Our Travel blog
Our working days have settled into a routine; porridge, work, a walk if the weather is suitable followed by dinner. Thus our days pass in quiet happiness. The weather really is the big variable; we’ve had sunshine while floods occupy England and rain while everywhere else sizzles. Rainy days are good for business at the castle and sunny ones make for happy visitors. The weather is a big talking point on Mull because there is so much of it. The saying here is four seasons in one day, but that’s maybe 2 or 3 seasons fewer than we often experience in a 24 hour period. We are used to getting wet from pounding rain, leaning at 45 degrees into the wind while getting a sun tan. Sometimes when the wind suddenly ceases people fall flat onto their faces.
At work we are gearing up for the Clan MacLean Gathering, a five yearly affair where all those who carry the MacLean surname, or a variation thereof, and who have chosen to join the Clan Association descend from far and wide to cavort, renew old acquaintances, squeeze into ill-advised highland dress and buy anything that can be swathed in tartan. During the clearances and famine times (see last entry) many MacLean’s landed in Australia, Canada and North America where nowadays their descendants find some solace in tracing their lineage back to their Scottish roots. Since the Clan MacLean once ruled the isle and several nearby, these roots are often local to Mull. We’re expecting MacLean representatives from the UK, South America, New Zealand, Europe and Scandinavia along with the aforementioned USA, Canada and Australia. In practice this means Alison is busy ordering extra MacLean tartan stuff for the shop and in the castle we are impatiently waiting for the scaffolding from on-going restoration work to be removed so that the castle will look its absolute best.
Before the Gathering our days off suddenly came round and I had another London trip planned. Now playing the part of a seasoned traveller I commandeered a salty seadog type chappy to load my trunk aboard the ferry as we set sail for Oban to the strains of a sea shanty and much clinking of champagne glasses. Although I’m journeying alone from Oban Alison joined me for the ferry crossing armed with her shopping trolley/old ladies wheelie bag  to stock up on provisions. She scampered off to play a swift game of quoits on the poop deck and I checked to make sure I’d packed my smoking jacket.
Maybe it was the thought of being apart for a couple of days but things were tense. On reflection it wasn’t us, we were as soppy as ever, but it did seem like a day where the irritating and dim witted were out in force. To start with it took 15 minutes to exchange an 8 digit code for my rail ticket. There is no machine at Oban station so I waited patiently while a 19 year old representative of Scot Rail with acne and the ghost of a mustache sorted out a railcard and explained every nuance of the tickets, seat reservations, direction of travel, stops and nap of the thread on the seats to someone of equal fastidiousness. Once his customer had wandered off shuffling his tickets, to the obvious distress of Mr. Acne, I took my turn and was proudly flouncing away from his window within 2 minutes of arriving. My display of efficiency was only slightly spoiled by leaving my card in the machine, which I sheepishly retrieved and joined Alison in the nearby pub for breakfast.
Having wolfed down a full veggie Scottish breakfast we waddled to the train in good time, said our goodbyes and I went to board the little train until I was blocked by a party of Americans who were genuinely baffled by the luggage rack. How can a country that has put people on the moon and invented liquid cheese create people who are unable to stack rectangular suitcases onto horizontal shelves? Once boarded they seemed equally ill at ease with the seat reservations, bickering politely over who would take the window seats and then, half an hour into a 3 hour journey two of their number got up to rearrange the luggage. I was privately overjoyed when we jolted into a little station and one of their cases bounced to the floor.
Lulled by the rhythm of the train I drifted off, waking up around Loch Lomond, a not unpleasant place to open one’s eyes. Wiping the dribble from my chin I smiled warmly at the lady sitting opposite, a fraternal greeting that was intended to convey apologies for any snoring, belching or farting that my body had enjoyed while my mind was snoozing. We got chatting and I learned about her daughter in Aberdeen, the tortuous journey from Oban and her job as a school secretary. It occurs to me now that that is about all I know. If it had been Alison seated where I was she’d have names, birthdays, all manner of personal information and a lifelong friend made. I think it all happens on some other level of consciousness, one that as a mere bloke I am not privy too. It’s like being at a concert where I only hear the strings but Alison hears the whole orchestra.
Having swapped trains at Glasgow I sped south on the comfortable Virgin train. The journey is almost 5 hours and it’s as dull as…well as 5 hours on a train. Alighting onto the grim confines of a remote platform at Euston I dived into the tube and popped up into the sparkly refurbished Tottenham Court Road Station to find that my hotel was spread over two sites so I had to check into one place then walk back up the road to the other wing. Easy for me but a significant challenge to the poor overseas visitors wandering along looking for a mysterious portal to their room, until I pointed them to the entrance and then had to stand behind them for 10 minutes while they checked in again. When my turn came the staff clearly recognised a veteran globetrotter and waved me through. The façade slipped slightly when I got lost in the maze of doors and signs behind reception and had to retrace my steps to the check in area. Effecting a nonchalant swagger I pretended to read the breakfast menu while gathering my wits and set forth for a second attempt. After a short interval I burst through a door, bid the receptionist a cheery hello, pivoted on my heels and, pausing only to wish her an equally merry adieu went off for a third go. I managed to make it to the fourth floor via the steps before noticing a small sign directing me to the lift. I pressed the button and waited. Every so often the lighted UP arrow would go out and I’d have to start again until I gradually became aware that these instances were accompanied by a ding from somewhere over my shoulder. It slowly dawned on me in a Pavlovian kind of way that the two things were somehow associated; and lo, it came to pass that two further lifts were cleverly concealed behind me. I dived into an open one, waved to the receptionist when it opened on the ground floor opposite her, pressed the 9th floor button and waited for what seemed like an eternity before the doors closed on my shame.
My room, when I found it, was comfortable, clean and had a bath. So rare is a proper bath nowadays that I immediately ran one and climbed into what might have looked like a bath but unless you are less than 4 ft. tall was essentially a deep bidet. I had imagined wallowing in mountains of bubbles while eating a crumbly bar of chocolate by candlelight. Instead I sat folded in half in lukewarm water up to my waist under a humming fluorescent bulb and enjoyed 10 minutes of crumpled soapy bliss and 5 more scrabbling for the towel I’d left tantalizingly out of reach.
The following morning I found the breakfast room on the second attempt, the first being thwarted when I got out on the wrong floor. Now, I don’t want you think I am ungrateful for what is essentially a free cooked breakfast but it was awful. Time was when a stale croissant followed by a mountain of carbohydrates sliding around on a greasy plate would set me up for the day. Nowadays I demand slightly more, like recognisable food cooked all the way through, scrambled egg you don’t have to slice like rare beef and mushrooms that haven’t been left to wilt under the glare of the warming plate. The hash browns looked and tasted like little sponges used to mop up an oil spill. The coffee was good though and my unfinished plate was whisked away by someone without asking if I’d finished while I got a 2nd cup. I watched other diners load their plates high and chomp through it all without comment so I concluded that maybe it was just me. I returned to collect my bag and check out and like all seasoned travellers searched under the bed, behind the shower curtain and in drawers I knew I hadn’t opened just to see if any precious belongings had escaped overnight. Satisfied that they hadn’t I bounded down to reception, handed my card in and punched the air with delight at having travelled from my room to the hotel exit in one seamless manoeuver. Maybe I will wear the smoking jacket tonight for the return journey after all.
Following my all day meeting and an evening meal with my youngest I boarded the Caledonian Sleeper. Tonight there would be no upgrade and I took my place in an airplane style reclining seat for the journey. And surprisingly comfortable it was too. There isn’t much to report about a carriage of 25 or so slumbering bodies drooling and snorting their way north overnight. As far as I could tell everyone slept from when we lurched out of Euston at 11:50pm. I woke a few times but drifted back off quickly until around 7 am when we all staggered off into Glasgow, bedraggled, with erratic hair and pallid yawning faces looking for refreshment and the station restrooms like a Zombie invasion that had the foresight to charter a train in good time for the apocalypse.
 Delete as appropriate
That same day we had the rare opportunity to see singer songwriter Adrian Nation perform on Mull. He was on a brief Highlands and Islands tour and was playing at a small community centre near Fionnphort, which sits on the tip of The Ross of Mull, about as far as you can get from us but a lovely journey that we shared with two colleagues and an eccentric German hitchhiker. After first being introduced to him at a festival we found out Adrian lived down the road from us in Essex, so it was natural to invite him to play one of our house concerts that we used to run in Colchester. Since then he has played at our wedding and we’ve seen him perform several times. His ability to make the audience laugh and cry in equal measure is always astonishing. Friday night in the Creich Hall on Mull he played a magnificent set with his trademark virtuoso guitar playing, a rousing audience sing-along and a fiddle accompaniment from a local lass who recorded with him on his forthcoming new album. We even got tea and cake during the interval.
After fond goodbyes we set off for the return journey which turned into an unscheduled nocturnal wildlife tour. The first obstacle was a herd of Highland cattle that had wandered onto the road, then sheep in several places, deer bolting across the road, an impressive stag lazily grazing on a narrow strip between the road and sea and a ferret like animal carrying a baby rabbit that ran along the road in front of us. It could have been a weasel, stoat or possibly a pine marten. Alison’s research suggests it was most likely a Polecat; anyway it was most exciting to see it scamper along carrying its furry midnight snack.
