July Review

My initial plan, when I started this about ten days ago, was to call it a “A Trip to the Dark Side”, but time has passed and things have happened…

Noexotic trips this time – not even a foreign one, unless you count England.

Mrs M and I left Inverness on the USA’s Independence Day, and drove through rather dreich weather to Dundee.

On Tuesday 4th Sonia and I started our wee jaunt to England by going to Dundee. Not a long way from home, not even over the border, but a move in the right direction. South, that is.

“Why Dundee?’ I hear you clamour. Daughter number two – Sarah – lives there with husband-to-be Calum, who was unfortunately away in Glasgow on his paramedic’s course. Whilst this was a shame, it meant Sarah was willing to sleep on her sofa and the oldies got a bed. So every cloud has a silver lining. Dundee’s improved immensely since I worked there for a month or two in 1973, but one gets the feeling – despite lots of new development at the waterfront and so on – that it could still benefit from a few billion spent on it. But then, so could I.

The university’s botanic gardens were excellent and we could easily have spent more time there were it not for the fact we arrived late in the afternoon. I love hot houses and enjoyed wandering round the various climatic zones, followed by a stroll through the rest of the grounds.

One of the reasons for going to Dunders – as we call it – was to cast our eye over the venue Sarah and Calum have chosen for their wedding next year: a converted stable block and steading just outside Crail. It’s a nice setting with refurbished and adapted buildings, wide views of farmland and seascapes: given a half-decent day (not beyond the bounds of possibility in August), it’ll be superb. Even in poor weather it’ll be good and there are several upgraded cottages on site for guests to stay in. I suspect I’m going to have to hire another bloody kilt, though!
On the Thursday we left Sarah and her wallpaper-shredding house-cat and started south again for England.

This next leg of the journey was only to Northumberland, so we had time on our hands and made a short detour to Falkland, with a view to visiting the palace. To our amusement, and disappointment, Falkland seems to live in a different time zone from the rest of Scotland and very little opens before eleven am. We had a stroll round the pretty little village, but there’s not a lot to do when everything is shut, so we will probably go back on another occasion. This left time for a visit to IKEA on the south side of Edinburgh: I quite enjoy IKEA, provided I only visit every five years or so. Thank goodness, we didn’t buy much as I didn’t fancy spending the rest of our holiday with a wardrobe – even flatpack – in the back of the car.

We had booked two nights in the Tankerville Arms, Wooler. We had stayed there before – I recognised it on arrival – but doubt we’d go back. I suppose it was OKish – mediocre would be a fair description. Our room window wouldn’t open, so it became very stuffy – Mrs M will insist on breathing – and the food was generally disappointing. I know whitebait is not ecologically very sound, but I do like it and only eat it infrequently, so I was disappointed that the individual wee fish weren’t as wee as they should be and they were welded into lumps with excess batter. I found the main courses rather limited and settled for a supposedly up-market burger, but it was pretty dire – dry and tasteless in a similarly unappealing bun. There was bacon and a sausage with it, which were OK. I think they confused quantity with quality and I ate less than half of what was provided and had little joy of it in the process. To be fair, the poached eggs at breakfast – with or without the smoked salmon – were better.

Seen in a Wooler Charity Shop window

On our full day in the area, we drove to Alnwick. If you’ve not been there, we would recommend it. It’s an attractive wee town – again not our first visit. Sonia was keen to revisit the castle grounds and they are certainly worth it: there are some great water features – a long cascade of steps with water flowing over them, accompanied by various squirty jets and some clever kinetic sculptures involving water. There’s also a superb – and huge – treehouse. We visited the poison garden (guided tours only!) and I was amused that in amongst all the plants growing freely – some of which are really deadly – was a rather ‘weedy’ cannabis plant in a cage. The guide said they needed a licence to grow it and that all sorts of legal restrictions were imposed, such as group sizes, random inspection visits and so forth. Compared with some of the flora there, cannabis sativa seemed a relatively innocuous plant over which to get legislative knickers in a twist. I suppose the powers that be don’t feel it’s practicable to ban rhubarb or laburnum – or indeed many, many other garden plants, so they turn their full attention on cannabis…
Another reason to visit Alnwick is Barter Books, Britain’s biggest (and best) second hand bookshop. It’s a veritable treasure trove of books where they actively encourage browsing and reading, with tables, chairs, sofas and the like. Sonia read almost a complete book about Richard Wilson and ‘One Foot in the Grave’ whilst I pottered around browsing and buying very little.

