Our Travel blog
After a long drive and a slightly fractious end to our journey to Hay on Wye we rolled up at our site in the evening and sorted out our dinner after doing all those odd jobs we do when we arrive somewhere new, which usually start with finding the kettle closely followed by switching on gas, finding the toilets and then remembering the kettle was on and now needs to be boiled again, giving us plenty of time to perform other tasks and forget about it a 2nd time.
We're staying at a tidy little campsite 10 minutes’ walk from the Hay Literary Festival site, where we'll be working for the next few days. It’s compact, clean and rigorously controlled. Most caravans are unhitched at the gate and parked by the owner. We were escorted in and told that Mavis was to stay put for the duration (which we'd agreed to when booking). Several VW campers have rolled up during our stay, at least one hired from a specialist company by people who clearly think its cool to be seen driving a lump of ill-tempered German engineering at 30 miles an hour and to sleep in a space the size of your average shower cubicle. Fortunately they seemed happy enough. One family even erected a white picket fence around theirs, possibly to warn unsuspecting passers-by that Jeremy, Philippa and precious little Tristan were in town for the Hay Festival and would love to bore you about how bright 5 year old Tristan is, that Jeremy does something dull 'in the city' and Philippa’s thinking of volunteering at the local Oxfam book shop once little Trist's at university next year. I made that bit up by the way - although sadly not the bit about the white picket fence.
Hay-on-Wye sits on the river in a valley overlooked by green hills divided by irregular hedges. At intervals are clumps of tightly packed trees and fallow fields of golden buttercups shimmering in the breeze. Behind the hills dark mountains rise, faintly menacing, their barrenness in contrast to the verdant fields of the valley. Hay is centred on the castle, a blend of medieval ruins and Jacobian mansion fused by myriad reworking’s, repurposing and a couple of relatively contemporary fires, the last in the 1970s. Below the Castle the town's market square is surrounded by shops and houses lining narrow streets that fall away to the river and farmland beyond.
Hay is well known for its bookshops. In fact it is pretty near impossible to go anywhere in Hay without seeing a few dozen tatty paperbacks for sale. The cafes and I suspect the banks and even the chandelier shop all have them. If having a chandelier shop doesn’t tell you what sort of town it is then the shops around the market area will. Those that don't specialise in books sell 're-purposed' or 'vintage' or worse still 'pre-loved' items mostly in various states of decomposition. Imagine the contents of your nans garage given a cursory dust and an elaborate price.
What Hay really is though is the epicentre of middle England - in Wales. It is almost the very definition of aspirational middle class. If a meteorite hit Hay during the festival season you'd probably never hear the word organic again or meet children named after classical Greek poets. Its where the coriander and Burberry set come to play. It’s not hard to see what brings them here though. The town is pretty, the homes well-tended and it’s just the right side of twee. The shops are welcoming and mostly independent; the food good quality and plentiful, even if it leans towards the craft beer and organic falafel variety and the local garage sells unleaded diesel and gluten free petrol. And of course the town is charming and surrounded by pleasing views.
The Hay Festival, and its brash upstart competitor "How the Light Gets In' attracts enormous crowds. But the town appears to embrace them and - ahem - 'makes hay' while the sun shines. The 10 minute walk from town to festival is lined with gazebos and stalls selling wares in front gardens, from wood turning to chutneys, ice creams and charity collections, buskers and crafts, every other house seems to be engaged in a little light commerce. It is actually quite pleasing in a cheery 'we might as well make the most of it' way and certainly beats the junk on sale in parts of the town centre.
Today we travelled to London and meet up with James and Juliet for a meal and some wandering around the shops. First though we had a 2 mile walk to the station which started through woods adjoining the site. Emerging from these we found ourselves at the tail end of a party of 20 or so ramblers, all looking determined and dressed in walking gear. Walking gear is distinguished from every day apparel by having a generous pocket to garment ratio, too many zips and the occasional carabiner clipped on in a casually alluring way. Quite why people going for a walk inside the M25 need a metal clip designed to fasten you to a mountain is a mystery, but I do sympathise. I have a few myself and can testify that there is something butch about a carabiner dangling from your trousers. You feel more professional and in your mind that passing stranger takes a glance and thinks 'gosh, they must scale lofty peaks in gale force winds and hang precariously with one hand from icy Alps, the sexy beast.' Then your carabiner gives one final wink in the sunlight and you disappear into the undergrowth leaving the stranger thinking improper thoughts and panting. Meanwhile on the other side of the hedge you continue looking for the number 7 bus to Croydon;
the stranger doesn't know you are off to buy stamps and corn plasters, obviously because you were wearing a carabiner.
