Thursday, 29 October 2009

More About Skye

Could we have known that in May we were about to enjoy the best weather of the year? This year I have become acutely aware of how short summer is. I like all of the seasons. They make sense to me, but summer is so eagerly anticipated, expectations are high. Spring is the teaser and then it's time to stock-take and update your outdoor seating and barbeque equipment. Whatever you do, don't save this stuff for the perfect balmy evening, get out there and burn something while you can. Also, just because the weather forecasters tell us it's going to be a long, hot summer, doesn't mean it will be. And, just because last summer was wet and we all felt like we were robbed doesn't mean some universal law of fairness will deliver a scorcher this time around.

We were lulled into premature hot summer excitement when we had a couple of really hot days at Glenbrittle. Our tent-dwelling neighbours were returning from conquering nature and geology looking decidedly drained and sweaty. I put their pathological unfriendliness down to a preoccupation with personal clamminess and an ability to focus only on achieving a summit whilst forgetting even the most basic of social niceties, such as a simple 'Morning' when you happen to be sharing the same tiny patch of this awesome planet.

We started to encounter midges in the evenings and worked on our strategies for keeping them off us and out of the trailer. But when we arrived at Loch Greshornish we were encouraged to hear that the blustery wind was keeping them away. Hurrah! Unfortunately that same blustery wind made it impossible to sit outside, let alone barbeque or enjoy our stylish new outdoor furniture.

No problem because it was at this time that I became firmly hooked on listening to Radcliffe and Maconie on Radio 2 in the evenings. They play a fine mixture of new releases with classic old stuff, including a generous helping of the cool stuff from the seventies and eighties. Mark and Stuart have a great, dry banter going on, even if Mark does sometimes sound a bit fed up or bored with his co-presenter. They know their music too. Then there is "The Chain", an ongoing, unbroken sequence of connected songs which members of the audience call in to suggest. The links can be as obvious or tenuous as you like as long as the chosen record is quality.

There's more but I don't think I can do justice to "This just in", or the live chat and music sessions. It's just exciting sometimes to hear something that you haven't heard for years, that doesn't get played on the programmes with their play lists handed to them by their producers. It's good for the soul to be reminded that you used to love this song or dance to that one, especially if you're looking out of the window, across a loch and watching the light change.

And while I'm plugging things I like I can recommend Cafe Arriba in Portree on the road that winds down towards the harbour. It is bright and jolly and the food is prepared freshly. There are loads of daily specials including plenty of imaginative veggie choices. For that reason this is a most superior cafe. We were about to embark on a journey where our lunch options would invariably end up being a cheese and onion toasted sandwich if we were lucky, or a bag of crisps if we weren't. I kid you not.

Our access to the internet was getting as scarce as a decent and nutritionally sound lunch. We had hoped that Cafe Arriba would have WiFi, it looked like the sort of place that would and we would have happily whiled away some time communing with the world at large and knocking back the coffees. However it didn't and, after peering into the windows of every cafe, pub and hotel without any luck we finally spotted a sign that led us to a kind of village hall with craft market and internet access. That's a rocking combination in my opinion. For a tiny donation we were given a choice of passwords to try and left to our own devices in the balcony-cum-mezzanine. And naturally I bought a hand-knitted scarf too.

Of course our phone signals were equally miss and miss and we would occasionally drive into a zone and start beeping as two day old messages made it through the ether. In time we would become more and more comfortable with feeling disconnected from everyone and everything, but not yet.


Thursday, 22 October 2009

Reaching Skye

Now that Autumn is firmly upon us, it’s good to look back on those gloriously long, hot days of the early Summer.

The first stop on Skye was at the Glenbrittle campsite, a charming little spot, tucked away at the end of an eight-mile cul-de-sac. It’s designed for tenters who fancy a crack at the very enticing Cuilin Ridge. The road to the site was a tricksy little thing, with a steep drop into the valley with two miles to go. We stopped to let the over-run brakes cool down (and to admire our Airstream in the wild).