These are so beautifully formed they almost seem to rotate in the corner of your eye


We had settled on a fish restaurant in Amble for our evening meal – a place Sonia had seen mentioned in one of those ’10 best…’ articles. We were not disappointed, though Amble wasn’t quite as picturesque and postcardy as we felt entitled to expect. The Old Boathouse in Amble (there’s another in Blyth) is definitely worth a visit if you like seafood: it’s not particularly special architecturally or decor-wise, but the important stuff – the food – is really top-notch. We were warned that the seafood platter for two would be sans lobster as there had been a dearth of the beasts caught that day. That was probably just as well as the cut-price platter comprised oysters, prawns, pickled herring, smoked mackerel, crab, smoked salmon, breaded prawns, cod goujons and possibly more that we can’t recall, with salad, dips and artisan bread. I kept my end up – and my stomach distended – by tucking into sticky toffee pudding afterwards. All this was accompanied – for me – by an enjoyable pint of a local ale.

We said an indifferent farewell to The Tankarville Arms and followed the A1 to Stamford to stay a couple of nights with Sonia’s brother Mervyn and his wife Margaret. This was an enjoyable stay and we met Sonia’s great-niece – not her only one, I might add, and her so much younger than me… Merv and Maggie took us out and about, including a pleasant stroll along the side of Rutland Water. I tried to show Merv an app on my phone which displays a labelled line drawing of all summits in the area – PeakFinder, which I heartily recommend – but there’s nothing in the way of hills down there, so he had to rely on my lively descriptions and hearty endorsement of the product. Seriously: if you live in an area with even middling hills, this is a great wee app for your smartphone. You’re not limited to the UK and I’ve downloaded Western Europe’s data as well, for which I think I paid a small charge.

Back in February, whilst I was perspiring in Sri Lanka, an advert for “Their Mortal Remains” popped up on my Facebook feed. This was a major multimedia exhibition at the V&A in London dedicated to Pink Floyd. It’s well-known to all who know me that I hate crowds and cities – one of the downsides, incidentally, of SL was the ever-present people. However, from that SL vantage point, a trip to London – and “The Mortal Remains” seemed like a jolly wheeze. Which explains our trip so far.

Leaving our car with Maggie and Mervyn, who drove us to Peterborough, we took the train up to London. Sonia had booked an apartment in a hotel near Gloucester St. underground station, but feared it might be rather substandard. She was quite wrong and worried needlessly: our apartment – far from being one small room with a Baby Belling (I’m showing my age!) – was a spacious, well-equipped and stylish living room cum kitchen with hob, oven, microwave and fridge-freezer, along with concealed lighting and so forth. The furniture was comfortable and adaptable. True, the giant tv on the wall didn’t seem to be working, but the slightly smaller one in the bedroom did, not that we watched it much. The bedroom was adjoined by a good shower and the usual other ceramics. Although opening windows seemed to be discouraged, the air conditioning could be adjusted for night time. I think we paid £124 a night which seemed pretty reasonable for London. We also “ate in” both nights, living off the fat of Waitrose and M&S: much cheaper than eating out, so the quality of the wine could be raised.

The PF exhibition was superb. True, it was crowded but visitors had to prebook a slot, though visit duration seemed unlimited, so major bottlenecks were avoided. The soundtrack was bluetooth-activated, I believe, so as you approached a particular exhibit the audio came in or took over from the previous track. As you’d expect there were plenty of memorabilia but also videos and interviews. We got a chance to remix “Time”, hearing the result belting out of our headphones. We sat in on an immersive version of the Live8 concert. We posed beside or under concert props. We – particularly I – had a great time.

Apart from the accommodation and the exhibition, I found London a bit of a trial. We went to bits of the Science Museum (interesting) and the National Portrait Gallery (OK for a while).

I thought this was a prince of some sort: apparently it’s Ed Sheerin, of whom even I’ve heard.

I had decided to add a trip to Hamley’s toyshop to buy some scenery materials for the railway, but Hamley’s don’t sell it. A very helpful assistant gave Sonia help to find me – suggesting perhaps some other bearded model railway browser would do instead. He also gave me good directions about how to find a suitable place just south of the river, so I headed off to Waterloo, leaping from tube to tube like a Scottish mountain goat. This is hardly original, but I really think the underground is a great system: mass urban transport – albeit bursting at the seams in a circadian rhythm – virtually independent of weather, ridding the streets of vehicles and people, reducing pollution. It’s no doubt got its flaws, but I do like it.

I was glad to get rid of the crowds and head back to Stamford for the night, before starting homeward via Haddington. Mervyn had produced some bags of railway paraphernalia which I gratefully added to the purchases made in Lower Marsh, Waterloo. On our drive up the road, we spotted an amber warning light on the instrument panel. It wasn’t constant and what little information there was in the handbook suggested it might be to do with the exhaust system: on the basis that it was only amber and didn’t appear to need immediate attention, we drove on.

