Caithness in northern Scotland, so much to see

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Dramatic sea stacks at Duncansby Head

We had raced through Caithness on our way up to Orkney and we were determined to linger on the return leg of our trip as there were so many things we wanted to stop and see along the way.  Of course, we climbed up Morven, the highest point in Caithness, and that was certainly a fantastic day but we did plenty of things that required less exertion.  The coastal scenery of Caithness is hard to beat.  The sea stacks at Duncansby Head on the north-easterly tip of Scotland are dramatic and worth the mile or two of walking from the lighthouse to see them.  We also visited Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, where after a wet morning the sun started to emerge and sea mist flowed over the cliffs; the beauty of it was mesmerising.

Following the coast we sought out some of the historical sights of Caithness.  In the cliffs south of Wick are Whaligoe Steps, 330 flagged steps that zig-zag down to a rocky harbour inlet.  The climb up and down the steps is beautiful in summer, surrounded by wild flowers and with views down to the harbour.  The steps date back to the late 18th century and the harbour was used until the 1960s.

Inland we took the single-track road to the remote Loch of Yarrows Archaelogical Trail, which was a bit damp under-foot after the rain and where there are ruins of burial cairns and a broch.  I learnt that stones in Caithness are not arranged in circles, they have rows and U-shaped arrangements.  We wandered around the 22 rows of short stones [less than one metre high] of the Mid Clyth stone row and at Loch Stemster we  walked the U of the isolated Achavanich Standing Stones.

We explored more recent history at Badbea, north of Helmsdale.  The stones that mark the houses of the former village are perched on rough and steep hillside above the cliffs.  Why would anyone choose to live in this spot that has no shelter from the north sea winds you wonder?  The interpretation boards told me that this wasn’t a choice.  In 1840 the people were cleared from their farms in the valleys to make way for sheep and this inhospitable land was all that was available.  The people tried to scratch a living but within 60 years they had all left and the ruined buildings are now a reminder of how rich landowners exploit and mis-treat the people.

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The bottom of Whaligoe Steps
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Summer hill walking in Scotland

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The distinctive shape of Morven in Caithness

Hill walking in Scotland can be a serious business, you can spend hours planning your routes, fork out a fortune for gear and tick off Munros or Corbetts, Grahams or Marilyns.  You can tackle long ridge walks, seek out those tucked away mountains where you won’t see another person all day and you can join others on some of the [rightly] more popular routes up dramatic mountains.  In winter these mountains are often covered in snow that makes the walking much tougher.  I enjoy walking in Scotland when the weather and the views are good far too much to be interested in ticking off tops.  From my limited experience, although Scottish mountains vary enormously, there are a few experiences that many share and our trip up Morven, the distinctive and yet diminutive mountain in Caithness gives a flavour of the summer hill walking experience.  Morven is just 706 m above sea level, making it a Graham, that is a mountain between 610 and 762 metres high.

It is true that not every Scottish mountain requires a long drive along a single-track road, there are some you can climb from the A9, but neither is Morven untypical in requiring almost 6 miles of driving along a narrow lane before you start walking.  Owning a campervan adds to the excitement of the start of any Scottish walk as we are often unsure if we will fit in to the car park.  I am often amazed at the inconsiderate parking of others in small car parks, when tidier parking would have meant that more cars [or a small campervan] could have fitted in.  We set off early on our Morven day and so we got first dips on the parking area that will fit just three cars [if tidily parked].

In the ‘van we often have a brew at this point but eventually we have to put on our gear and venture out on the next stage of the walk; that is reaching the base of the mountain.  The walk-in for Morven will be familiar to many hill walkers; the land rover track takes walkers over two and a half miles in to the moorland, ending at an abandoned cottage.  At least this track is easy going and good progress can be made as the next section of a typical Scottish mountain walk is the bog trot.  The soggy Caithness moorland had grassy tussocks, each one trying to turn over my ankle, and black peaty sections that might look stable but linger for more than a second and your boots are soon covered in dark mud.

Already we have walked for about four miles but haven’t really gained much height and the toughest part is yet to come.  Eventually you reach the climb and in Scotland this means a steep, almost vertical hillside.  I am the slowest hill-walker in Scotland and it is on this section that I will be over-taken by other walkers.  I plod up the hill, desperately trying not to look up, as each time I do the top seems to be no nearer than it was the last time I looked.  There is a rule on Scottish mountains that there will be at least one false summit, these catch out the inexperienced walker who will get excited that the top is within reach and will start looking forward to resting.  These false summits no longer catch me out, I never expect that what I can actually see will be the summit until I am standing on a point where the only way is downhill.  We had Morven more or less to ourselves so there were no other walkers to rush past me, highlighting how snail-like I am.  The bonus with my slow pace is that I spot the wildlife. On Morven there was a mountain hare silhouetted on the skyline, a large group of hinds in the distance, a lizard, plenty of frogs, a water vole and a grouse that terrified me as its frantic wing beats broke the silence.  There were also flowers; bright cloud berries on the summit, bog asphodel and the heather was in glorious flower.