Later in the week after a tiring day at work we decided to get out in the sun that had finally made an appearance. Thus around 8pm we pointed the car south and drove on a scenic road that loops around Ben More, which at 966 metres (3,169 feet) is the highest mountain and only Munro on the Isle of Mull. After turning right at a lonely bus shelter at the head of Loch Scriedain we followed the right bank through lonely settlements that hung between the misty sea loch and lush greenery of the lower slopes of the mountains. The air smelled sweet, of fresh bracken and sea salt. Wild Foxgloves grow on the island and no more so than here where they frame the sea views and colonise the steep slopes that are studded with the deep pink of innumerable plants all standing straight up like an untidy parade. The Foxglove is of course a close relative of the Badgersock and the Otterscarf.
We swung right and through a mountain pass heavily scarred by recent logging. Ahead the sky was taking on an amber glow as we drove towards the west coast and the open sea. As the road crested the last hill it revealed the sea bathed in amber under a hazy sun. The islands before us were black against a glow that stretched to the horizon and the air was still and warm. It took our breath away. Now, before I continue I must confess that to appreciate this natural splendor we had pulled into a passing space. This is one of the cardinal sins of island life. It’s considered slightly more serious than high treason here and only just below genocide. If the locals have their way it’ll become a capital offence. That’s certainly the impression from reading posts on local forums and listening to the pub chatter. To be fair it is intensely irritating to reverse for half a mile because some fuckwit in camouflage gear has parked in a passing space because he has heard a rumour that a lesser spotted marsh tit warbler is nesting nearby. In our defense we hadn’t seen another car in the last half hour and anyway there was ample room to accommodate all but a logging truck in the unlikely event that the Mull rush hour wasn’t over.
From our illicit parking space the road plunged down in a series of gentle bends to the remote Balmeanach farm and then hugged the shore beneath formidable cliffs along Loch na Keal. Here we found a remote spot to picnic. It was nearly 9pm and we ate under the rays of a low sun while we reflected on our engagement on this day three years before, and the journey we’ve been on since. The waters of the loch rippled gently, sparkling gold and silver and opposite us the shores of the Isle of Ulva turned dark as the sun dropped behind the cliffs, occasionally its rays pierced through and caught us in its beam where glens carved a path through the rocky island. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of this remote spot, the only sound was the gurgling of a waterfall hidden in the greenery behind us and the occasional contented crunch of a Pringle dunked in Taramasalata.
Driving on in the strange luminescence of the northern twilight we cruised around the loch, through the dappled forests and estate of Knock and up to Salen on the East coast. Here we paused again as the sun melted into the sea in spectacular fashion. We stood looking over ebony shores and a sea shimmering like molten steel. It was a magical display; one of those moments that you have to soak in and let the memory burn into your mind; until we were driven away by the midges that is. We drove home in contented silence drinking in the magical landscape, the orange sun, golden waters, sun bleached mountains with dark shadows rising steadily upwards and to the lapping shoreline of Lochdon, silent save for the lowing of distant cattle and birdsong. We’re growing quite fond of Mull.
We are over 6 weeks into our summer on Mull. Apart from the echo chamber of social media we’ve largely been spared the election hullaballoo. We voted in our constituency in Leek by post. I do like the postal vote system; it ensures that fewer people are disenfranchised. Unless you are under 18 and about to inherit the mess we leave behind. Quite why at 16 years old you can sleep or more excitingly stay awake with whoever you want so long as they are not younger or of a different species but be forbidden from exercising an opinion on the kind of government you want to represent you is beyond me. I know not all 16 and 17 year olds make rational, informed decisions but then again consider that:
Out walking Megan accidentally wandered onto a live firing range involving a fake town simulation. Seeing state troopers walking slowly down the stree,t instead of, say, hiding or shouting out a warning she chose instead to jump out in front of them and yelled "Boo!"
"She just looked like a very real looking target," one of the troopers stated in his report following her untimely demise.
Meanwhile back on Mull I thought it was time to let you know what we do at the castle. Duart Castle is a typical Highland and Islands stone tower defensive building plonked on a prominent spot to control sea trading routes. On these hilly, boggy lands most trade, indeed most movement of people was by sea and a commanding position backed up by a local force of keen fighting men afforded the owner plenty of power and influence.
The Castle stands on a bulge of dark rock at the tip of a peninsula overlooking The Sound of Mull. (The name Duart derives from the Gaelic for Black Rock). It is a beguiling place, dark and brooding in the rain, bright and welcoming in the sun. It is the ancestral seat of the Chief of the Clan MacLean. The fifth Chief gained the land and castle as a kind of dowry in 1356 by marrying Mary MacDonald, daughter of the Lord of the Isles. I say kind of because according to some stories he’d already kidnapped her so the Lord’s options were limited. Anyway the MacLean’s came to dominate Mull as well as a lump of adjacent mainland called Morvern, the Isles of Jura, Coll and Tiree and a few smaller islands that I cannot be arsed to remember. Their power base was always Duart, although it was controlled by their rivals the Campbell’s for a while and occupied by the English after the unpleasantness of Culloden and the Civil War. As their parting gift the English garrison pulled most of it down, leaving just a few walls. In 1900 Sir Fitzroy MacLean, 26th Chief and a professional soldier who managed to miss The Charge of the Light Brigade by remaining in bed with dysentery, purchased the ruins and surrounding land. He was wise enough to employ an architect who used the drawings produced by the occupying English troops to not only restore the castle but carry out modifications to turn it into a family home.
Like any building that’s stood since the 12th Century it has been changed, adapted to different times and uses and had its fair share of battering from the Scottish weather, enemy guns and the whims of successive Chiefs. Today it’s still lived in by the 28th Chief and his wife who have invested a not inconsiderable sum into making it water-tight after years of decaying mortar and water penetration had taken their toll.
Duart is one of only 2 or 3 Clan Chief ancestral seats still owned and lived in by the family. The present castle comprises three buildings, with a curtain wall making up the fourth side. Two buildings are residential and storage used by the family and the third is the Tower or Keep. From its dungeons to battlements it is open to the public and contains various exhibitions and information. I spend 4 days in the castle, either selling tickets or as a guide, conducting guided tours for groups and generally answering questions.
A former cattle byre has been converted into a tea room and shop and that is usually where the visitor will encounter Alison. So far she has done 4 days in the shop and 1 in the tearoom (I cover the shop on her tearoom day, steadily undoing all her good work). Shortly she will be swapping a shop day to join me in the castle on Sundays.
It is all jolly good fun; we get to meet lots of interesting people, answer questions from the thought-provoking to the strange, bizarre and plain awkward, like this encounter I had with an American couple…
“So, why is this pool table so big?” “Actually it’s a billiard table…” “Blank looks” “It’s like snooker…” “Blank looks” “It’s like a very big game of pool…” “Ah, so, it’s the English version of pool…why do you make the tables so big…” “Err…It pre-dates pool, which I imagine was derived from snooker, at least in the form of using cues to strike balls into pockets on a table…” “Really? It seems so big; it must be difficult to play pool on it…” At which point I repeatedly introduced their craniums to Mr. Snooker Cue. Well not really, that’s considered bad for business and makes a mess on the carpet.
In truth it’s the odd and unexpected questions that keep us on our toes. Alison is adept at explaining the different MacLean tartan to MacLean’s who visit from around the world, especially Canada, America and Australia. She is equally adept at selling them various examples in a myriad of forms from keyrings to kilt material. I’m getting to know the history of the castle, the Clan and some of the tales that bring the history alive. The more shocking or gory the better as far as most tourists are concerned, especially the children.
As I mentioned earlier I work in the shop on Fridays. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t retain information if it isn’t hammered in repeatedly for days on end, so one day a week leaves ample time between shifts for anything I might have learned to leak away. This Friday, the morning after the general election and a late and restless night contributed to my incompetence behind the counter.
I made an error on the till with my very first customer, 3 postcards at 50p each and I rang through 3 X £1:50. For a moment I stood transfixed just staring at the till, partly at my accidentally accurate if in-opportune mental arithmetic and partly letting the rusting cogs in my cranium clunk and whir towards a solution. Reasserting self-control and shaking myself from the stupor I smiled warmly at the poor chap waiting for his change, or so I thought; the way he recoiled suggested I might have looked more hysterical than I imagined. Apologising to him I went through a series of adjustments to the till in a vain and increasingly noisy attempt to get the drawer to ping open. I resorted to hitting mysterious buttons marked [SCN], [X] and [DO NOT PRESS] but nothing worked. In the end I rang it through as if 3 postcards of hairy ginger cows cost the princely sum of £4:50, accepted the £2:00 coin that the poor man had held aloft for the last 5 minutes and worked out he needed 50p change. So quite why I gave him three 20pence pieces is beyond me but anyhow he went away rubbing circulation back into an arm that was numb from holding out his £2 coin for so long.