Don’t ask me why Haddington because I don’t really know: handiness for the A1, an inn with a good restaurant review, a vague impression that Haddington might be a quaint village, reluctance to do the drive in a oner – all these contributed to the choice of stopover.

So, did it match up to expectations? It is certainly handy for the A1. The Victoria Inn, where we had booked a night because of a good restaurant review or two, was so-so: I can’t be bothered going into detail other than to say the room was mediocre and the meal fairly nondescript. The bathroom off our bedroom was really big: a rugby team’s communal bath would have fitted in no bother and – had it not been for the fact the room was virtually empty of all but essentials – one might have got lost on the way to the loo, at least partly due to the disconcertingly idiosyncratic angle of the floor. At first sight, Haddington looked set to disappoint on architecture and charm, but there are some lovely bits of the old town, down by the river and we enjoyed a wander round the Pleasance garden: nice but not worth a big detour.

As we continued back to Inverness the next day, our amber warning light occasionally came on and then extinguished itself. Our return from a trip is generally met be a disgruntled cat: our neighbours are kind and feed it, with it having access to a full range of amenities in our garage as well as the neighbourhood at large. This time was different and we were met by a very sickly animal: our neighbour did say she hadn’t seen much of it in the second part of our trip. A trip to the vet was clearly required, followed by an examination, payment for a bloodtest and – minutes later – the diagnosis of severe kidney damage. This led to the decision that the kindest thing was to have it put down, which another waving of plastic cards achieved. The vet reckoned this kidney problem had been going on for some time and that, whilst we should probably have noticed it, our helpful neighbour was completely innocent of any responsibility.

A couple of days after our return, my sister and her friend came to stay for a couple of nights. Since he is fairly unfamiliar with the Highlands, we suggested taking them around a bit. I suggested the Bongo, but it just made electrical clicky noises and I gave up. We headed off in the Seat and had a glorious day on the Black Isle – dolphins at Chanonry Point, walking the Fairy Glen, lunching and strolling in Cromarty: it was really nice. We even managed a barbecue one night.

Life ticked on, the Bongo showing no sign of coming back to life, and – the weather being good and us having no cat to farm out – we decided on a couple of nights camping at Applecross, one of the most delightful spots in Scotland.

We approached Applecross from the north, Sonia driving. The weather was superb, the views magnificent and the driving difficult. We met one “lady” – she addressed me as “sir”, including the quotation marks – who refused to reverse the few yards to a section of hard shoulder, forcing Sonia to go off the road and scrape the bottom of the car. She – the “lady” – seemed ignorant of how to reverse and – according to locals – is by no means untypical. We later heard a story of an American who claimed reversing wasn’t in his driving test and that he didn’t know how.

The campsite at Applecross is located just above the village and very pleasant though perhaps rather short in the washing & toilet stakes. We had a wee barbecue and a bottle of red as the sun sank over Raasay and Skye.  The next morning we wandered along to the Heritage Centre: interesting and supported by a volunteer staff, though one us found the writing on the signs a bit small. Guess which one of us had forgotten her glasses. After that, we had a bite to eat in the Walled Garden of the big house, all of which was lovely. However, it was time for stuff to become unlovely again.

That afternoon I left Sonia slobbing about and decided to drive along to Ard Ruadh, a little fishing harbour a few miles along the road. The amber light was on again, then an amber warning triangle, an amber “EPC” icon and an “Error with Stop / Start” message. I hoped the automatic Stop / Start (cut out at traffic lights and automatic restart etc.) would come back into its own when I turned the ignition off and on. It was not to be and the car added another message along the lines of “Limited to 4000 rpm” to its twinkling display. I turned and started slowly back to the camp site. At one point, the engine temperature gauge went into the red. I pinned my hopes on the car feeling better after a rest and we had an enjoyable, if slightly under-sized meal at the Applecross Inn. We both had scallops, of which there were merely four, with bacon, wild rice etc. etc. Sonia is usually more restrained than me, but even she ate her helping of sticky toffee pudding, which was very good.

This morning – the 26th July – I was awake early at the campsite and it was clear the weather was on the turn, with quite a wind having blown up over night. Sonia got up uncharacteristically early and we were away from the campsite by 7:30. The car showed no sign of having taken a tumble to itself and we laboured slowly up the Bealach Nam Ba – if you don’t know the road, look it up – one of the most fearsome roads in Scotland: single track, steeply up and then down, twisting and badly surfaced, popular with motorhome drivers who don’t know any better, and generally not a good place to break down. Which is what it did about three miles out of Applecross: the engine temperature leapt to red and it may be my imagination but I think alarms went off and bells rang as we edged into a passing place. Did I mention there’s no phone signal?