During this slow ascent of a Scottish mountain the weather will change a number of times, either getting worse or better, the only rule is it will change.  Sometimes you have a great view from the summit, sometimes you just miss it, sometimes you are lucky enough to walk through low cloud in to sunshine on the summit and at other times the cloud just stays with you.  The uncertainty of the weather means layers are the only way to walk and these will be on and off throughout the day.  On Morven we set off on a glorious day that slowly got cloudier.  With the cloud came a breeze that was welcome, as when we were sheltered from the wind on the ascent this bought the midges out and I was grateful to reach the blustery and midge-free summit ridge.

Eventually I reach the top, feeling exhilarated and exhausted.  The exhilaration is short-lived because I know that, although the climb up seemed interminable and tough-going, the descent is worse.  By this point I don’t really care where I put each foot I am so tired but the walking now gets more technical; descending a steep-sided Scottish mountain is tricky and puts lots of weight on the knees.  The only way to get through it is to take my time, grit my teeth and once again try to avoid looking at the vast distance I have to cover, concentrating only on securely placing each foot.

On our Scottish holiday, as well as climbing Morven, we walked up two other hills.  Ben Rinnes, at 841 metres high is a popular Corbett in Banffshire where the parking is also limited.  The summit gives great views and with a well-marked path and only 500 metres of ascent it is achievable in a short day.  We also climbed Lochnagar, a splendid and popular mountain above Loch Muick that has plenty of parking.   We took the direct route up the mountain, pausing to enjoy the fantastic viewpoint over the corrie before climbing steeply up above the crags.  We descended down the lovely path by Glas Allt that is quieter and easier on the knees.  After a tiring day of around 12 miles the walk back along Loch Muick seemed to go on forever and if I hadn’t started a game of i-spy-meets-name-that-tune [try and think of a song title that includes something you can see around you, eg River Deep Mountain High] I may never have made it back.

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The crags of Lochnagar

 

Orkney the place for perfect holidays

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The tidal island of Birsay in the north-west of the mainland

There are not too many places I return to over and over again [aside from local favourites] but the islands of Orkney off the north coast of Scotland is one such place.  Our recent holiday was my sixth trip to Orkney but the first in a campervan and what a difference having the ‘van meant.  On previous visits we have been based in one place, all trips radiating out from that base.  With the ‘van we travelled across the Churchill Barriers from South Ronaldsay to the north of the mainland, staying in a different place every night and getting a different feel for these wonderful islands.  In truth the journey from the wonderful Skerries Bistro and Tomb of the Otters in the south to Birsay in the north is only 40 miles but then why rush around Orkney, there is so much to see, so many different bays to explore and despite repeated visits there are still parts of even the East and West Orkney Mainland that we haven’t yet visited, never mind the other islands.

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Orkney stone buildings at Wind Wick

You can expect weather on Orkney and it is always colder than I remember.  We have been here when the winds are relentless, on one visit we had a week of constant fog and we have had days of rain as well as fine and sunny weather.  This trip was blessed with days of sunshine and what I noticed most was the sky.  Orkney lies low and nothing gets in the way of the views of the sky, it is vast and hard to miss and the blue sky appears infinite.  On this trip I got used to the feeling of space that those enormous skies give and I found myself missing it as we returned south.  During the day we walked and drove under these skies and every evening we sat on a shore or a cliff enjoying a different view to watch the sun go down over the Atlantic, the red sky promising another fine day.

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Houses on the sea front at Stromness

Orkney is always a great place to visit for wildlife and despite it being early August we saw plenty of birds, including puffins, black guillemots and gannets from the boat.  On the cliffs we saw fulmars and kittiwakes.  We watched seals bobbing in the sea and sitting on the rocks at Birsay.  We searched for elusive otters and short-eared owls [we had to wait until the Scottish mainland before we spotted the latter].  Many come to Orkney for the incredible archaeological sites and we had timed this visit to see the dig at the Ness of Brodgar.  I found the excellent guided tour very interesting, the site is so intriguing, and we contributed by adopting a square of the dig.  We also made our first visit to the Banks Chambered Tomb, where our guide was a natural story teller who bought the site to life.  We watched boats in Kirkwall and Stromness, we beach-combed at Birsay and at the lovely bay by Kirkhouse Point, we explored the cemeteries at Burwick and at Kirkhouse Point and we walked up Marwick Head to the Kitchener and HMS Hampshire Memorial and thought about the 737 people who lost their lives off the coast here in 1916.  Of course we ate Orkney ice-cream and drank Orkney beer whenever we could.

