Well, what can I say? We’ve landed firmly on our feet once again. In my last blogpost we were in limbo in France with a dodgy gas system meaning no heating, hot water or fridge. I’m pleased to say that a motorhome dealer in Chinon came up trumps and, even though they were really busy, they took pity on ‘Les Anglais’ and booked us in the following day to take a look at the problem. In truth we probably both looked like we needed a good scrub. A cold shower or warm water in a bucket is no substitute for a proper shower. Of course we could have just gone to a campsite but we’re made of sterner stuff.
Fortunately my French came in handy although it’s not as easy as you would think understanding someone in a foreign language when they’re wearing a mask. But I managed. We dropped the van off first thing in the morning, killed a couple of hours in the supermarket over coffee and cake and returned two hours later to find a fully working fridge and boiler. Merveilleux.
Our next pressing concern was thinking about the timing of when to get back to the UK. Looking online and hearing from others in ‘the know’ it seemed that campsites in the UK were likely to be able to open again from the 4th July. With the new two week self isolation rule in place for anyone arriving in the UK from anywhere outside the Common Travel Area (Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) we were running out of time to get that done before starting work. (If we still had a job).
What to do.
In the end I sent an email to the owners of the campsite where we’d (hopefully) be working to see what their thoughts were. Like everybody else they were still waiting on the go-ahead from the government on the reopening date but were hopeful for the 4th July. They assured us we would still have a job but with less hours than last year. That gave us just a couple of days to decide on our options. Meanwhile my brother offered us a patch on his drive to park up for the two weeks we needed to (thanks Richard:). So that solved that problem. However he was in Suffolk and we needed to be in Cornwall so we asked the campsite owners if we’d be able to arrive two weeks early and self isolate on our staff pitch. It made more sense anyway as we’d have plenty of space and wouldn’t be coming into contact with anyone. Not that we felt we were any risk to anyone.
As soon as we got the confirmation that we were welcome to come back two weeks in advance of the proposed re-opening of the campsite we booked the ferry. DFDS ferries, as always, came up with a very good price for the four hour crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven which meant less driving than the Calais-Dover route and Brittany ferries weren’t operating their services for anything other than freight. We felt much happier once we made the decision to book the ferry as we felt like we’d been circling the airport the previous week procrastinating on our future!
It’s always a culture shock arriving back in the UK after an extended period away as all the roads feel like they’re super busy. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Salisbury we took a break for some lunch in the Tesco carpark. We really felt like we just wanted to be back in France. Although we didn’t get out of the van we could see a huge queue of people waiting to go into the supermarket. Throughout the whole of this pandemic we have been extraordinarily lucky to have never had to queue to get into a supermarket. Not in Spain or France. And we are extremely grateful for that. As I’ve said on the blog before we have been fortunate not to have felt completely restricted, isolated or frustrated during the last three months or so.
So here we are again at the campsite. As soon as we arrived it felt like we hadn’t been away.
The self isolation guidelines state that you can only go out in your garden and you aren’t allowed to leave the boundary of your property. We have taken that to mean that anywhere within the campsite is fair game for us to walk around.
It makes such a difference having that freedom and space, especially when you live in van.
So there we are, even though our plans for this summer haven’t worked out as we were expecting them to and we haven’t been able to spend time with family and friends yet we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome in the circumstances.
The government has now given the green light on the opening date of 4th July so we just have six more days to do before we can get on with the next chapter.
We did a big shop in France before we left to tide us over in our isolation period but you can be assured that Tim will be clearing the shelves of pork pies as soon as we’re free to go the supermarket here.
So, I’ve finally sat myself down, given myself a stern talking to and got on with writing a blog post. To say the blog has been neglected in recent months is an understatement. When we arrived back in Spain from Morocco, urm, five months ago I had decided to have a break from the blog for a couple of weeks or so. Mmm. Oh, it’s been in the back of my mind all along. Way back. But I’ve never quite managed to update it. Until now. I should have known myself really. Give myself and inch……
So, what’s been happening chez Bonvanageblog?
Well, first and foremost we are well into season four of our midlife crisis decision to turn our lives upside down and try something new. I will write something fairly soon on our thoughts after three and a half years of living differently. It would be a stretch too far to expect that in this blog post though. Instead, I’ll get us up to speed on what we have been up to, where we are now and what our plans are going forward.
After spending nearly three months in Morocco we landed back in Algeciras, Spain and of course headed straight for Gib. The pull of pork pies and fish and chips was just too much to ignore. It felt both bizarre and freeing to be back in Europe. Bizarre to be back to all things familiar and freeing to know I could wander around by myself without attracting any attention.
Our final stop at Chefchaouen before we left Morocco brought it home to me that I take my freedom to roam at will, on my own, wherever I want in Europe for granted. Admittedly Chefchaouen was the only place in Morocco where I felt a little uncomfortable but looking back it was the only place really other than a bike ride that I’d gone out on my own without Tim.
Women out alone in Morocco are not really a thing or part of the culture so being back in Spain felt a bit liberating for me. Tim just had his eyes on the pork pies! Gib did let us down on the fish and chip front though. Batter the texture of inner soles. Soo disappointing.
The Cabo de Gata National Park, east of Almeria, is somewhere we’ve been meaning to visit for ages so we headed there from Gib with the intention of exploring the whole area for a few weeks. We didn’t spare the horses and took the quickest route along the E15 to get there. What we saw along the route is all a blur in my memory until we got into the province of Almeria.
