Our Travel blog
18.15 on Saturday 29 April. We’re in Mavis parked up overlooking Loch Don on the island of Mull, 2nd largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Alison is busying herself sorting out the cupboards in Mavis while I pretend to be doing something important on the computer.
Outside our window is a lawn fringed with vibrant yellow gorse and beyond a verge peppered with reeds slopes into the grey waters of the loch. The tide is in, surrounding the gentle hump of a small island studded with gorse, looking like the head of a yellow haired swimmer emerging from a gentle sea. Across the loch rolling pastures cropped short by sheep rise gently, dotted with trees of washed out browns and greens and then capped by the darker hue of managed pine forests. Pale rocks jut through grassy hummocks on steep sided hills painted from the same faded palette as the trees. Further away murky cloud capped mountains loom ominously, teasing us with their scent of wonder and danger. They form a rugged backdrop to the gentle sweep of the bay with its boundary of whitewashed bungalows. In places shafts of sunlight beam through the clouds, highlighting features like a spotlight picking out individual players in a symphony orchestra. Here a shimmering silver inlet, there a vibrant rhododendron, now a glade of shrubs with sheep tending to bleating lambs, a narrow burn of peaty water tumbling down a steep hillside before the beam moves on and catches us, warming our little patch where we’ve parked Mavis for the summer.
As a view it sure beats a basement with a tiny square window looking out onto damp grey steps that we’ve just left behind. Working at Shallowford was a treat, a refuge in many ways, for the winter. We learned new skills, felt we contributed to the community there and made some great friends. There’s much that we could write about and doubtless little incidents that demonstrate my inability to cope with the modern world will creep out as this blog continues. We’ve left the cats there to mind the place. Mojo was just having too much fun adding small squeaky rodents to the endangered species list and Leo, well; Leo is Leo, a saggy bag of loveable attention seeking fur. His confidence has grown considerably and he patrols the grounds as if his presence is anything other than ornamental. He did once catch a mouse, probably an old and arthritic one, but none the less his pride was fierce and he strutted around as if his testicles had grown back, right up to the point where his head was held so high that he fell off the table. The only regret we have of our time in Shallowford was not being able to take advantage of our house in Leek, but that pleasure is awaiting us when we return in September.
So here we are on Mull for 4 months to work at Duart Castle. Our first day at work went well, Alison took to the shop and got to know almost every customer, which may explain her successful sales figures for day one, and I got to prowl about the castle desperately trying to memorise facts and figures or sit in a shed and sell tickets. Everyone was hospitable, good company and the weather excelled itself, basking the castle in a sunny glow all day. On the drive home we encountered a herd of red deer foraging on the peninsula, watching us pass before returning to their grazing. Beyond them Duart Bay sparkled and the trees stood still and silent, only the chomping of the deer and the bleating of a nearby lamb disturbed the silence. We fired up the Mazda, sending wildlife scurrying off in every direction and pootled back to Mavis, tired and contented.
Having completed day one I had to head back to London for a meeting so Tuesday morning we parted company, Alison took up position in the shop and I caught the ferry back to Oban. From Oban it is a dauntingly slow trundle of a train ride through a mountainous landscape. The scenery is amazing as the little train rolls through glens carved out between hazy mountains. Shimmering lochs and enchanting glens appeared from around corners to keep me company on the journey. Also keeping me company was the BO that occasionally wafted over from a party of hikers occupying the seats across the aisle from me. Outside altogether more fragrant bluebells basked in the warm sun and fresh translucent bracken shoots poked through the tangle of last year’s crop that lay in waves sweeping downhill where winter snow had pressed it.
Despite its remoteness signs of humanity were all around; high deer proof fences protect the railway line, telegraph poles stagger in uneven lines, scarred hills of lonely tree stumps brood where logging has cleared all but a few scrawny bare trees, a white cottage nestled snug beside a loch with no obvious means of access, a rusting pipe spanning a remote burn and our train line weaving around road and river as we meander with slow and steady purpose towards our destination.
For all of the beauty outside the window my mind was unsettled, fluttering from one insignificant topic to another until I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be lulled into a light sleep by the rhythm of the train, only to snap back into our rattling carriage by laughter from fellow passengers or the train pulling into one of the immaculate little stations that line this route. These neat little oasis’ are lovingly tended with crisp flowers, clean swept platforms and are frequently bordered by ornamental gravel. Loch Awe was my favourite, lined with half barrel planters full of fresh greenery and backed by bluebell woods falling away to the sunlit loch.
After passing Loch Lomond we took a left turn to follow the mighty River Clyde into the City of Glasgow. We swept passed market gardens and narrow fields of Shetland ponies sandwiched between road and rail. Gradually the landscape became more urbanised until with a grinding of brakes and one last lurch we arrived at Glasgow Queen Street Station. From here I joined the parade of hunched figures marching to the clicker clack percussion of a dozen wheeled suitcases through the city centre to the majestic Central Station and onwards to London.
Nothing could compete with the views I’d already enjoyed so I settled down for hours of reading and preparing for my meeting. Eventually, after nearly 12 hours of travelling I arrived at an anonymous hotel where they favour blue in the décor and took to my room on the 2nd floor. Being a couple of storeys up I didn’t bother drawing the curtain, which is why a train full of late night commuters got a cheeky glimpse of middle aged nipple as their train trundled slowly passed my window just as I peeled off my tee shirt.
