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.
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.
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 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?
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.