Our Travel blog
You know what it’s like; you send a few speculative emails off in response to job ads looking for seasonal staff and next thing you know you’re driving to a remote castle on a Scottish island for an overnight stay that will include sunshine, wildlife, 40mph winds, cancelled ferries, snowcapped mountains, meeting aristocracy and an 800 mile round trip.
After last year’s adventures we haven’t really settled down. Our house is lovely but we don’t get to use it very much as we spend most of our time in a ‘grace & favour’ apartment at work. After much agonizing we concluded that another carefree summer on the road just isn’t practical and we needed an alternative, something that would satisfy our wanderlust and still provide us with a modest income, or indeed an obscenely large income should the opportunity arise.
We’re really not sure quite how it came about, since I was supposed to be researching vets at the time but an email was sent to Duart Castle in Mull, some correspondence was exchanged, one thing led to another and one sunny Sunday afternoon in March we loaded the final bag into Mavis and set forth for Scotland’s second largest Inner Hebridean island. Our first destination though was Strathclyde Country Park where our previous adventures north of the border started back in May 2016.
The site is run by the Caravan Club, although they have since renamed themselves the Caravan and Motorhome Club in a bold move certain to incur the displeasure of traditionalists and the more conservative of their clientele. The message boards on the clubs website are full of unenthusiastic comments about the new logo, the re-branding exercise in general and indiscreet digs at the club. As is usually the case with message boards and website comments the same names keep popping up like passive aggressive moles. After a while you start feeling sad for them, locked in their own little bubble of insignificance, desperately trying to assert some semblance of control over a scary unfeeling world. After a couple of minutes in quiet contemplation I decided I couldn’t give two hoots about it and left the disenfranchised to their empty threats of boycotts and defection to other clubs.
The journey had taken us from the dull monotony of the M6, through the pass between The Lake District and The Yorkshire Dales and upwards to the border where the M6 gives way to the M74 and the landscape changes from the verdant greenery of northern England to the muted greens and russets of Southern Scotland. It’s like the same rain that fed England and made it so lush washed away the colour from the north side of the border. While Alison drove I dozed in that undignified way that gentleman of a certain age perfect, snorting, dribbling, guttural grunts and occasional whimpering. I woke in time to casually deflect a string of drool from pooling in my lap as we were starting the long descent into Glasgow. To our right ugly tower blocks had been given a makeover, bathed in gentle light and given decorative ‘lids’ to hide whatever is necessary to plonk on top of a tenement block; water tanks and lift machinery I suppose. I’ve no idea what they are like inside but however you gild them they will always be the option for those who have little or no choice, intimidating columns of humanity stacked on top of each other and placed on the margins, literally and figuratively, of the city. That said I worked with some amazing people who lived in the tower blocks in Tilbury and swore by their community spirit and homely flats. But no amount of fancy paint and concierge services could disguise the menacing atmosphere nor negate the need for a suite of back room offices dedicated to maintaining the security of the three towers, including a dimly lit room with banks of TVs carefully monitoring every corridor, lift and entrance to the buildings.
We were greeted in Strathclyde by a friendly Welsh Warden who made us feel instantly welcome. It’s the little touches that count, like giving us a temporary fob for the gates so we didn’t have to go back to her hut and exchange our pitch number for a correctly numbered fob, as we’d be leaving early in the morning anyway, which was probably just as well because she’d have had a long wait. We were faced with an almost empty site. In theory this gave us a fabulous choice of pitches. In practice we froze, unable to decide. On this chilly evening we eventually elected for a pitch close to the shower block and the ‘should-we-drive-front-in-or-reverse-do-we-need-chocks-right-hand-down-a-little-NO-your-other-right-back-a bit-back-a-bit-straighten-up-no-the-other-way-STOP-forward-a-bit-sorry-I-forgot-the-chocks-back-a-bit-maybe-we-should-try-facing-the-other-way-sorry-dear-this-is-fine-do-you-think-we-should-have-filled-up-with-water-first?’ dance began.
Once we’d remembered where everything was onboard Mavis and had brewed a welcome cuppa we appraised our options on this chilly Glasgow evening and elected to take refuge in the nearby Toby Carvery. And very fine it was too. Hard to wax lyrical about a chain restaurant but it was reasonably priced, the food was served in generous portions and the staff were attentive and friendly. Duly sated we waddled back to Mavis and settled in for an early night. Before we went to bed though we were chatting and in response to a rather lame joke we both got a fit of the giggles. Suddenly the tension of the drive, worries about what we might find, whether we were doing the right thing, what our families might think, all our unspoken anxieties exploded out as we wept with laughter, doubled over in painful ecstasy.
