Our Travel blog
As you are reading this you can at least be thankful that there is a you to do the reading and that you’re still a 3D bag of fleshy sentience and are not, for example, a shadow etched onto a wall after a brief dalliance with a radioactive bang. Or perhaps worse, left scrabbling around in the post-apocalyptic dirt waiting for your skin to fall off, with the cheery bonus that you now glow in the dark. I don’t mean to alarm you but humanity as we know it may well soon become extinct due to Trump and his squabble with the increasingly bizarre Kim Jong. These are the two you kept away from in the school playground, the attention seeking bully surrounded by sycophants and the weird fat kid with no friends who has no understanding of normal relationships. It’s so sad that our children have to live under the same threats we did. When I was around their age it was Reagan, Thatcher and Brezhnev squabbling in the schoolyard and worrying us all with their posturing and territorial pissing. So, with the slightly disturbing realisation that history has taught us, or at least those who lead us, nothing, let’s enjoy the ride while we are still here.
There is a distinctly autumnal feel around Mull. When the wind blows it carries the crisp tang of chilly nights and days warmed by the shortening sun. Shadows are lengthening noticeably earlier every evening and just lately we’ve had clear nights under a canopy of stars, the smudge of The Milky Way arching across the loch from the surrounding hills. The trees are turning too. Some still green, others shading to russet, rich copper or gold. Autumn is definitely in my top 4 of seasons. It also marks the slightly weird time when holiday makers cannot reach a consensus on what constitutes correct holiday attire for the season. We are treated to the spectacle of robust couples of a certain age rustling up the road in more layers than needed for an attempt on Everest while behind them are families wearing shorts and tee shirts. I witnessed someone smear sun-cream on their arms and face then throw on a waterproof coat and hat, all for a 2 minute walk back to her car. I suspect some of the shorts and tee shirt brigade are determined to wear them because they are on their holidays and no amount of wind or rain will deter them.
This was generally my father’s approach, a simple formula: Holiday = Shorts. Thus on our first morning at some out of season shack on the Norfolk coast he’d appear in baggy shorts with two unnaturally white legs dangling out, like pieces of knotted string that disappeared into sturdy walking boots. Mother would pause from scrubbing the chalk outline that marked the last resting place of the cabins previous inhabitant and say something soothing and supportive like “for goodness sake Donald, put those away, you’ll scare the children”. Her application of the second syllable to his name should have served as a warning, and in normal circumstances would have, but he was on holiday and therefore ignored her and led us out to whatever diversions one could find on a deserted beach in November. Generally this meant putting the windbreak up, an activity that should have earned him a fortune as the inventor of beach hang gliding. Sometimes he would glide gently along the sand behind it, other times a gust would catch him and he’d take off, to be deposited a few yards further up the beach wrapped in poles and cloth. Once he’d located his glasses he’d shout back to us, “this seems like a nice spot” and we’d trudge up to find it was indeed a fine position for watching the sewage overflow pipe, which may just be better than the bloated corpse of a seal I was busy poking with driftwood or the other family we passed who, I was reliably informed must be a bit weird because who in their right minds would come to Norfolk in November for a beach holiday?
The last time we saw my mother she let it be known that they had once visited Scotland for a holiday. I’m assuming on purpose although if she was in charge of navigation one can’t be too sure. I know I wasn’t involved so it was either before I came along or after I left home. If it was the latter then I have no recollection and received no postcard, and if it was the former then the only car my father had until I was at school was a Reliant, which seems a remarkable undertaking, from Hertfordshire to Scotland on 3 wheels.
On a recent day off we thought we’d make the most of some sunshine and visit the nearby island of Lismore; thus at 6am on a precious day off a rather startled Alison responded to my perky “good morning” with a brisk and somewhat indelicate reply. Still she rallied, and by 7am we were safely aboard our first ferry and heading to Oban. The 2nd leg, from Oban to Achnacroish on Lismore took another 50 minutes but aboard a ferry of compact charm. A single roll on-roll off car deck, full of trade vans, with small cabins either side where we took up residence, along with a young couple from Belgium and a charming and slightly eccentric Scots/Canadian couple, now residents of Toronto. We were clad in walking gear with waterproofs in reserve, as were our continental friends. The Canadians wore designer shoes, obviously expensive clothes, and he was in shirt, tie and jacket. We’d arranged a return by the same ferry while our Canadian chums were heading up the island to a small foot ferry in the hope of securing a lift. Further investigation revealed that they had to be in Glasgow for a late afternoon meeting and would therefore need to find swift transport to and from the other ferry when they were back on the mainland…on an island of 190 people and few cars!