Taken from the warmth of the breakdown truck. The dry bit shows the rainshadow effect of the wind.

Within five minutes a minibus came towards us and I flagged down the driver and spotted the “Lochcarron Garage” sign on the bonnet. Another attempt to use the bus driver’s phone and he gave us both a lift back to Applecross, saying he’d be heading back again in a few minutes. The phone box was out of action and there was no signal, but a nice lady in the Applecross Inn let us use their phone to ring Nationwide, who provide our breakdown insurance (as I discovered after the Bongo broke down in May). Apart from some slight difficulty getting the call handler to appreciate just how remote Bealach Nam Ba is, it was all very efficient and we were back outside to be taken back to the car on the returning bus (Wed and Sat only).

All that was left for us was to sit in the car halfway up Bealach Nam Ba and alternately mutter despondently or thank our lucky stars for bus drivers and Nationwide. I would have used my PeakFinder app if I could have descried through the cloud anything worth having a name all to itself. We were told to wait about 90 minutes and we were glad when a rescue vehicle hove into sight through the driving rain well within the expected timeframe.

Nationwide did not have Lochcarron Garage on their books and sent out a guy from Morar Motors in Kyle. This meant a longer wait, but we couldn’t fault Morar Motors at all. A young lad with a lovely new bright yellow tow truck came and spent some minutes in the driving rain examining the engine, then got into the driver’s seat and plugged in some diagnostic tool. No clear diagnosis was made but what was clear was that we needed a tow. We were towed for miles – or at least the car was, as we sat in considerable space and comfort in the back of the two cab’s cabin. Neil – our young mechanic and driver – was charming and friendly. So likeable that we didn’t even comment on his taking phone calls on his handheld mobile over the Bealach Nam Ba whilst towing our car through the wind and the rain.

One or two changes of plan ensued but eventually we were transferred from one towing vehicle to another at Shiel Bridge and continued on our journey to Inverness. Grant – our new driver – was equally friendly and likeable. Both guys gave an excellent service. After Grant dropped us off, he was going to Aberdeen to drop off a Ford Transit that he had on the load bed of his truck.

So, we’re back home after a nice wee break in Applecross but the Bongo is out of action and the Seat is hors de service. The first available date for the Seat to be hospitalised is next Tuesday! I’m going to have to start hitting the Bongo with spanners.

(Three) Seasons’ Greetings

About ten days ago the normally reliable Highlands and Islands Weather forecast on Facebook gave me to believe the weather this week would be really good: and it was, further south. Given my expectations, I inveigled Dave Smith into a day on the hills.

I had earmarked some hills in Glenshee: Glas Maol, Cairn of Clais and Tolmount, with the options of adding either or both of Tom Buidhe and Carn Bannoch.

Core route in red, options in blue. Flags mark Munros I’d already “done”.

Tuesday morning I loaded up the Bongo, checked the tyres, water etc. and in the afternoon met Dave off the bus from Tain. After a brief stop in Morrison’s we drove down to Glenshee. The Bongo performed faultlessly and after over two hours’ journey we set up camp – van and tent – in the car park south of the Devil’s Elbow. Within minutes a second van arrived, temporary home to two German tourists. After a few minutes parked a decent distance away, they moved right next to us and spent some time toing and froing until the driver was happy with his exact location. I made some polite comment about his finding it difficult to get the right spot and he commented “I am trying to get even”. I hadn’t even mentioned the war.

With some difficulty, we got our barbecue lit and I burned chicken and sausages whilst Dave fried onions. It was quite chilly with a snell breeze whilst we sank a beer, ate our meal, consulted the map and shared sips from Dave’s hip flask.

The ground under my tent seemed to have developed bumps and hollows between my putting it up and going to sleep, but I had not too bad a night: I think Dave did about as well inside the Bongo.

We wanted an early start, so I was up the back of six. Life was made a bit more difficult than was strictly necessary by the overnight dropping of the wind and the consequent arrival of the midges. I don’t know how many times I tried to eat a spoonful of breakfast cereal through the mesh of my head net.

I don’t imagine the Germans got a long lie as Dave and I loaded the van, generated lots of electronic beeping as we lowered the roof and warmed the engine. Talk about getting even!

The short distance from there to the car park where we started our walk involved a large difference in weather: what had been inert muggy air, heavily populated with midges had started moving about in a disagreeably active manner, but at least we’d seen the last of the bugaran beagan.