Alison fell into conversation with the group leader, a man whose appearance was so rural you could put him in a smock to sell cider. His face was rugged, defined by cheery laughter lines and had a glowing ruddy complexion. He had a shock of white hair that did its own thing independently from its owner and a chin strap silver beard that hung from a face that smiled easily. When he talked his face seemed to double in length to accommodate pearly white teeth and a throaty guffaw. He told us the walking club has over 60 members and they run walks 3-4 times a week. This one was a 6 mile amble to a pub and everyone on it looked to be past retirement and cheerful. He broke off to shepherd the group over a road and bade us farewell with an invitation to join the group and a parting friendly wave.
As we wove our way through, several hikers spoke to us, asking us to join them, warning us not to drink the pub dry if we beat them to it and generally being wonderfully happy in their gentle exercise. It was a sunny morning and they set us up for the push over a hill and down towards the M23 on a path of exposed chalk. We joined the North Downs Way and followed it under the motorway and through a charming meadow of wild flowers and bird song, surprisingly peaceful considering it is sandwiched between the M23 and the roaring M25, Britain’s busiest road. Crossing the M25 we descended into Mertsham and found the tiny station nestling in the leafy suburb.
We went to a Japanese restaurant where you choose a broth and dipping sauce and the food comes around on a conveyor belt that chugs between the dining areas set around it. The idea is to choose something from the belt as it passes and cook it in the broth that sits bubbling away on a warming plate in front of you. To aid this you're provided with chop sticks, a pair of tweezers and a tea strainer like wire basket on a long handle to fish out your food.
Our company were both adept with chopsticks and the concept so were soon tucking into hot noodles and suchlike. We however were less skilled and our table space soon became a smear of spilled food and broth. At one point the waiter approached to see if I needed another lemonade because I'd mistakenly just dipped Pak Choi in the one I had. I looked up with a face splattered in bright red sauce and a noodle hanging out of my mouth. It must have looked like I was eating a live baby octopus.
After a while I started staking lumps of tofu with my chop sticks in the manner of a spear fisherman and finally resorted to scooping everything out with my little wire net. It was all great fun and I took to experimenting with cooking times, was given more broth because everyone seated near me was wearing my first bowl and ignored my companions in my earnest concentration to snag mushrooms that teased me by rising and falling in the broth. At one point I swear something broke the surface and winked at me, but I may just have been over doing the chilli.
Alison meanwhile took to knitting together her noodles and slurping one long strand of about 2 ft long, the tail end of which whiplashed onto her forehead leaving a pleasing stain, like a tattoo after surviving a tribal initiation into adulthood. We eventually finished, a kindly James guided me to the wash room to clean up while the other diners applauded the entertainment we'd provided and the waiters put hazard tape around my seat and phoned the industrial cleaners.
Appetites duly sated the four of us hit London and did some light shopping then had coffee and hot chocolate in Covent Garden where the waitress took one look at my food speckled attire and sat us outside, all the easier to hose down if I ordered anything more challenging than a beaker of tap water. We generally mooched about before heading to The Barbican to avail ourselves of their rather splendid self-service restaurant, which passed without any undue dining calamities.
We parted on the train where they caught a connecting train to Brighton and on our arrival back in Mertsham we spent a good while waiting for a taxi for the return to Mavis in the dark.
We were looking forward to today with a mixture of anticipation and worry. We had to move our cats from their current lodgings to a new place nestled in the leafy hills near Orpington in Kent, close to the wonderfully named Pratts Bottom.
Having picked them up we brought them back to Alison's parents house where the cats were most affectionate and seemed pleased to see us. We spent a while in the van with them, helped around the house with some chores, got fed and in the early afternoon said fond farewells. It was a relaxing and welcoming stay with Ali's folks and we gave them a solid 4.5 out of 5 on Trip Advisor.
