A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

You can’t get too much winter in the winter

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Lowther Castle in Cumbria is a stunning ruin

Retirement has completely changed my experience of winter and given the season a different character that is new and refreshing.  I have always dreaded the winter and would become quite low in November as the days got shorter and colder.  But now we are retired and no longer tied to just two days of freedom we can take off for a day trip or camping tour as soon as sunshine is forecast.  This flexibility means that winter starts to feel like a succession of fantastic frosty and sunny days and is suddenly much more enjoyable and fun.  Last week we spotted another window of opportunity to make the most of the blue skies and we headed north.  After some mooching around the border city of Carlisle with its red sandstone castle and marvellous museum, we visited the dramatic ruin of Lowther Castle whose roof was removed in the 1950s to save the estate from crippling taxation.  The castle and gardens have been recently opened up and are a fantastic place for a day out at any time of year.

We returned south via another ruin, Shap Abbey.  Set in an idyllic and peaceful valley the remains of this ancient abbey are open to the public, although only one tower remains from the original buildings.  From the village of Shap we had views to the Lake District fells dusted in snow and in the sunshine the north-west of England showed off its most beautiful side.

We popped in to Preston for old times sake and were pleased to see the hot potato and parched peas stall [the original street food] was still doing business in the Flag Square.  Continuing south to the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire we had a great day walking in more sunshine.  Then the weekend arrived and with it the drizzle.  We met friends for a pub lunch and a walk and had a lovely afternoon thanks to excellent waterproofs but it would have been better if the fine weather had blessed those working folk too.

PS the quote is from Robert Frost.



Winter sunshine & walking in the Peak District

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Near Birchen Edge above Baslow in Derbyshire

The forecast was for a cold and sunny few days and so with nothing in the diary we were able to hop in to the ‘van and take a couple of nights in the Peak District to make the most of the fine weather.  We stayed at the Caravan and Motorhome Club Chatsworth campsite which is in a peaceful walled area in Chatsworth Park.  We gave the stately home a miss and walked through the glorious countryside but if you did want to visit it is very near to the site.

On a sunny and frosty morning we walked out of Chatsworth Estate to Baslow, where after a coffee, we climbed through woodland and out on to the open moorland behind the Robin Hood Pub on to Birchen Edge.  These Peak District edges are glorious places to walk, with views over the crags in to the valleys below, I always enjoy the lofty feeling of walking along these distinctive features.  On Birchen Edge we passed Nelson’s monument, a tall thin stone pillar on the rocks.  This was erected by a local business man thirty years before the more famous monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square.  Our walk took in not one but two of these stunning Derbyshire edges.  After a boggy section of moorland we followed the track towards Baslow Edge, finding the Wellington Monument that celebrates the 1815 Waterloo victory.  We walked along the top of Baslow Edge and as the sun started to set we returned to our pitch via one of the many paths under the crags.

We also took in a lovely walk around Longstone Moor, a beautiful limestone ridge that is criss-crossed by paths.  This area was once a thriving lead mining area but is now a quiet and less visited spot among the bustle of the Peak District.  The area around Baslow is lovely but it does get plenty of visitors and finding space to yourself is near to impossible on a fine day.  On Longstone Moor we met no other walkers and we had a sense that the space and fresh air was just ours to enjoy.  We did find the crowds when we popped in to the Packhorse Inn for a swift half.  This charming pub in Little Longstone had welcoming warm fires and is happy to serve walkers with muddy boots.


Discovering the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District

Beautiful Blackwell Arts and Crafts House above Windermere

In retirement our winter trips are being dictated by the weather forecast rather than the weekend and this freedom is liberating.  With some cold sunny weather forecast last week we baked a cake, packed some warm clothing and set off for the Lake District.  Windermere is easy to get to from Salford and we were soon soaking up the views along the lake from Orrest Head, pottered by the Windermere and seeking a cosy pub to warm up in.

In the afternoon we visited the lovely Blackwell Arts and Crafts House.  We had been here before many years ago and since then the staff and volunteers have been busy and many improvements have been made.  Built by M H Bailie Scott as a holiday home for Edward Holt, this is a beautiful example of an Arts and Crafts house that retains many of its original features that, in keeping with the movement, are both decorative and practical.  The door handles are leaf-shaped, the window catches are interesting.  There is attractive stained glass and plaster work too but just as important, the atmosphere is relaxed, rather than stuffy and visitors are encouraged to linger.

After being a holiday home the house became a school and then offices before being bought by a Trust in 1999 and it opened to the public in 2001.  The White Drawing Room has slender columns with decorative capitals, a sunny aspect over the lake and is a room where the sunlight dances around the room.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the 1880s and spread across Europe and America.  As the V&A writes:

‘It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.’

The Arts and Crafts Movement has strong links with the Lake District.  The three founder members, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Phillip Webb were supported by  George Howard from Naworth Castle near Carlisle and he used William Morris’ wallpapers in many of his properties.  John Ruskin, a Lake District resident, strongly influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement.  He considered machine-made items to be dishonest and that craftmanship was linked to dignity.

Tile detail from a fireplace at Blackwell

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

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.