Category Archives: Wanderings

Babble about walks, rambles, treks, perambulations and such.

Over the Hill

Hostal Nevandi in Espinama is probably my favorite of the places we have stayed. L&I decided on the meal for two at dinner. First was a large plate of serrano ham with onions, tomatoes, vinaigrette etc and very tasty it was too. Next was a vegetarian’s nightmare: a vast platter of grilled veal, lamb, salchichon, chorizo, pork and bunny with a topping of chips. This was followed by ice cream and washed down with a very acceptable bottle of red. Total price for the two of us: €34.

We didn’t really need breakfast, but… The coffee was excellent and I had Corn Flakes with the bread, ham and Philly filling any possible gaps. L snaffled a couple of bananas for today’s walk.

The walk started steeply up through beech and oak woodland and continued in that vein for the first half of the 12km, then spent the rest of the time descending through pastureland. Once out of the woods, we were bathed in sun for the whole way, though distant cloud bubbled up in a way that was quite attractive, at least from a distance.

There seemed to be the remains of a wedding party at the tables outside Mogrovejo’s one and only bar so we wandered up to the deserted village of Sebrango, emptied of people when a landslide demolished many of the houses a few years ago and the utility companies refused to reinstate power etc.

Back in Mogrovejo, I received a message from Mrs M saying we obviously hadn’t walked hard or far enough if we had finished already: I had been ill-advised enough to advertise the completion of the 8 days’ trek. I needed a beer to regain my composure and L reacted in sympathy.

L texted Mike – our ‘travel agent’ who came to collect us and take us back to Casa Gustavo. We then wandered up to the (free) visitor centre, which is pretty good value and quite interesting.

L and I have taken to playing what he calls ‘crossword chess’: alternately filling in answers in an old Times cryptic and teasing each other for slowness. Occasionally, we allow ourselves to show admiration at the other’s verbal dexterity. We are doing this on the balcony of this marvelous old house as the sun slowly slips behind the peaks. I was about to say I have no worries, but I suppose boiled chicken may be on the menu.

Tomorrow, lift to Unquera, bus to Bilbao, quick look round , bus to airport, shuttle to hotel and then Sunday fly to Edimburgo and bus to Inverness.

Pictures will follow, when time and inclination allow.


Yesterday, today and tomorrow

I’ve just posted yesterday’s blog, which refers to yesterday as “today”. Today’s blog refers to today and means today, unless of course you’re reading it some other time. For clarity, I’m writing this on the 5th October and we’ve arrived in Espinama, with one more day’s walking to do.

The refuge at Collado Jermoso was pretty acceptable: the common areas fine, the food good, the views stupendous and the draft beer excellent value. Given the general remoteness and inaccessibility of the refuge, having any beer is pretty impressive: having chilled draft is almost unbelievable. The downside to the place, as with most refuges, is the sleeping accommodation: L and I were on the upper tier of a bunk bed arrangement which slept four on each level. Thank goodness there were only three on the bottom and just us two on top. I was tucked under a coombe ceiling which limited my mobility and added to the excitement of my nocturnal visit to the composting toilets (Sit up – ouch, find, switch on and partially cover head torch, wriggle out – ouch – from sleeping bag, clamber down to floor – no ladder – stagger downstairs dodging beams, pad through through dining room… reverse).

However, without refuges we would probably never get to such superb spots and watch the sun sinking behind row upon row of distant mountain peaks.

Today’s walk was child’s play compared to yesterday but still demanding enough. The path was mostly pretty good, the scenery stupendous and the weather almost too warm, with a blue sky and an occasional cooling breeze. Much of the walk was high-level and we intended taking the cable car down the 800 or so metres to Fuente De (Gateway to The Picos, complete with coach parties, gondola station, car parking, hotel and – for all I know – “Kiss Me Quick” hats). A minor slip up in navigation meant we missed a turning and ended up descending steeply all the way by foot which was a bit of a pain. Now down in civilisation again, we had a cool cerveza then walked, partly by main road, partly by little side roads, to Espinama.

I was here four years ago with Brian – twice in fact – and we picked up a very large stray dog on our way which would not be persuaded to leave us alone, following us through the mist over hill and dale, being at least partly responsible for Brian’s shocking experience with an electric fence. This time there was no dog, no mist and no electric shock. We did however have plenty of hill and dale.