The less said about the journey to Kent the better. The cats settled after a while - I sat in the back with Mojo on my lap most of the way, from where she occasionally tried to attack passing lorries through the window. Leo found a safe haven from where he let forth the odd ear shattering meow of reproach. The final stage of the journey to the cattery meant going past a school where the 4X4's were double parked in a bid to prevent any of the precious offspring having to walk further than the school gates. They looked affronted that anyone not collecting an overprotected little darling from school should use their roads. Gits. Once passed we took to even quieter lanes of dense hedgerows and majestic ancient trees, fortunately meeting just one car coming the other way, necessitating some deft reversing to let them pass.
The cattery was friendly and welcoming. Mojo got straight down to intimidating the owner's chickens and Leo stretched out in his box and settled down. It was hard leaving them again and we have had to resign ourselves to the fact that our chosen lifestyle has consequences. We always knew the cats would be difficult. They were fostered for a while and then went into a cattery. We did some soul searching when the fostering came to an end and seriously considered settling down somewhere, but in our hearts we knew we'd be unhappy. We also know that the day will come when we have to decide once and for all if we need to find new, permanent homes for them. If we settle of course it will be somewhere that they can move in with us but it would be unfair to subject them to prolonged bouts of confinement if we choose a nomadic life.
But for now we left them looking reasonably content and struck off for our pitch for two nights near Merstham (the posh bit of Redhill) where we plan to traipse into Old London Town to meet James and Juliet tomorrow. The journey was fine except for our Sat Nav choosing a route through Caterham for no other reason than its probably sponsored by the Caterham Tourist Board. Looking at Caterham, and we've now seen quite a bit of it, it does appear to need the help.
More travel! We headed out of the site and around pleasing country lanes, penned in by green hedges liberally clothed in blossoms. Everywhere looked fresh in the sun, washed and vivid after last nights rain. We passed the ruins of Byland Abbey looking splendid with a pale carpet of mist as the morning sun gently warmed the air and saw the chalk white horse at Kilburn, the new growth from trees and bushes making it appear strangely deformed, before rejoining the motorway network and drifting ever South to Cambridge.
There's little to convey about the journey down the A1. It was efficient and trouble free but bereft of any notable landscape. We did notice that every river we passed over had a little sign telling you what it was called. All except one which on further examination turned out to be The River Cock, which may explain the absence of any signs.
We arrived tired but pleased to see Ali's parents and thus we enjoyed a lovely meal, caught up on gossip and did some laundry. We also bumped into their neighbours who recalled how they were once 3 days into a holiday in a hired motorhome before they realised there was a ladder to the over-cab sleeping area, which then made their bed time much easier!
If you've read our recent posts you'll know how much we liked Scotland. Its charms are plentiful and it is our intention to return as soon as practical. The landscape is amazing, from the green uncluttered lowlands to the rugged exposed highlands. From the city wilderness of Strathclyde Park in Glasgow to stately parks of Inverness, sparkling lochs, snow capped mountains and remote hidden glens, we found a surprise around every corner.
But most of all it was the Scottish people who won our hearts. They were unfailingly helpful, generous, full of good humour and rightly proud of their country and eager for us to enjoy it. They may not be gregarious and outgoing by nature but they have an easy going charm and are quick to smile.
So we were sad to leave Scotland even though we were heading for familiar ground in Cambridge, via a stop over in Yorkshire. Our journey did take us through the wonderful Cairngorm and Grampian mountains though, so we had one last opportunity to see Scotland in all its magnificence. We rolled high over passes, through gaps between mountains where snow was plentiful on the sheltered side. We drove through rain and into clouds hugging the higher slopes and gently down to pine clad foothills where shards of sunlight were breaking through, illuminating trees as if they were picked out by searchlight. From these, steam rose in white puffs in the heat of the sun.
Further on we passed through the farming country of the lowlands. Rich green pasture for abundant sheep and cows. We wound our way around Glasgow and pointed due South. A long time later we alighted in Yorkshire on the edge of the Moors for an overnight stop. But not until we'd tackled the notorious Sutton Bank. This is a switch-back climb on the A170 onto the moors with a 25% gradient. Mavis made it under Alison's watchful eye but in the last year 74 HGVs were stranded on it and caravans are banned outright and sent via narrow lanes and a more gentle ascent. I have fond memories of a family holiday on the Yorkshire Moors, and recall my fathers worried grimace as he willed his Mazda up Sutton Bank, leaning forward and gripping the wheel with white knuckles. It was on this vacation that I saw my first ever deer in the wild, smelt the heady fragrance of wild garlic and wandered around the stately remains of Rievaulx Abbey. Here I resorted to my default game of playing wars by myself. Pretending that there were enemy troops around every corner I moved stealthily so I wasn't seen by an imaginary enemy. I was of course spotted by every visitor, some of whom I'd startle by suddenly popping my head over a wall while they were admiring the view; instead of rolling hills they would find themselves faced with a mop of untidy hair, my red face hanging under it for a split second before it withdrew as quickly as it had appeared. I'm sure in a real war snipers would just avoid me out of pity. Oh, and we saw a sheep struck by lightening yards from my bedroom window. It was all most entertaining, although not for the sheep of course.