And so the long day continued. Alison was working in the tea room nearby and came to my rescue on more than one occasion. Not that other members of staff wouldn’t but after 18 months of marriage she’s learned to recognise my struggles by the subtle warning signs I display; agitation, weeping, mashing the till keys, throwing things and telling the customer to just F off and take your tartan crap with you….Okay, not the last one and in fairness the customers are nearly always polite and jovial. The last customers of the day cheered me with their Texas drawl and dry, sardonic wit. They were visiting their daughter in Aberdeen who’d just delivered them a brand new baby granddaughter. What was so engaging was the way a portly Texan chap, with a belt buckle the size of a toilet seat on his Levi’s and wearing a moustache that you could hide an otter in just swelled up with pride telling me about the new baby. He stood like a denim lighthouse beaming paternal pride while handing me expensive goods almost at random to ring through the till. Silence descended as my right index finger moved in slow motion towards the till and hovered above like a Hawk scanning for prey. My brain played the Bonanza theme tune as my hand skipped over the keys and rang up a healthy total without apparent error. I smiled and exchanged pleasantries, only marginally spoiling my success when the till drawer sprung open with unnatural force into my groin. I wished them a hearty soprano farewell and slammed the till drawer shut, whereupon it bounced open again with uncanny accuracy.
Alison isn't without her own tussles on a Friday as it is her day in the tearoom. The biggest challenge, apart from responding to my pathetic pleading, is learning the different combinations of water, coffee and milk that combine in exciting steamy ways to create umpteen varieties of what is essentially a very large or very small coffee.
I'd be hopelessly lost of course, especially since every so often some spoilt snowflake raised on organic WiFi and vegan scatter cushions asks for a soy latte slow press Nicaraguan fair trade decaf in a warmed mug and expects a sodding swan drawn on the top too. Alison takes this in her stride, or at least appears to although I was cheered to hear her confess one evening to making a hot chocolate for a customer using a scoop of powder from the jar with the green lid. It was only later that she discovered it was one of two green lidded jars and the other one contained...well actually it contained the hot chocolate, whereas the one she used contained the decaf coffee. As no complaints were forthcoming we assume she's invented some new concoction and soon barista’s up and down the land will be puzzled by requests for a decaf-hot-chocolate al-la- Duart.
On our days off we’ve been exploring and last Wednesday we found ourselves in a narrow glen skirting a series of lochs until, upon a whim we elected to climb up to a distant waterfall. Well, it was worth the climb through boggy grasses, exposed patches of rock and fresh ferns. Alighting on the steep sided gorge cut by centuries of pouring water we peered into a valley of rough stone, bright bracken and tumbling peaty waters. It was all the more spectacular for the effort we’d put in, with no paths and the climb few people had ventured up there. We took our time exploring and just admiring the views. We went down by a gentler route following what appeared, from the size of the regular deposits, to be deer tracks. I’m not sure what we’d have done if we’d stumbled into a nest of the blighters and accidentally trodden on their eggs. Of course I’m assuming deer nest on the ground as we’ve never seen them in the trees but who knows, Mull is a mysterious place.
On a recent day off we took ourselves to the remote settlement of Croggan. It sits at the tip of a peninsula of corrugated land between the sea and Loch Spelve. Its remote feel is partly due to the effort needed to get there. Historically it would have been by boat but nowadays a single track road winds its way sluggishly between hill and sea, passed jutting rocks and over tumbling burns. In places where it hasn’t been patched up rough island grass grows down the centre and passing places are few and far between. This absence of passing places gives rise to occasional passive games of chicken when you come nose to nose with an oncoming car. On most roads here there are plenty of passing points and after a while you learn to time your approach to such a degree that neither party has to slow down significantly. On our journey to Croggan, having already negotiated sheep, cyclists and geese we had to reverse back over a hillock and then further on we had to force some ridiculous tank/4X4 hybrid to reverse for a ¼ of a mile. On this last occasion we took the high ground, literally and figuratively as we rounded a bend to come face to face with them parked up in the middle of the road taking pictures.
After parking overlooking the narrow entrance to the loch we walked on a rough track around the peninsula, carefully avoiding a young Adder slithering across the track in front of us, and onto the secluded sandy beach of Port nan Crullach. It was a hot day and we shared the expanse of warm sand with one other family and some sheep. After a picnic lunch we paddled in warm waters and lazed on the rocks to dry off. Suitably refreshed we set off for our next destination scrambling up a steep incline through thick undergrowth. The remains of the settlements of Barnashoag and Balgamrie sit in a slight hollow alongside a spring fed burn that tumbles off the cliff in a series of waterfalls and onto the beach below. Or usually does; the unusual dry spell meant it was almost dry today, making our assent easier. This must have been a tough place to live; isolated, even by Mull standards, the rudimentary stone crofts comprised around 23 buildings and enclosures that were exposed to vicious winter winds and humid midge infested summers.
These particular settlements were deserted towards the end of the 19th Century, along with many such places in Mull. From the mid-18th Century to the end of the 19th the population on Mull shrunk from around 10,000 people to under 3,000. Indeed the Highlands of Scotland and Western Isles were reduced to one quarter of its population in the same period. Popularly dubbed The Highland Clearances the reasons were more complex than sometimes reported but essentially were the result of greedy out of touch and mostly absentee owners of the land. And I use the word owners in the loosest possible sense. Mostly they were the traditional Clan Chiefs who were keen to move into polite Edinburgh and London society and ‘improve’ themselves. They may have believed that they owned vast areas of Scotland, but they were cash poor, relying on their tenants paying a paltry rent via middlemen, or Tackmen, who collected the rents and essentially ran the settlements and oversaw their Chief’s land.
Then came the sheep. Scrawny local sheep had been a staple of the small holdings but now a hardy Cheviot cross breed that could withstand the harsh winters was introduced and slowly spread in a bleating tide of mutton and lamb. To facilitate maximum return from their herds the landowners drove the tenants out. Initially through the Tackmen, who imposed impossibly high rents, and then by militia, friends and neighbours of the gentry and finally the army. There were revolts but they were largely unorganised. The church ministers, translating for their lords and masters from English into Gaelic, encouraged the populace to move on with threats of eternal damnation, claiming the abundant grasslands of the glens and hills were needed to fulfil God’s plans to graze sheep. The locals were viewed as vulgar, superstitious, idle and incapable of ‘improvement’. The landowners, or their representatives at least, resorted to the burning of crofts and other harsh treatments. According to contemporary accounts it was the women who put up most resistance. For example in one incident at Strathcarron in March 1854 the police force clashed with such ferocity with women blocking their path that their batons were broken on the bonnets of the protesters. There were just 2 men and a couple of children present to support the women. No injuries to their ranks were reported by the police but fatalities and life-changing injuries were widely reported among protesters.
Gradually shooting estates replaced sheep in some regions, vast areas given over to grouse, deer, hare and other game rented out to syndicates of noble gentlemen for their leisure, leading to more clearing of the settlements that still lingered in the glens. Then famine struck. Potatoes were a staple crop in the highlands and islands, a cheap crop that could grow in the poor soil and could survive being buried in pits ready to be dug up in the spring. Potato blight swept through Europe in the 1840’s and decimated Ireland from 1845. In 1846 it crept into the Western Highlands and hit its zenith in 1847.
Grain was still harvested but was sent south to keep English stomachs full, causing riots and the intervention of the army. Highlanders, already driven to the margins, starved. Eventually relief came, some from the mostly absentee landlords but generally through charity relief from the lowlands and England. A lot of this was dependent upon the people being ‘deserving poor’ and local ministers had to vouch for the family’s standing and good character for them to get any help. Work schemes were introduced to provide labour in return for meagre supplies by the more ‘enlightened’ landlords. The biggest form of relief though came in the form of emigration. Highlanders had been emigrating for some time in response to the clearances but now it gathered momentum. People were encouraged, lied to, forced and all but herded onto any old creaking ship that would transport them to Canada, America or Australia. Promises of a utopian better life were made and people crowded into ships with no privacy. Many didn’t survive the voyage as cholera swept through the over-crowed hulls and food and water ran out or was contaminated. Struggling ashore they encountered bleak, harsh conditions and little to sustain them on unfamiliar foreign soil. Many ended up destitute again.
Free were the fields of fern
Free was the fishing in the coves of care
Empty are the homes of old
Empty for the sake of summer's cause
Yes, you're taking it all away
The music, the tongue and the old refrains
You're coming here to play
And you're pulling the roots from a dying age.
Incidentally, a lot of what we think of as highland culture doesn’t come from the Gaelic speaking natives. They might well have worn a practical kilt, coloured according to the supply of local materials to make dye and patterned by local weavers but tartan as we know it today, along with all the impractical adornments like bejewelled dirks (daggers worn on the kilt belt), sashes and ridiculous hats were an invention peddled in no small part by well-heeled gentlemen of dubious Scottish legacy. They formed groups like The Society of True Highlanders and The Celtic Society of Edinburgh in the early 1800’s to peddle a fashionable faux nostalgia for all things Scottish, to celebrate the very heritage that they were eradicating by their greed. President of the Celtic Society was Sir Walter Scott (author of Rob Roy & Ivanho) who managed to get King George IV north of the border, the first foray into Scottish territory by an English monarch for 200 years. It was Scott and his assistant David Stewart who prescribed official tartans for each ‘clan’. This may not have been as cynical as it sounds. Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746 an Act of Parliament was passed which made the wearing of tartan a penal offence. Over time the details of the old patterns were lost and old tartans perished leaving limited evidence for Scott and Stewart to work with, at least for some of the smaller Clans. The fashion for all things ‘Scottish’ was an invention of the ruling landowners and high society who romanticised the Highland life. People carrying the clan surname were mostly not related by blood anyway, their ancestors probably took the name of their Clan Chief because they lived on his land.