Breakfast the following morning went true to form. A tomato exploded under my knife, squirting a trail of juice and pips over my trousers, I twice had to rescue scrambled egg from the table and my toast was stolen by a Frenchman. Le bâtard! Upon leaving my room the contents of my rucksack spilled out as I hoisted it onto my back, necessitating an increasingly grumpy re-packing, a scan of the room to check nothing had escaped and then hearing the door slam behind me while my rucksack sulked on the landing in the path of a departing commuter. Apologies exchanged I went on my way. Why do we British say sorry when it’s patently not our fault…the poor chap had done nothing except be inconvenienced by my luggage but he politely said sorry and graciously held the lift door for me when I appeared red faced round the corner while still in the process of giving my rucksack a firm talking too. On the subject of politeness, on the journey up to Mull we brought the car as well as Mavis. Left in sole charge of 1.4 litres of thundering Mazda I armed myself with Alison’s old Sat Nav, just in case we got separated. That was how I discovered that she owns the most polite Sat Nav in the world. Instead of assertive instructions its apologetic female voice suggests routes for you, rather like a timid passenger who knows you’re going wrong but is too frightened to challenge the driver directly. Hence every instruction was prefaced with a gentle “please,” as in “please take a left turn in 300 yards…please turn left now…when it is safe to do so please turn around and take the first right…now really there is no need for that kind of language Raymond…O dear you seemed to have missed it again…slow and steady wins the race…well really who is a grumpy pants today…” And so on. I’m sure if I ended up entangled in a steaming pile of twisted multi car motorway inferno I’d hear a soothing “Oops a daisy, I’ll call nanny to kiss it better.”
The meeting went well and I then spent a most convivial evening in the company of my younger son. Beer and pizza were consumed and I wound my merry way back to Euston station where I had an exciting date with The Caledonian Sleeper. Just the name suggests a classic thriller, a sense of glamour mixed with peril; a woman in a glittery cocktail dress slinking along a panelled carriage watched by a bounder in a tux. A retired Colonel will be discovered dead in his berth and the whole mystery will have to be solved before we pull into Glasgow.
Joy upon joy, as I hand my ticket over for my paltry airline style reclining seat the cabin attendant tells me I’m upgraded to a private cabin due to some technical difficulty. But…but…I haven’t packed my cocktail frock I pleaded, but Frasier, for that was the name pinned to his breast, assured me that wasn’t necessary and bade me bon voyage. Well, along the platform my backpack induced stoop transformed into the erect gait of the seasoned traveller whose trunk has been loaded straight from the steamer and awaits him on board.
I was shown to a narrow little cabin where I took the bottom bunk with its natty foldaway table, concealed reading light and plump pillows. There was a neat little parcel with soap, ear plugs and eye shade on the bed, which I stowed away as a souvenir like all first time passengers. I just resisted stuffing the Caledonian Sleeper monogrammed towel into my bag. A hidden washbasin dispensed water so hot you could make a passable cup of tea with it and directly above in the exact spot you'd grab when the train took an unexpected lurch while going about your ablutions was the emergency pull cord. With my propensities for vagueness and calamity I decided the safest activity I could indulge in in such a confined space was reading and so settled in with my book and after a short interval flicked off the light and prepared for a good night’s sleep.
This of course proved elusive. Firstly I’d been through more buttons and switches than in the cockpit of the space shuttle until I found the correct configuration to extinguish the reading light without summoning assistance, changing the temperature or putting on the main light. As I nestled down we departed and the train clunked, bounced and shunted out of Euston and all the way to Glasgow in a series of random manoeuvres with no rhythm to lull you into sleep. Plus of course I was waiting for the shrill cry of alarm as the maid found the Colonel slumped over The Times crossword with a knife between the shoulder blades, but I concluded this sort of excitement only happens in first class and with that thought gradually drifted off.
In the morning as we neared Glasgow I roused myself, let forth a good trump, and after the American election there really isn’t a better term for an explosion of foul gas than that, and took delivery of a cup of coffee and the news that the journey was disappointingly murder free.
The connecting train to Oban was busy, and soon I took to that dreamy state where your mind wanders into others conversations. The couple behind me, two mature yet sprightly women, kept up over-lapping monologues that seemed only faintly connected to the same conversation;
"Is that garage red?"
“Ooh. I like that, it’s better than blue…”
“Do you like smarties Doris?”
“What do you think of that tree all alone up there?”
“Ooh, so it is”
“Have you been watching that Crimewatch with him off the telly?”
“No. I like the green of, what is it now…Oh yes, BP”
“Ooh, did you hear that, Cranlarich next stop; I wonder where that is...”
It was at this point that I leapt over the seats and with a cry of "be gone from this carriage you foul hags of the banal” hauled them from the train into the loch below to the cheers of my fellow passengers. Well, obviously I didn't, that would have been impolite so I just tutted and took solace in recording their conversation in my notebook.
At around 1:30 pm I joined the back packers, day trippers and locals laden with Tesco’s produce and took the ferry back to Mull. Alison was working so after an afternoon recuperating we reunited back at Mavis for a scone and cuppa. It is now 18:50 on Thursday 4th May and we’re sitting outside with tea in hand and birdsong for company. The tide has crept silently in, the sun is still shining and though dinner beckons we’re just too settled to move. A perfect moment.
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