Once pitched up near Oswaldkirk (and can anywhere sound more Yorkshire than Oswaldkirk?) we broke free of the friendly warden, all Yorkshire helpfulness and wit after sorting out our pitch for us, and walked into nearby Ampleforth for a pub supper. We felt this was a deserved reward for driving over 300 miles and the walk would do us good after sitting down for so long. The walk was pleasant but bereft of pavements or verges where we could seek refuge from passing cars. Only in Ampleforth in the gathering gloom and threatening rain could we get onto walkways and so, after a convivial meal and a pint of Black Sheep, we got a taxi back in the now pouring rain.
We met up with old friends of Alison's today. In fact it was her old primary school teacher and her husband from the village where Alison grew up. Both Scots, they returned to the land of their birth and have made Inverness their home. We enjoyed a delightful lunch with them, reminiscing and learning about the local area. They were charming, hospitable, great company and generous with their time, the very essence in fact of the Scottish people we've met on our brief sojourn North of the border.
After a cuppa with them in Mavis they were kind enough to drop us at the visitors centre on the site of the Culloden battlefield. Alison particularly wanted to visit as she's a fan of the Outlander series of books which are set around the time of the Jacobite rebellion. I must confess I wasn't familiar with the details of the battle or events around it. The visitors centre does an excellent job of telling the tale from both sides. As you pass through one side tells the story from the Jacobite perspective while the other tells it from the governing Hanover's position. Its a fascinating telling of the story, brought to life by artefacts and a short immersive film that puts you in the midst of the battle.
It was at Culloden that the Jacobite rebellion, hitherto undefeated and having got as far South as Derby, was crushed. Led by 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie Stewart and backed by those pesky French, the Jacobite's believed the Bonnie Prince was the rightful heir to the crown, whereas George II had his royal posterior on the throne as the second Hanoverian King. Of course there's a lot more to the build up than this but on 16 April 1746 the Jacobite cause was all but wiped out by a well prepared and disciplined royalist force. On the evening of the 15 April the Jacobite's had hoped to take the Duke of Cumberland's redcoats by surprise and undertook an ill fated march to their camp which ended in disarray. Thus with a depleted and fatigued army and lacking the promised reinforcements from France, the Prince fatefully chose to fight. Meanwhile the Duke's men enjoyed a measure of spirits and some extra cheese in honour of the Duke's birthday. Here was a man who clearly knew how to party! Sadly for Bonnie Prince Charlie the Duke also knew how to fight and the next day with a refreshed and disciplined army he won a decisive victory for the Hanoverian cause.
It was the aftermath of the battle however that really lives in the memory. In an effort to wipe out the Jacobite cause once and for all the Duke's men took a bloody revenge on anyone associated with it, women and children included. This led to the suppression of what we'd think of now as Scottish culture. For example tartan was outlawed unless you were in the Royal family, bagpipes were declared an instrument of war, land was taken and given to the English and the Gaelic language forbidden. The effect of this was to punish not only the rebels but also those clans that had been loyal to King George and fought with his army. Many of the lowland clans had prospered under the 1707 Act of Union which brought a common sovereign, currency, parliament and tax system to Scotland and England. The Highlands however suffered under the Union and it was from here that the Jacobite cause had established itself. Today its still a Gaelic speaking area, road signs are bi-lingual and fading YES stickers from the independence referendum are liberally dotted about. This disparity; and the barbarity of the Duke's reprisals sowed the seeds of simmering tension and religious division that still linger in part today.
I suppose most of all I learnt that no one really wins wars. A declaration of war is of itself an act of defeat. By the time the first shot is fired the damage is already done. Irrespective of who claims victory, when the bodies start to stink no one cares what religion they were or what flag they fought under.