Plastic greenhouses. As far as the eye can see. We knew they would be there as we’d been told about them from other travellers. But. It is vast. Just vast. Vaster than vast. So vast you can barely take it in. One hundred and sixty five square miles of them. Whole towns are swallowed up by them.
Here are a few images from Google to give you an idea if you’ve never seen them before.
And an article here if you’re interested. The Cabo de Gata is a protected area but that pesky plastic has edged right up to the boundary.
We arrived in the pretty whitewashed town of San Jose not really feeling the love for the area. In truth, we were a bit travelled out after Morocco and needed a bit of downtime. We stayed on two different aires for a couple of weeks. And did……………nothing. Rien. Nada. We just didn’t have the enthusiasm. Travel is tiring and we’d peaked in Morocco. Our heads were back in the UK even though we had another three weeks left in Spain. It’s hard to shake that feeling when it arrives so we just accept it. Instead we enjoyed the sunshine, did a few easy walks here and there and not much else.
We found our mojo again taking a week or so to drive up through Spain following more or less the same route as 2017. Ubeda, Toledo, Avila, Palencia. Each day provides a different landscape. Olives. Prairies. Mountains. The roads are toll free and quiet. It was all stress free. Well it was until we got a text to say our ferry from Santander had been cancelled. Oh joy.
The ferry had something wrong with it and was going to be out of action for a couple of weeks so revised plans were drawn up. If we still wanted to travel back from Spain we would have had to wait a week which would have been a bit inconvenient as we’d already planned our itinerary back in the UK seeing family, friends and dentists etc. So, we hoofed it up through France in a couple of jumps and came back to Portsmouth via Caen.
With family and friends and appointments done we headed back down to Lanyon Holiday Park in Cornwall at the beginning of June to help out during their busiest months.
We slotted back in as if we’d never been away.
The weather didn’t let us down. June was cold, July was not bad and August was hideous until the bank holiday. The same as last year really!
What did make our lives much easier this year were our bikes. Our bikes are no longer just bikes. They are e-bikes. Ah, what a difference they’ve made to us this summer. We’d ummed and ahhed about going electric for several months looking at all the different options. Do we sell ours? Buy electric specific bikes? Get ours adapted? Long story short we had our existing ones adapted and they are just Fab. With a capital F. Fab.
They’ve made such a difference to our time in Cornwall and I can’t wait to get them out in Europe.
Plans for this year? Well, we’re currently sitting at the ferry port in Plymouth awaiting the ferry for France. We’ll be spending at least a month in France. We’re going back to one of the places we volunteered at in 2016. Then………. Portugal. It’s going to be an experimental year this year. We’re going to spend four months in Aljezur, Portugal from the beginning of November. We’ll be renting a house there to see how staying put for the bulk of the winter works out.
So. Bonjour à tous et à toute. We are back on the road. After over five months in the UK we landed in France this morning. Yay! We made the big journey of four kilometres from the ferry port to a free aire behind a lovely beach just outside Roscoff, Brittany. Here we will stay for at least tonight to rest up, regroup and, for me at least, reacquaint myself with writing a blog. My blog writing skills are somewhat rusty after such a long lay off so we may be here for three days. Still, I have a wonderfully inspiring view, which I will show you at the end of this post, to help me get the brain in gear.
Firstly, how good is it to be back in France? Merveilleux! In our opinion, France is the motorhomers dream country to meander around in and we are very happy to be back here. Tim was positively beaming from ear to ear this morning rolling off the ferry. Anyway, that’s where we are at but we need to wind back a bit to give an update on campsite life from the inside looking out.
For those of you that remember from the last blog post (I concede it was a looong time ago) we were about three weeks into our two month stint of working at a campsite in Cornwall. Up until that point the weather had been absolutely amazing but as we all know that kind of weather can’t last forever especially in the UK. So when did the weather break? The first weekend of the school holidays. Of course it did. Smiling, happy campers were leaving their homes under clear skies in thirty degrees of heat full of expectations of a sun drenched holiday in Cornwall. Like lambs to the slaughter they were, trundling down that A30 past Bodmin. They arrived on site and made the best of trying to get their tents pitched in the squally rain that was being whipped up by a gusty wind. I had to admire their optimism.
The pile it high sell it cheap world we live in hasn’t escaped the outdoor activity market. The vast majority of tents these days are just not up to the job. Most are just about fit for one season. In the UK I would recommend a five season tent. A five season tent will see you through Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and the six weeks of the British school holidays. Anything less just won’t do. Most campers, if they weren’t actually inside their tents creating some ballast, were holed up inside their cars watching parts of their tents make their way to Land’s End. It was a shame as, apart from a few days, the weather was poor throughout the whole of August as well (or it just felt that way after the good run we’d had). We couldn’t grumble though as we had had the best of the weather since we had returned to the UK in April. It did keep Tim and Barry (the maintenance chap) busy clearing away all the abandoned tents, inflatable chairs, lilos, tables, camping chairs, barbecues, wet bedding, wet pillows, gazebos, umbrellas, dinghies, broken windbreaks and the like on their rounds of the campsite bins in the mornings. So much waste, just going into landfill, is sad to see.
