Onwards to Edinburgh

This will be our “last post” for this trip, and I am determined for it not to become our “lost post” like when I ran out of steam 3 years ago, so here goes (you gotta kill the hours of airtime somehow, and I do not sleep on planes annoyingly).

The day we drove towards Edinburgh we had a couple of spectacular stop-offs along the way. The first was some of my favourite public art, ever. The Kelpies (no, not wee doggies, but supposedly reminiscent of a mythical beast called a kelpie – part horse, part serpent) are monumental sculptures that I think beautifully capture the energy and movement of proud horses. You first see them from the motorway, an ear here, muzzle there but nothing quite prepares you for their size and grace. The artist, and engineers that translated the designs into stable structures have made a stunning tribute to hard working horses that helped establish this land also. Just so impressive.

After being sculpturally wowed, we headed over to Falkirk nearby to be wowed by some plain crazy engineering. Much of the UK used to be criss-crossed by a network of canals, veins of trade for the nation where barges were used to transport cargo and people. When rail became a thing, many of the canal networks fell into disuse and relatively recently there has been a revival in interest, particularly for pleasure craft (a future holiday idea Jo ?). One of the biggest problems with canals is that unless they are LEVEL all the water runs away (and they become a river) so when there is differences in height one solution is to put in stepped locks.  Falkirk used to be a series of 11 locks that were needed to raise boats from the lower canal system to the one 25m higher, engineers came up with a “Ferris wheel” lock that is genius design. We watched boats enter, be sealed in a box full of water then the whole mechanism swivelled to raise one water box (gondola) and lower another in its place. We then, for shits and giggles, got aboard a barge and took the trip up and down ourselves – nifty really. Read more »

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Castles and Battles and Towers, oh my!

Our Saturday was spent exploring Stirling and the famous battles that happened nearby. When you look around the city there are two dominant landmarks visible from nearly everywhere – Stirling Castle and The Wallace Monument. These and more were on the agenda.

William Wallace is a Scottish hero. Famously (or should I say infamously) romanticised by Mel Gibson with the blue face and the kilt (years before kilts became common place or battle makeup was even a thing), the real Wallace is a divisive character even today. Credited with being instrumental in the defeat of the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge. The area, in ancient times was really wild and crossing the River Forth was difficult – controlling the bridge effectively controlled England’s access to most of Scotland so although it all seems a bit like a storm in a teacup to us now, at the time it was a formative moment for the Scotts and their continued fight for independence.

To honour Wallace, an astonishing monument was erected on a knoll overlooking the city. It, at least in part, closely resembles a towerhouse in that there is a terrifying spiral staircase up between the 4 double-height rooms stacked on top of each other. We got most of the way up, saw 3 of the 4 rooms and their displays before a terrifying fire alarm sounded and everyone had to evacuate. Imagine a couple of dozen people, all trudging down a never-ending twisty stair at pace and that was the end of our visit. Read more »

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Forests, Parks and Recreation

Stirling is in the heart of the Scottish countryside and we find ourself surrounded by little towns and lochs. We spent a day exploring the many and varied environs of Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, a part of a larger forest reserve. We drove to The Lodge Forest Visitors Centre and walked a gently undulating oak coppice trail that took us through mossy bogs, beside a stream and among oak that were just springing back into life after a long winter.

The path circuit was a good warm up for our legs and very scenic. We then drove the “Three Lochs” trail, a lovely scenic track in fair condition that weaves (thankfully one way) over mountains, around lochs and through beautiful lush forests. Read more »

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Exploring the Cairngorms

Day tripping in Scotland is such a rich experience, and although at times the driving on single lane (with passing places) can be really hairy, there is so much worth exploring.

The countryside is ancient, with evidence of habitation going back to Neolithic times, we visited Culloden battlefields, learned of historic battles between Scottish nationals and the English. This seems to be a recurring theme in Scottish history, independence seems to continue to be relevant. Although I do not have any photos of the Culloden centre, we spent much longer there than we originally planned because it was so interesting. The visitor centre tells the history using personal stories – we loved that approach at the Irish Immigrant centre in Dublin and were swept up in it here also.

After Culloden we had a “Scottish Picnic” as we have begun to call them -we plan picnic food but when we get to the spot it is either raining, blowy or freezing – at Clava Cairns it was all three, so we ate in the car as the windows fogged over (our Scottish Picnic). Clava Cairns are a Neolithic burial and ceremonial site with fascinating piles of stones, standing stones and an atmosphere that was accentuated by a local lady who was in one of the stone circles playing a whistle “for the spirits”she said, nice.