Anyway, in spite of its severe and unforgiving history we found Barnashoag and Balgmrie enchanting on a sunny day. It is to the credit of the Scottish that little settlements like these stand as remote testament to the dispossessed. There are no signs, information boards or even paths, just remote ruins on a lonely windswept hilltop looking out to views that few of the villagers would have appreciated in their harsh hand to mouth existence. 
Following animal tracks down the hills we came upon a more complete cottage whose walls were almost intact. It sat next to a burn that tumbled over the rocks in a series of small noisy waterfalls, into a thicket of gorse where a young deer had taken refuge as we approached. Across the stream was a walled animal enclosure and the remnants of old stone walls, one of which we traced downhill to the track and back to our car.
The Cheviot sheep certainly took to life on Mull and are still present in huge numbers just about everywhere you look. On the way into work the other day we were driving along at a sedate pace and rounded a corner to be confronted by a small flock of them in the road, a not uncommon occurrence here. However this bunch proceeded to sprint ahead of us on the road, ignoring the lush grass verges and open fields to either side. Clearly seeing their chums having such fun more joined them from the undergrowth until we were surrounded by galloping woolly ruminants. Alison, glancing in the rear-view mirror squealed “Oh my…I’m about to be overtaken by a sheep…” and sure enough we were. A first for us and it has replaced the Robin Reliant that was Alison’s previous personal best in the ‘being overtaken by…’ competition. In fact I think it might beat my horse and cart entry. We’ll let you be the judge.
Alison is of course a rock of sweet midge bating loveliness as always and has discovered a passion for wandering off-piste over hill and glen in true Scottish fashion. So liberal are the local laws regarding access to land that in most circumstances you can just wander wherever takes your fancy, so much so that even the Ordinance Survey maps don’t show footpaths. In itself that’s rather fabulous but it does mean that on occasion one will scramble up a promising ridge to be confronted by an impenetrable deer proof fence with smug looking sheep on the other side and no option but to retrace your steps or wander further. We can walk for miles without seeing another soul; it’s all quite splendid and makes for exciting escapades.
When not off roaming the hills or at work, we’re very comfortable here in Mavis in our quiet little corner of Mull. We’ve been very lucky so far with the weather. What we particularly appreciate though is the breeze; it keeps the midges away. If Scotland is known for anything that cannot be dressed in tartan and sold to American tourists its midges. We’ve only had a couple of days when the little buggers were around in significant numbers so I guess we should count ourselves lucky. One of those days happened to be when I was alone in a little shed selling entrance tickets to the castle. It was warm, raining lightly and mild so I had the window shut until a family approached who were performing what I think of as ‘the swatting dance’. This involves walking along at a brisk pace waving your arms about your face and every few paces slapping the back of your neck or cheek then back to the arm waving. I think it may be a distant ancestor of Morris dancing. I had no option but to open the window to serve them and thus my afternoon was spent in the company of approximately seven billion insects. I’m fortunate in that they don’t seem to bite me, unlike poor Alison to whom they are understandably attracted. If you keep moving they are fine, but stand still and they go up your nose, in your ears and settle on any exposed skin. In my little hut that afternoon I experienced all this plus the added misery of them sticking to the midge repellent I’d sprayed on. By the time I swapped over with the other guide my face looked like I’d spent the afternoon tattooing it. Mind you my replacement was sporting a kilt so I felt I couldn’t complain, I just gave him a sympathetic look and wandered out looking like a Māori version of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Finally I’m aware this year’s blog isn’t taking the same shape as last years, and that the posts are far less frequent. Apologies for that but work and recreation in the form of discovering this glorious island is our priority while the weather lasts. If I’m honest I’m not feeling the passion for writing that I had last year either. It may be this working full time nonsense (honestly, whose idea was that?) or just that I find myself lacking sufficient vocabulary to do this wonderful place justice. Hopefully the photos accompanying the blog will do the job for me. As the saying goes a picture paints a thousand words....
 In my clumsy attempt to summarise a complex and nuanced situation I’ve glossed over an awful lot of detail and simplified events to a ludicrous degree. I’m indebted to the following books for information:
White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America – Colin Galloway and Highland Clearances – John Prebble.
It is a strange feeling to be working full time again. On the one hand we are doing a 40 hour week as opposed to the 18.5 in our last job but on the other hand we have fixed hours, giving us plenty of time to enjoy all that Mull has to offer. On the third hand we get a clean break from work every night, a somewhat elusive luxury when we lived on site. The weather is spoiling us and we enjoy views of a loch and mountains from our window, or midges permitting, from the garden.
Mull has many attractions of which scenery and wildlife feature heavily. It’s a must visit if you favour diversions of the natural variety; good walking in the hills, historic buildings, ghostly deserted settlements, abundant wildlife and a fascinating history. If your idea of a holiday is whizzy neon, sticky confectionary, STD’s and chips with everything then the chances are that Mull won’t be high on your agenda.
I’ll get around to describing Duart Castle and our work there in a future entry (if I don’t then please remind me). For now though let us dwell briefly on the matter of eagles. Driving home from the castle one evening we paused alongside a campervan to admire a bird floating effortlessly on the breeze. It turned out we got to enjoy a 10 minute display of virtuoso hovering, swooping and general avian aerobatics by a rare Golden Eagle. Our new Dutch friends who owned the camper showed us close ups on their camera, which sported a lens only slightly shorter than the channel tunnel and we all agreed that it was a magical moment. Not just witnessing such a spectacle but being willing and able to pause and enjoy it, to take a break from the routine to experience something special. Later in the week a lone eagle flew over us, lazily beating its massive wings as it drifted across the loch until it was a faint silhouette against a silver sky. Then we spied one sitting on a fence post; then later on a telegraph pole, in flight and a pair soaring above us. Rare my arse!
As well as accommodating Dutch tourists the locals are friendly and welcoming. While I was away in London (see last entry) Alison was fostered out to neighbours who fed her and ensured wine flowed freely. We’ve taken tea with colleagues, supped beer in convivial company at the local (well, local by Mull standards) and been gifted fresh laid eggs. Island life in a remote settlement relies on a strong sense of community and mutual support. We’ve fallen into the local habit of offering a lift to anyone seen walking, which has made journeys infinitely more interesting and adds a frisson of excitement to a routine trip to or from work.
We are based in a hamlet called Lochdon which nestles on the shores of, not altogether unsurprisingly, Loch Don. The loch is a sea loch that all but drains at low tide. At high tide on days when there is no wind the whole estuary becomes a perfect mirror reflecting the surrounding hills. The settlement is quite large by Mull standards, 62 dwellings ranging from crofts and farms to cottages, some modern bungalows and a primary school. At the last count 82 souls made up the community, although only 36 of those are Scottish, closely followed by 33 English, 4 Welsh and a smattering of other nationalities to make up the rest. During the summer many properties become holiday lets, in some cases the owners move into alternative accommodation on the same site, spending the summer in static caravans in their own back gardens. Lochdon is divided into three parts; the main settlement spread along the single track main road to Fionnport and the ferry to Iona, with crofts set back against the hills, the ‘posh’ bit beyond the old hamlet where modern bungalows nestle between woods and the loch and ‘the crescent’ where we are, a broad pick and mix sweep of renovated crofts, bungalows and more modern houses bordering the waters on the track to the farmstead at Gorton.
It’s an ideal base for us, a 10 minute drive to work, 10 into Craignure where the delights of a charity shop, inn, a couple of bars and cafes and a Spar shop greet the ferry from the mainland and we have some great walks from our doorstep. One of these we tried last Wednesday when, taking advantage of the collision of sunshine with a day off we took to the hills behind us. With hindsight tackling a climb of 550 metres after a winter of comparative inactivity wasn’t the best idea but the views were worth it. The route followed a track to a cluster of masts perched near the summit. The gravel path wound unrelentingly upwards, zig zagging steeply. At one point I believe the brave souls who built it thought to themselves something along the lines of “bugger this backwards and forwards malarkey let’s just go up…” And so they did. Around an innocuous looking corner we hit a formidable straight stretch that rose steeply and unrelentingly upward without pause, sapping our resilience and breath in equal measure. We paused at the top of this section (in truth we paused many times on the way up) and stood admiring the view while our panting subsided and our breathing returned to something approaching normal. Rested we set forth up a further series of switchbacks that brought us to a small cairn hiding behind a compound containing masts and various important looking but completely unguarded satellite dishes, aerials and generators.
