May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A garden in Fife

I had booked in to see my friends Charlotte and Michael Wemyss in Fife having dropped Nick at the airport and had a quick trip in to Edinburgh. “I thought I would go in on the new tram,” I said to Charlotte on the telephone. She tutted, “That tram's a ridiculous thing!” “Why?” I asked. “Because it isn't necessary and it went £43m over budget,” she said.
Charlotte in her garden
I left Baa at the park & ride and set off for Princes Street with my £3 return ticket. It took half an hour to get to Princes Street. I went up to the Castle, walked on the Royal Mile and The Mound and dropped in to the excellent Scottish National Gallery on the way back down. Then I went into House of Fraser to buy a necessary cosmetic. “Is there a tram stop near here?...” I asked, and the assistant took a sharp intake of breath... I went on,“It's a bit controversial, this new tram, isn't it?” “Well.... it's a ridiculous thing,” she said. “We didn't need it, we have the best bus system of any city, and it went £43m over budget!” Ah!
The tram may be unnecessary, and have proved to be a terrible drain on the tax-payers' purse, but I have to say it is also very comfortable and efficient. I then found myself in nose to tail traffic heading for the Forth Road Bridge.

Charlotte and Michael live on the north side of the Firth of Forth, looking south to the Bass Rock with all the gannets. Nick and I had almost passed their house on our way towards Edinburgh the day before. It is such a great part of this trip that I can catch up with old friends who I hardly ever see -  and I really loved seeing them!

After we had thrown all my clothes and bed linen into her washing machine Charlotte said “Come and have a look at the garden.” I knew she was a brilliant gardener, and I knew that over the last 20 years she has transformed a huge walled garden into something very special. But I was completely bowled over! She has got, unofficially, a national collection of Montana Clematis - and many other sorts which climb up walls, and through the trees behind the most wonderful borders. They are best from the middle of May and June and I commend anyone to see them. The whole garden is an inspiration. It is open by appointment – see the website – but is closed at weekends.

St Andrews, and the AA

St Andrews is lovely with Georgian houses down the main street, though the town is much older. We headed for the golf course. It's still a public course, anyone can play, though you'd have to be pretty confident with your first drive as the outgoing and returning players perform in front of quite a few golfers and even more tourists! There were little rollers coming in on the sandy beach and it was sunny but quite blowy.
Nick at St Andrews
We drove down to the ancient little harbour and out in to green farmland on a beautiful sunny evening. Down the coast to the prettiest place called Crail, mellow brick soft-edged houses with colourful flowers outside – a great contrast to the sharp, grey humourless houses in many villages we have passed through, with few flowers and too much gravel.
Anstruther was the same, charming and faintly Cornish. We were heading now west along the north of the Firth of Forth. Suddenly at about Leven or Methill it becomes grey and plain again. We got as far as Kirkcaldy and, as time was pressing and we had booked ourselves into a campsite near the airport, we headed north to pick up the A92 for a quicker journey.
The campsite was perfectly comfortable, but in the morning disaster struck. I opened the 'bathroom' door and the small square of carpet was floating in waste water! It was coming through the shower drain because I had been too slow to empty the waste water tank, and it was backing up. (Be assured this is nothing to do with the Thetford Cassette toilet... waste water is from washing and washing up. But still not nice.) Quick, I said, we must move to the waste water disposal point – over there (50 metres away).
As the dirty water slopped around in the bathroom, we set off across the campsite. Baa started, choked, spluttered and then stalled. I tried her again – she started, then stopped and stalled again. My limited car mechanical knowledge told me the fuel wasn't getting through. Two kind men pushed us to the waste water point. 
The AA man, Nick and two more helpful men
The AA man soon arrived and put Baa right. He found a temporary seal for the fuel filter until I could get to a garage, and all was well. Bless Baa for not collapsing on us in one of the far-flung places we have been in the past few days, or on the side of the motorway. Nick got to the airport, but didn't get in to Edinburgh.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Keith and Aberdeen