Throughly cold, we then travelled to Glenfarcas whiskey distillery. Now to be fair, neither Jo or myself are actually whisky drinkers, but when in Scotland it seemed like we should at least try it. When on Mull I had tried 6 different whiskies and learned that with a little water or ice allows you to taste the different characters. As I understand it, the whiskey making process starts with a strong beer, then they distil the spirit alcohol from the beer, purify it and then blend it to ensure it is not lethally alcoholic then flavour it by storing it in second-hand wooden barrels that have had other booze in them before (like sherry or port) – this seems a little cheaty to me as the whisky takes on the flavour of the barrel, the longer in the more drinkable it becomes and more it costs. Wine seems to me a little more honest in this respect as the grape juice merely takes on the wood character.

We toured the Whisky factory, saw the process, saw the storage and rather nicely a vintage system that saw a 1960 barrel (our birth year) but sadly put a bottle of that slightly outside our price range (at £3650 per bottle, this seems an expensive tipple in anyone’s language – strangely Jo said no when I suggested we take home a bottle). Read more »

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The Skye is the Limit

Based as we are at Kyle of Lochalsh, the bridge to the Isle of Skye is basically walking distance from us. This morning we packaged morning tea, a couple of bottles of water and set off for the island with the view to do a little bit of exploring.

As we were on the road fairly early, traffic was light and we drove half way across the isle to stop for a stretch and photo at Sligachan Bridge, a popular camping site at the base of a mountain range oft thought of as the birthplace of modern mountain climbing. Snow covered peaks in the distance were spectacular.

We then motored on to Portree for a pit stop  before heading for our primary destination for the day – Storr. Approaching our destination, a monumental rocky outcrop emerged from a large mountainous lump, with multiple crags and spires evident, Jo then said “we are going to climb that”…. another look up and tentatively I said ok.

We were advised to park in the carpark adjacent to the entry gate, as the off season (we are sort of still in it due to unseasonal cold wet weather still) the site is likely to be less busy. Being a beautiful sunny day, every man and his dog was there, we parked a half a mile (so it seemed) away, packed some chocolate biscuits (never a need for an excuse), water bottles, rain gear (because … Scotland) in the backpack, layered up because the lazy light wind was brisk and set off. Read more »

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Lochs, Castles, Locks and a Rather Famous Viaduct

Up early on our final day on the Isle of Mull, lovely cooked breakfast and then car packed, we were off to catch a vehicular ferry at Tobermory. The local bakery made up some fantastic fresh rolls for us for lunch, then it was on to the water for a quick and spectacular journey to the mainland.

Beautifiul blue skies, water as still as glass, wow! We landed at Kilchoan and then set the satnav to point us to Glenfinnan and a view into the scenic world of Harry Potter, with a walk up to view the wonderful old viaduct used in the movie to transport the Hogwarts Express closer to its destination. Apparently some days a steam train still crosses it, we saw a couple of trains but they were more modern and seemed to be full of muggles.

After a look around, cup of tea and a bit of a refresh we hit the road again and headed to Loch Oich. Let me put it out there, I do not think Scottish are very particular about what they call a Loch. We saw puddles, huge land locked bodies of water and coastal inlets all called lochs so I am officially confused (Jo says it is not that hard to confuse me, she may be right). Some of the lochs have sensible names, others downright silly – who would call something Loch Lochie – it is like they are not even trying. Read more »

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MULLing around the idea of Scottish Island Life

We awoke at stupid o’clock, finished packing,  breakfasted (this time not setting off the fire alarm thankfully) and wended our way on largely empty back streets to the vehicular ferry station for our trip to The Isle of Mull. The morning was grey, it was raining and a little windy, meaning the seas would be rougher than my tummy would like (thank goodness for Travelcalm).

We lined up, were shepherded aboard and retired to the poop deck (well, in truth a rather comfortable and mostly stable cabin) for cups of tea and sympathy. The trip was fairly uneventful, we broke through the rain a few times and had sun, then got rained on again but arrived on the island in the dry.