It isn’t just the range of things you can do in Orkney that make it possibly the best place for a holiday, it is the tranquility and calmness of the islands.  Even though I am a relaxed retiree these days I still enjoy slowing down our lives for a while on these beautiful islands.

 

A weekend at the Upton Blues Festival

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Sometimes it rains at festivals

If you have never been to a festival and [this probably goes without saying] you like the blues, then the Blues Festival at Upton upon Severn is an excellent first festival experience.  The Upton Blues Festival is a free festival, that is every gig is free for anyone to attend, and plenty of local day visitors come along to enjoy the music available.  But to get the real festival experience you need to take your campervan, caravan or tent and camp and our campervan is a perfect place to sleep in at a festival.  At Upton the performers are paid from the receipts from the campers who pay £10 a night each to use the flat Fish Meadow that is just ten minutes or so walk from the venues.  The festival also gets money from parking charges for day visitors, sale of beer and merchandise.  As well as the campsite, the festival committee runs two main stages, one by the river and one on the meadow across the town and an indoor acoustic stage and the Meadow Stage is a fantastic place to lie in the sun and listen to good music.  There are also around ten smaller stages in the pubs of Upton upon Severn that are self-funding.  Upton is a relaxed and friendly festival that has none of the corporate blandness or size of other festivals and you can always find some excellent music and get in to your own groove.

Upton Blues has grown over the years and in 2016 over 20,000 attended over the weekend and this year around 4,000 people camped in Fish Meadow.  The first festival was held in 2002 but Mr BOTRA and I didn’t get there until 2014 by which time it was already a well organised and large event.  This year was bigger than ever but the camping facilities held up well, even in the inclement weather, and we never had to queue for a toilet!  I love Upton because of its size and atmosphere, because tarmac roads link the stages [rather than a sea of mud] and you won’t find yourself unable to see the stage because the person in front of you has someone sitting on their shoulders or is waving a huge flag.  The Upton crowd is a friendly and chilled out beast that isn’t there because its the thing to do.

The music at Upton covers the whole spectrum that is called the blues and we saw some great bands this year and as usual there are a couple that stand out.  The high energy blues of Dr Schwamp was just what we needed on a damp Friday night.  They are a great party band with plenty of variety in their set and we’ll certainly look them up again.  We also loved Sons of the Delta who played on the boat on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I shut my eyes and imagined I was on the Mississippi.

You don’t have to do anything but listen to the blues at Upton but we did fit in a walk along the river Severn on Sunday morning.  We enjoyed finding parts of the the town we hadn’t seen before and exploring the countryside around Upton.

The festival feels like it is part of a bigger community and gives a lot back to the town, not just in income for the businesses over the weekend but also improving local amenities from the surplus.  We like to support the local economy when we are there and now have a list of must-do activities when we are in Upton.  We splash out on an Indian meal one evening and we always visit the Pudding Shop to sit outside and enjoy one of their fantastic steamed puddings during the weekend.  The only difficult decision is whether to have apricot, ginger or blueberry pudding.

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Camping on Fish Meadow

 

 

Back where you belong

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Can you spot the shiny new wing and bonnet?

It took eight weeks to fix our campervan after the Greek tragedy and what a long eight weeks they were.  For two of those weeks the ‘van was making its way back from Greece, another two weeks were spent sitting around while firstly the body shop did the estimate, then the insurance company assessed the damage and then we waited for parts.  The repair took three weeks and the final week was spent in daily anticipation that the ‘van would be fixed only to be informed sometime mid-afternoon that there was another problem.  One day it was the airbag, another a mechanic put too much weight on the oil filler and broke it off, another day the ABS fault was lighting up.  Every day we were packed and ready to roll but each day the new fault required more parts and another wait on tenterhooks.

We were so pleased to get our blue Renault back and we went straight from the body shop to a campsite.  We would have camped in any weather but as it turned out we were blessed with glorious and sunny weather and the Cheshire countryside proved to be perfect for a few days cycling.  But first we spent a sunny afternoon cleaning the accumulation of Greek and garage dust from the van interior.  I emptied every cupboard reminding myself what goodies we had left in there, having a little weep when I found the tins of giant Greek beans in tomato sauce and the bottles of dark Greek olive oil.  Despite the mixed emotions, somehow this process healed the weeks of separation and made the ‘van feel like ours again.

In Cheshire we discovered The Whitegate Way, a 10 km cycle route on an old railway line and we cycled around Delamere Forest.  We relaxed and took life easy feeling that our life was back on track again.

We followed this with a weekend camping with friends on the Staffordshire / Cheshire border and then more sociable camping in Derbyshire.  We didn’t travel far and we didn’t need to, we were just content to have our campervan back where it belongs.