Leaving Culloden in a sombre frame of mind we caught a bus into Inverness and wandered through the city centre and over the broad fast-flowing River Ness. Here we took a leisurely stroll along the bank past severe granite hotels, cosy restaurants and the squat cathedral, its soft rose coloured stone bathing in watery sunlight. We entered into the riverside park alongside the Ness Islands. These form a picturesque quarter of immense charm. Iron footbridges and tree-lined paths gave the area a Victorian feel. We felt we should be promenading arm in arm. A noisy funfair was under way on the green but we gave it a wide berth and found the canal which led us gracefully back to the site.
During our walk we agreed that we liked Inverness. It seems a city of compact charms with a stately presence reminiscent of a bygone era, like a favourite jumper, warm and comfortable. Certainly worth a return visit to explore more.
Echoes of the past litter Skye. Standing stones and rings of huts, crude shelters built by early inhabitants, so numerous some aren't even mentioned on the map; ruins of crofts, low walls covered in grass that are now used by sheep seeking refuge from the elements. Here and there are skeletons of old machines left where they died, boats rot on the foreshore and in a field the shell of a caravan surrounded by cows. The islanders life has always been harsh and unforgiving, even now with good heating, good roads and all the trappings of modern life winters are long, dark and bleak.
We drove out of Skye on a road like a ribbon laid across the landscape. It was raining relentlessly giving a glossy coating to the moors. Sheep grazed seemingly unaffected while their lambs looked cold and huddled for warmth in the ley of rocks or stood forlornly on the sheltered side of their mother. As we drove, ghosts of mountains floated on the horizon behind a veil of soft mist, revealing themselves only as we got close, before we dropped down through the passes to skirt the sea on the run to the bridge and onto mainland Scotland.
We were sad to leave Skye, its charms were plentiful and with a smaller vehicle or more time to walk we'd love to have explored all of its nooks and crannies. But for now we were heading inland to Inverness via Loch Ness. But first we had to pass through a deep Glen alongside The Five Sisters mountain range. These all comfortably exceed 3000 ft and form a steep sided pass alongside the river Shiel, which snakes through the high glen seemingly in no hurry to leave. On the lower slopes intensely managed pine forests sat behind fences, as if penned in to prevent them from escaping. Where the woodland stopped blankets of last years ginger and rust ferns lay wilted and broken as new shoots reached up, unfurling slowly, one frond at a time, in no great rush now, but soon this whole area will be a lush green carpet waving gently in the mountain air. Higher up the snow capped peaks brooded in halos of dark cloud.
Well, it was all quite nice really.
Onwards we forged and after lunch in the mountain pass we descended to follow the wide River Moriston to the shores of Loch Ness. Here the rain had passed and little puffs of steam rose from the pines as warmer air moved in. We drove North alongside the Loch. Loch Ness, a mighty body of water, is only the second largest Scottish loch by surface area at 22 square miles, but due to its depth, it is the largest by volume in the British Isles. Its deepest point is 755 ft which also makes it the second deepest loch in Scotland, after Loch Morar. It contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. It is part of the Great Glen Fault, which runs from Inverness in the north to Fort William in the south. Incidentally that information was from Wikipedia so don't rely on it in a court of law. It may just be an enormous puddle formed by the tears of dying stoats for all I know.
We won't dwell on the rest of the journey North as it continued in much the same vein. Suffice to say it was all very pleasant, the Loch a constant presence to our right with its backdrop of rolling hills until we swept into Inverness and pitched up at a site on the banks of the Ness Canal, where we took an evening stroll past a flight of Locks to the Sea Loch and stunning views across the Beauly Firth.
One of the hazards of life spent roaming from site to site in Scotland is the risk of piped music in the shower blocks. In Glasgow where we first encountered it this wasn't too intrusive but here in Uig its just horrendous. Goodness knows what station its tuned to, I didn't wait long enough to find out. Today my ablution accompaniment was someone warbling on about how she "Wants a sexy guy..." Which is reasonable enough until you consider the alternative. No one seems to sing "I want a balding fatty with BO who lives with his mum..." (Plaitum, you can have that if you're reading this.)
