Day 6 took us from The Kyle of Tongue around Loch Ereboll, past Durness and down to Scourie. The scenery in this far corner of North West Sutherland is impressive, not least for the feeling of emptiness it imparts to those passing through. If you’re turned-on by wide open spaces with nothing but moorland, water and mountains then forget New Zealand and save yourself the airfare to the southern hemisphere. Ask yourself why(apart from the fact he’s a Kiwi) did Peter Jackson decide to go all that way to film The Lord of the Rings when he had everything he needed on the doorstep? The scenery’s perfect and Gaelic even sounds like a cross between Elvish and Orkish.
The caves at Smoo (yes, really) were a worthwhile stop. A narrow and deep rocky inlet leads into a series of massive caves that have apparently seen human habitation for thousands of years – including use by marauding Vikings (I’m not sure why, but Vikings somehow just have to be described as ‘marauding’ –whoever heard of ‘visiting’ Vikings?).
A short evening stroll from the campsite at Scourie up to the overlooking headland took us past the local cemetery which we noticed contains a single military war grave of a young sailor who died on 26th December 1939. Presumably he was lost from a passing Royal Navy warship and buried where he came ashore. Over the years we’ve visited a good many Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries, all of which have been kept in wonderful condition. This particular gravestone, however, was badly worn to the point where it was almost undecipherable and the grave was obviously untended and rather sad. A snottagram to the CWGC will follow shortly.
From Scourie we took the ‘B’ road that skirts Eddrachillis Bay through Drumbeg before re-joining the main road just short of Lochinver. The twenty-five mile detour took about two hours with much of the journey done in first or second gear with Denise clenching her buttocks or stretching for the brake pedal every time we went over a blind rise or down a steep slope; given that I was driving neither action had much effect on our progress but was probably excellent exercise.
The drive from Lochinver down to Ullapool was pleasant but uneventful, though we stopped briefly to visit another scenic ruin at Ardvreck Castle, tutting under our breath at those who seemed unable to understand the signs which implored visitors not to clamber on the fragile ruins. Ullapool itself is a nice little fishing port which also acts as the terminal for the ferry to Stornaway. After a short cycle ride we enjoyed a fish and chip supper whilst chatting to a couple who entertained us with hair-raising tales about the minor road that we’d planned to take to Applecross the next day. We’ll have to see whether Denise’s buttocks will allow us to take that particular route.
Blogging is like Pringles – once you pop, you just can’t stop. Or, at least, if you do stop you leave a story uncompleted, and that would never do. That said, you do have to have the ‘muse’ with you (whatever a muse may be) if you’re going to produce something worth reading, and my muse seems to have been AWOL for the past couple of days. The scenery has been fantastic, the roads empty the company wonderful (of course) and the whole experience enjoyable – just no muse. No matter, plenty of time to catch up, so long as we’re spared.
We made the right call by deciding to tackle the journey in an anti-clockwise direction. Against all expectations the leg from Loch Ness up the east coast was more interesting and varied than we’d expected. We suspect that those who tackle NC500 the other way around are probably knackered or bored by the time they reach John O’Groats and therefore miss out on much that the north east corner has to offer – simply because they want or need to get home in a hurry. Their loss, our gain.
After stopping for lunch at Tain we spent the night at ‘the campsite that time forgot’ just north of Lairg. Run by the lovely and unshaven Mrs Ross it would probably be best described as ‘basic’. We shared the site with a caravan, one other camper van and a minibus load of young Frenchmen who looked to be totally unprepared for a night under canvas. In the true spirit of European unity we ignored them and enjoyed the wild and beautiful scenery of Loch Shin. Our journey up the east coast the next day was lovely. The sun shone and the sea sparkled. We spent Night 4 at a nice little campsite in Wick. The Victorian town centre was just a short walk away but had nothing to offer – or, at least, nothing that we wanted. Supermarkets on the edge of town have killed off any small businesses that might have otherwise given the place some character and the resulting vacuum has been filled by takeaways and not much else.