Despite the weather the site remained practically full for the school holidays with just a few gaps here and there……….mainly from those that had left early as they no longer had a roof over their head or everything was soaked through. Ah, happy days indeed. Even though we are wusses now with the comfort and warmness and dryness of our van we were tent campers once and remember many holidays braved under canvas being at the mercy of whatever the weather had to throw at us. It’s a rite of passage really. We do still have a very lightweight backpacking tent with us in the van for the odd cycling or walking trip but I confess it’s not seen the light of day for the past four years or so. We had intended to use it for a week or two walking the coast path in Cornwall or a trip to the Isles of Scilly after our campsite job ended but, well, France beckoned and that was the end of that!
So despite the weather it was still busy on the site throughout the school holidays which meant we were kept busy too. Obvs. As you would expect you have to be a good all rounder when working on a campsite and turn your hand to anything and cleaning the shower blocks is all part of that ‘all round’ experience. Now you do learn a lot about the nature of both yourself and other people when doing the job of cleaning up after them. For example, I would never have known that urinals would give me the heebie jeebies but there it is, they do. It was just best if Tim dealt with those. Also, when we have worked together whilst we’ve been volunteering on our travels we have always sorted out pretty quickly between us a way of doing things in harmony. Mmm, not so with the shower block cleaning. We quickly decided on me doing showers, sinks and mirrors whilst Tim did toilets, bins and floor. I know everyone will be thinking ‘poor Tim’ but he, of his own free will, chose those jobs (the urinals were added later after discovering my phobia). So far so good. Well, not really. It became apparent that we each have our own ways of tackling cleaning jobs and things just didn’t ‘gel’ as it were. Working together in a limited space trying not to trip over each other was a challenge especially if we were tired and when we both wanted to do things our own way. On occasions it almost resorted to handbags at dawn. There were glares, there were tuts, there were mutterings of ‘where’s the bloody bin gone’. These were all from me of course as Tim just quietly and stoically got on with what needed to be done. It wasn’t until about the eighth week into the job that we decided if I did the Ladies and Tim did the Mens then we would all be happy. And so it was. What can I say, we are slow learners. If we’d just done that from the off we’d have saved ourselves a lot of angst.
Throughout our long camping, caravanning and motorhoming life we have stayed on countless number of campsites so pretty much knew what to expect in terms of shower block cleanliness. Basically we’d surmised that there are two types of people…..those that clean up after themselves……..and those that don’t. Oh but wait. No. There is a third type of person. This type of person does bizarre things just to make your life that little bit more difficult. For example, seals disappeared from shower heads and toilets, screws and locks disappeared from toilet doors. As I said, bizarre. Odd. Just odd. There’s nowt so queer as folk as they say.
It wasn’t all shower block cleaning though as we had a good mix of jobs from gardening, mowing grass, moving of caravans, office work, lodge and caravan changeover days, cleaning the pool and a new one for Tim ‘entertainer’. As I’ve mentioned before on the blog Tim’s musical life has suffered whilst we have been on our travels and it was the one thing that he knew would be his biggest compromise when choosing to do this trip. Since buying the amplifier several months ago though he has managed to carve out a new persona. That of solo musician playing to backing tracks. It’s not ideal as he would much prefer to play with a band but needs must and all that. The campsite has a small bar and puts on entertainment five nights a week during the school holidays. There were quiz nights, karaoke nights, bingo nights, horse racing nights and various singers and what not so Tim asked if they’d like him to play. Yes was the reply so he was kept busy entertaining the troops a couple of evenings a week. Result.
The music here in Cornwall has been a bonus as we’ve had folk nights at two different pubs we can walk to every week (although one of them is what I would term as ‘dirgy folk’ which has been a step too far for me). There’s been a choir night once a month which is an anyone can come and join in affair which we have really enjoyed with everyone belting out the old Cornish songs and of course Tim went up to have a sing song with the ‘Four Lanes Male Voice Choir’ when he wasn’t working. So all in all the we’ve had a decent amount of music added to our lives this summer.
That about wraps it up then on our venture into campsite work. We’ve had a great summer down in Cornwall and enjoyed the experience. The people we have worked with have been great and very easy to get on with which makes all the difference but with the busy season over it’s time for a break and pastures new. The question is……will we go back to do it all again next year? Of course!
So, we’ve been ensconced on the campsite we’ll be working on in deepest darkest Cornwall now for exactly three weeks. Doesn’t time just fly? Now I would like to say that I haven’t had time to get around to updating the blog because we have been sooo busy learning all aspects of campsite work and I’ve not had even so much as a minute to myself. Alas, that would be a lie. I’ve had oodles of time to get a blog post out but I just keep finding other things to do. What you will notice as you read on through this post is that there is a distinct lack of photos. The camera hasn’t really seen the light of day since we arrived as I’ve been travelling light when out and about, just enjoying it all without feeling the need to photograph anything and everything. However, that has in turn caused me a problem. Thoughts of writing a blog post without all the pictures to add colour to it has left me mute. Having no pictures to break it all up means I’ll actually need to write something worth reading and that has been enough for me to put it off day after day after day. Anyway, I had an email yesterday from one of my regular readers (aka my Mum) asking me what had happened to the blogging. (Note to self – You can run, Jane, but you can’t hide). Suffice to say it has galvanised me into action today to get a blog post out come hell or high water. Of course I found other things to do until this evening before making a start though!