The site itself was one of those “park-where-you-like” jobbies, with only a handful of hard standings with hook-ups. We found a spot on the grass with a view out to sea, and spent a few days running on solar power. And there was plenty of it.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning our batteries. Back at Easter, we spent five days on a site without hook-up. It was my own silly mistake, but when I booked us onto a Camping and Caravanning Club site, I completely failed to register that a Standard Pitch can mean nothing more than a patch of grass. For the Caravan Club on the other hand, a Standard Pitch might include a hard standing, electric hook-up, breakfast in bed and the grass cut four times a day. So we tried to live off the batteries. The days were bright and sunny, but being early April, they weren’t very long, so to spare the blushes of the solar panel on the roof, we used the site shower and toilet facilities. You’d think that by watching minimum TV, using only LED lights and not running any fans, we should be able to last quite a while. On the third evening, the voltage dropped so low that the inverter wouldn’t run, so we had to go to bed at nine o’clock! I haven’t done that since I was a tiddler! The next couple of days were taken up by waiting around in the mornings until we were allowed to run the generator for a couple of hours, leaving us about an hour to explore before everything shut. So, these two 90 Amp-hour batteries were lasting next to no time. On our next trip to Tebay, we had an exchange of views on the state of the batteries. It turns out that the batteries are not covered by the warranty which, to be honest, is fair enough, but I wasn’t best chuffed to have to fork out around three hundred quid on something that was less than 18 months old. Airstream did, however, replace the PSU in case there was a fault with the charging system. The old one was sent off for testing – I’m still waiting for the results…

So, with new batteries and glorious sunshine, we had no problems surviving on Skye. Being at the end of an inhospitable road, we didn’t venture too far from the site. The Cuilins were calling, but the call fell on deaf ears (I was a: pretty unfit and b: it would have meant getting up early), so we just had a couple of short walks from the site, though one afternoon we did venture as far as the local distillery.

Talisker is a bit rough for my taste, but the tour was interesting. To be honest, though, once you’ve had one distillery tour, you’ve seen them all.

Still not having any plans, we moved on to the Camping and Caravanning Club site at Loch Greshornish. This was a world away from the terrible time we’d had at Easter – the welcome was warm and we were feeling very bold with our new batteries, so we booked in for three nights on a “Standard” pitch. This one came with glorious views across the little sea loch.

In the nearby village of Dunvegan sits the tiny little “Giant Angus MacAskill Museum.”
This was, quite simply, the best entertainment I’ve had this century. It’s a couple of quid to get in. You might need to ring the bell – the curator was in the house next door peeling tatties for when his wife got home from work. This curator, Peter MacAskill, traced his family tree and found he was a distant cousin of the Giant, so he thought it would be a good idea to make a museum of the Giant’s life. Angus, it turns out, never set foot on Skye, and none of the exhibits are original, but the recreations are excellent, and the commentary from Peter (when he wasn’t running off to check the tatties) was eye-wateringly funny.

If you ever visit, you could see the exhibits (housed in the single room of the old smithy) in about ten minutes, but allow yourselves at least three quarters of an hour for the stories. And don’t leave without asking about the coffin… The picture shows a waxwork of Angus, one of General Tom Thumb (who was in the same Show Business as Angus) and the real Peter MacAskill - Curator and Comedian.

It was while we were sitting in the campsite one afternoon that we decided that we would just hang the expense and go to the Hebrides anyway. You may remember that we have mentioned CalMac Ferries arbitrary pricing structure. Caravans are only supposed to be up to 8 metres long – anything longer gets charged as a commercial vehicle. They take 10 metre motor homes, but not 8.25m caravans, like our 684. Back in Oban (which was about the last time we were to get mobile internet access for the next three months!), I got on my high horse and send some frank emails to various people. It seems that the Hebridean Tourist Development Agency were familiar with CalMac’s fun and games, and the Scottish Minister for Transport promised to bring it up at the next meeting with the CalMac board. Caledonian MacBrayne, by the way, is wholly owned and funded by the Scottish Government, so you know who to complain to…

So we turned up at the ferry port in Uig, got a ticket and found ourselves, at least for the time being, leaving Skye and on the way to the Outer Hebrides…

Monday, 12 October 2009

Ticking off Ardnamurchan

Once we had decided not to allow the forbidding ferry costs to spoil our Scottish travels but instead take it as a stimulus to choose a different journey, we planned to continue heading north around the west coast and to go to the Isle of Skye via the bridge.