Having done our homework we knew the scenic route to the island’s heritage centre so when we disembarked Alison and I immediately struck right along a track that soon became a boggy path. As we were skipping from rock to rock over a particularly gruelling section of field where the locals appeared to be cultivating mud I glanced back and saw our friends from the boat following us. “I hope you know where you’re going!” he called in a cheery way as he balanced one exquisite cowboy boot on a tuft of grass while he dislodged the other from a patch of bog.
I reassured him that we did and after a brief consultation with Alison, whose wise council I’ve come to rely upon in matters of social interaction, neglected to add that in fact the road from the ferry would have led them directly to the heritage centre with nothing more challenging underfoot than the occasional pot hole. As Alison put it, this was a much more interesting route and they’d get to see some of the lovely countryside, even if they didn’t want to.
We eventually emerged at a remote cottage serviced by a lane that would lead us to the heritage centre. We arrived there 30 minutes before it was due to open, so we sat in the sunshine to enjoy the view…or at least looked at the view. Somehow on an Island barely 1 mile wide and surrounded by mountains and stunning views whichever way you look they’d built their museum and café on the one spot with nothing more interesting to see than a road and a couple of rough fields. I’ve since discovered that the land was in fact donated to the centre which of course makes my jibe about the views seem rather mean spirited, especially as once inside the museum was incredibly interesting for such a small place, thoughtfully laid out and easily accessible to all, from the casual visitor to the ardent historian. It also housed a small but perky gift shop selling local books and crafts and a Gaelic library. Even more cheerily it had an excellent café that we took advantage of. Our chums managed to purchase a few souvenirs including a book about the island and a £200 painting, and then ended up getting a lift to their next ferry with the author of the book they’d just bought; such is life on a small island.
One of the interesting nuggets of information we picked up in the museum was the story of St. Moluag. It seems that at one time he rivalled St. Columba of Iona for ecclesiastical supremacy in the winning converts league table (West Highland Division 1). He founded a cathedral on Lismore before sailing around the western isles and on to Iceland, presumably called up for an international fixture. The cathedral’s chancel is now Lismore parish church. According to legend Moluag even won a coracle boat race to Lismore, defeating Columba by the unusual but apparently effective method of cutting off a finger and throwing it over Columba and onto the island, thus being the first to touch it and claim victory. Columba rowed away in a bit of a huff, but not before uttering distinctly un-Christian curses at the victor including “May you have the jagged ridges for your pathway", which seems a trifle mean spirited and surely earned him at least a holy yellow card. In spite of Columba’s jinx, for a while Lismore rivalled Iona as the seat of Christian learning and evangelism in Scotland but Columba had the one thing Moluag didn’t; a biographer to secure his place in history at the top of the table, leaving poor Moluag fighting to stay out of the relegation zone.
Anyhow, I’m sure there was a lot more to it than that but we’d got to that point where we needed to strike out for pastures new or risk missing the ferry. Thus we walked up the road, zigzagged down an unsigned steep side track and emerged at the remains of Castle Coeffin. Well, what a splendid spot. The ivy covered remains sit on a stump of twisted rock rising from an outcrop of rich green rocky pasture. Next to it is a small inlet with a shallow beach where at low tide a medieval fish trap is exposed. It was a remote and bewitching place, so rather than wear out our thesaurus I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After capering around the castle for a while we wandered back along the road, popped into the heritage centre to avail ourselves of their lavatories and have a peer into the reconstructed cottage showing how life was back at the turn of the 19thcentury. Pretty sparse by all appearances but at least it seemed your cottage came with a handy Perspex leaflet holder.
Wandering along a road isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun day out, and indeed it isn’t usually ours but the combination of sunshine, wild flowers (the name Lismore comes from the Gaelic for great garden), mountain views on all sides and bird song was intoxicating. We strolled passed the shop/post office/public noticeboard cottage, listened to someone checking volume levels in the public hall that also doubles as the Doctors Surgery, though hopefully not at the same time. Mind you maybe inviting an audience in to witness Flora Bloggs getting her ulcers dressed or young Thomas having his vaccinations passes for entertainment on a remote island. Anyway, on we went, took a left turn and descended along the road that took us back to Achnacroish, with its neat little primary school and a chip van doing a roaring trade serving the tradespeople waiting for the ferry. We met up with the Belgium couple and a host of others gathering to catch the ferry. There was no sign of the Canadians so we assume they either made it to the other ferry or were detained by the locals and made to work in the fields until they’ve learned how to dress properly.