For all you regular readers you will know that we are down in Cornwall for the next two months or so to work on a campsite during the mad summer rush of the school holidays. Campsite work has always been something we’ve talked about doing as it would appear, from the outside looking in, to be quite a nice lifestyle choice with a mix of indoor and outdoor work. After having been in continuous travel mode for over two years we fancied a longer stint in the UK this year and a chance to stay put for a little while doing something different. Instead of volunteering through Helpx we thought that as we were looking to be stationary for a couple of months at least then we might as well see if we could get some paid work. So, in keeping with our motto of trying things we’ve never done before when we are on our travels we applied for a couple of campsite jobs. There were lots we could have applied for but we specifically only really wanted just two to three months and most of them are for the whole season. I have to say we were also quite picky about what we applied for. We wanted something not on a main road with plenty of walks and cycles direct from the site, a pub or two we could walk to and for the site not to be too big. That’s not too much to ask is it? It appears not as where we are has ticked all those boxes with the added bonus of a Lidl within cycling distance. And a Wetherspoons should we need it!
So, here we are at Lanyons Holiday Park not far from Redruth which will be our home until sometime in September. It’s a smallish family run site with a mixture of privately owned static caravans, a couple of holiday lodges and four touring fields. The owners and staff have been exceedingly welcoming and genuinely want to make our time here a happy one. We arrived a week before our start date to get to know the site and the local area although having been born and bred in Plymouth and taking most of our holidays in Cornwall before moving to Wiltshire twenty some years ago we know it quite well. It’s been really great being back in Cornwall visiting some old haunts even though the traffic seems to have doubled in the ten or so years since we were last here. That and out of town retail outlets. I don’t remember retail outlets this far down in Cornwall before. Tim has joined the village male voice choir to go some way to fill his musically starved diary and those re runs of Doc Martin we’ve been watching have come in handy for understanding the local lingo.
After our first week of gallivanting around the local area we were more than settled in and ready to get cracking with some work. Incidentally, we couldn’t have had better weather since we have been here. It’s been sun, sun and more sun but with a nice breeze to keep the temperature just under boiling point. So what have we been doing workwise? Well, Tim has been happy as a pig in shdreamland getting to use all the different boys toys helping with the mowing, strimming and caravan moving whilst I’ve been trained up in the office to cover a couple of days a week in there when the school holidays start. Sandy, the campsite pooch, is in charge of maintenance and likes to sit in a bed behind the ride on mower to over see things. At fourteen and a half years old he’s an old hand and couldn’t be happier when he’s in the thick of it. If he’s left behind he howls and howls!
Aside from that there has been plenty of painting, cleaning, sweeping, mopping, hoovering, dusting and bin emptying. Oh and ironing. Yes, I have had to get reacquainted with an iron. I haven’t used an iron in over two years and even before that it rarely saw the light of day. I was very happy to do most of the ‘pink’ jobs in our previous life as I worked less hours than Tim and didn’t have a commute but I’m afraid I drew the line at ironing. It was every man or woman for themselves on the ironing front. I only ever ironed anything if it would really look like I’d slept in it if I didn’t iron it so getting to grips with ironing again has been a steep learning curve! The site has two holiday lodges and four static caravans that they rent out which we’ll be doing some of the changeover days for. Hence the need to iron the bed linen. Ironed bed linen? Who’d have thought! To be fair it’s all ironed under one of those press type irons but I’ve had to learn how to fold a fitted sheet to get it flat under the press. Jeez, that was a mind bender. FITTED sheets are called FITTED sheets and not FLAT sheets for a reason. This is because they do not fold FLAT. Period! Still, it’s another skill to add to my CV.
There we have it then. We are thoroughly enjoying campsite life from the inside looking out and happy to be a part of a community again, even if for a short spell. Our friends, Nik and Phil, came down for a fleeting overnight visit and treated us to a meal out which we really appreciated and it was lovely to see them for a good old chin wag.
All in all then the campsite life is suiting us perfectly.
As much as we would have loved to stay longer exploring the NC500 time was running out. Edinburgh was always going to be on the list of places to visit in Scotland as neither of us have been there before and having read many books set in and around Edinburgh it would be a chance to get a feel for the city and see for ourselves all the landmarks mentioned. We drove from Thurso to Edinburgh in one jump coming down through the Cairngorms which took pretty much all day but accompanied by spectacular scenery was a pleasant drive.
We pitched up at a Camping and Caravanning Club Temporary Holiday Site just inside the Edinburgh ringroad. It was in an ideal location with a bus stop just outside which made getting into Edinburgh stress free and at £8 per night was perfect for us. I was pretty bowled over by the sheer scale of the city with so much to see and do: Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace, Arthurs Seat, Calton Hill, New Scottish Parliament, Scott Monument as well as many museums, galleries and exhibitions. We always, though, like to see a city through its green spaces preferring to explore on the outside rather than the inside. You are spoilt for choice in Edinburgh as it is chock full of green spaces.
After walking the length of the Royal Mile linking the Castle to Holyrood Palace we had a stroll through the 640 acres of Holyrood Park and walked up the 250 metre hill known as Arthur’s Seat where you have panoramic views of the city and surrounding area below.
We had a quick peek through the railings at Holyrood Palace before climbing up Calton Hill with the half finished Parthenon at the top (started in 1822 as a National Monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars it was never finished as the wonga ran out).
Then we went on through Princes Street Gardens to the broad Georgian facades of the New Town for a poke about.
We finished up in one of the Wetherspoons pubs on Princes Street. It seems that Wevs is where we always end up! This particular one was in a grand building that had once been a bank which is where it got its name from – The Standing Order.
The following day we stayed on the bus through the city and got off near the port at Leith.
The historic port with a medieval core of narrow streets and warehouses dating back to the 13th and 14th Century is now home to luxury waterside flats, offices, restaurants and the Royal Yacht Britannia.