It remind me of signs we've seen on our travels for butchers shops advertising 'Quality Meat' or sandwich shops declaring their wares as 'Fresh'. Call me Mr. Picky but the least I'd expect if I was eating meat was quality. I mean what's the alternative, 'Bob's Rancid steaks, get em' while the maggots are lovely and tender?' And frankly if the best you can do is advertise your sandwiches as fresh then I feel you are concentrating on a point I'd hitherto taken for granted. When purchasing a bread based lunch I look for tasty fillings, a bit of originality or at least cheap. I don't consider that 'Fresh' constitutes a selling point any more than, say, 'Contains Bread' or 'Now without shards of glass'.
In one small town we encountered a B&B advertising 'Colour TV'. How desperate do you need to be, how limited your other attractions, when colour TV is a selling point? Maybe the competitors all have monochrome TVs, or more likely, better accommodation to offer the weary traveller.
There. Now that's out of my system I can cheerfully report we spent the morning doing household chores of cleaning and washing before heading off for a maritime adventure of seal and puffin spotting aboard the SkyeXplorer. SkyeXplorer is a Mitchell 31 Mk 3. I mention this only because you might be a balding fatty with BO who lives with their mum and therefore appreciate this information in lieu of not having popular songs written about you. Anyway we turned up with our fellow passengers all clad, like us, in several layers of protection against the wind and spray. Standing on the pier a seagull did what they seem to do best and got me from above. An impressive shot but not one I appreciated. I cleaned up with a tissue, a fact I was reminded of much later when I inadvertently blew my nose on it!
We were greeted by a jovial Andi, our Captain, or Skipper or whatever. Sadly he didn't have a beard you could hide a penguin in or a wooden leg but in all other respects he seemed well versed in the ways of the ocean and took us on an extended tour over choppy seas to the Ascrib Islands. We saw, and here we are relying on his knowledge since we've established already my ornithological credentials are severely limited, Razor Bills, Shags, Puffins, an Oyster Catcher and a rare Northern Diver. Plus Common and Grey Seals which apparently aren't birds at all but furry bags of lard that eat fish. It was all very interesting.
The Islands sit mostly low in the water with the odd steep cliff of layered rock standing proud of the sea and scrub. One particular grassy cliff is home to the nesting puffin colony. They return here in April from about the age of 5 when they are ready to breed, and adopt the same spot each year. Andi informed us the oldest recorded Puffin is over 40 years old. They can only tell their age from when the individuals are trapped and ringed so no one knows how old it was when the ring was applied 40 years ago. Puffins are smaller than we expected and on water look like they should tip forward with their oversized beaks. On land they are as ungainly as any bird and in flight they are look like black and white flying bricks with wings beating faster than the eye can see. Only underwater do they truly look sleek and elegant. But most charmingly we learnt from Andi that the German for Puffin is Papageientaucher.
The journey back was particularly rough and of the 10 passengers only 4 of us braved the outside of the boat, where it was rather splashy. Well, it was most exhilarating. Alison especially sat there wearing sea spray and a huge grin. In other circumstances we've both been prone to sea sickness but today we had too much fun to notice.
After drying out and a late lunch we took a hike up to the Fairy Glen. This is an enchanting place a little way out of Uig of unusual cone shaped hills, valleys, pools and rock formations that have been featured in the fantasy film Stardust. It reminded us of something from Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Under the sinking May sun it was magical, with long shadows of irregular rocks cast over the vibrant green hills and valleys. Alison climbed the highest point, I stopped a little way short on wobbling legs, and from our vantage points we looked out over an alien landscape, a hidden glen in an already remote spot.
The wide Glen Uig in which it sits was a glacier that ran to Uig Bay. The basalt stacks, including the highest point of Castle Ewen that Alison climbed, were created by volcanic activity and exposed by weathering. The odd steps on the cones and hills are also the result of weathering in the exposed windy Glen. Even though it was created by geology rather than fairies its a lovely spot and the views of the sunset over the bay on the way back were spectacular. Lower down we walked through woodland with a path and facilities provided as a civic amenity by the Uig community, and although the pathway was well maintained the woods were left wild as a natural habitat. Perfect for an evening stroll.
Tomorrow we leave Skye for Inverness via Loch Ness.
We rolled up in Malliag in plenty of time for our ferry so ambled around the small harbour town for a while. It's built around a pleasing horseshoe bay with a pier for the ferries and the bustle of small harbours everywhere. Workshops buzzed and clanked, small delivery vans parked at acute angles wherever space allowed and determined looking people in heavy oilskins went to and fro on whatever nautical errand demanded their attention. Gulls watched intently for any spilt morsels and above everything was the scent of diesel and fresh fish. The rain, which had been threatening all morning, began to come down, giving the harbour a glossy sheen and sending the visitors scurrying into the plentiful tea shops while the townsfolk carried on their business.
