Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Road Less Travelled

Here goes, we are looking back over the summer we spent in our Airstream in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. I had anticipated some good scenery and some bracing sea air but I never guessed it was to be the high point of our travels so far.

We decided to make the first leg take us from Keswick to Oban. The ferries to Mull depart from there and that was to be the first destination of our island-hopping.

The first half of the drive north couldn't really have been any easier. Once on the M6 you're on one of those uplifting routes which gradually loses fellow motorists to the cities and towns along the way until you hit the open spaces and the roads less travelled.

We did have a mini hitch when we wanted to stop at services and make some lunch. On our first attempt we followed the signs towards caravan parking and found ourselves driving around a very busy CAR PARK! No big spaces for caravans or trailers. If there had been room to manoeuvre we might have tried to take up two spaces, but there wasn't. Instead we did a circuit and moved on. At the next stop the caravan area was basically a grass verge with room for three or four vans. We refuelled our tums and got back on the road.

Bypassing Glasgow is simple and the scenery just gets better and better as you drive up the west side of Loch Lomond. It feels like you're really starting out on a proper trip. For us it was starting to look like a proper wet trip. As we progressed northward alongside the loch it started to pour with rain. The further north we went the narrower the road became. Add to that road works, a temporary and bumpy road surface and what seemed like buckets-full of water being thrown up at the windscreen whenever another vehicle passed us. When we arrived at the campsite we were told we should have turned off and taken a detour to avoid all of that. Ah well.

The site in Oban was large and affiliated to one of the clubs and had the benefits of helpful staff, immaculate facilities, hook-up etc. Most of the vans were in rows facing the sea. Luckily for us we were pitched on the side, angled and staggered so that we could simply enjoy the sea view without having to look at the white box terraces. The only downside was that the loo disposal point was so far from our pitch that the 14 litre cartridge had to be transported in the car.

A bonus was that fellow Airstreamer, Andrew, arrived the following day. He was also on a Hebridean trip of his own and while we would be doing our own things, we would make a point of meeting up along the way. Like us, he knew where he wanted to visit but the final details were to be confirmed.

In between planning we had some walks on the beach and cheered on Andrew as he took to the sea with his kite board.

Pete and I took a look around Oban on a Sunday in what was probably low-ish season and I suspect we didn't see it at its best. I can comfortably add it to my list of 'functional towns'. This town's main function seemed to be as a starting point for island hoppers. Although I can recommend the view of the harbour and of Mull and surrounding islands from McCaig's Monument. The monument is like a massive folly in the shape of an ancient amphitheatre. Apparently it was going to be a museum and library but it was never finished. What stands now is the external circular structure with a park in the middle of it instead, and the great view.

We found an excellent guide book about hopping The Hebrides in the Oban branch of a well known high street book store, got some chips and mushy peas, ate them while walking the streets and protecting our dinner from the circling seagulls then popped in to the ferry terminal to make enquiries and book our tickets. Unfortunately this is where things started to hiccup.

There is only one ferry company operating between the mainland and the Hebrides. Just think about the disadvantages of any monopoly and apply them here. The most obvious one being, no choice. What they say goes. And what they said was that since our trailer is longer than 8 metres, by 25cm they would be charging us as a commercial vehicle. So instead of our Island Hopper ticket costing us around £350 it was going to be closer to £700. I could have cried. Our plans seemed quashed in a moment. It was too much, impossible to justify. Even if it weren't I wouldn't have wanted to let them get away with such an arbitrary hoick in fees, an extra £350 for an extra 25cm.

We returned, deflated, to the trailer to rethink our plans. Scotland is overly endowed with beautiful places which we had not yet seen. We would simply enjoy them instead. We would continue heading north and work our way around the coast.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Rally Call

Back in March, I put the word out (just to see what happened) and nine Airstream owners turned up with their trailers and motor homes for a mini-rally.

Last weekend, we did it again.

This time, thirteen units turned up, ranging from a '59 Tradewind to a hot-off-the-presses European. Almost all of the "old guard" returned (Chris - you missed a good one; Chuck - get well soon), along with a splendid collection of new faces.

The weather was fantastic (the best it's been since early June!) and the sun poured down all weekend on shiny aluminium.