After a quick photo shoot of the Britannia from the top of the multi storey car park we picked up the Waters of Leith footpath to take us back towards the city. The path runs 12.5 miles alongside the Water of Leith from the docks at Leith to Balerno. We walked four miles or so of it from the docks to bring us out at Dean village. The first couple of miles from Leith were ok but not that picturesque and because of ongoing building work the path has been diverted at various points. Getting closer in to the city though it was just lovely, very leafy and green with pretty terraced houses lining the river.
When we got to Dean village itself we felt we had just come into a medieval town in France.
Having really enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series of books, which chronicles the fictitious lives of its eclectic residents living in the apartments of a Georgian town house, I was keen to seek out where it was. No. 44 doesn’t actually exist of course but Scotland Street does.
If you haven’t read the books then I do recommend them with some lovely characters including Cyril, the beer drinking dog with the gold tooth, owned by Angus Lordie the portrait painter, Big Lou who loves to dole out advice in her coffee shop and the long suffering six year old saxophone playing Bertie who has an over bearing pushy mother.
Having now got to know the area a little better I feel I need to read the books all over again.
So that was Edinburgh. Before we left Scotland we back tracked to Falkirk to have a gander at the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat-lift, linking the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union canal. Opening in 2002, the Falkirk Wheel replaced a series of lock gates which had been demolished years ago to make way for housing and for the first time in forty years coast to coast navigation of the canals was re-established.
We parked up to have a look at the Kelpies, Andy Scott’s horse head sculptures, four miles east of the wheel before walking along the canal to the Falkirk Wheel. Well, how can anyone not love the Kelpies? We thought they were just superb.
Monuments to the working horses that played their part in the Industrial Revolution which shaped the geographical layout of the Falkirk area and unveiled to the public in 2013 they really are worth a visit.
Sadly, due to a technical fault, the Falkirk Wheel wasn’t in operation after we’d walked the four miles along the canal to get to it! Ho-hum never mind. Tea and millionaires shortbread in the cafe alleviated some of the disappointment. It did seem like a long four mile walk back again though.
And there ended our tour of Scotland. It is fair to say that Scotland dug deep into its pockets to bring out such lovely weather for our seven week tour which we are very grateful for. I think we have seen Scotland at its best which, for us, is up there with the best we have seen so far on our trip. Scotland and Slovenia are now my joint favourites and I expect we’ll be back again……and again……and again. The Highlands for me were the highlight with so much more to explore and get to know but, after a pitstop in North Yorkshire to see my parents, we needed to press on South. We have work to do! We start our jobs working on a campsite in Cornwall next week so must crack on. Back to work, mmm, now that’s going to be a shock to the system!
Well, how lucky have we been? Sun and clear skies have accompanied us on our journey north from Inverness to the top of Scotland. It seems we picked the perfect window in the weather to explore a section of the NC500. It was more an NC100 rather than 500 as we didn’t have time to do it all. My nephew, who we met up with in Thurso, said he had never seen weather like it in the three years he has lived there. Totes amaze! We meandered along the section across the top of the Highlands from Durness in the west to Duncansby Stacks in the east before heading south for a few days in Edinburgh. Now, I could blather on and on, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah about the spectacular scenery and beautiful weather but I’m not even going to try. The pictures say it all. So here they are………….
You know you are firmly on the tourist trail when you pull into a viewpoint to have a brew and a random man appears from behind a gorse bush dressed in full kilt regalia….sporran, belt, buckles, spats, hat, the works….and starts puffing up the bag of his bagpipes revving them up for a full blown blast of pipe music. Nearby a small table complete with tartan table cloth was set up displaying his wares. The canny Scots do like a business opportunity. Although I do like the whole pomp and ceremony of a piper all kitted out in his or her glory blasting out a few tunes I’m not sure I’d want to listen to a whole CD of it. Not in one go at least. Needless to say we drained our cups and left empty handed.
We were on our way up through the Great Glen which, thanks to a geological fault, creates a very scenic route through the valley from Fort William on the West coast to Inverness on the East. We’d wanted to see the Caledonian Canal, built by Thomas Telford, which links four lochs (Loch Dochfur, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy), giving a continuous watery route along the valley floor with a few locks thrown in effectively chopping the Highlands in two.
Wikipedia informs me there are 29 locks, four aquaducts and ten bridges along the course of the canal. The canal opened in 1822 as a shipping channel but now leisure craft and gongoozler’s like us enjoy the spectacular scenery.
We cycled from the north-eastern end of Loch Oich along the canal into Fort Augustus which was a very scenic and stress-free way to arrive as when we reached the town it was very busy and we didn’t have the hassle of finding somewhere to park.
I have to say that we haven’t struggled to find anywhere to park in Scotland yet as the dreaded height barrier doesn’t seem to have reached here yet and there’s just more space here than further south. Watching the boats go up and down the four locks is the spectator sport in Fort Augustus and with glorious sunshine it made for a very pleasant afternoon.
It seems the legend of the Loch Ness Monster is still alive and well with tourist attractions like Nessieland and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition competing for visitors. Steve Feltham has been a full time Nessie hunter since 1991 and lives all year round in a converted van on the banks of the loch at Dores. Now that’s dedication for you.
With the loch being twenty three miles long, one mile wide and two hundred and thirty metres deep at its deepest point Nessie may well be out there somewhere.