From our lofty vantage point we could see Oban on the mainland, the double span Conner Bridge and panning left, mountains too numerous and hard to spell to mention until the mighty snow-capped Ben Nevis over 35 miles away which marks the top of Loch Linnhe near Fort William and the start of the Great Glen that follows the fault line through Loch Ness and up to Inverness on the East Coast. Below us Lochdon twinkled, we could see where Mavis was parked and Craignure lay hidden below Scallastle forest. Out in The Sound of Mull ferries crossed on their constant duty to keep Mull and the more distant isles of Coll and Tiree connected to the mainland. Unperturbed by our aching limbs and developing blisters (or just too stupid to know better) we set off up a gentler track to a further mast sitting in a gap below the peak of Mainnir nam Fiadh. From this point we wandered out over the hill to look down on Loch Spelve, a banana shaped loch fed by a narrow channel to the sea, and out over the Firth of Lorn as far as the island of Jura.
Arresting as the views were the air was decidedly fresher up high and we faced the daunting prospect of slip-sliding our way down the gravel track we’d walked up on. The rest of the afternoon was spent carefully picking our way down, keeping to the grass where we could. We eventually rounded the final switchback and dropped into a small glen hosting a babbling brook and small farm. We climbed up out of the glen accompanied by much moaning and groaning and then faced a panorama every bit as stunning as the views from the top; Duart Castle in the distance perfectly framed by ancient sun lit oaks. It made us appreciate our good fortune at being here on this bewitching island; at least until we started walking again to the now familiar accompaniment of creaking, grunting and the occasional hearty swear.
That was over a week ago and we’ve finally stopped aching. Since then we’ve enjoyed a further two days off in sunshine, including a provisions run to the mainland, some magical walks and explorations of the sights around us. We’ve seen buzzards, eagles, mink, red deer, all manner of small birds and waders, rock pools full of tadpoles and a newt. So far the supposedly abundant dolphins, whales and basking sharks have eluded us. I did see a flying fish, but that was only because Alison threw a peppered mackerel at me. We’ve found a deserted sandy beach, explored ruined castles, a stone circle and visited a remote shop that relies solely on an honesty box. It is an enchanting place and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
However in all the excitement of new jobs and a new home on an island it’s occurred to us that the blog entries haven’t been flowing. After our carefree existence last year when we recorded our travels as we went along our time on Mull is a different affair. We are settling into a rhythm of working and the necessary domesticity that comes with it. When we have the opportunity after work we’re exploring the area local to us and further afield when we are off. All of which is a rather limp explanation for my lack of blogging. We’ve been experiencing an uncharacteristic dry sunny spell here and the weather will undoubtedly make up for this with a vengeance; and when it does I’m sure I’ll find more time to write. In the meantime we’ll leave you with some pictures that we hope go some way to illustrate just how enchanting Mull is.
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.
When I was about 14 I was afforded a position of rare responsibility at school. Together with my friend Julian we carefully fostered the impression that literature held an interest for us so that we could gain accreditation as library monitors. In truth Julian had discovered some saucy text in a book and was eager to find more and I wanted clandestine access to the school Xerox machine to print a fanzine I was involved in putting together.
After a serious talk from Mr Leonard about the importance of our role and the mighty responsibility upon our tender young shoulders we were largely left to our own devices. Pretty soon my hands were stained blue-black from my surreptitious printing and Julian’s were rubbed raw. After a while it dawned on us that we should probably do a little light librarianing from time to time if we wanted to retain our positions. And as Julian had just discovered the D H Lawrence section he was eager to continue and I was getting a growing reputation for my nifty way with a cumbersome Xerox machine.
The problem with our escapade was that neither of us had paid any attention to Mr Leonard’s induction. We had a vague idea that cataloguing was involved but until now we’d contented ourselves with just sticking the returned books back where there was a space. The delights of Dewey or Universal Decimal Classification were unknown to us. The Library of Congress system was a mystery and the Colon classification was probably something bored proctologists indulged in. I don’t recall the detail now but one day while sorting some returns onto a shelf we chanced upon our own system that was aesthetically pleasing, simple and absolutely unique. This would put Leiston High School on the map. In our minds eyes we saw the headlines in The East Anglian Daily Times hailing two local schoolboy heroes. On my way home that evening I was rehearsing my first radio interview and wondering what to wear when the TV crews came calling.
The following day we set about our plan, spending as much time as possible avoiding lessons and keeping 3rd years out while we rearranged the books to our satisfaction. Sometime around mid-afternoon we stood back, arms folded and admired our handy work. Julian disappeared to the lavatory with a copy of Cider with Rosie to celebrate while I made some small adjustments and tweaked the odd spine into its exact place.
With the passage of time I’m unsure if we summoned Mr Leonard or if he just appeared but I do distinctly remember being rather hurt at his reaction to the school library being rearranged into colours and then height. We thought it provided a much more appealing vista as you entered and cheered the gloomy place up no end. Indeed I’d go so far as to say it was a vast improvement upon the former higgledy piggledy mismatched chaos he’d left behind that morning.
He wasn’t angry exactly. It was more an uneasy calm that comes somewhere on the icy plains beyond mere anger. He stood gaping and trying to start a sentence without success…”but…” (silence) “I mean why would…” (slow shaking of head) “how would you find…” (silence) “why…why…” (claps hand to forehead) “I thought you understood…” (flapping of arms) “I don’t know what…” (silence) “Why would you do…” then, turning first to me then to Julian he whispered “What were you thinking…why would someone do this?”
I learnt a valuable lesson that day about rhetorical questions. With hindsight I probably shouldn’t have launched into such an enthusiastic explanation of our system; one that gradually withered under his gaze until I stood silently looking at my grubby shoes. Our punishment was to put everything back, which given that we had to use a cumbersome system that involved reading faded numbers on the spines and occasionally looking through microfilm records to cross reference volumes took a lot longer than we had spent on our reorganisation. We felt it was unwise to point this out to Mr Leonard on one of his frequent visits to check on our progress, even though to this day I maintain ours was the superior system.
All of which may explain my absolute joy on discovering Craignure’s lone charity shop has an entire bookcase of second hand books arranged by colour. I bounded up to it overcome with rapturous delight. “Behold” I exclaimed turning to face Alison with a sweeping gesture towards the magnificent display. Considering that Alison has just spent an entire winter re-cataloguing a theological library she controlled her enthusiasm with commendable fortitude and walked away shaking her head.
I did note that their neatly coloured book shelves were a bit untidy but I can just imagine their delight when I pop in every day to tutor them on the correct application of the system.
Mull, we need each other!
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)
What do darts champion Eric Bristow, Dave Hill, vocalist with heavy metal legends Demon, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement William Morris and James Ford, one half of electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco and producer of artists including Artic Monkeys and Florence & the Machine have in common?
Well, they all live in or have close ties to Leek in Staffordshire. Of course a chubby bloke who throws pointy things and thinks victims of child abuse are not ‘proper men’, a couple of musicians barely known outside of their front door and a revolutionary socialist designer of flowery wallpaper hardly make Leek the epicentre of culture, but it’s something. Morris visited in 1875 and stayed on and off for three years with his friend Thomas Wardle, a silk dyer who operated the Hencroft Works in Leek. Labouring together they improved organic dyeing techniques for textiles, the racy pair of scallywags. Importantly though, Morris had his eyes opened to the conditions the mill workers had to endure and his time in Leek influenced his left leaning politics, although paradoxically his designs found patronage among the middle and upper class or as he as he put it "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich".
Before Morris swaggered into town Leek had already played its part in revolutionary politics. During the civil war it was staunchly Parliamentarian, driving those pesky Royalists away and the local garrison played its part in the fall of Stafford. Later, in 1842, Josiah Henry, a 19 year old shoemaker from the town was shot through the head and killed by troops at nearby Burslem. Josiah had been among a ‘mob’ of Chartists, marching and generally rioting in protest against their poor working conditions and the corrupt political system of the day. Stoke and the potteries were among a number of poor industrial areas where the Chartist movement took root. Their demands were not unreasonable by today’s standards:
As you can see we meet or exceed all bar the last one nowadays and I for one am happy to avoid the administrative burden and expense of annual elections. Poor Josiah was, at just 19, a widower with 3 young children when he was felled protesting against corruption and injustice. Not much else seems to be known about his circumstances but the silk mills, which by the end of the 18th century employed around 2,000 people in the town and a further 1,000 in the wider neighbourhood were notoriously grim to work in. Significant portions of the workforce were children, often from local workhouses. High numbers of orphans meant local authorities were only too willing to place the children in the care of the mills to save them the expense of raising them. In the mill they would begin work aged around nine in return for food, lodgings and if they were lucky one hour of schooling a week. The hours were long and the work unpleasant and at times downright dangerous. The Macclesfield Courier printed this in May 1823, “A little girl about seven years of age was caught by her clothes and drawn between an upright shaft in the engine room and a wall…..life was extinct”. It’s just one of many such entries in the local press of the time.
As if the hours weren’t punishing and the conditions weren’t hellish enough, the children were controlled by brutish stewards or ‘overlookers’. On 23rd November 1833 The Macclesfield Courier reported on the death of 11 year-old Sarah Stubbs, who worked as a ‘piecer’ in a Macclesfield mill, the inquest revealing that she was repeatedly beaten for not tying broken silk threads at the required rate. The work of children was sanctioned by law. The Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 set the minimum working age at 9 and maximum working hours at 12 and later the Ten Hours Bill of 1847 limited working hours to 10 for children and women. Ironically in the early 1800’s the silk mills were considered relatively benign places for children to work, to the extent that they were exempted from the child labour laws for a time. Looking back on it now the children working in the coal and lead mines were worse off but when we’re talking about 10 year olds it’s all relative.
