rustic woods to bare mountains and stark moors – back into the heart of the Cairngorms. We made our way up past a ski-field, over a pass and then down onto the plains below.
Steadily, signs of “civilisation” appeared and we finally reached Dundee. Using Google maps, we found Rob and Dorothy’s house.
Dorothy had prepared a scrumptious dinner of lasagne. After watching some TV news, we hit the hay.
Day Seventy … Tuesday, 29th May
Dundee – Isle of May
Dorothy and Rob had suggested a day trip to the Isle of May, home to thousands of puffins – and since we’d missed out on seeing them in the North West, we’d readily agreed to the idea. Rob had pre-booked our tickets – essential apparently. We set off across the Firth of Tay, passing through St Andrews, home to golf, and where Prince William attended university – much more important!! Dorothy pointed out the café where William and Kate met.
We passed the ruins of the ancient cathedral, started in 1160, dedicated in 1318 in the presence of Robert the Bruce, then king. It was the largest church in Scotland but sadly destroyed during the Protestant reformation.
We took time to visit the cute historic village of Crail, where we walked along the sea front shrouded in sea fog.
The tiny harbour was quaint, looking like it has doubtless for centuries, with stacks of lobster/crab pots, tiny boats, ringed by ancient cottages.
We stepped into the Crail pottery, where Kerrie hoped she might find something decorated with puffins – the one thing they didn’t have!
There was a ginger cat dozing in bowl, like a character out of Alice in Wonderland.
We had tea/coffee in a wee cafe, where somebody obviously said something amusing or in bad taste!
The fog persisted, which was a bit of a worry as we set off for Anstruther to catch the ferry to the Isle of May. Just as well we booked! The ferry was completely full – at least 60 passengers packed in like sardines. You couldn’t have squeezed another soul (sole?) on board.
As Kerrie said, heaven knows what would have happened if the boat had fallen foul of a storm and foundered! The weather still wasn’t promising – the fog called a Haar, from old Norse, blanketed the sea, so we could barely see anything. On the plus side, it was a smooth crossing – although eerily mysterious, a touch of the Marie Celeste. We had occasional ghostly sightings of birds, puffins, guillemots and gannets – our hope of course was to see a lot of puffins.
The island emerged from the mist and we began to see wheeling clusters of puffins as well as lots of other seabirds.
We circled the island, watching out for the Arctic Terns, notorious for dive-bombing visitors.
As we nudged our way into the sheltered bay where we landed, a young grey seal watched us with curious innocence and we caught our first glimpse of a puffin.
We got off at a small wharf and were given clear instructions – we must be back by 4pm when the boat sails back. The fog had lifted and it looked like we would have a clear day. A ranger briefed us about their research on the nesting bird populations and advised us to follow a circular route.
As we climbed up past nesting terns, we saw hundreds of puffins. There they were, cute as anything with their striped beaks and eye markings that make them look like comical clowns, perched on rocks and by their burrows, flying straight as an arrow, landing like first timers with ungainly feet dangling and wings outspread.
There were other birds too of course, nesting Eider ducks so well camouflaged you almost stepped on them (which is why there is a strict rule to stick to the established trails, also to avoid crushing the burrows of nesting puffins).
As well, there were guillemots and gulls and we continued to watch out for the dive-bombing arctic terns – but the puffins were undisputed stars of this noisy island. We followed the trail towards the old lighthouse.
As we circled around the cliffs, there was a medley of visual delights, eider ducks, spring flowers…and more puffins.
We’d brought a packed lunch and settled down at the bottom of some steps to another wharf.
Dorothy spotted a movement in the water and shortly after Kerrie spied a very young grey seal watching us from the other side of a rock. Clearly curious, he or she climbed up onto the rock and sunbathed for a while, unperturbed by our presence. It was a delightful moment.
Mindful of our limited time on the island, we packed up and returned to the trail, winding our way back on the circuit. There was a lookout with spectacular views and just below a group of eider ducks, mothers and brood making their way towards the cliff edge. We wondered if the moment had arrived to launch themselves into the sea far below– but no, they looked somewhat apprehensively, turned around and headed back, opting instead for a sheltered pool in the tussocky grass. Just in time, as predatory skuas were on the prowl, taking a speculative dive down to see if they could grab a chick, but thankfully no go.
Wending our way back, we split up – Rob and Dorothy to look at the Arctic terns, Andrew and Kerrie to explore further. As we passed the wharf a family was making its way towards the ferry but unluckily for the woman, an Arctic tern took exception and dive-bombed her. She ducked but that was not enough to escape the tern as it let fly with a well-aimed deluge of poo, hitting her fair and square on top of her head. Her family realised what had happened and there was great mirth – although not one suspects from the unfortunate woman!
Andrew decided he wanted to get the topmost views of the island and headed up towards the old lighthouse. There were splendid views, past rocky pinnacles towards the mainland and almost no-one else around.