One of the top destinations to see dolphins in the UK is on the Moray Firth north of Inverness. Conveniently our friends Sam and Chris live in Fortrose just a mile or so from Chanonry Point where a pod of dolphins come to feed on migrating salmon during spring and summer. Our friends also, conveniently, have space for us to park up on their drive so we spent a weekend in glorious Scottish sunshine with them.
Whilst having a cup of tea in their back garden, which has a view across the Moray Firth, we spotted a couple of dolphins in amongst the moored sailing yachts. Sam said that they’d never, in the two years living there, seen dolphins from their back garden before so it was a bit of a coup.
We walked to Chanonry Point the following day to join the many other dolphin spotters hoping to see them.
Well we waited………..and waited…………and waited………….and waited. They finally appeared but were in sedate mood with just a few sightings of tail fins breaking the water. We weren’t treated to the aerial displays that can sometimes be seen but we were happy that we’d seen them.
Having been quite disparaging about the humble bagpipe earlier on in this blog post we now have a new found respect for all the pipers everywhere. You see, it just so happens that Sam plays the bagpipes and gave a resounding rendition on her pipes in the comfort of her back garden.
Fortunately the house on one side is empty and the elderly lady living the other side is deaf. Those pipes are blooming loud. Playing out in the middle of nowhere is probably the only place you get to practice without complaints from the neighbours. Imagine your kid coming home from school declaring they want to learn to play the bagpipes. Jeez, it would be enough to push you over the edge. The chap we saw at the viewpoint probably only gets to practice out there with nothing else around. Still, we both fancied a go.
Well, all I can say is it’s harder than it looks and takes a LOT of puff and coordination. It’s like holding a cat under your arm whilst gently squeezing it remembering to blow into the blowy end and move your fingers on the chanter at the same time. Not easy but highly entertaining!
After all that excitement it was time to move on up to the North coast but not without a pit stop in lovely Cromarty on the Black Isle.
Well the Isle of Skye has certainly come up trumps with the weather. Apart from one misty morning it has all been wall to wall sunshine. So much so I’ve burnt the back of my knees. Doh! The first thing that struck us when we arrived on Skye at the ferry port in Uig is that we weren’t going to have the island to ourselves. I suppose that’s not surprising as it is said to be the most visited destination in Scotland.
We started our tour off on the Trotternish Peninsular north of Uig to do some walking in the Quiraing, an area famous for its rock pinnacles, sheer cliffs and rock formations.
What a great couple of days walking we had amongst the rocks then up onto the top with far reaching views across towards the mainland.
We saw several sightings of cuckoos perched on the rocks in those two days. I tell you, from never having seen a cuckoo in the flesh before we have seen more than you can shake a stick at up here.
Further south towards Portree the Old Man of Storr, the most celebrated column of rock on the island, is a real draw for visitors. We planned on an early shin up the hill and back before all the crowds arrived but with the clouds down over the hills that morning we didn’t see much. The low cloud/mist did clear in and out but we didn’t think the Old Man was as spectacular as all the hype makes it out to be.
The views on the way back down under the cloud line were impressive though.
We’d started our walk at about eight o’clock and it took about an hour and a half to get up there and back but by the time we got down the parking areas on both sides of the road were full and a steady stream of people were on their way up. It was time to move on!
We made a quick pit stop in Portree at the free long stay car park for a wander round the harbour area followed by the weekly shop at the Co-op there.
The Co-op seems to have a monopoly on the Outer Hebrides and Skye as there isn’t really any other choice other than a few tiny mini markets dotted about. It’s a shame because we’ve lost the will to live in every single one of them. It’s not what they stock that is lacking but the fact that there always seem to be member’s of staff replenishing the shelves in virtually every single aisle taking up nearly all the space with cages of new stock and empty packaging all over the place. All their shops seem to have narrow aisles making it extremely tedious to get round other shoppers and staff. I don’t blame the staff as they are only doing their job but why can’t they restock when the store is closed or not a peak times? Why?! Even Tim who is normally patience personified has succumbed to trolley rage almost dumping a half filled trolley in an aisle and stomping off back to the van. He probably would have done if he could have found a space in an aisle to park it. Anyway, rant over. And relax!
With clear blue skies and temperatures in the low twenties it was a chance to cook outside again.
I grant you it’s not often you would see sausage curry on the menu of an Indian restaurant but in the absence of any other form of meat it had to do. Try it, we recommend it!
We walked the four miles or so from our overnight stop across open moorland to Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the Clan Macleod since the thirteenth century but at £14 each to go in we gave it a miss and had coffee and cake at Jann’s Cakes in the village instead.
The following day we cycled to Claigan Coral Beaches just north of Dunvegan. The sand is made up of calcified maerl (seaweed) and tiny sea shells. Our guide book says that ‘on a sunny day the white sands and aqua water could almost be the Carribean’ but that description is probably stretching it a bit as there wasn’t much aqua water to be seen as it was full of seaweed.
It was a nice spot for lunch though. I think we weren’t totally wowed by it after having experienced the beaches of the Outer Hebrides.
A big draw for walkers on Skye is the Cuillin mountain range which has over twenty Munros to be bagged. The Munro baggers visiting Skye for the week must have been kicking their legs in the air on account of the clear blue sky weather we were having making for spectacular walking in the hills. With not an OS map between us though we played it safe with a lovely circular walk around the coast of the Suisnish peninsular which gave us excellent views of the mountains in the distance.