I woke at 4:30 am, slightly ahead of the alarm and sufficiently disorientated to forget about the ladder down from our sleeping quarters until gravity reminded me somewhere half way down. I managed to land feet first and turn my clumping decent into a nifty pirouette ending at the bathroom with, I suspect, rather less elegance than I imagined. After braving an early morning shower we hit the road and the first stop was a 24hr garage to re-fuel. Alison went in to pay and the attendant couldn’t have been nicer if he tried. A rare skill at 5am but even so his demeanour and language was pure Glasgow grit. The accent is harsh, clipped and delivered at a pace even fellow Scots find hard to fathom. A cheery “have a nice day pal” sounds like a threat and “nay problem” an abrupt sign off to a casual enquiry. In truth we were shown nothing but helpful courtesy by Glaswegians even if it was delivered like a warning.
We took the motorway through Glasgow, busy even at this hour, and into the Lowlands leading into the Trossachs National Park and the joy that is the drive up the Western shore of Loch Lomond. As the darkness turned to a watery grey and into the pale blue of dawn, mountains on the eastern shore loomed out of the early haze and the waters of the loch rippled and shivered in the chilly early light. On the higher peaks fingers of snow lingered, shaded from the sun in the rivulets and gullies. Below the land was pale with fallow grass and bronzed with last year’s bracken. Rain lashed down spasmodically, driven across the loch by fresh winds, shaking the trees on the bank and giving the road a sheen that reflected the lights of oncoming vehicles. We watched the loch come alive through the soft focus lens of the windscreen until we turned right at Tarbet, where the road hugged the shoreline and Mavis swung around bends millimetres from overhanging rocks softened by lichen and moss.
And so we trundled on. Sunlight lit up distant hills and mountains while we drove through drizzle. We bounced over roads potholed from the winter freeze and cruised on brand new tarmac still steaming where neon clad workmen swarmed over once yellow trucks laying new carriageway over the old. After the splendour of Loch Awe and the sparsely populated hills we passed through managed forest that gave way to open countryside as we met Loch Etive and followed its southern shoreline all the way to Oban. At nearly 20 miles long the Loch drains the hills and mountains around Glencoe and deposits it into the sea at Connel, where the landscape changed again and we started seeing signs of more settled habitation; bungalows lined the road as the wilderness gave way to the outskirts of Oban. After a hair rising decent we rounded a corner and joined Oban’s rush hour streets. Despite the snail paced final mile we arrived at the ferry terminal in good time. We should take this opportunity to state that, without exception, every encounter we’ve had with CalMac Ferries staff has been cheerful and polite. Not in a supermarket checkout scripted kind of way but genuinely efficient and friendly. For reasons that will unfold later we were to have bad news relayed to us later on this trip by a member of the CalMac team and even then they made us smile.
The ferry crossing took 45 minutes from Oban to Mull and after a light breakfast onboard we took to the windy port side deck to catch our first sight of the sombre Duart Castle on its rocky outcrop. Incidentally port side is the left. I’m not sure why nautical coves insist on their own terms for left, right, pointy bit and blunt end but there you go. Once we’d disembarked we ventured inland a bit and made a brew overlooking the quiet Loch Don. From there we negotiated the single track A road, turning off onto a road only slightly wider than Mavis. Moss covered stone walls lined the route giving way to tumbling grassy slopes to our right and straggly bare trees that allowed tantalising glimpses of the cloudy blue of Duart Bay and the castle perched on its lonely promontory.
Drawing up to the castle the road widened and fed into a tidy carpark where a single car was disgorging a heavily coated couple onto the windy headland. Duart Castle was sombre but the welcome we got was warm and cheerful. We were shown around, poked about in the tea shop, admired the cannon studded formal lawns, peaked into the castle and enjoyed a cuppa with our host. Afterwards we wandered around the grounds, scrambled along rough paths and admired the views across the bay and over to the mainland. Its isolated position made Duart seem both imposing and inspiring. Menacing dark clouds drifted over the open waters and a swirling wind was funnelled between the mountains and hills on either side of the choppy white flecked Sound of Mull. Gulls rode the breeze behind a lone fishing boat that ploughed a silvery channel in the water as it chugged towards the mainland.