Keeping a close watch on time, Andrew kept up a brisk pace along the cliff tops and made it back to the ferry in time.
Kerrie meanwhile decided to board and save some seats outside for the journey home as we were stuck inside on the way over. She was told off by the skipper who said it wasn’t allowed to “save seats”, it wasn’t fair on other passengers. However, Kerrie stuck to her guns, out-talked the captain and held the seats. Good one Kerrie!
The rest of us arrived not long after and greatly enjoyed the trip back in the afternoon sun – more especially as the ferry took the scenic route, slowly hugging the coast of the island so we could get a better view of the cliffs and nesting birds.
Fantastic (apart from the guy with a camera who wouldn’t sit down and obscured the view for several other passengers!)
It was a mellow trip back and we filed off the ferry at Anstruther looking forward to fish and chips, as Rob and Dorothy had said there was the best fish and chip shop in Scotland on the harbourside! It had won numerous awards including best fish and chip shop in the UK!! Initially though it didn’t look like we’d get in – there was a queue out the door and down the street!
After checking inside, we found out the queue was for take-away and there was room inside if we were willing to wait – that turned out to be for just a few minutes and soon we were seated and ordering. It was all spick and span, basic but clean and we were served by waitresses all kitted out in special uniforms, shades of the 1950s and Lyons Cornerhouse Cafés. Kerrie wanted to take a photo – but our middle-aged waitress cried off and rushed out to fetch a couple of “young ones”.
We thoroughly enjoyed our traditional Scottish meal – including mushy peas for Andrew, washed down with steaming mugs of tea.
Not exactly healthy, although we felt we had earned a bit of comfort food. We did note with amusement that the building next door housed the office of ‘Chest, Heart and Stroke, Scotland’!
Time then to head home, back through St Andrews where we stopped to look at the golf course and the beach – apparently this was where they filmed the classic opening sequence for the movie, ‘Chariots of Fire’!
That night Andrew backed up all our cameras onto the laptop – long overdue.
Day Seventy-one … Wednesday, 30th May
Our last day in Scotland and it was time to prep ourselves for the next adventure – our ten-day sailing expedition around Spitsbergen! Our first priority was to get some additional clothing as Rob had checked out temperatures for where we’re going and it looked pretty chilly! Zero to 2/3 degrees. Uh oh! And we have to buy some wellies – essential kit according to the company’s clothing list. Rob and Dorothy suggested a trip to Perth where there is a massive shop called Tiso, specialising in all things outdoors. We got there and started looking around – so much stuff! However, we had to be focused on what we needed rather than what we liked, always tricky in these places! Kerrie needed a warm jacket and some thermals while Andrew was looking for hiking trousers and hooded thermal jumper. We found what we wanted, then it was upstairs for the wellies. Turned out there was a substantial range – many quite upmarket and costing well over a £100 which seemed OTT for a pair of rubber boots. We opted for the cheaper variety, more like £15 – made by Dunlop – most appropriate since that was the company Andrew’s grandfather had worked for, must be loyalty points for that surely! We also got some water-proof camera bags and then headed back, stopping for lunch at a farm shop – quite a common feature nowadays, it seems.
One of the highlights of the day was a visit to Dorothy’s forest which she had recently bought as her contribution towards managing global warming. This was a native forest that had been part of a farm and subdivided into six hectare blocks. It was about a 30 minute drive from their house to the farm turnoff. From there it was a very bumpy dirt access road on a steep incline in parts and which was hard going on the car but we got there in the end.
Dorothy and Rob were quite excited to be there as it was the first time they had seen it in sunny, warm spring weather.
They took us on a guided tour around the perimeter pointing out the many sycamore trees they intended taking down and the very young oak trees or seedlings on the forest floor that had newly arrived in the Spring.
The one drawback was there was no natural water source but they were confident they could rig up some form of water catchment there. Perhaps attaching it to their future garden shed, the only building allowed in the forest according to their agreement.
We could easily imagine them dividing their time between the forest and their allotment, both very outdoorsy past times. We drove back to Dundee central where went to the bank for some housekeeping then Boots to stock up on last-minute pharmacy stuff for the trip ahead.
As a thank you for everything they’d done for us, we took Dorothy and Rob out to dinner at Sol y Sombra, a Spanish tapas restaurant close to the harbour entrance.
After filling ourselves with a very satisfying tapas selection – chef’s choice – we strolled along the harbour down to the beach where a man with a metal detector was scanning for hidden treasure (or lost coins). There was a group of bored and annoying teenagers who pestered the old man but eventually gave up after one of them pretended he’d found one of their watches. Rob pointed out to the expanse of the firth and said this was where he sails their boat. We were most impressed with all their many activities and interests – long may it continue! Time to head home and do a final pack in preparation for tomorrow’s journey to the Arctic Circle – and beyond!