We had previously received information about “passing places” on the island, necessary protocol while driving there as nearly every road is a single lane, with regular pull-overs alternating side to side. After meeting a few drivers, and infuriating at least one local, we realised we totally misunderstood what the instructions said, used common sense and got it right, mostly from there on – mind you when you are pootling up a hill and out of a blind crest some bastard hurtles towards you it is everyone for themselves sometimes. Read more »

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Introduction To Scotland

We awoke bleary, I picked up some fresh pork pies, we packed and motored away from Ripon on our way to the border region as our bridge to Scotland. Our first stop for the day was High Force Waterfall, in the Area of Natural Beauty in the North Pennines. Due to poor signage and our poor sense of direction we walked off in the wrong direction (without rain gear) and had to rush back because of rain (quite predictably). We then found the correct path and a forceful waterfall, obviously bolstered by recent rains.

We then motored on to Chester’s Roman Fort. Built as part of the fortifications connected to Hadrian’s wall, this fort lay buried until a farmer chanced upon it when digging a drain. Quite complete and fairly well preserved, we wandered among barracks (each tiny room was designed for 3 guards and their horses to conserve heat, imagine the smell), houses and a rather splendid bathhouse with intact hypercaust (thanks Timeteam) floors. We originally were going to picnic here, but the weather once again was cold and wet so we ate lunch in the warmth of the car – our take on a ploughmans.

Read more »

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Return to Yorkshire

After our time in Ireland, a return to “normality” seemed in order. As a gateway drug to Scotland, we decided to visit Yorkshire again with the added benefit of being able to visit our good friends, Mike and Colette in Boroughbridge.

After the flight into Leeds Bradford, we picked up a hire car (a rather gutless Fiat Tipo) and managed to fit all our goods and chattels in, set up the cockpit, revive the phone and check the maps worked, then set off for Skipton. After an uneventful car orientating drive and a flummoxing parking adventure we went on a lovely ramble along a canal through forest parklands in Skipton Castle woods.

We then headed on to Linton for a pub lunch (Fish and Chip Friday) and a pint of local ale – a flat, warm pale ale that was hand-pumped meaning the barkeep essentially filled the glass twice. Lovely bit of fish, light lunch and then on the road again. We passed a quarry and turned into mystery (to me) location, Jo said “you will need your camera”, we puffed up a hill to a massive stone maze-like structure on top. Called the Coldstones Cut, a mega sculpture overlooking a huge quarry (or Diggosaurus hive), it is brilliant.

Suitably brisked (underestimating the windchill factor and ambient temperature), we drove on to Ripon to meet up with Mike and explore the cathedral (which is what you do in Ripon as a day visitor). Suitably cathedraled, we walked to find our in-town accommodation (a renovated apartment in an old stone building, fabulously quirky, more levels than should be allowed) and checked what was supplied before going provision shopping to set us up for a couple of days. We then went over to Boroughbridge for catchups and a bang-up Indian feast at a local restaurant, brilliant end to a busy day. Read more »

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Eating Ireland – Diddley Dee Potatoes.

Usually, one of our organisers when planning holiday is food. That is easy with places like France where the national cuisine is known to us, but we really did not have a frame of reference for Ireland beyond potatoes. Now I know that is borderline racist, but it is what it is, we had heard of Irish stew but all research suggested it was a loose casserole. Through the cooking shows I watch I had heard of champ and colcannun – both potato side dishes, but we came in knowing very little for certain.

Carbs are pretty high on a traditional Irish diet. Potatoes are important and we have had them many ways. I had mash with spring onions (champ) with a rather lovely puddle of Beef with Guinness stew in a pub one evening- filling and delicious. We also had “boxty” which are potato pancakes, deliciously (and perhaps oddly) filled with curried lamb. Packs of Tayto crisps are also a national tradition. Getting plain salted crisps is impossible, standard taytos are cheese and onion, but you can get enamel dissolving salt and vinegar, bacon and other odder flavours. Cheese and onion crisps are nice, good for a chip buttie.

Bready carbs are also important. Soda bread is sort of like a mealy  damper, served everywhere, often buttered, sometimes toasted but filing and delicious. It was a side dish for soup, in the bread basket at high end restaurants and available as a slab of sliced in the supermarket. It differs from damper in texture and grain – most soda breads are brown, some whole grain, delicious.

I was surprised how diverse the menus were in pubs, pub grub is important here, and the pub culture in Ireland (and the UK) is so profoundly different to Australian pub culture. Here, families come to the bars, eat meals and sing along together, that is rather wonderful. My experience of Australian pubs is based on country ones where it used to be rare to see women in the main bar (thankfully that has changed) and people go there to drink and get drunk. While I am sure there is an element of that in any country, the “going down the pub for a few pints of Guinness” is seen as very normal and not at all boozy, talking blarney and singing songs is also the norm. People are really friendly and the pub vibe is welcoming, warm and wonderful. Read more »

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