Our final night on Skye we parked up at Kyleakin with a view of the bridge. Whilst having a cup of tea with our door open a van parked up next to us with New Zealand flags adorning one of the windows. A young lad appeared at our door to introduce himself and we spent the next hour or so hearing all about his travels. At ten years old he is far more well travelled than we are having visited nearly every country in Europe. He and his parents are on the last few months of an eighteen month tour of Europe before shipping back their van, which they’d bought in the UK, to New Zealand. Marvellous.
So that was Skye. Again, we didn’t have time to see all that was to see but time is marching on and we need to get a move on.
Numerous rocky islands and hidden rocks make the ferry ride from Berneray to Harris quite the obstacle course. It is, apparently, Scotland’s most torturous ferry route. The ferry was swinging round left, right, left, right all over the place to get to Leverburgh on the other side. Once again it was mercifully calm making for an enjoyable hour long early evening crossing.
Harris and Lewis are, in fact, two parts of one island – the division something to do with a falling out in the MacLeod clan back in the day. Leaving the ferry terminal we struck out towards the west side of South Harris to spend the night overlooking a sandy beach and to watch the sun sink below the horizon.
The first thing that’s immediately obvious about Harris in comparison to the islands we have visited so far is that it is very hilly with more than thirty peaks above 1000ft. And we could see them too which was a bonus. The weather on our first foray onto the island was kind enough to allow me to do a thirty mile circular route on the bike to take in east, west and south Harris. And what a fabulous ride it was too in bright sunshine with just a light breeze. The up and down east coast road gives fantastic views of all the sea water lochs and freshwater lochans and there are plenty of artists studios dotted along the route to waylay you.
With golden sandy beaches to my left and rolling mountain peaks to my right the west coast scenery is superb with some interesting quirky looking holiday lets.
We spent the evening parked up at one of the camping spots provided by the West Harris Trust overlooking the beach at Luskentyre. £5 for the night paid either by paypal or you can send a cheque or cash to them.
What more could you want to end a perfect day? A cracking view sitting outside on one of the benches.
After a couple of days on Harris it was on to Lewis. It started off well with afternoon sunshine accompanying us on the drive across the peat bog landscape to Stornaway. By the time we arrived in Stornaway, the largest town on the island, the rain had started. We weren’t feeling the love for Stornaway in the rain so after a quick pitstop to fill up with LPG, do the weekly shop at Tesco and eat take-away fish and chips we headed further north.
In windy, grey, rainy weather Lewis is, we felt, a tad grim. The endless barren peat bog with nothing much to break it up other than housing strung out along the main road wasn’t doing much for our morale. We did have a nice walk though around the headland at the Butt of Lewis, the northern tip of the island. It was misty but miracle of miracles there was no wind. Considering it has been mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records for being the windiest place in the UK I guess we were extremely lucky.
I know when I started on this trip to Scotland I said I wouldn’t moan about the weather. But….. ..more rain followed. The west side of the island, though, did provide a few distractions on a rainy day. We stumbled across a Moor Sheiling built in 2017.
Most crofters had their own sheiling (5-7 miles from home) where some family members, typically mother, grandmother or aunt with the younger children would migrate to from May until July taking their cattle with them for summer grazing. A simple dwelling with earth floor, peat fire and bed.
Geàrrannan Black House Village, a cluster of nine restored thatched crofters houses, gives an insight into what blackhouse village life was like.
The second house has been restored to its condition at the time it was abandoned.
Of the nine black houses, one is a Youth Hostel, another four offer self catering accommodation and the others are an interpretation centre, museum, cafe and finally…….loos!
There is definitely more to see on Lewis particularly on the western side around Uig but not enough time and too much rain put paid to that. We were supposed to be doing a complete tour of Scotland on this trip but time is running out as we’ve spent three weeks on the Western Isles already.
After a bike ride from Tarbert to the island of Scalpay, connected to Harris by a single track bridge, it was time to get the ferry across the minch to Skye.
Across the causeway from Eriskay brings you into South Uist, home to long, white, sandy beaches on the west coast and rolling peat moors, inlets and rocky hills on the east coast. There are sooo many deserted beaches on these islands. Waking up in the morning and rolling out of the van straight onto a sandy beach all to myself to do my morning exercise routine has been another highlight of our trip. Swinging about a couple of little yellow dumbbells whilst watching sanderlings skitter up and down the shoreline or listening to a couple of terns squawking their displeasure at having unwanted company sure beats wiping down the sweat of the previous occupant on the equipment at my local gym before using it. Of course I don’t do this routine every morning as I’m really not that disciplined but when I do remember to do it and make the effort it is always worth it…….even more so on an empty beach without curious onlookers making me feel acutely self conscious and ridiculous…….except on one occasion when two gorgeous coffee and cream coloured young bullocks watched me with expressions that distinctly said WTF?
After our first night on South Uist the fickle hand of the weather had us scuttling off to Lochboisdale on the other side of the island to seek some refuge from the wind which had battered us overnight at our exposed position right behind the beach. As I’ve mentioned before high winds have us praying that our roof vents will still be intact when we wake up in the morning. Being made of plastic they really aren’t the best and the wind manages to get under them constantly making them rattle. Tim has solved the problem on three of them with a simple system of elastic bands and suckers to hold them in place but we have one which is a wind up affair with an integral fan within it which makes it impossible for that solution to work without taking it to bits and punching a hole through a fly screen. On the second night of the ruddy thing rattling and constantly waking us up Tim got up in the early hours to deal with it. I woke up a few hours later to find the temporary solution in place. Mmm, not ideal but it did give us a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Cable ties have sorted the little blighter out now. We can’t open it or use the fan and the fly screen is in tatters but that’s the price we have to pay for a better nights sleep and it’s preferable to a hole in the roof.