The countryside changes as you leave Wick heading north to John O’Groats. The landscape becomes suddenly featureless and grey – no hills, no trees and the houses seemed to be ‘poorer’ than those we’d passed just a few miles earlier. John O’Groats itself is OK, but if it wasn’t the most northerly town (!) in the UK it wouldn’t have much to recommend it. Nearby Duncansby Head on the other hand provided a pleasant walk along the clifftops and great views of the Orkneys and of Muckle Stack and its companions. The drive along the A836 across the ‘top of Scotland’ to our next overnight stop at Tongue was pleasant and uneventful; once we were past Thurso the countryside once again became interesting and decidedly less grey – helped no doubt by the sun making a welcome appearance and some lovely, deserted beaches and stunning mountain views. Night 5 was spent in the car park of The Tongue Hotel. As this just happened to be our Ruby Wedding Anniversary (Denise was a child bride) we treated ourselves to a fine meal in the hotel’s very comfortable surroundings, having first enjoyed a testing little walk up to Varrich Castle which may very well be the smallest castle with the best views in this part of Scotland.
Decisions, decisions! Everything we’ve read about the North Coast 500 (NC500) tells us that the accepted practice is to tackle the route in a clockwise direction. Why is that? Are the views better in one direction than the other? Are some of the roads ‘one-way’? Now, we don’t want to be awkward, but the forecast for the next week is for the weather on the East coast to be better than on the West …. so we just wondered ….. if we go around in the other direction will we upset the applecart , get drummed out of the Brownies or just piss off the locals? As tonight finds us just to the south west of Inverness it will be ‘decision day’ tomorrow. Such excitement; far more than one man can bear.
Today was mainly damp, or dreech as its known around here. Not that we were much bothered by a bit of rain, but it did rather obscure the views as we made our way up from Glasgow, past Loch Lomond, through Glen Coe and around the foot of Ben Nevis before heading up the Great Glen and along the banks of Loch Ness to our overnight stop here at Lewiston just short of Drumnadrochit. Fortunately the weather eased off as we arrived, just in time for a short walk down to the Loch with views over Castle Urquhart and a stroll to the local for a pint of that well known Scottish brew – cider. Are we cosmopolitan or what?
Veronica Ann, Erin Beth, Anya Rose, Kathryn Jane and Angela Vera. Isn’t it strange how Eddie Stobart’s lorries always seem to have such posh names? Not that I’m complaining of course – after all it makes a pleasant change from Scania, Volvo, Bedford (showing my age there I think) and the like. Anyway, we passed these particular beauties en-route from home to Scotland earlier today – perhaps now that we’re north of the border we’ll encounter Morag, Fiona and Janet plying their way around the highways and byways of Scotland? Whilst I’m on the subject of Mr Stobart’s fleet I do think it a bit of a retrograde step for him to allow his drivers to ‘dress down’ by shedding their ties. Not that it makes them any less capable as drivers of course…….. but standards, Eddie, standards!
Our first stop (not counting obligatory pee stops every two hours on the motorway) is at Hoddom Castle a few miles from the wonderfully named Ecclefechan, just north of the border. The castle itself has undoubtedly seen better days but still makes an imposing ruin and a good focus for the campsite – which I’m happy to say is pleasantly empty. For once the English can’t be blamed for knocking the place about from time to time over the past 600 years – the Scots seem to have managed that all on their own. What, Scotsmen looking for a fight? Who’d have thought it! A short walk up a nearby hill to the aptly named Repentance Tower (if it had been any steeper I’m sure I’d have been meeting my maker) was rewarded by great 360 degree views over some wonderful countryside in the evening sunlight.
Knowing how warm and sunny England can be in late March we had absolutely no hesitation in accepting Richard and Collette’s invitation to join them and Gretel for a few days in delightful Devon over the Easter break. No doubt we had visions of sitting out under the van’s awning playing with Gretel whilst enjoying a quiet drink and listening to the gentle sound of the sea lapping against the sun drenched beach. Right! Unfortunately reality set in as we drove across Exmoor on our way to Croyde with snow beating against the windscreen and the temperature hovering around freezing; although things improved a little when we reached the coast and our rather soggy campsite I’m sure it can’t have stopped raining for more than a few hours over the entire long weekend.
Had it not been for having to lend our electric heater to the ‘young ones’ to warm up their ‘glamping pod’, and the van’s central heating system chose that moment to throw a hissy fit, we would probably have been quite smug snug as the wind whistled and the rain beat down on our roof! Fortunately we’re British and won’t be defeated by a little ‘inclement’ weather – and in fact we remained (mostly) dry and thoroughly enjoyed the entire long weekend. Gretel was her usual amenable self and ‘Granny Denise’ revelled in the opportunity to do a little babysitting.