Having eaten our lunch on the 25 minute ferry crossing we disembarked up the echoing ramp and onto Skye in a convoy of cars, vans and plenty of other motorhomes. We swept around the coast to the strong smell of wild garlic, the white flowers like a blanket spread on the ground among the trees, and across open moorland with mountains looming out of the clouds. The rain brought out a new depth to the landscape. Where the sun had bleached the detail we now got deep russets and auburn heathers, hills of greens and gold and deep orange and red cliffs of exposed rock. We went through one gorge of deep red rock on a clear road and half expected Road Runner to whiz past with a cheery 'Beep Beep' and wait for Wile E. Coyote to swing by and splat onto the rocks opposite in another ill judged attempt to snag him. Alison christened it The Acme Pass.
The road wound on through the island, moorland gave way to passes cut between cone like mountains with scree covered pointed peaks. They looked like someone had poured the scree over the top and let it trickle down in rivulets, merging with the hardy dark heather and grass lower down in long ragged fingers.
We cruised along the East coast through the busy capital Portree and out onto the West coast alongside the expansive and delightfully named Snizort Bay. The coastline was still rugged, but less wild; lush green fields dotted with sheep and hamlets with small, neat little houses and refurbished crofts scattered on hillsides. Nearly every property we passed on the West coast looked new with bright white paint, shiny roofs and tidy gardens. Maybe it has seen an explosion of building lately or maybe everyone around here is fastidious in their property maintenance. Or perhaps they get constantly washed by the rain which was unrelenting throughout our drive.
Our stopping point for a couple of nights is the port town of Uig. It sits along a large bay around which the road gently curves down to the harbour. Apart from a hotel and shop the harbour area is the centre of Uig as far as attractions go, with a restaurant, pottery shop, guest houses and, we were very very pleased to find, the Skye Brewery.
We awoke surprisingly refreshed after yesterdays exertions and pointed Mavis West towards Mallaig, ready for the ferry to Skye tomorrow. We followed a gently undulating road sandwiched between coast and Lochs to our left and hills with dark angular rocks breaking through the grasses to the right. The road followed and criss-crossed the Jacobite railway line between Fort William and Mallaig, one of the great railway journeys in the UK, not just because of the amazing scenery but also because its pulled by a steam engine. What the passengers don't see though are the impressive viaducts that form graceful curves spanning rivers and watery land. It was built for the Mackerel trade when Mallaig was the most important port in the UK for the slippery little fish and was apparently recently voted the worlds most scenic railway. It is also featured in the Harry Potter films, as did some of Glen Nevis. I hope you're paying attention, we'll be asking questions about all this later.
Anyway our destination today was Portnadoran - a hamlet on the scenic coast road a few miles short of Mallaig just west of Arisaig, where we wandered to after the usual pitching up. The village is settled around a small harbour and nestles in a bay strewn with stubby rock islands and fine white sand. It has connections to the 18th century Gaelic poet Alisdair MacDonald and more recently it was one of the bases for the second world war Special Operations Executive (SOE) It was here at Arisaig that SOE operatives were taught to kill in interesting and stealthy ways. I was particularly gratified to discover one of the prime movers behind the merging of three existing secret departments into the SOE was the splendidly monikered Lord Hankey.
The little information centre that imparts all this, and more, information about the area was engaging, well thought out, with clear easy to read displays and even a book swap where you could exchange holiday reading. It really is cheering to to visit these community run centres. They are invariably free to mooch around in and staffed by cheery knowledgeable souls. The good folk of Arisaig even clubbed together to save the local public toilets. I love that rather than write badly composed letters to the local newspaper or stern missives for an MP's assistance, to be filed under 'ignore', the people around these parts actually do something to address whatever irks them. A lesson to us all.
Walking back we passed between an access road and a small unkempt field where three deer were quietly grazing. They watched us with baleful unblinking eyes and then returned to the grass with an occasional wary glance in our direction. Tearing ourselves away we returned to Mavis, took a short walk on the windswept beach of pure white sand and then settled in for the evening.
Thank you for stopping by and reading our blog. If you don’t know who we are, what we are doing and you're wondering what this is all about you can read up on our project here.