We are staying in excellent little Hotel Nevandi, which provides us with a nice room, a great shower and a friendly welcome. They sell a remarkably refreshing lemon beer and provided us free, gratis and for nothing with a sort of tuna & macedoine of vegetables in a mayonnaise sauce, accompanied by bread and crisps. As L said, it would help to keep him going over the next seven or eight hours until Spanish teatime.

Tomorrow – our last day’s walking – we go to Mogrovejo, a new place for both of us, where Mike is due to collect us and take us back to his house for an overnight stay. I didn’t discover whether they have wifi, so you may not hear from me again until we’re in Bilbao or even Inverness.

¡Hasta luego!

PS: note to Sonia. I suggest you prime the washing machine and ensure there’s plenty heavy duty chemical, biological and nuclear powder.

Blood, Sweat & Beers

Today has been a killer. Excellent weather but a long and – at times – very steep ascent. The total distance was short but the height gained (and sometimes lost only to be wrestled back from gravity a few minutes later) was about 1300m.

We left Casa Campo after a barely adequate breakfast and paying for last night’s meal at about 10:00 then walked back to Cordiñanes, which we passed yesterday, having a brief diversion due to a demolished bridge.

Then the climb began.

It was stiff from the start, but at times, especially latterly, involved scrambling: as L. commented, it was two or three steps forward and then a break to get your breath back. The “official” time, depending on which signpost you read is 4 or 5 hours. We did it in 3:40, though L. beat me by five minutes.

The spot is called Collado Jermoso: “the beautiful pass” and lives up to its name. I stayed here 16years ago and the refuge has been significantly upgraded since then. Not only does it have toilets, it has draft beer at acceptable prices.

As I wrote this, L. was lying back on a picnic bench and bemoaning his difficulty sitting up. We both agreed we used to be able to do a lot more, but can’t remember what it was we could do more of.

In the super weather of the last couple of days we have seen lots of little brown lizards, a slow worm and – circling in the sky – lots of vultures which add a sense of depth and scale to the view.

More to follow…

A gorgeous day

Let me start by saying today has been the best day so far: in terms of weather, scenery, walking… And, as far as the first of those goes, it was something of a surprise.

But first, last night. Once again our meal had not been included (and neither had breakfast). Given the costs involved this – financially speaking – is not a problem. L had a supposedly small tuna salad, I had eggs, chips and chorizo, we both had cheese and shared a bottle of wine: about fifteen quid in total.

We woke to a grey smirr, low cloud and were further discouraged by the bombón meteorologica (weather dolly bird) on tv who showed cloud, rain and storms right over our heads. The waitress was rather more positive, saying it wouldn’t rain, but the cloud might not lift.

The Cares Gorge, which formed the first half of today’s walk, is stupendous: 13km on a good path through limestone peaks towering above us and the Rio Cares, hundreds of metres below, its water clear enough for us to see every pebble on the river bed. Time (and the need to order another beer) doesn’t allow me to go into more detail, but the smirr dissipated, the clouds disappeared, the sky turned blue and the sun shone down.

When you’re trying to “sell” a trip like this to a friend, you have to strike a balance and not overdo the description in case reality disappoints, so I was both delighted and relieved that L was as smitten with the walk as I was.

Our destination, Posada de Valdeon, was familiar to me from the trip with Brian four years ago and we’re staying in the same place, possibly the same room. Whilst the establishment is called Begoña, we are farmed out to the very appropriately named Casa Campo, owned by an elderly Englishman with a rather theatrical manner and a nice line in ear-studs. The building features a lot of marble flooring, some rather kitsch statuary and many other smaller objets d’art.

I must be honest: I have been stinking. L has done some hand-washing and even walked with damp knickers, socks etc. hanging off his rucksack. I’m a little more conscious of my image, but the result of several days in dampish weather means – according to Mr C – that my tee-shirt has become pretty niffy, despite occasional changes of clothing. L used to pass similar comments on the Chemin de Stevenson and if I were more sensitive I might have taken offence. However, even before beer, I have done some washing.

Begoña serves evening meals between 9pm and 10pm, so we have a while to wait.