Left to our own devices we swung Mavis into the campsite overlooking Craignure Bay where we pitched on the waters edge looking out over the bay. We hadn’t forgotten our pitching up routine and swung into action, unfurling the electric hook up cable, turning gas on, unpacking essential equipment inside and generally turning Mavis from 3½ tonnes of travelling warehouse into a compact home. It was wonderful to be back aboard. We relaxed and eased into a meditative state, reading and supping tea while lost in out private thoughts about the idea of living and working on Mull. Throughout the afternoon and evening we looked around Craignure, walked around the shoreline and cooked our supper. It was all done while batting pros and cons between us or mulling them over in the echo chamber of our private thoughts.
As darkness gathered and the lights over the bay and on the mainland twinkled into life we ate and slid into bed, thankful for a pause after a long and taxing day. We’d just nodded off when the winds that had been gathering all evening started blowing in earnest and Mavis started rocking on her axles. (I’ll pause here for you to insert your own smutty joke…)
40mph winds are classified as “a fresh gale” on the Beaufort scale. We can testify that they were certainly fresh, buffeting the sides of Mavis and rattling the fixtures and fittings at irregular intervals. Outside the sea was eerily calm, reflecting the swaying yellow lights strung out around the other side of the bay and lapping against the rocky foreshore in front of us with a gentle rhythm that was at odds with the squalls pummelling us. We eventually sought refuge lower down and made up the spare bed where we spent a fitful night.
The morning was bright, the wind calmer and the air fresh and salty. We stretched our aching limbs and undertook a cursory inspection that showed Mavis had weathered the storm unharmed. I survived the shower block, rudimentary but efficient and warm and we took ourselves off to the island’s de-facto capital, Tobermory. Fans of the children’s TV program Balamory will know it well as it doubles as the eponymous fictional community. It’s an endearing place of colourful houses and shops spread around a horseshoe bay. Now is not the time to dwell upon the pretty town, nor indeed the splendour of the island, and it is certainly splendid, with mountains, lochs, historical sites and wildlife that includes otters, whales, basking sharks, red deer and two types of eagle (White Tailed and Sea) and many other attractions. Hopefully the photos will do it some justice for now. On the drive back from Tobermory we decided that whatever happened we would return, either to work over the summer or just for a visit and with that promise I shall dwell no more upon the sights.
Before returning to work at Shallowford we had one final challenge to overcome. Upon presenting ourselves for our afternoon ferry back to Oban the nice man in the CalMac office informed us that it was cancelled owing to the high winds and waves but the much shorter crossing to Lochaline was running and was making continuous runs to cope with the increased demand. Thus we queued up for the small ferry, a roll-on roll-off landing craft which held around 8 cars and vans. We had an hour to wait so we made some soup and discussed the opportunity before us to live and work on Mull until our time came to bounce noisily over the steel plates and onto the slick deck which smelt of diesel and damp. We rolled over the waves for 20 minutes and into the tiny settlement of Lochaline, marooned on a peninsula beside Loch Aline. The drive took us along the narrow undulating A884, and when I say narrow I mean single track with passing places and the ever present threat of meeting a fully loaded logging truck chugging up a hill or hurtling down from the summit seemingly out of control. And a word here for a local custom that actually made Alison squeal with delight. To avoid locals having to drag along behind slowcoaches like us the well informed motorhomer uses the passing places to pull in and release them to go about their business at a more urgent pace. One’s reward for such good citizenship is a friendly ‘toot toot’ as the car pulls away. Well, to her delight, Alison collected many toots; I think we were up to around 15 plus a smattering of hazard light flashes by way of gratitude - not as rewarding as a toot but still gratefully received. Only one car just sped grumpily on without acknowledging us. I don’t need to tell you by now that it was an Audi do I?
We had one more short ferry crossing to negotiate, across a narrow point on the vast Loch Linnhe, from where we drove on into an area familiar to us from last year’s travels, up through the pass at Glencoe and through the bewitching tan wilderness of Rannock Moor, its dark pools of peat rich waters reflecting the silvery grey sky, and down to skirt Loch Lomand again. Here we swapped driving duties and eventually pulled into Shallowford at 2am. Too tired to bother about going indoors we wearily climbed into bed in Mavis and immediately fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
It’s now a fortnight since we visited. We’ve had many discussions, weighed up the pros and cons, gone back and forth with questions and answers and finally made a decision.
To be continued…after the photos.
Yup, we’re going to work in a medieval castle on a Scottish island. Mull, here we come!
(Just for four months though - May to September)
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