On the way we spent a couple of nights in Fort William. Some of the journey so far was familiar since we were retracing some of our steps travelled on our honeymoon thirteen years ago. The last time we had been in Fort William I popped into the hospital to get a tick removed from my leg. It had so far foiled all attempts at eviction by a squeamish me. The doctor I saw back then was new to the job, English and had not encountered a tick before. The digging out technique he used was not the preferred one but his grasp of the tweezers was a bit shaky. Apparently what you don't want is for the body to come off and leave the spiky mouthparts in situ. Other possible remedies include dowsing the little critter with alcohol or suffocating it with a blob of Vaseline. Both methods are supposed to result in the nasty little blighter simply dropping off. This time around I was ready for ticks (purpose-made tweezers, Vaseline and I'm sure there's alcohol around here somewhere), midges (jungle spray) and rain (brand new red Gortex jacket).

Fort William was much smaller than I remembered. The last time we were there it was a useful place. It was where we stopped off for essential supplies. This time my impression was of one street lined with discount outdoor clothing stores and shops selling tacky souvenirs of Scottish clich├ęs. This is where the shortbread trail begins.

The site we stayed on was kind of pleasant and kind of odd. Well really it was just unlike the sites we normally use. It covered all of the self-catering holidaying options with 'chalets', apartments, tent areas and touring caravan areas. All of this was under the giant shadow of Ben Nevis and a couple of miles from the town centre.

At some point along the way our road atlas had changed its scale without us noticing. So when we fancied a bit of a drive out to Ardnamurchan, the furthest point west on the British mainland, it was twice the distance we'd anticipated. On our travels we have developed a need to see the ends of roads and the furthest points of the compass. It started quite accidentally. We just happened to be at the most south-westerly landmark at the beginning of our journey and, since we have this Man From Atlantis-like need to return to the sea, we always seem to be ticking off these extremes.

This drive was also to be our initiation into twisty, single track road driving. Most of the roads from now on would be narrow and perfectly constructed. It was fantastic. What an exercise in concentration. With trees alongside a lot of the route you just never knew what was around the next bend. When we weren't enclosed by foliage the scenery was hilly and green at times, then as we traced the higgledy-piggledy coastline the sea sparkled under clear, blue skies. It was prettier and a lot less rugged than we had expected.

Touristy landmarks along the way included the Glenfinnan Monument commemorating where Bonnie Prince Charlie's standard was raised in 1745, and the viaduct used in the filming of the Hogwarts train in the Harry Potter series.

Once we had finally arrived at the Point of Ardnamurchan we could enjoy looking across the sea we would not be crossing and enjoy views of the islands of Eigg, Rum and Muck. (No, I'm not making this up). These were not on our itinerary so not so torturous as you might think.

There was also the first of many lighthouses. They go with the territory of course and they look magnificent against a clear, blue sky. My favourite features are the huge red-painted fog horns.

Most of Scotland's lighthouses were designed by members of the Stephenson family. Think of the heyday of industrial engineering, bridge building, the steam engine, railways. Various members of the Stephenson family were responsible. Confusingly, a few of them are called Robert. The author Robert Louis Stephenson was also related. Great genes aplenty there then. This one was the work of Allan Stephenson.

And I always try to imagine what it must have been like for the lighthouse keepers to live in these places. Sometimes it must have been beautiful solitude and at others it must have been desolate and desperate. Surely you must love the wind, or go mad.