Tomorrow will be a shortish day in terms of distance, but will involve a very steep ascent to the refuge at Collado Jermoso, where I do not expect wifi, so it’ll be a day or two until my next report.

Sorry about the photos. If I can’t send any from here, I’ll post some from home.

Fowl Whether?

We spent a few relatively abstemious hours in the bar of Sotres’s Casa Cipriano reading, playing games and failing to make a lot of sense of the news in the local paper though it was good to see an article extolling the virtues of tap water as opposed to the bottled variety. The tension mounted: what would be for dinner? At last we took the plunge and sat down to a meal that seemed to whisk past, so fast was the service. We started with fabada, a local stew of butter beans, ham, chorizo and black pudding: it was as good as I remembered and Laurie tucked into his with gusto. We also both chose breaded veal with chips and a dressing of the local blue cheese. Not a chicken, hen or pollo in sight! The “homemade” puddings were something of a let-down as the only “de la casa” aspect seemed to be a tin opener for Laurie’s rice pudding and a whisk to mix the powder from which my “creme brulee” had been conjured. The wine was red, rough and ready, so acceptable.

We had a disappointment after breakfast when it turned out that, unlike our night in Bejes, we had been reserved on a B&B basis, so had to pay for our dinner: at least we’d gone for the table d’hote. We will have to see how this develops in the days ahead.

Our walk to Urriellu refuge was consistently up-hill – which was much as we expected. The weather was fine: cloudy mostly above the tops, dry and coolish. Not bad for walking. As we ascended we moved from the definitely green environs of Sotres to the rocky and limestone mountainsides. Pico Urriellu is a striking lump of rock that sticks up 400m vertically on all sides and its conquering by a Spaniard some years back was possibly the start of the country’s mountaineering history. It is nicknamed El Naranjo because of some orange colouring on its rockface.

The refuge is large, but pretty basic: our dorm sleeps 24 on tiered shelving with 6 per shelf packed a bit like sardines. If one sleeper turns over, I think the rest will be rotated as well. The communal dining and sitting area is beginning to warm up now that the stove is on and L&I have completed two Times crosswords, bar one clue in the second.

Our meal was not at all bad: soup, followed by stew and a banana. We chatted in pidgin Spanish and its English equivalent with the other ‘guests’. A Spanish chap and woman had flown from Ibiza where they work in order to climb Picu Urriellu. They had 3 female friends accompanying them. A Canadian woman in her fifties was spending six weeks alone walking in Spain. She had a silly little map of the Picos that gave no more than a minimal overview of the area and she spoke no Spanish.

I don’t think anyone slept well: certainly L&I didn’t. The loos – of the squat variety, which is never a great joy – seemed an obstacle course away. The refuge provided duvets and pillows and I had a sleeping bag liner: L had brought his own sleeping bag.

In the morning the weather was horrid: a steadily soaking drizzle falling through dense low cloud which limited visibility to a few yards. The poor Ibizans were beginning to accept that there would be no climbing today and all five would have to fly home dissatisfied. L&I decided that the best thing would be to retrace our steps from yesterday until the turn-off for Bulnes. It was not a pleasant walk: full waterproof gear dripping inside with condensation, low visibility, slippy wet paths…

The section down to the pretty little village of Bulnes was particularly treacherous and we both agreed our wives would hate this. Mind you, so did we!

When I was first in Bulnes, sixteen years ago, it was reputedly the only village in Europe without a road. Soon after I passed through, they opened an underground funicular railway. On the way to the station, we met an English guy out reconnoitring the route to Picu Urrielu in case it was too hard for a group of Nepalese sherpas he was going to bring.

For the sake of my marriage, I’m keeping shtum about the price of a one way ticket down to Poncebos and what passes round here for civilisation, but it did cause a sharp intake of breath, particularly from Laurie who – I think – rather fancied walking down: he makes no allowance for age! Arrival in Poncebos was met by increased temperature and, soon after, sun. However, the forecast for tomorrow is not great and that’s me trying to give it a positive spin.