We arrived a few days early and caught up with John & Carole (or Jack Lightning and the Milky Way Kid as they are now known) in their '06 Classic. I hope they won't be too embarrassed if I say that they are two of the finest human beings I have ever met, and that I find them truly inspirational. Actually, I'm sure they will be embarrassed, but I hope they'll get over it by the time we see them next.

It just remains for me to say "Thank you" to everyone who came (in, more-or-less, the order they arrived)... John, Carole, Bill, Christine, Ian, Arianne, Dave, Helen, David, Ali, Michael, Glynis, Pete, Paul, Hazel, Scarlet, Flo, Andrew, Simon, Emma, Carl, Gaynor, Connor, Rory, Paul, Carla, Sebastian and Casper. I didn't have nearly enough time to spend with each of you, but I hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as I did. Thanks, also, to the huge number of visitors we had. It seems that a Rivet of Airstreams (is that the proper collective noun?) cannot go unnoticed! And finally, thank you to the wardens Irene and Richard, who graciously put up with our late-night revelry, our stream of arrivals and visitors, and our night-time light pollution!

Will we be doing it again? Oh, yes. There will be another gathering of some sort in the Spring, and we're working on a special project or two for next year.... Stay tuned...

We'll be back very soon with another installment in our Scottish Odyssey.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

Break for the Border

So, looking back over the summer and our Scottish odyssey we have travelled in a big loop. Our loopy journey took us up the western coastline, hopping around some Western Isles, then around the north, over to Orkney and then more hastily in a southerly direction through eastern and some central areas.

Where did it all begin?

Well, the trailer had been back at Airstream HQ for a couple of days getting new batteries and having some other niggles addressed. Our one year old batteries had failed us back in the spring when we'd had just a couple of days without hook up. We were hoping for a bit of wild camping in the islands so we had to cough up for two new ones already, Ouch, and double Ouch! But more on that in another post.

Before crossing the border we made a last minute decision to spend a couple of days in Keswick in Cumbria. It felt like a convenient buffer between the repair and maintenance phase and heading off on a new leg of our journey to the Scottish Highlands and Islands. By coincidence, a couple who were collecting their new 684 while we were at Airstream was also staying at the same campsite as us. Pete was able to lend them a hand with a couple of new-Airstream quirks. We gave each other plenty of space over the next couple of days and then hung out together one evening at the Square Orange Cafe Bar. It's fun meeting other Streamers, especially by chance.

The best part of this detour to Keswick was meeting up with lots of lovely friends we had left behind. This was the place we were leaving when we took off on our Airstreaming road trip. We had strong reasons for leaving, the type that make you reluctant to return to a place. But the things that made us unhappy there are no longer relevant to us, so what we are left with is a great big bunch of lovely people who are lots of fun to hang out with and catch up with.

Much of the meeting up took place in the Square Orange. It is the most relaxed place to hang out in and is frequented by locals and visitors alike, young and not so young. I used to work there and I still love it. When we started travelling I used to hope that we would find places just like it all over the country. We haven't. Every town should have one of these, but sadly most of them don't.

It's the kind of place where you can start out meeting one group of friends and end up bumping into others by chance. You might pop in for a coffee in the afternoon and still be there drinking locally-brewed beer late into the evening. It's the hub. That's what happened to us and two evenings in there simply wasn't enough. One friend's been travelling, another has lost loads of weight, another has a new boyfriend, etc., etc. So much news. You start a conversation, someone new turns up, the conversation takes a new direction. We'll have to return sooner and stay longer next time and see if we can finish a thread.

Scotland beckoned. We were packing up on the Saturday morning and on course to leave by noon, which is the moving on time for all campsites bar about three that we've come across. This was one of those early chucking out ones but we hadn't seen any information to that effect.

I know I have probably raised my blogger's eyebrow before this and sucked in my blogger's cheeks over the caravanners who turn up to claim their pitch at two minutes past check-out time. This anal tendency was particularly irksome to me on this occasion because they knew it was an 11.00 check out and we didn't. My pal Simone, who I hadn't managed to meet up with yet, turned up to see us and check out the Airstream. And there they were, the punctual ones, sitting on the forecourt, drumming their fingers on the steering wheel. Mmnngrrrgh!

Our packing up on that day would make a formula one racing team proud, and in the weeks to come we would find ourselves in places without rules or checking out times. We were looking ahead to big landscapes and open minds.