It’s less than 400m ascent from the ski station to the top of Glas Maol, but it starts off pretty steep and seems particularly so at 7:30am. I had in fact “done” Glas Maol before, but it was on our way to the other targets and was a new summit for Dave. By the time we reached Meall Odhar, we were in occasional cloud. From time to time a watery sun showed itself coyly through seven veils of cumulus. Despite a good dyke shelter, we didn’t hang around long at the top of Glas Maol, but headed for Cairn of Clais.

Our route now followed the old county boundary line, marked with occasional rusting iron fence posts or sections of drystane dyke. The combination of lots of unmapped paths, the relative featurelessness of the landscape, the paucity of boundary posts and the increasingly poor visibility made navigation difficult at times, even with the GPS. It was round about now that we realised we had left the map in the van after the previous evening’s consultation: the GPS is great for knowing exactly where you are and following a route, but the small screen means it’s almost impossible to get an overview of the area. This wasn’t reassuring, but we knew that GPS and compass would have to suffice.

At Cairn of Clais we made the decision to forget about Cairn Bannoch but head for Tom Buidhe, which we did without any great problem. As with the previous hills, there was no view of any distance or interest and by now the drizzle that had been threatening for much of the day had turned up the dial and developed into rain. From now on it was waterproof trousers as well as the  Goretex top.

After Tom Buidhe we tried to skirt the top of Cairn of Clais, to save some more rather unwarranted ascent. However we ended up back more or less at the top anyway as the lie of the land made it difficult to contour round lower down. From here there should have been no problem as we were effectively following our footsteps back to the road. But that’s not the way life is and we wasted quite a lot of time in low visibility, gusty wind and increasing rain whilst we went round in circles on the northern slopes of Glas Maol and I swore a lot.

There was considerable disagreement amongst Dave’s real compass, his virtual one and my GPS – or, I suspect, my reading of it. We eventually did the sensible thing, trusted the real compass and determined that a north-westerly direction would see us right and it did when we again met some of the unsightly ski infrastructure. Once we were again making reasonable progress, we were subjected to a violent hail shower followed up by thunder.

The Bongo is a sort of silvery-grey colour and, though by now we knew exactly where we and it were, it only loomed out of the mist at 5:30pm, when we were about 10 metres away and 10 hours from when we left it. In summary (note spelling), we reckoned that we had had three of the four seasons in one day: I will leave it to you to decide which was missing.

The journey back to Inverness was uneventful: the weather – particularly the visibility – improved as we distanced ourselves from Glenshee and by the time we were back in the Highland Capital the sun was out and I was being told it had been a nice day. I dropped Dave off at the bus station and I assume he got back to Tain without incident.

Despite the poorer than expected weather, I think we both enjoyed the day. Dave and I go a long way back and we have very much the same sense of humour, based heavily on word-play. The only real difference is that Dave’s wit is both quicker and more honed than mine, so I’m left to do most of the laughing. No great hardship.

Bouncing Back

The Bongo is home again!

On Friday the 12th Sonia and I drove up to Dave and Kay’s in Tain, complete with bottle of Radweld. I didn’t know whether to hope it would work as I didn’t fancy the 30 odd miles back even with Sonia tagging along in the Altea. There aren’t many handy places to pull off the A9 at a moment’s notice with steam coming out of every vent.

So I wasn’t altogether disappointed that the Radweld didn’t seem to be doing the trick and the leak continued unabated: it was obvious that driving back to Inverness was not a practical option. Kay had already told me there are two garages in Tain and I plumped for the one she uses. A phone call and a few minutes later, the Bongo was parked at A.K.E. Links Motors and Zak – the boss – was agreeing to tackle the problem, but not until the start of the next week. No problem: I wasn’t in a rush and it was about 5pm on a Friday!

Tuesday I was walking a section of the Moray Coastal Trail with Peter Dunford when my mobile rang and it was Zak telling me that he had a replacement radiator which he’d fit on Wednesday!

On Friday, I took the bus back to Tain and collected the van. A.K.E. had done what seems to be a great job: a new radiator – not second-hand – fitted, topped up with antifreeze and tested all for £210. If you ever break down in Tain or are looking for an MOT or garage services, then I recommend them. Zak has warned me he thinks the water pump may be on its way out, so I’ll need to get that seen to.

The other thing we discovered is that we do have breakdown insurance: it comes with our Nationwide account, so next time the van breaks down up some remote glen, I’ll know whom to call. Assuming I get a mobile signal, that is.

The Loyal Bongo?

Having been up north a week or so back with Mrs M (I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you about that…) , I fancied returning to “conquer” Ben Loyal – a dramatic looking just-a-Corbett (764m). Dave Smith agreed to accompany me and I loaded up the Bongo for a Sunday departure. The plan was to tootle up to Tongue, turn south and camp near the base of the hill using a combination of van and tent: the weather for the previous few days had been excellent and, despite a colder snap being upon us, I was looking forward to our projected Monday outing.