It’s worth pausing here to note that the appalling working conditions children had to suffer in this country up to the 20th century are still endured by children around the world today. According to The International Labour Organisation the global number has declined by one third since 2000 but there are still 168 million in child labour with 85 million of those in hazardous work. Article 32 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child states: “Governments must protect children from economic exploitation and work that is dangerous or might harm their health, development or education”.
I fear though that the UN article may just be a nicely worded piece of spineless liberal guilt. Case in point; as well as the 45 Articles there are 3 additional protocols that are optional; governments that ratify the Convention can decide whether or not to sign up to them. The protocols are: the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, the involvement of children in armed conflict and a complaints mechanism for children.
Just to be clear then, it is 2017 and selling children, involving them in prostitution and pornography and sending them to war is optional. FFS!
Back in the 1800’s a Parliamentary enquiry eventually uncovered and publicised some of the unsavoury conditions which did lead to improvements. Nevertheless children were still employed until the Education Act of 1880 introduced compulsory schooling up to the age of 10 and child labour began to dwindle. Subsequent amendments raised the school-leaving age to 12, with dispensations to leave before this age if pupils reached the required standards in reading, writing and arithmetic. By the end of Victoria's reign, almost all children were in school up to the age of 12. I’ll give the last words about it to 10 year old Samuel Downe, giving evidence to a parliamentary enquiry in 1832.
‘We used to generally begin at five o ’clock in the morning till eight at night’. When asked had he received punishment he replied ‘yes, I was strapped most severely till I could not bear to sit upon a chair without pillows, and I was forced to lie upon my face at night. I was put upon a man’s back and then strapped by the overlooker’. When asked why he was punished he replied… ‘I had never been in a mill where there was machinery, and it was winter time, and we worked by gaslight, and I could not catch the revolutions of the machinery to take the tow out of the hackles; it requires some practice and I was timid at it.’
One thing the mill owners did do towards the turn of the century was build housing for the workers and their families. Thus by 1878 Livingstone Street in Leek was on the map, typically industrial red brick housing of 123 mostly terraced abodes, each with a small yard complete with privy backing onto a cobbled alley. The cobbled alleys are still there, as they are all over Leek, glorious in their evocation of a bygone age. But lest we sentimentalise too much, today Livingstone Street has mains drainage, indoor plumbing, central heating and refuge collection. We have now made one of these former workers houses our home, extended sometime in the intervening years to incorporate a bathroom and a nice kitchen with gas at the flick of a switch rather than us having to fetch coal in for the range.
I’m under no illusions about coal fires and range cooking. We had coal fires when my parents moved us to Suffolk. Bewitching as the crackling flames and flickering glow was the fire needed careful nurturing all evening and only heated a semicircle of our living room to a radius of about 3 feet; anything inside the heating zone would steam and wither while anything outside froze. I spent many a winter evening on the threshold of the magical sector slowly revolving like a chicken on a rotisserie. Every 15 minutes or so a plume of acrid smoke would puff back into the room where it joined the fug from my father’s cigars to make my eyes sting and add another layer to the brown patina of the ceiling. On a bad night I’d bend double and cough up my dinner while my hair singed and my bottom turned to ice. In between these smoky interludes I kept busy trying to avoid the red hot embers the fire would occasionally spit out. These tiny volcanic bombs would burn on contact with flesh, burrow a smoky trail through clothes and occasionally ignite the dog. My school blazer looked like it belonged to a clumsy chain smoker who lacked opposable thumbs. Garments dried on the old wooden clothes horse in front of the fire would crisp and stiffen up like board. I once made my freshly dried trousers stand up by themselves and then balanced a shirt on top to create a freestanding dummy fresh from the clothes horse. Well, it was a long winter and there wasn’t much else to do.
We had one radiator in the house, essentially an overflow for the coal fired back boiler in the range. It was in my bedroom and worked a treat, so long as you didn’t mind acrid desert conditions all summer and artic winters. If I turned it off in the summer the whole system would rumble ominously and steam would escape from mysterious valves in the bathroom. If I turned it on in winter my room just got colder. The whole system was a mystery to my parents and, it turned out, to the local plumber too. I woke up one morning to a fountain of scalding water arching across the room onto my bed. The plumber turned lots of valves and taps that had no noticeable effect, hit pipes with a hammer and generally walked about the place looking bemused. Eventually he repaired the radiator with some sort of putty and what looked suspiciously like a used bandage and I was advised to move my bed further away.
My mother used the coal fired range for cooking, which meant it cooked with the power of a match under a cauldron or with the heat of a medium sized star. Added to this was her charming belief that the food would be ready when she was, in spite of the wildly fluctuating temperature of the oven and her aptitude for getting distracted. Remarkably dinner was always ready at 5.45pm. If, that is, we accept the premise that ‘ready’ means it’ll be served up in whatever state it happens to occupy at 5.45pm while on its haphazard journey from rare to carbonized.
So, we’ve decided against open fires. In other respects we have a mission over the coming months to undo some of the more flamboyant DIY a previous owner has attempted and to do a little light decorating here and there. But it’s a great place to live, cosy and homely and the toilet is inside.
Sitting on major trans-Peak roadways Leek has long been a transport hub. The major roads had lucrative turnpikes and it was connected to the canal system as a branch of the Caldon Canal, which closed in the 1940s. The railway lasted until the 1960s when Dr. Beechings got his grubby hands on it. A street down from us now houses the bus station and an ugly parade of 1960s shops well past their prime, built on the site of the old cattle market. Just along the road things improve dramatically however. At the foot of the High Street is the Nicholson War Memorial. Built in 1925 and clad in pale Portland stone it stands an impressive 90 feet high with a large clock face on each of its four aspects. Over the road from the memorial the high street crowns the hill Leek sits upon, with an ancient market square at its apex. Granted a charter to hold a market on Wednesdays during the reign of King John at the beginning of the 13th century the market is still a regular local fixture. The High Street came second in the Telegraph's High Street of the Year in 2013, losing out to Deal in Kent. I’m not sure it would do so well now, it’s not gentrified like Southwold or touristy like nearby Buxton, but its charms are still there in the details; original wooden hitching posts along the street, the cobbled market square, independent shops and cafes, a surfeit of busy pubs and echoes of the arts and crafts movement heralded by William Morris. Look up as you walk along the high street and there are fine stained glass windows in unexpected places, examples of elaborate plasterwork above anonymous shops and little architectural gems down narrow alleys and side streets.
Just past the market place there is a large civic park that drops away dramatically from the sombre St. Edward the Confessor church into a narrow gully and rises again through woodland to less formal lawns, a bandstand and tennis courts. It’s most comely in its sprawling semi-formal way, a nice contrast to the rugged moorlands that lay beyond. From the high points you can see the chimneys and spires of Leek over the trees. Although it’s on a hill Leek appears to sit in a bowl surrounded by the higher Staffordshire Moorlands and Peak District to the North and gentler hills to the South and West. Eastwards lay the heights of Mow Cop, which you can read about in our entry from 7th June 2016 if you feel so inclined. It’s an interesting place in an industrial heritage kind of way. It’s no Florence of the Midlands but architecturally it does wear its manufacturing past well. Some streets close to us are still cobbled, abandoned silk mills pop up around street corners, some converted into offices and warehouses, some apartments and others sit abandoned and derelict, casting sinister shadows over the surrounding houses. These are ripe for re-development; when we were looking for a place to buy we were shown round an apartment for sale inside the converted Waterloo Mill and it was stunning with high windows and great views. It was gratifying to see the building preserved and repurposed.
On a drab wet Tuesday recently we walked to the Sainsbury’s store on the edge of town. It is down the hill from the town centre, on the banks of the River Churnet and next door to Brindley Water Mill, an 18th century corn mill that’s still in working order. Standing in the drizzle on open ground between these two contrasting buildings we could see the open moorlands curving around us capped in fresh snow, the line between grass and snow almost ruler straight. Before the hills lay lush green pastures topped with barren winter woodland and stone farm buildings on level ground hewn out of the tumbling countryside. It reminded us that for all the necessity of convenience foods and toilet roll what we really needed was to get out into that open moorland with a backpack, map and trousers with too many pockets in. But, we both silently concluded, when it’s a bit warmer. Walking back we diverted by the back streets, rows of terraced homes like ours which revealed another of Leeks charms; small out of town shops and businesses. This was a real revelation. Nearly every residential street has a corner shop of some variety. Some are convenience stores, some chip shops, others bakers, sandwich shops and more than any other, hairdressers. Maybe it’s the windy conditions that force the population to get their hair done so regularly. I counted 36 different hairdressers on one website and that doesn’t mention a few that we’ve passed on our explorations. In keeping with hairdressers everywhere they excel in crappy pun names. Our favourite thus far is “Curl Up And Dye”.