The last adventure of the day was to discover that CalMac, the company operating the ferry’s, had, in a masterpiece of timetable planning, managed to arrange our ferry’s arrival at Oban at exactly the same time as the Mull ferry left from just 20 yards away. Although there may well be complicated scheduling reasons for arranging it that way it was very annoying. At least we only had an hours wait for the next one and the apocalypse hadn’t happened while we were away. We easily wasted an hour in Oban and then as we headed back towards Mull we reflected on our stay there and the fact that we only have just over a month left on the island, in this beautiful corner of the world that we’ve fallen in love with.
At the time of writing we are in Leek, taking time to relax, explore and plan ahead, although frankly that last one is just vague ideas more than anything remotely like a strategy. In our original plans 31st August was going to be our last day on Mull. However we’ve made the decision to return there after we have taken care of business and pleasure here and we will work at the castle until the end of the season in mid-October. When we were considering staying on we had one of those passive conversations where both parties skirt around the issue while hoping the other declares their hand first. Eventually one of us, I don’t recall who, came out and said they’d like to stay on if the opportunity arose. Ice broken we made arrangements and sorted everything out, right up to the point when we remembered that we hadn’t actually confirmed with work that there would indeed be positions to stay on for. Fortunately there were and thus we’re enjoying a bit of a break before going back to finish the season.
We left Mull on a damp Wednesday morning, arriving by ferry into Oban under a magnificent rainbow, an omen of things to come as we headed into torrential rain for the otherwise scenic journey towards Glasgow. We lost the rain along with the rugged and untamed peaks of Scotland somewhere around Loch Lomond, met what passes for civilisation at Dumbarton, crossed the Erskine Bridge into the urban sprawl of Glasgow and drifted down the motorway network as the hills became rounder, the land rolling and tamed into a neat patchwork of fields. Towards Leek we could see the green hills of The Peak District, autumnal colours beginning to sneak into the trees and the tang of a chill in the air. We stayed a couple of nights in our house before heading to Cambridge and then on to a fun-filled camping weekend with a group of friends and family in the wild backwaters of Suffolk. Afterwards and in need of several showers we managed a day of visiting and a drive back to Staffordshire via Cambridge. We almost didn’t make it to Cambridge though…
It was my fault. I realise that now. It was me who had his hat and coat on 30 minutes before we were due to leave. It was me who loaded the car as Alison was still packing bags. It was me who double checked every door was locked, curtains shut, security light on, TV off and who sat tapping his feet while the breakfast crockery was dried and put away. Finally it was me who confidently declared “hey, it looks like we’ll be early…” as we stepped out of the house. And that is why we were in fact nearly 2 hours late arriving at Alison’s parents’ house because our ever reliable car wouldn’t start. I won’t bore you with the details but we have learned that moving a car with an automatic choke only four yards floods the engine.
The whole being late/early thing is one of those couples' tension points. I’m habitually an early person: I will sit in car parks for 30 minutes before a meeting rather than risk being late. I used to build so many scenarios into journey planning that if I followed them to the letter I’d have to leave a day early just to get to a meeting 45 minutes away. I have reined this in but I still feel a mounting sense of unease if we aren’t sitting in the car at least an hour before a sensible person would be thinking of maybe finishing their coffee and popping to the loo before setting off.
By contrast Alison tends to leave at the exact moment that will afford her the prescribed journey time to reach her destination with maybe 30 seconds to spare for contingencies. Since leaving office work I’m much more relaxed but occasionally Alison will wander down in her dressing gown, rubbing sleep from her eyes and discover me showered and dressed sitting on the sofa like a restless puppy and surrounded by packed bags. “Morning sweetness,” I’ll say while looking pointedly at my watch. “It’s 5 am and we need to be there at 11:00. Shall I run you a shower?” I add, in the pointed tones of one who knows that they are skirting with marital discord but can’t help themselves. Generally Alison will point out that we’re only going to the opticians 15 minutes away and that nothing short of a direct nuclear missile strike would prevent us from being on time. Left to my own devices I’d be sitting on the uncomfortable chair outside the examination room at least 30 minutes early, giving me ample time to read those framed certificates they display to try and impress you.