You may already have detected from the phrasing of the previous paragraph that not all went according to plan. In fact, little did.

I drove off on Sunday afternoon, had coffee chez Dave in Tain and we left in good spirits. Dave is always cheery and full of witticisms, so the journey looked to be fun and it was. As far as almost into Bonar Bridge – a distance of about 12 miles from Tain – when Dave commented on a burning smell. It almost instantly became noticeable not just olfactorily but visually as the Bongo’s ventilation system started pumping clouds of smelly steam and smoke into the van.  One “feature” of the Bongo is that it can overheat – not a problem we’ve suffered from – so I always keep an eye on the temperature gauge which had been fine a minute or two earlier but as we coasted the hundred yards or so required to reach a handy layby, the needle started bouncing off the “H” end of the dial.

Ignition off, we leapt out and fingers metaphorically crossed I gingerly opened the bonnet, wary of a potential fire. However it was just steam, though more than strictly necessary from the bonnet of a roadworthy vehicle. We poked around a bit and removed the odd bit of plastic ducting until it became clear there was a crack or broken seam at the top of the radiator. “Buggar” I thought.

After giving the engine a chance to cool a bit, I found the 5 litre plastic jerrycan that had been going to supply us with water for coffee etc. and started to top up the cooling system. There was still a lot of steam and topping up took about half the supply. It was clear Ben Loyal would have to wait for another day.

After a bit of a debate and a phone call to Mrs M to confirm we didn’t have any form of roadside assistance, I gently turned the van and we limped back towards Tain. The 12 miles or so took several refills of the cooling system: we managed about three and a half miles per refill and had to beg water from local residents.

Dave and I go a long way back: after graduating and failing as a computer salesman, I lived in an Aberdeenshire cottage next door to him and during the return to Tain I reminisced about how a few of us used to drive at some god-forsaken hour to Longside airstrip where I had a job as a welder’s mate: on these trips it was brake fluid we leaked and topping up before the journey gave us a couple of good stops and three gently decelerating coasts before more fluid had to be poured in. Somehow, that didn’t – even then – seem as much of a drag as this was.

We got back to Tain and the van is still there, at Dave’s house. Next weekend, Mrs M and I are going in the car to collect it: I have a memory of something called “Holt’s Radweld”, which they still make, and I plan on buying an industrial-sized pack for the 46 mile journey from Tain to Inverness. If yesterday is anything to go by, Holts are going to see a sudden rise in their annual profits. Once home, it’s mostly downhill to F&R Macdonald at Holm Mills. Ian, the current boss, is a great guy (I mention this in case he’s reading my blog!) but doesn’t much like Bongos. I’m beginning to empathise with him.

Old codgers – like me – may be familiar with tips about using porridge oats, egg white etc. to block radiator leaks, so don’t bother recommending these homespun solutions. I recall friends of my father touring Ireland by car in the sixties in a Jaguar and having a game bird meet an untimely and untidy end when it made sudden contact with their radiator, leaving a pheasant sized hole in the grille. They limped into a garage just after the back of beyond and the callow youth manning the forecourt went to get the remaining half bottle of “RadWeld”, before accepting there was little chance of success.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

On the right track…

Some folk have shown an interest in what I’m doing with my model railway, so here’s a bit of information.

Last year, probably in November, I must have reminisced to Sonia about having a clockwork train set as a kid: fast forward to Christmas and I was given two Hornby electric starter kits, a selection of carriages and a few other bits and bobs. I enjoyed playing with it on the living room floor, but my knees were less than happy and it did rather take over the whole room. I suppose running the trains appealed to my inner megalomaniac.

On this basis, and with daughter number one safely married off, I decided to create a permanent layout in her bedroom upstairs and to make a platform or table for it. Note: although I have dismantled her bed to give space during construction, it will be reinstated and both she and Ben are always welcome and I’ve no plans to hijack Sarah’s room: at least, not so far!

As this was going to be a long-term project, I researched model railway layouts at http://www.freetrackplans.com/ and settled on a 6ft by 6ft design apparently based on Ayr station: to my mind the similarity is faint and irrelevant but it suited my purpose.

In the diagram, the shaded areas relate to phase 2 and are not currently being implemented: they may well be varied in the meantime. The left hand of the board will house the “town” and its station whilst on the right, but not shown in the diagram, will be a small rural station. I’m currently thinking of setting the whole thing in Scotland in the latter part of the 20th century. More specifically, I think it’ll be spring, with Highlands type scenery, particularly in the top right quadrant. The access hole, necessary during construction and for rescuing derailments etc. may well have its cover re-inserted as a removable item.