 

Nothing compares to a campervan

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The ‘van at Croxden Abbey

It is now over nine weeks since ‘the incident’ and without a campervan we have been forced to try other accommodation ideas for our holidays.  What this period of exile from our ‘van has done is not only reinforce our love of the campervan lifestyle it has also made me realise how much having a van is a part of me and without it the knowledge that something is missing from my life pervades everything.  None of the options we have tried, youth hostels, self-catering cottage, tent and hotel, compared to the sense of freedom we get from travelling in the ‘van.  These different holidays had to be booked and organised beforehand and none of them were as relaxing as being in our own campervan.  Below is the types of accommodation we have tried and how I found them.

Youth Hostels – We used to do lots of youth hosteling with the YHA and I worked at Buttermere youth hostel for a summer season in the 1990s, so we gave this budget option a try for our first break.  Youth Hostels have the big advantage of having a kitchen so we could have home-cooking and remain frugal.  The YHA website allows you to book a series of hostels and at between £29 and £39 a night for a room for two this is a good budget option.  The kitchens can get busy at meal times but they are sociable places; as we had found in the past, youth hostels are great places to meet and chat to other people.  The downside of this is that you can’t find your own space and when I wanted some peace and quiet to sit comfortably chilling and reading my book there wasn’t anywhere to go.  Although we had sole use of a room the bunk beds meant that they were not great for lazing around.  Youth hostels are also often closed during the day time.

Self-catering cottage – This is much less of a budget option, although you can save a lot on eating out as home-cooking is still an option.  We paid £370 for a luxurious cottage for five nights on the edge of the Lake District.  We had our own space, could come and go as we pleased and had everything we needed to hand.  This was a relaxing and enjoyable holiday that came closest to being as good as the campervan.

Camping in a tent – The weather was warm so we set off with a borrowed tent to camp in the Peak District for a couple of nights.  I love being on campsites and so this holiday ticked the box for relaxing on the site watching the world go by.  I was less keen on having to run to the toilets first thing in the morning and we were ill prepared with no relaxing chairs or a table.  With better equipment and in good weather this is a pleasant option, costs the same as staying on a site in the ‘van and we could cook our meals, although the equipment we had was limited … but in the rain it would be dismal.

Hotel –  We paid £90 for a night bed and breakfast in a comfortable hotel in the Yorkshire Dales.  Of course, we have stayed in hotels before and generally agree that they are okay for a night or so but after that we yearn for home cooking.  In the evening we ate at the local Indian restaurant for £40 for the two of us.  For me this makes hotels feel like an expensive option that doesn’t suit us for long holidays.

 

 

 

 

I am missing the #vanlife even when it is camping on the doorstep

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The Peel Tower on the moors above Ramsbottom

While we are off the road I have been missing being in our campervan so much and this got me thinking about what it is about travelling in the ‘van that I love so much.  I get a big thrill from exploring new and beautiful places and learning about cultures and history as we go but what I have realised is that our van life is more than exotic foreign travel, being out and about in the ‘van is just comforting and relaxing in itself.  Our campervan [and its previous versions] is ingrained with so many happy memories, as soon as I climb up the step in to the cab I feel enveloped in cosiness and where we take it doesn’t necessarily matter.  Just at the moment I am really missing that feeling of well being.

I am always telling people how lucky we are to be living in Greater Manchester because we have so much beautiful countryside within easy reach.  Only an hour or so in any direction and we are in stunning places and we tend to alternate our weekends between Yorkshire, the Peak District and North Wales or Cheshire.  But this winter we took camping near to home to the extreme and didn’t even leave Greater Manchester.  Life had been more hectic than usual and our ‘van had looked sulkily at us each time we left to catch the tram for yet another social occasion or cultural event.  The Renault was itching to have a run out and we were missing camping so we chose to squeeze a night in at the Caravan Club’s Burrs Country Park site just 30 minutes from home.  We arrived in the dark, which is always disconcerting and so had little idea what our surroundings were like until the next morning.  With an extension agreed with the wardens beyond the usual 12.00 leaving time we set off for a walk to nearby Ramsbottom along the river Irwell path; a river that also flows within spitting distance of our home.  Our walk was accompanied by cheerful toots of the steam trains on the East Lancashire Railway.  Ramsbottom turned out to be another world from Salford, this foodie heaven was full of cosy independent cafes and delis and we sat outside the church in the unseasonably warm weather savouring a perfect bag of chips each; they were that faultless combination of crisp outside and soft and fluffy inside.  The artisan market was in full swing in the cobbled market place but we decided to shun shopping for the steep walk up the hill to the landmark Peel Tower on the moors, built to commemorate Robert Peel who was born in nearby Bury.  Here we savoured the fresh air and wide views before descending back to the Irwell valley down the steep old cobbled road.  Leaving the campsite in the mid-afternoon, just half-an-hour later we were back among the urban neon of Salford Quays.

Our van life is always about glamorous places but I love it!