This is in fact what I did at my last opticians’ appointment, which happened to be in a supermarket. They looked very official, neat calligraphy, impressive seal and fancy crest. Only on closer inspection did I discover that Wayne had apparently earned a level 2 certificate in eyeology from Asda University and Lynne had gained a merit in level 1 punctuality. They appeared to be the equivalent of parents sticking young Wayne’s 5 metre swimming certificate on the fridge next to the macaroni dinosaur and the sticky fridge magnet proclaiming Worlds Best Mum. I wonder if people (normal people I mean, not me) read these things. I assume they are designed to impress at first glance so that you think the spotty teenager entrusted with the future of your eyesight has completed a 4 year post graduate degree and is now a registered Master of Optometry.
I suppose that’s the price one pays for getting health care from the same place you buy broccoli and crisps. But then I went to a proper optician once and the eventual bill for a single pair of spectacles was more than I’d normally spend buying a car…and that was without all the add-on’s, tinting, anti-glare, scratch resistant coating, frames etc. Since then I’ve trusted my vision to whatever wisdom Wayne and Lynne managed to accumulate on their lunch time seminar. I may go blind but at least I’ll be able to afford a white cane.
 I do really but I’m not telling.
 For the record I do know that the people who work in supermarket opticians are properly qualified and have studied hard.
In last year’s blog I wrote extensively about music. We were working at a lot of festivals so it was natural the subject would come up. This year we’ve been rather quiet on the music front but we’re listening to a rather splendid CD that’s really bewitched us. It’s rare these days to discover an album that could take its rightful place on the shelf reserved for classic albums to be played when nothing else will do, sandwiched somewhere between Blood on the Tracks, Nixon and Raindogs. Songdog have just delivered such an album with Joy Street . If I was a modest man I’d now be saying things like ‘in my humble opinion …’ but I’m not, not where good music is concerned anyway. Joy Street is a triumph and I’ll cheerfully challenge anyone who thinks otherwise because, and I hate to labour the point, but because they’d be wrong. The group sound much more cohesive on Joy Street, more confident than on previous releases, but it’s the music that is a real revelation to me. For example ‘It’s Not a Love Thing’ sparkles with wit and energy, the music invigorating Lyndon Morgan’s words but never overwhelming them. Later on ‘Raise Your Glass in Praise’ is positively jaunty, a word not usually associated with Songdog. It’s an album full of catchy tunes and thoughtful evocative words that perfectly capture a mood or a place better than any picture. You can almost taste the odour of stale bodies, damp bedsits and the lingering fumes of cheap brandy and cigarettes in the track ‘Amen, Baby Amen.’ Above all else, on this album Songdog seem to be enjoying themselves. Make no mistake it’s not frivolous throwaway pop, but self-assured intelligent folk for people who still take time to listen properly and engage with music.
One of the plus points of being in Leek is that I have access to a record player, meaning that we've finally been able to listen to my beautiful bronze vinyl copy of Cherry Blossom Life by The Domestics. They deliver hard and fast hardcore punk with aplomb. The attention to detail on Cherry Blossom Life is striking; from the opening bars of the first track ‘Dead in the Dirt’ where the bass and drums tease before it explodes into life, to the righteous anger of ‘Homegrown Violence’, not just an empty protest song but one with lyrics that convey knowledge and empathy and music that captures the turmoil of an abusive relationship; and just when you expect something brutal, loud and predictable we are given the spoken word track ‘Human Ikizukuri’.
In many ways I couldn’t have chosen 2 more contrasting records to recommend to you, but what Joy Street and Cherry Blossom Life have in common is that they are both meticulous in their execution. They’ve been crafted, thought has been put into the production, into the sequencing of tracks, the cover art and the presentation. They both have intelligent thought provoking lyrics and both are led by singer-songwriters who are secure and confident enough to surround themselves with equally talented musicians to bring their vision to life. Should you want to investigate further you can follow the links to purchase them Joy Street, Cherry Blossom Life or have a bit of a Google.
One note of caution, The Domestics do like a bit of a swear. Which is an obvious and rather lame segue into a brief note about bad language. Regular readers of the blog will know I occasionally use naughty words for emphasis or comic effect. I’m not proud. But then again I’m not embarrassed either. A piece on the local news about enforcing train by-laws and how ‘bad language’ was one that could incur a fine got me wondering about how we see the world and our priorities. For example you can open your daily paper on the 7:15 into Kings Cross and read about famine, genocide, rape, torture, domestic violence, nuclear missile tests, all manner of political shenanigans and if, in response to such horrors, you mutter a horrified swearword you are liable to a penalty because you may upset someone. If you choose to be more offended by a four letter word than you are about famine, genocide, rape, torture, domestic violence, nuclear missile tests and political shenanigans then I cannot help but think you may have your priorities wrong. Sure it is easier to stop someone uttering a profanity than to end domestic violence but I know which one offends me more.