This blogging is all very well, but if you get behind with your scribbling its a devil to catch up! Anyway, having left the Loire Valley we headed south down to Confolens, which sits on the River Vienne to the north west of Limoges. Its an attractive town which our 15 year-old Rough Guide (not nearly as bad as our 10 year-old satnav) described as ‘rather touristy’ – well the tourists must have come and gone as we saw little sign of them. In fact we rather liked the town and especially the campsite which was literally on the banks of the Vienne which flowed sedately past our doorstep. A short (well reasonably short) cycle ride took us up the road to St Germain de Confolens which we particularly enjoyed. The next stop on our own personal ‘tour de France’ was Bugeat to the southeast of Limoges, but on the way we spent a few hours at Oradour sur Glane. It was here in June 1944 that a Division of the German Waffen SS, which included a number of Frenchmen, committed a particularly terrible atrocity, destroying the village and brutally murdering some 650 men, women and children in a so-called reprisal for attacks by the French Resistance. After the war the local population decided not to rebuild the village which has been left as a memorial to those who died here and elsewhere in France. We had a lovely warm day for our visit but one couldn’t help but be affected by the atmosphere of the place and the thought of what took place 73 years ago.
It would be nice to think that a few days spent in France would be the perfect antidote to all the Brexit crap we’re being fed in UK at the moment. The reality, however, is that if you’re any sort of Europhile all that happens when you spend time in Europe is that you realise just how much our continental cousins have got right and just how dire the UK’s situation is going to be when the umbilical cord is eventually cut. Not that everything in the European garden is completely rosy, and there are undoubtedly many things that the European bureaucrats have got completely wrong, but I have no doubt that five or so years down the line we’re all going to be feeling very sorry for ourselves. Still, that’s what happens when you give peasants and old people the vote. In the meantime I’m sure that I can detect a distinct sense of sympathy in the attitudes of the French people we meet – ah, les pauvre Anglais; ils sont absolutement fou!
For this, our fourth adventure in the ‘van, we decided to go ‘off piste’ and, apart from our first stop at the outset of our journey, we decided not to book campsites in advance. To be fair we’re not taking too much of a risk as we’re right at the end of the holiday season and, apart from the Dutch, who seem to be perpetually on the road, most holidaymakers have returned home and there’s more chance of sites being closed than packed-out.
Our first stop was at Saumur in the Loire Valley, home of the French cavalry school and the country’s biggest producer of mushrooms – there has to be a connection there somewhere. We picked a campsite on the Ille d’Offard , which is both in the centre of the town and on an island in the middle of the Loire. It’s a lovely location and within easy cycling distance of the chateau, which is Saumur’s main tourist attraction, and in reality is more of a fortress than a palace. Constructed initially by ‘Charles the Bald’ (the French certainly know how to call a spade a shovel) around the turn of the first millennium, over the next eight hundred years it had a busy and frequently violent history, ending up as a prison for Napoleon’s political opponents. Bizarrely, in the middle of our guided tour we were greeted by Jeanna Ind, a member of the Glavon chapter of the TR Register and someone we know quite well. What are the chances of bumping into an acquaintance like that completely out of the blue when far from home?
Today we’d planned to take in the Chateau du Rivau, but in the end we instead visited Chinon and enjoyed a walk around its well-preserved medieval streets followed by a visit to the town’s fortress which, like Saumur, has been partially reconstructed and is well worth a couple of hours spent wandering about. After a misty start to the day the skies cleared around midday and the sun shone and I spent some time cogitating about how things would have been very different if some of our medieval Kings of England hadn’t so carelessly lost our possessions in France; and that brought me back to Brexit all over again. Bugger!
It just so happens that Ty Rhos is only about half a mile from the West Wales Coastal Path, so as Thursday dawned bright and dry it would have been weak and unmilitary not to make the best of our lovely location and take a quick stroll along the coastline. I use the word ‘stroll’ advisedly as setting one foot in front of the other is still a bit of a struggle for me, not least when the path involves conquering the odd contour. Nevertheless we/I managed a mile or so of the cliff-top path which afforded some magnificent views and convinced us that we need to return here to walk more of the coastal path once I’m a little bit further along the way to full recovery.
The drive from mid-Wales down to the Black Mountains was enjoyable; the roads were relatively empty, the scenery was attractive and the sun shone. For the past week we’ve been telling ourselves that we’ve been fortunate with the weather during this trip, but perhaps we’ve had it all wrong and this part of the world isn’t quite as monsoon-prone as we’ve always thought? Naw! The forecasts can’t all be wrong and if/when Atlantic weather comes rolling in towards the UK there’s little doubt that it’s going to drop its lot on this part of Wales first. No matter, as I’ve said before timing is everything and if you can time your visits to avoid the equatorial rainstorms then you’ll be rewarded.