Phase 1 layout nailed down – I forgot to include the level crossing Sonia gave me. Phase 2 perhaps?

The base is made of three sheets of 9mm ply, reinforced underneath with battens. My original plan to make legs seemed like too much trouble, so the whole thing is supported by two pairs of trestles / sawhorses from B&Q.

The track – based on what was in the two starter kits, but significantly augmented – was carefully loose-laid to check the position of the access hole and then nailed down.

If you had a model electric railway as a kid, you’ll know the power to the engines is transmitted via the rails. With “permanent” layouts it’s normal not to rely on the metal “fish plates” (which link the rails) to make a good connection, but to solder each rail of each piece of track to a circuit underneath the table. Thus – even with not linking in some of the shortest pieces – I had about a hundred joints to solder and connect to “chocolate blocks” linked in to the main circuit. It is this stage I am finishing now.

Note the soldered joints: these should more or less disappear once the ballast is laid.

A small section with ballast and a few trees etc. Just for fun!

Linking the rails to a “ring main” (only low voltage!) with “chocolate blocks”

Once this job, which involves a lot of lying on the floor and working above my head, is finished and tested, all engines on the track will either be powered or not, all at the same time. In other words, it will not be possible to start one engine whilst another is stopped.

This is an obviously serious flaw which I may get round by temporarily disconnecting one or two of the chocolate blocks or by adding a non-wired siding. However, it will disappear once I make the leap to a digital system. In this brave new non-analogue world, each engine – plus points – can be controlled individually with commands which in effect say things like “engine number 3 move forward at half speed”. The commands are sent to the various engines as a digital signal “on top” of the power transmitted through the track / wiring circuit: hence my current task. As indicated above, points can be switched remotely in a similar way. If I get sufficiently carried away, I will also be able to control lights on engines, carriages, stations etc., as well as all the sound effects of a railway engine on the move.

I have been looking at ways of making scenery: whilst it is possible to buy almost anything recreated to OO scale (1:76) there will be plenty to create from scratch, the only restriction being my limited creative talents.

I’m not planning on including a nudist beach, nor these interchangeable toilet users, but you can buy almost anything to add life and detail!

So far it’s fun, despite a lot of lying on the laminate floor.

 

 

 

 

Loose Ends

I owe you guys an apology, just suddenly wandering off like that without even saying goodbye. I’ll try to make amends.

I left you just after the Bundala trip, about three weeks ago, though it seems longer. I don’t think a lot of exciting things happened after Bundala, but I must mention my farewell to Thomas Gall School. In order to check up on details, I looked in on TGS on Thursday and Fathima wa pleased to see me, though disappointed I’d not turned up on Wednesday as I’d said I might: she had taken in cakes or biscuits and I’d not been there. She also gave me a lovely card decorated with little paper flowers and “Dear Teacher, you are so…” type doggerel.

The actual official farewell was at Friday Assembly: a special one because Nadeshani was also leaving so there was lots of cake. Barbie (!) Gall told us all how much we had to be thankful for, some of the classes performed stuff and some of my IT kids put on a rather under-rehearsed demonstration of the programs they’d been working on. It was an occasion for mixed emotions: I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to be my last visit to TGS and Sri Lanka, though you never can tell. In some ways I was glad to be leaving the periods of tedium, the noise and the smells: but in others I was sad to be saying goodbye to some great people and all that good weather!

As for the ants: I squished every single one I could see near the laptop and the flight seems to have done for the rest.

My prearranged car to the airport arrived to pick me up at exactly the same moment as the Richdmondites (current and former pupils of Richmond College) took their parade past Sera’s place. This consisted of hundreds of cars, motor bikes etc. all horns blaring, flags waving, engines revving, music playing, water pistols squirting, crawling slowly across both sides of the road towards us. We stood our ground but constantly edged forwards until we were clear after about a quarter of an hour.

The car was very smart: a last year’s model Toyota with a rear view camera for reversing and a whole host of other goodies. We headed towards Colombo on the “Expressway”, the first time I’ve really used that road and it’s much faster and more comfortable than the other roads. We sped along an almost empty dual carriageway in considerable style and comfort.

The rain started. Initially just short sharp showers as we made our way northward, it soon became the heaviest downpour I have ever experienced. We crawled along the dual carriageway, floods of water sweeping gravel and earth across the tarmac. The route changed to urban streets and sandy orange water was often over the hub caps. Even when the water was only a couple of inches deep, we moved at snail’s pace as the driver was concerned about hidden potholes. I wasn’t worried about time as I had factored in quite a safety margin and I suspect the driver had too.