I just love the idea that small, almost micro businesses are so prolific in a town with at least 6 main supermarkets in or around it. Worth a mention here is our local Oatcake shop. For those unfamiliar with the culinary phenomenon that is the Staffordshire Oatcake it’s a savoury pancake cooked on a griddle and made with oatmeal, flour and yeast. They can have a variety of savoury fillings (sweet fillings are also available but frowned upon by locals) and once were sold direct from house windows to passing customers. They are not to be confused with the Scottish biscuit like oatcake, which is an entirely different affair. Incidentally The Oatcake is also the name of a Stoke City FC fanzine; such is its cultural importance to the area and Stoke was home to the last house selling Oatcakes direct to the public. It closed in 2012.
I think the thing that most endears Leek to us is that it is an honest town, its people unpretentious and friendly. The first time we were called ‘duck’ I crouched in anticipation of falling masonry. Then it became quaint, a linguistic anachronism. Now it’s normal; we miss it if a shop assistant doesn’t greet us like long lost friends while she scans our groceries and bids us farewell with a hearty “ta-ra duck”. The town seems proud of its heritage but wise enough to know it came at a cost. The landscape has been shaped and bent around the silk industry but the scars don’t so much disfigure the town as lend it character and depth. After all where else could you wander passed an Oatcake shop on a cobbled street on your way to Waitrose?
Footnote. I’ve used a variety of sources for my research that is not referenced in the text for ease of reading. This is a blog and not an academic work after all. Nevertheless my sources include:
Welcome back. This is the first in occasional entries while we are off the road. Today is exactly one year since our first proper blog entry; a picture and brief note that we’d started packing (2 March 2017). I miss writing even if it’s a blessed relief to everyone else. So picking up where we left off, we are working at Shallowford in a variety of positions that, for the sake of convenience we’ll place under the umbrella title of hospitality. The work’s good, varied and at times stretches us in good ways. Despite that there is a distinct feeling that we are marking time. We get to spend a night or two a week at our house in Leek, which we love and want to spend more time in. It’s riddled with odd jobs that need doing to turn it from a house into our home but progress is gradual. Plus, because we are spending our time there doing those jobs we are not taking advantage of the glorious countryside around us.
Which probably sounds ungrateful but it isn’t intended to be; it’s just that deep down our hearts are on the road and in the hills. To that end we’ve taxed and insured Mavis and are negotiating plans for the summer. There’s nothing definite yet and we feel like we are on a mountain, gradually eliminating options as we focus and close in on the summit. Some we reject out of practicality, some with regret and there are occasional slips and pauses to find new routes but the momentum is ever upwards. And that, you will be relieved to know, is the end of that clumsy extended metaphor. Let us now venture into our surroundings.
I’ll get to Leek in the fullness of time, but as we’ve spent most of our time in Shallowford let us introduce you to our nearest settlement of any note. Stone is a modest place that despite being the 2nd town in the borough of Stafford (after Stafford) is so unassuming the chances are that you haven’t even heard of it. There are probably residents of Stone who are uncertain where it is. Even its name means nothing sexier than ‘a stone’. Local legend suggests it is named for a pile of stones that marked the graves of princes Ruffin and Wulfad, allegedly killed by their father King Wulfhere of Mercia in AD 665 because of their conversion to Christianity. This is apparently most unlikely, not least because Wulfhere was in fact a Christian himself by then. Nevertheless Ruffin and Wulfad were canonised, although only St. Wulfad gets to be commemorated by sharing in the name of the imposing C18th church of St Michael and St Wulfad. Quite what St Ruffin did to be left out I don’t know but the pair are still remembered by the pilgrims who walk the Two Saints Way that runs from Chester to Lichfield via Stone, and who bring stones to place in a basket by a church window that commemorates the saints. Stones to Stone is like coals to Newcastle without the practicality of use as a handy fuel.
The pilgrim’s way is one of several routes that make Stone if not appealing then at least necessary. It has a railway station and was once a mayor coaching town. Nowadays it sits on the busy A34 and A51 and is a couple of miles from the M6. Its position on the banks of the River Trent means it has been a stopping point for cargo-carrying vessels since Roman times and it held an important position point on the Trent and Mersey Canal, the motorway of its day and was essential in ferrying pottery safely from the nearby pottery towns around Stoke on Trent.
The canal still boasts the 1772 Grade II listed Star Lock in the centre of town. It stood for about 24 hours before having to be rebuilt because a cannon fired in celebration of its completion struck the new lock, all but destroying it. Of all the directions to aim a machine built expressly to destroy property and people, someone chose to point it towards their nice new lock on which the paint had barely dried. Honestly, someone had one job to do…
Nowadays the canal is for leisure, with a big boat yard on the town side of the lock, which is mercifully free of artillery bombardment and which supports a rather nice public house, ideal repast after a pleasant tow path ramble. Drinkers today are blissfully unaware that the building was once a slaughter house. Before we leave talk of canals…we had a group stay at work from the Canal Ministries. Wonderful people who minister to the canal boat community. They were lovely and do some great work, but someone should tell them that they shouldn’t brand their polo shirts on the left breast with Canal Ministry, because the C is hidden on the more buxom members.
Stone town centre is divided into three distinct parts. The main thoroughfare is pedestrianised but has a pervading sense of hanging on. The large CoOp is destined to close soon and it has more than its fair share of charity shops. There are restaurants and shops hiding in narrow alleys radiating from the High Street and a few independent shops and cafes but they all seem to close early, leaving the ubiquitous Costa to mop up business. Below the main street is a cluster of brightly lit takeaways punctuated by the sort of shops that cannot afford a position on the main High Street; a fireplace shop, hairdressers and specialist injury lawyers (or parasitic ambulance chasing evil bastards in the common parlance). The other end of the high street, across another busy road is a neat triangle of shops and businesses that appear more prosperous; a Weatherspoon’s in the old post office, a fancy tea shop, an outdoor clothing and camping specialist and a few hairdressers of the boutique variety. Within easy walking distance of the High Street a large brash Morrisons casts a malevolent yellow shadow over the town, sucking the life from the independent businesses. It’s not that I object to Morrisons, or indeed supermarkets in general (that would be hypocritical considering how often I seem to visit them) but a town the size of Stone cannot support its local businesses when most of the trade goes over the road to the supermarket.
On the road we take into Stone there stands a sad little parade, a pub that’s trying a tad too hard to attract custom, a OneStop shop that sells everything that the nearby CoOp sells, only for more money and later into the evening, a brash Shell garage and, sat a little way back like a shy aunt at a wedding, the glorious shrine to cholesterol that is The Walton Fish Bar. We called in one day and, affecting the kind of saunter only a southern dandy like me could pull off I casually leaned on the Formica counter and beckoned a bosomy vision in nylon over and requested two of her finest fresh fried cod and one large portion of chips to share. She held us in her gaze appraisingly, presumably decided we were clearly a long way from home and needed help. “I think you’ll just need a small chips duck” she replied and scurried off to cook them. We then passed a merry half hour helping her remember the name of a song that went “hey hey…” Our meal eventually arrived and, turning to leave I ventured…”was it Hey-Ya by Outkast?” Well, I was hailed a hero and practically borne aloft out of the building. We got home to find the most enormous portion of chips known to mankind which burst forth from a bag made soggy by grease. The portion sizes up here are a thing to behold, full size sponge cakes cut into four, sandwiches with the cheese filling thicker than the two doorstep slices around it and even the Indian restaurant has a whole section dedicated to extra-large portions.
Apart from mammoth meals the town has the distinction of having a parliamentary constituency named after it twice, once between 1918 and 1950 and then again from 1997 to the present day. The incumbent MP nowadays is the Eurosceptic Conservative Bill Cash. Of note is his falling out with his journalist son William, played out in the pages of The Telegraph and Spectator. Young William, the little scamp, joined UKIP as its Heritage Spokesman, much to daddy’s irritation. As if that didn’t prove William is a prize knob then consider that he set up Spear’s magazine. If you don’t know Spear’s, and as you are reading this then I’ll assume that you don’t, it is a “wealth management and luxury lifestyle media brand, whose flagship magazine has become a must-read for the ultra-high-net- worth community”. According to their website their readership is made up of people with average assets of £5 million+. I’ll wager they don’t carry handy hints on stretching out the family budget until pay day in the magazine.
Aside from super-rich Tories Stone has given birth to some notable sons and daughters. Among them is Eva Morris whose claim to fame was living to 114, several sports stars including footballers Stan Collymore and Anthony Gardner and the inventor of Hovis, Richard "Stoney" Smith who invented the wheatgerm infused bread in Stone. It’ll be familiar to those of us of a certain age from the iconic advert featuring a baker’s delivery boy on his bicycle negotiating a cobbled hill. For all its Midlands appeal, it was invented at Stone Mill and made in Macclesfield, the advert was filmed in Shaftsbury in Dorset and incidentally was directed by Ridley Scot, who went on to make his name with the Alien franchise.
On the outskirts of Stone are common grounds known locally as Mudly Pits where in 1745/46 the Duke of Cumberland set up a winter camp for his men, sheltering them from the freezing moorlands and peaks. They were on a mission to intercept the Jacobite’s’ advancing on Derby. In the end the rebels turned back without the Dukes intervention because of the onset of winter. You can read more about the Jacobite rebellion in our entry of 20 May 2016.