Once at Lochboisdale we found some shelter behind a couple of containers in the harbour and sat out the inclement weather until it was time in the early evening to visit the hotel bar, sit round an open fire and upload the last blog post. As there are next to no trees on the islands I asked the lady behind the bar if it was expensive to import wood or coal. She said they buy a tonne of coal at a time which a few years ago cost them £700 but now costs £1300 and they sometimes mix it with peat if they’ve cut any that year. Peat used to be an important natural fuel source here on the islands but now electricity, oil and gas have largely taken over.
A couple of days later we were waylayed by the most perfect pile of peat we’d ever seen before. It was a work of art I tell you.
We had to stop and take a photo of it. The owner of the house was pottering about outside and after checking it was OK to take a photo he very happily answered all our questions about it. He gathers it once a year from the moorland which has been allocated to him and it takes six people just one day to cut enough peat to supply his home with free energy for cooking, hot water and heat for an entire year. After it’s cut it’ll take him three to four days of numerous trips to get it back to the house where he spends the next two weeks of his spare time building his masterpiece to dry it out before it can be used. Marvellous. The actual pile in the pictures is half of what it was and he showed us a framed picture of the completed work of art.
He also told us all about how the peat is cut and showed us the tools they use which he keeps submerged in water all year round. We were so glad we stopped and it is good to see an old tradition alive and well.
Two consecutive days of clear dry weather had us out on the bikes again. Apart from the punishing wind it really is a great place for cyclists and we’ve seen many a happy smiling cycle tourer blasting along with a tail wind heading north. Those heading south are generally grimacing but I’m sure they’re enjoying every minute of it. For us, as we are doing circular routes or out and back routes, it’s fifty fifty for the wind with or against us…..grimace on the way out and smile on the way back.
A day of walking followed where we had intended to walk to Uisinis Bothy and back on the eastern side of the island but was curtailed when we realised, when the path fizzled out after an hour or so, that we’d taken the wrong fork earlier on so retraced our steps and spent a while listening to the birds over a long lunch overlooking the sea.
The cycle of the weather has been such that a couple of days of decent weather have been followed by a wet and wild one. Either a library or a museum come in handy on those days. The Kildonan Museum on the A865 is a very pleasant place to while away an hour or so followed by coffee and cake in the attached cafe. It tells the story of Island life through its exhibits, collections and pictures.
Benbecula gets quite an unkind write up by our guide saying ‘the only reason to come to Balivanich, Benbecula’s grim, grey capital, is if you are flying into or out of Benbecula airport, or you need an ATM or supermarket’. As the weather had closed in again with mist and drizzle I confess we did what most people probably do and that is drive straight across it to get to North Uist. It is apparently pancake flat but we couldn’t tell as the mist denied us seeing it. We did stop at the Co-op to do our weekly shop though to spread our spending on all the islands less one feel left out.
North Uist is more of the same landscapes as we had seen on South island but I don’t mean that in any disparaging way at all but I’m running out of superlatives to describe how fabulous these islands are.
You see some curious things when out either walking or cycling. From a couple of fields away, through the binoculars, I spotted a sheep with all four legs in the air. I dimly remember reading something somewhere that said if a sheep is on its back then it’s not that way deliberately and will die if it’s not turned over. Well we got to her and got her turned over but she was too weak to get up so we went to the nearest house to let them know.
The very friendly lady who answered went next door to talk to who she thought was the owner. We didn’t linger around as there wasn’t anything else we could do so hopefully she was saved. I looked it up later and, when the sheep is in the upside down position like that, it’s the gasses in their stomach from all that grass eating that swell up and eventually press on their lungs eventually suffocating them. They don’t get into that position on purpose but it can happen if they are carrying lambs or their fleece is heavy with water.
Another curious sight also involving sheep happened after we’d done a long walk around the peninsular at Granitote. Traigh Ear beach at low tide is a vast expanse of hard packed sand. Just as we were finishing our walk we watched a ewe with her two lambs trailing behind her wander down onto the beach. She then just kept going. And going . And going. She was on a mission. She must have walked a mile or so to get to the grass on the other side of the bay. Obviously ‘the grass is greener’ isn’t just a human thing after all.
Later, when the tide had come in creating a vast expanse of knee deep water, the farmer with his dogs, rounded up his flock and walked them all down into the water where the dogs held them there for about ten minutes or so. They were only in up to their knees so I doubt it was a swimming lesson. The dogs looked to be thoroughly enjoying racing around in the water making sure they kept together. They then all ambled back up the beach to recommence eating grass. Maybe the salt water stops them getting foot rot?
The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.
It is just a wee thing measuring two miles by three, with a population of just 140. It is just delightful. I think it could be my favourite island so far. Mind you, that could be because the constant blasting wind we have had everyday had finally tempered down to a light breeze and we could actually hear the silence . I even had a burnt face by the end of the day. Sun burn in the Outer Hebrides. Who’d have thought?
The little museum run by volunteers tells the story of island life with hundreds of donated photos to peruse. Seals bask off the rocks close into the shore without seemingly a care in the world.
As our friend Chris would say………..happiness on a stick!
Time for a ferry ride to Harris and Lewis, the last island we’ll be exploring on the Outer Hebrides.