Finally we arrived at the airport in good time. The flight to Abu Dhabi was nothing special and we arrived more or less bang on midnight their time.

My flight to Heathrow didn’t leave until 9am the next morning, so I was destined to have a long wait. By about two am I was almost the sole passenger in the airport but there were squads of Asian cleaners washing the corridor floors, emptying the bins and scrubbing in the toilets. I say “Asian”: to an undifferentiating eye they looked Indian, Pakistani maybe. Time dragged a bit but all in all the time from midnight to eight am, when boarding began, passed better than it might.

Similarly, the flight to Heathrow was the usual mix of movies, dozing, food and reading. Until we arrived over Heathrow, that is.

The in-flight information system showed us about ten minutes away from Heathrow when the pilot announced there would be a delay landing and we would be circling for a bit: a pain, but not unusual. After about twenty minutes of circling the pilot announced we didn’t have enough fuel for all this circling about stuff so we were going to Gatwick instead. A fair amount of muttering could be heard but I thought this might save me having to do the bus transfer from Heathrow to Gatwick.

No such luck. We sat in the plane on the tarmac for two and a half hours whilst arrangements were made to refuel our plane. I could see my five hour window between arrival at LHR and departure from LGW being eroded by the minute. Tantalisingly, throughout our wait on the ground I kept getting updates from EasyJet warning me my flight to Inverness would be delayed – perhaps the two delays would cancel each other out?

Suddenly we were screaming hell for leather down the runway at Gatwick and almost as suddenly screaming to a stop at Heathrow. Etihad staff apologised for the delay and handed out letters saying how sorry they were. I was advised that, even though it was unlikely I’d get the next flight, I should try for it and then arrangements would be made.

I missed a coach by minutes and had a long time in the cold and wet of England waiting for the next one. The journey to Gatwick was enlivened by a Scottish hen party of a certain age, all rouge and fishnet tights.

Needless to say, I missed the flight North. I went to the EasyJet information desk where the staff were very helpful. I was even too late to get on the last flight that night, Thursday. The next flight to Inverness with a vacant seat would be Saturday! Eventually we located a seat to Edinburgh on Friday afternoon and the staff at the desk did a great job of minimising the cost of this. They referred to it as a “rescue flight”, a not inappropriate

The next couple of hours almost brought me to tears. I shuttled back and forth between the two terminals trying to find accommodation. Bloc? Full. Yotel: Full. The Holiday Inn Express rumoured to be within the grounds? Taxi £12. Sofitel?: £200 a night. Finally Premier Inn: £80 and a barely passable evening meal. I slept like a log. Breakfast was better: lots of greasy eggs, bacon, potato scones and sausages all sandwiched between a healthy first course of cereal and fruit and a final round of toast and marmalade.

The flight to Edinburgh went smoothly, as did my meeting with Mrs M who had braved snowy conditions on the A9 to collect me. The cat skirted round me as usual.

A day or two after I got home, I used the email address supplied by Etihad to claim for my expenses. To cut a longish story down a bit, Etihad’s final verdict was “That’s a shame, sorry we were late but our contract was to get you to London and we did. Here’s 10,000 air miles.”

I contacted Nationwide Flex Account Plus Travel Insurance and another very helpful woman took me through the details of my claim: uncharacteristically, I had kept paper evidence of each transaction for scanning to Etihad – but that’s another story – and she was so convinced by my ability to provide details that they apparently don’t even want me to send in the paperwork. I’m told the cheque’s in the post. If so, well done Nationwide.

So, I think that’s you up to date. Sorry about the gap.

“Bundala” Pictures (geddit?)

Back in Galle and glad to get air conditioning again as I forgot to specify it when I booked the Lagoon Inn and by the time I realised I was already installed and it wasn’t. A good trip, all in all, though the preponderance of rice and curry, along with the heat, made for three rather sleep-deprived nights.

My laptop – opened to write this, upload photos etc. – is infected with ants which appear from the bowels of the machine as fast as I can squish them. If all else fails, being in the hold of an aircraft should sort them out.

Here are a few photos from Bundala: pretty dubious quality but like all bad workmen I’ll blame my little point and shoot camera.

An unfortunate brand name

Spooky water buffalo

It always surprises me to see peacocks in trees: somehow I feel they shouldn’t really be able to fly.

Painted Stork

Lesser Adjutant Stork

White Ibis: one of my favourites

Salt Pans

Google Earth view of the Salt pans

Hanging Parrot

Hanging Parrot hanging out of its nest in hollow tree trunk

Tortoise

Blue-tailed Bee Eater

Tusker approaching at moderate speed

Kingfisher (?) photobombed by monkey

Bunny