During the long dark watches of the night in the refuge, I just lay sweating and trying to balance the hassle of going to the loo (sit up, bang head, wriggle out of bedding, bang head, slip on the Crocs® provided by the refuge, stagger out of the dorm, along the corridor and down the metal stairs, then into the squattery…, reverse the process) with the putative relief to gained. Laurie, however, used his time more creatively – at least by his lights – and came up with some terrible Spanish-themed puns. Earlier in the day we had discussed the patrician Rees-Mogg, whom Laurie now refers to as being “the Tory adored by the right wing”. Geddit? If you can take another, he now reckons he should have said “leave that cat alone, ya…” when I discouraged a moggie from drinking my cup of coffee at a wayside cafe / refuge en route for Urriellu.

Anyway, having arrived in the Garganta del Cares hotel, we both felt the better of a shower and dry, non-odiferous clothing. After a refreshing beer and being talked at for a while by the Canadian woman who was just passing through, one of us – who had wanted to walk down from Bulnes – was ready for a siesta, whilst the other one climbed up a very steep road to explore. I must show you the pictures.

It’s always difficult to know when to post this blog: from the reader’s point of view, bedtime would make sense, but not from the writer’s. So you’ll have to wait for tonight’s food review. Anyway, I’ll try to add a few photos from the last few days. I may not manage.

As a footnote, whilst I was writing the above, L went out for a stroll and I fell asleep.


Play “Misty” for me

If you were paying attention yesterday, you’ll have noticed my antipathy to boiled chicken: you will therefore understand my disappointment that the meal in the Albergue was… well I hardly need to continue, do I? Even the chips had a boiled feel, having been microwaved back up to temperature with the chicken.

I don’t want to seem churlish as mine host and his missus were very pleasant and amenable. The beer was surprisingly cheap as well and we were allowed to have our meal at a sensible time. L was particularly impressed by the coffee.

The Spanish nature-lovers turned up and were exemplary guests, making very little noise coming to bed after their much-later-than-us meal. They were getting up at sparrow-fart to watch rutting deer, bless their little cotton socks, but made virtually no noise at all.

L & I breakfasted at a more sensible 8:30 then set off.

Today’s trek was a smidgen under 20km and reached 1600m or so. It was probably a very picturesque walk, but we spent the day in low cloud with occasional drizzle. It wasn’t cold, though, and I did most of the walk in a damp tee shirt. Laurie wrapped up a bit more but sportingly bared his legs to the elements. We both felt we did well: there was a long climb out of Bejes – an attractive wee village with its terracotta half-pipe tiled roofs – then cattle at ridiculous altitudes, a sign saying the Spanish equivalent of “Road Closed”*, more cows, a disused mine and a long descent into Sotres. Sotres is a bigger place than Bejes and has a number of hotels and one or two shops, all roofed with the culturally-required terracotta tiles. On a sunny day it would be touristically pretty, but today’s weather has caused the crowds to atrophy and given a rather grey cast to everything.

Our accommodation in Sotres is a notch or two up from last night. We have a twin room with good-sized en suite. The shower even has what I laughingly referred to as a Gwyneth Paltrow attachment: a thin wand that one could imagine might emit steam.

Mr C has a healthy appetite and we tucked into two bocadillos: “proper” (not Spanish) omelettes in huge pieces of “Mediterranean” bread. I couldn’t finish mine, but L wolfed his way through his whilst I cursed at my phone: this morning it chose to tell me it had a download ready for me and I said the equivalent of “let’s do it”, which took half an hour and added all sorts of complications that quite honestly I could do without. I’ve also learned fingerprint recognition doesn’t work with wet fingers and you have to type your password in a minimum of 97 times before you can switch the fingerprint stuff off.

I remain resolutely optimistic that we won’t get boiled chicken for tea, poor sad deluded fool that I am.

Tomorrow we leave civilization behind and strike out into the centre of the Picos for our first refuge night. Rumour has it that tomorrow will be sunny, which would be great as the scenery should be superb. I very much doubt we’ll have Internet access, but I promise to tell you all about it in a couple of days when we should reach Casa Begoñia in Posada de Valdeon.

Hasta luego, amigos.

*I don’t want this detail to mislead you into envisaging us walking on a road. We were on a Land Rover track, occasionally passed by Spanish livestock-keepers in old vans, matchstick-thin fag end glued to lower lip, out tending their cattle and uttering at most a terse ¡Hola! in reply to our greetings.

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.