Now we have been reassured that we can navigate Stone without cannon fire or bumping into royalist forces it has become our go-to place for a pleasant stroll along the canal or a saunter along the High Street in search of bargains. It is a middle of the road town in the middle of the country that isn’t chic and has no real tourist appeal. It is home to stolid people who have seen its fortunes wax and wane as their local economy wrestles with changing industry and technology. In many ways Stone represents the underdog, the backbone of the country where people’s livelihoods have always been for hire and seldom guaranteed. It is clearly trying hard as a community to cope and to find its place in the post-industrial C21st and the signs are that its fortunes are slowly looking up. There are new, prosperous looking homes being built, the High Street is freshly paved, the tow path and lock are getting a makeover, new restaurants and wine bars are trying their luck and there’s a feeling that spring is just around the corner.
Over in Leek we have just finished sorting out furniture and we had a washing machine delivered on the 2nd attempt. On the first attempt the driver opened the van, scratched his head and eventually apologised because he’d forgotten to load the washing machine in. Honestly, someone had one job to do… It finally arrived the following morning which gave me an opportunity to swagger around looking faintly butch with a tool kit, although the effect was rather undermined when I used a toilet roll tube as part of my plumbing-in (don’t ask). That aside we’ve adopted a splendid pub as our local and been on a brief expedition exploring walks around our area, including an exciting walk/slide down an almost vertical (at least to us southern softies) hill. Alison blamed her new walking boots, honestly, they had one job to do…
 I.e. When I can be bothered.
Well, here we are. We have a roof over our heads and jobs. I’ve been having altogether too much fun on a mini tractor and Alison’s in nerd heaven merging three book collections into one library. These are just a couple of our myriad duties, from cooking for guests to serving them in the bar, picking up leaves to cleaning rooms, helping run a craft day to building a bonfire. Speaking of bonfires I absolutely love that particular responsibility. Standing in the crisp autumn air nursing the embers into life is an absolute joy. A gentle manly pursuit, the love of which I think I’ve inherited from my father. He looked at his most relaxed trundling a wheelbarrow full of brown leaves towards incineration on a smouldering heap that he’d prod, poke and fork to keep going. If he wasn’t feeding it he’d be leaning on his fork staring at the flames, lost in his own smoky world.
Once a year we’d have a visit from my dad’s childhood friend Stan and his wife Margery. Stan was an enigmatic man of few words and fewer opportunities to incinerate garden waste because they lived in a place where bonfires were not allowed; torture to a man like him. Thus while Margery was ensconced inside chatting to my mother Stan would be given sole responsibility for the bonfire while my father and I scurried around desperately trying to find more debris to feed his passion. He’d hover over the fire with a proprietorial air, like Beelzebub in tweed. Keeping it smouldering all weekend was a duty he took remarkably seriously. One weekend I returned very late and slightly drunk from a party, the sun was creeping up when I came face to face with Stan on the garden path, in his dressing gown and holding the garden fork. He calmly removed his pipe, greeted me with a grave “err…good morning Raymond…just been tending to the fire”, tapped out his pipe on the heel of his slippers and held the door open for me. It was never mentioned again but I think from then on we had a silent understanding of each other’s indiscretions.
Talking of early mornings I started composing this entry at around 02.45 am. I had to do something to calm myself as 15 minutes earlier we’d been startled out of our slumbers by the most unholy screeching and growling imaginable. I sat bolt upright and let loose a guttural howl along the lines of “ArrrrurggwhatthefuckisthatwhereamIwheresthelightstopthatunholyracketugg…” until Alison put the light on. Curiously the cats were spooked but having confirmed that they were inside we then heard the cat flap clunk shut. Various theories on our nocturnal visitor were proffered, including a fox, badger or leprechaun. It turned out to be a neighbour’s cat who I caught fleeing the scene of the crime again the following evening. Frankly I’m rather disappointed that our two cats didn’t deal more decisively with an interloper who wears a pink collar with a bell on it. Especially Mojo, who has discovered the delights of hunting small mammals; we are getting at least a couple of furry presents a day of the squeaky rodent variety. Walking to the bathroom in the dead of night, an all too frequent outing for a gentleman of my age, now has the additional hazard of stepping on a bag of squelchy fur cooling on the carpet.
That aside it’s wonderful having the cats for company and we have a lovely comfy home with our own furniture, familiar pictures on the walls and those odds and ends that make a house a home. It is taking a while to settle though and I think that’s due to a combination of factors. The job doesn’t follow a set routine and of course there is a lot to learn in a new position. Plus we’ve really taken to life on the road. One of the biggest challenges is adapting to not living ‘in the moment’ in the way we have been used to. Our easy going summer in Mavis really taught us both the value of being alive to the possibilities of the day, to allow ourselves to be spontaneous and relax into whatever we chose to do.
Way back in March we swapped our computer’s screensaver of a sunset for over 200 real ones. We traded our suburban semi for a motorised box on wheels and pointed it at whatever took our fancy. We’ve seen sights we never expected to see, met wonderful people, worked at some amazing festivals and had unforgettable experiences; we’ve played kazoo’s with a biker gang, hidden shopping bags for pop stars, minded houses and pets, noticed the seasons changing, seen abundant wildlife, watched the sun rise and set from the east, south, north and west of the country, felt the peace of total silence under the stars, walked over hills, up mountains and down dales, covered 10,093 miles in Mavis and generally had a blast. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary on the road, a year that we have spent over half of travelling and living in a space smaller than most bathrooms, cooking on two gas rings, sleeping with our noses a few inches from the ceiling and rarely had hot running water. We’ve opened our front door to over 60 different views, from Devon to The Isle of Skye; and we have laughed every single day.
Our trip may have been conceived as an opportunity to see the country, meet people and find somewhere to put down fresh roots but it has also been a personal journey for both of us. We’ve discovered things about ourselves and about each other that will bind us forever. At times it has been a spiritual journey, an opportunity to reflect and consider; my relationship with my late father, whose presence has been a not unwelcome companion during the journey, Alison’s son moving on in his life, watching him mature as he has grappled with life’s complexities and settled into a new phase. From our insulated little motorhome we’ve witnessed momentous decisions, Brexit and the American presidential race for example, and debated these and many more topics with friends old and new the length and breadth of the country, and we’ve wrestled with matters of faith and social justice. It’s tempting to conclude that we are a remarkably foolish species who seem able to complicate our lives to such a degree that the colour of our skin, our private beliefs or where we happen to have been born seem to matter more to some people than love, compassion and mutual respect. We acquire possessions, trinkets and fripperies by the dozen, line the walls of our houses with tat and then watch children starve on our 42” Plasma TV’s while we sup on wine and graze on snacks to keep us going until the pizza is delivered. But we’ve been inspired on our journey by people who live on the fringes of society as well as those firmly embedded in it who stand shoulder to shoulder against prejudice and injustice. There are many people who don’t accept the status quo, people who are fighting for justice and lasting change. From the pulpit to the punk concert there is a groundswell of hope.
On our travels we have been given the opportunity to enjoy the simple things in life, things that we often overlooked in our former 9-5 existence; spectacular views, muscles burning after a long climb, a red kite soaring above, a mountain reflected in a still pond, a crisp morning, the kiss of the warm sun, silence, the seasons changing, simple food, love and friendship. The companionship and support from people who have opened their lives to us, who gave us advice, shelter, offered us hospitality, shared our passion and worked alongside us. Friends and family who have contributed to our experiences in ways they may or may not be aware of to give us the courage to start living our dreams.
And now we’ve almost completed the purchase of a house in a pretty town on the edge of The Peak District and we have jobs for the winter. Our plans aren’t concrete yet but we are aiming to rent the house out next summer so we can get back on the road; back where we belong.
We’d both like to say thank you to:
The list of people who have influenced us, been there for us, provided support, help, advice, encouragement or beer is too long to list here and we’d be mortified if we accidentally overlooked anyone. So, if you’re reading this please take this as a thank you for being you. Whoever you are, you are very special and we love you.
Likewise everyone who has encouraged us to keep writing the blog, for indulging our flights of fancy and for taking the time to comment, we are indebted to you.
Thank you to Matt, James and Dom for being Matt, James and Dom.
Ray would like to add:
My confidence as a writer has grown because of the kindness and encouragement of friends and strangers taking the trouble to read this. Thank you, you know who you are. (If you don’t, look in the mirror)
Hello to Linda; I love having a big sister.
A special extra big thank you to Alison who encouraged me to write and didn’t try to put me off, even when she realised the cost of doing so was having to read everything I wrote, edit it and explain why she’d changed it without once hurting my feelings. Her patience, tact and grace are only superseded by her editorial skills. She’s also quite gorgeous but I promised her I wouldn’t embarrass her by mentioning that here.
Alison would like to add:
A special mention and big thank you must go to my parents. We are indebted to you for welcoming us on countless occasions, allowing us to park on your drive and providing us with home cooked meals, laundry facilities, comfort and unfailing encouragement and support. We would like to award you with the ‘Mavis Trip Advisor Special Award for Hospitality 2016’ and hope that you would like to put yourselves in the running again for 2017.
That’s all folks – until the book comes out XX
Ray & Alison
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