Our final stopover on this adventure was at Pencelli Castle which sits in the River Usk Valley just outside Brecon. The castle is long gone but the campsite that sits in its place is very pleasant and we were once again fortunate with the weather. A short walk along the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in the company of all manner of wildlife was followed by the inaugural ‘firing’ of the portable barbeque that the kids bought for my birthday. Burgers and kebabs have never tasted so good – but we decided not to eat the wildlife!
Having settled the ‘van’ onto the very well-manicured and equally expensive Islawrffordd Campsite for a couple of nights we decided yesterday to ‘let the train take the strain’ and bought a brace of ranger tickets allowing us to explore the coastal railway line that follows the edge of Cardigan Bay, skirting the coastline and stopping at numerous small towns and even smaller villages along the way. The grey landscape and buildings seemed largely to be unaffected by the equally grey weather – perhaps on a bright sunny day it would have been a more uplifting experience, but I doubt it. Not that the place is depressing or dull – just a little bit, well, grey.
We journeyed north past Harlech as far as Pwllheli, did a quick tour of the town, took in a few charity shops, had a coffee and slab of bara brith cake and then hopped back on the train which chugged (I’m old enough to remember the days when trains puffed rather than chugged) its way south, past our starting point of Tal-y-bont, through Barmouth and on to Tywin, which sits on the coast below Cader Idris. There’s not a great deal to do in Tywin, so we took in a couple more charity shops and scoffed a brace of sandwiches from the local Co-op on the promenade whilst looking out for bottle-nosed dolphins – which had obviously decided to stay home for the day. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but we enjoyed our day.
Today was Denise’s birthday, so obviously the wind dropped, the sun shone and the temperature started to rise. Having decided to advance our itinerary by a day we drove south to Aberystwyth which came as a pleasant surprise. Quite why the Victorians decided to establish a place of higher learning in the middle of nowhere I’m not at all sure, but no doubt generations of university students have been extremely grateful for their decision to do so because it’s lovely. Or at least it is when the sun’s shining and there’s ice cream to be eaten.
The surprise of the day was Aberaeron. It seems that at some time in the 1970s one of the residents decided to paint her house a bright shade of something and the idea caught on. Now virtually all the houses in this well-preserved town are painted in bright and contrasting colours and the effect is wonderful. Perhaps because they haven’t allowed the thing to become gaudy or ‘over the top’ the colour scheme just seems to work extremely well and it’s quite uplifting that so many in the community have joined in to make something that obviously gives pleasure to residents and visitors alike.
Tonight we’re staying at Ty Rhos, a small campsite just outside New Quay, which is a pretty and as yet unspoiled harbour village just a little further down the coast. A nice birthday meal in the village followed by a short walk along the harbour breakwater convincing ourselves that we could see bottle-nosed dolphins a good half mile out to sea made for a very pleasant end to a very pleasant day.
There’s no doubt about it, life in the ‘van’ is infinitely more comfortable than camping. No tent to erect, no beds to make, hot and cold running water on demand and, most important of all, a large fridge to keep all that nice wine and beer properly chilled. I’m not at all sure how we’re going to cope if we have to revert to spending nights under canvas with the ‘Tufty Club’. Still, life is full of compromises – so perhaps we’ll just have to get used to occupying our ivory tower and be content to feel superior when necessary.
First stop on our Welsh itinerary was Powis Castle and gardens which proved to be a very worthwhile stopover. In the care of the National Trust since 1957 the castle has been in continuous occupation since the 13th century and was formerly the home of the Herbert family whose alumni, we learned, included Clive of India. The house/castle is fascinating (made even more so through the efforts of the many enthusiastic NT volunteers who were on hand to answer our questions) and certainly worth a visit …… but the gardens are simply sensational!
Timing, of course, is everything and I think that we probably judged our visit to perfection. Just about everything was in bloom and, although we didn’t actually see any gardening staff at work, there must have been dozens of hard working horticulturists running ahead of us just making sure that everything was perfectly prepared for our visit. Highly recommended and perhaps even worth a return visit at some time in the future.
Our second night’s stopover was at Tal-y-bont, just north of Barmouth on Cardigan Bay. With more holiday homes to the acre than it’s possible to calculate without using an abacus this type of location probably wouldn’t be our first choice in high season, but outside the school holidays there’s nothing more raucous about most of these sites than the sound of pensioners gently snoring their way through Coronation Street or Eastenders. It seems that quiet and comfortable has got to be the way forward.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..