And then fate played a winning hand. On our way back from a trip to London on Friday we travelled First Class thanks to Virgin Rail only charging £2:00 extra per ticket. Just as we were deliberating the complimentary drinks a couple of complete tossers sat down immediately behind us. Well dressed, well-spoken tossers who were drunk to point of being loud and obnoxious but sadly not comatose, and even more sadly not dead. They made the whole carriage a miserable playground for their childish banter. A couple of women walking passed were treated to howling and called dogs, when a guard asked them to refrain from swearing they were almost polite until he was out of earshot when one declared “you don’t get that in cattle class”. On and on it went in a haze of alcohol laced swearing, homophobic and sexist mockery and general boorish boasting. While one went to the toilet the other watched hardcore porn on his phone at full volume. We complained to the attendant and were given a bottle of white wine in recompense but on close inspection it turned out to be made of plastic and thus useless as a bludgeon. We left them arguing loudly about an employee called Peter who is ‘on the make’ and taking backhanders from contractors and who wasn’t fired after his disciplinary hearing, which was the subject of their disagreement. So well played fate, I feel contrite and now believe that the occasional swear is fine if it’s in a good cause so long as it’s not accompanied by a prolonged bout of boorish, sexist drivel spouting from a spoilt, indiscreet fuckwit.
 Bob Dylan, Lambchop and Tom Waits respectively.
 Ikizukuri is the Japanese culinary technique of serving seafood alive.
Now that’s off my chest…we have been able to take advantage of our time in Leek to explore a bit. We’ve walked to the nearby village of Rudyard, which boasts an impressive reservoir built to feed the local canal and was where Rudyard Kipling’s parents met, hence his unusual first name. I guess he was lucky that they didn’t meet at nearby Tittesworth Reservoir. It’s all very nice as a touristy destination. There is a miniature railway that runs along one bank which I later found out had come from Mull where it once ran visitors from the ferry terminal to Tororsay Castle across the bay from Duart. At the reservoir itself there are myriad splashy pursuits involving boats and other buoyant contraptions and a circular walk of, and here I am quoting the official information board “about 4 or 5 miles,” which seems curiously vague for such a short path. We can measure the distance to the moon and be out by fractions of a millimetre so being so imprecise about a walk is either charmingly endearing or bloody irresponsible. I’m drawn towards the latter.
Alison treated me to tea and a scone in a vain effort to stop me grumbling about the sign, following which we watched a squirrel eating a sandwich, which turned out to be remarkably entertaining and put a spring in our step as we wandered back through Rudyard. The village is most comely, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the reservoir and Churnet valley. There is a smattering of newish bungalows and plenty of older cottages, all strung out along quiet streets. It’s all very tidy and quintessentially English and smelled faintly of sewage. We returned to Leek via the old railway line that has become a public footpath sometime since my map was published. It appears to have been the subject of some deliberation when it was opened, judging by the sign emphatically declaring that the council accepts absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for anyone foolish enough to venture onto it through the gates that they had erected for that very purpose.
We managed a scramble up Hen Cloud too, an outcrop of The Roaches that I wrote about at some length last year. It was a delightful climb, just difficult enough to tax us while requiring nothing more technical than grabbing at heather to pull ourselves up. The views from the top were amazing, waves of heather away to the north, green hills to the south divided into uneven fields by hedges and stone walls and beyond the shimmering Tittesworth Reservoir nestled the red bricks of Leek. The walk down was more gentle and led us passed tall fingers of rock into dank woodland and out onto a track leading back to the starting point. Despite the aches and pains, being grubby from the climb and sweating despite the breeze it felt good to be home.
Finally some book news. It’s been a while and literary agents haven’t exactly been beating a path to our door in an effort to publish our exploits from last year. Rather than keep persevering and risk losing the impetus we have come to a decision to self-publish. This means a bit more time in preparation and we’ll be appealing to a couple of people to read the manuscript. Not for proof reading, we will be paying someone to do that, but to ‘give it the once over’ and let us know what works and, more importantly what doesn’t. To make it all seem worthwhile we have decided upon a cause to support but more about that at a later date. If you’d like to volunteer or share any opinions (remember it is all based on last years blog) then do please get in touch.
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