We were glad to visit Keith, which is 20 miles south-east of Elgin, from the family history point of view. Did Nick's family get their name from there? Or did the town take its name from the marauding Keiths who were said to have come over from Germany to fight with the Scots against the English?We'll never know. There certainly wasn't a lot happening when we went there.
The buildings are mostly grey and stark and there is a handsome square in the middle, by St Thomas's church which I thought was a mosque. The hotel we tried didn't serve tea in the afternoon but there was a special World Cup offer of seven shots for the price of five!
St Thomas's Church, Keith
This is single malt country, being close to the rivers Spey, Isla and others which run with perfect water for whisky. We had a tour around the Glen Grant distillery and learnt all about The Major who developed the distillery in the 19th century and planted the garden. Today Grants distillery is thriving, though no family members are involved, and the distillery is owned by the Italian company which has Campari in its portfolio.
On we went north, to Buckie on the coast, and then drove east through farmland growing arable crops, and caramel coloured cattle grazing on the grassy headlands. The sea was the loveliest blue, calm and peaceful, sometimes a cargo ship barely moving on the horizon. Banff has a busy harbour with fishing and cargo and we were heading for Macduff, which sits opposite Banff, like a couple of book-ends, either side of Banff Bay. We stayed at Macduff for the night and the next day two children from a nearby static caravan came to talk to us. They said their family come out to their caravan from Aberdeen every weekend. The Aberdeen accent is very strong and I think they found listening to us as intriguing as we did hearing them! Their route back to Aberdeen would be much quicker than ours: we stuck to the coast round pretty bays and small villages towards Fraserburgh.
Kinnaird Head Lighthouse
Kinnaird Head lighthouse at Fraserburgh sits on a 90 degree promontory which forms the shoulder of north Scotland and was the first lighthouse built by the Commissioners of the North Lighthouses in the mid 18thC. Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, built it on top of a 16th C castle with an impressive external stairway. You'd see a lot from the top, though its role now is as a museum, and there is a modern, unmanned lighthouse beside it.
I had imagined Aberdeen to be drear and grey, but it's a smart and buzzy place with handsome buildings and smart new developments along the river Dee. It's as famous now for being the North Sea Oil city as it is for its buildings of sparkling granite. We found a parking space by a statue of Rabbie Burns and put on a brew before we headed south.
Dundee was known for three Js: Jute, Jam and Jerusalem. The jute industry in the 19th century was a progression from the linen business, with the water on hand to work the mills, and brought good fortune to the city. We saw the Jute Museum at the Verdant Works. The women workers outnumbered the men by three to one and earned Dundee the nickname 'the she-town'. The women were hard-working and tough and had a reputation for being drunken and bawdy after hours, while their men stayed home to mind the children. With much of the jute industry moving to India (where the jute comes from) and the increase in man-made fabrics Dundee's fortunes slumped badly. The jam refers more to the city's famous marmalade, and I daresay fruit-farming nearby, and the journalism is D C Thomson & Co, publishers who produce the Sunday Post and other newspapers, and many comics such as Dandy and Beano. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Into Scotland

We drive north from Berwick on Tweed, the sea continues silvery blue and the sun shines. I love this Northumberland coast. We head for North Berwick with some regret, but need not have worried.
We stopped at Cove on the recommendation of Georgie in Northumberland. They had been to a wedding reception there and said it was enchanting, and accessible only on foot. The village sits at the top of a cliff with the harbour at the bottom and I set off down the path surrounded by red cliffs and, at the bottom, more slithery rockpools than sand exposed by the tide.
It felt very Cornish, though I don't think Cornwall has red sandstone cliffs. The path leads through a creepy tunnel under the cliff, otherwise the harbour can be reached only by boat. It's very Daphne du Maurier, with just one house on the beach and two cottages on the edge of harbour which has a large, enveloping wall protecting the boats.
North Berwick is charming, with a street full of good shops and a harbour full of boats and handsome solid houses rising above it. A large pointed hill rises up from the town.This has always been a smart and fashionable place to live, Edinburgh commuter belt I guess. We camped looking out towards the Bass Rock where, as we were parked, hooked up and cooked supper, we watched the last of the sun peer down behind the clouds and light up the Firth of Forth, as still as a mirror. The Bass Rock is a tall straight-sided rock – the plug from a volcano thousands of years ago – which is now home to the biggest gannet colony in Europe. As the light went, it looked increasingly like a large chocolate brownie with mould on the top ... the mould being the nesting gannets and their guano.
Mr and Mrs Gannet
The next day brought rain, and the boat trip wasn't until 1.30pm... and we wanted to get on. We were wavering, having just been around the Farne Islands (didn't see gannets there though) and it was pretty miserable. But I'm so glad we did go.
Gannets on the Bass Rock
The gannet is the biggest seabird, with a 6' wingspan, and a yellow collar, and (when mature) black wing-tips. They lay their eggs in the same place every year and both parents share sitting on them – not like the feckless male eider ducks. They leave in September for North Africa and come back in March or April to the exact same place on the rock. The males and females look very similar but you can tell the males because they are the ones who make the nests and fly around with seaweed in their mouths. We also saw puffins and guillemots and kittiwakes, and a peregrine eagle perched on the lighthouse rail. The chances of coming out unscathed with large seabirds flying overhead in such vast numbers must be remote, and I had my camera poised. But only one of our companions copped it. He said "Och! I'll be off to buy a lottery tucket just as soon as soon as we get back!"
Leaving North Berwick we made for the Forth Road Bridge, with a token nod to Muirfield for Nick (it being one of the five top golf courses in Scotland, and there are thousands of lesser ones around every corner). We were deviating from my coastal route and heading for Aviemore for the night on the way to a town called Keith, east of Inverness.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

The thing about visiting Holy Island is getting the tide right, so as not to get caught the wrong side of the causeway. You can see the island for miles around, with the castle on the point, and we always saw it bathed in sunshine. We went twice because we were so keen to get the tide right, but we failed to realise the Priory shut at 4pm, the Castle too. The place was almost deserted.
The Castle at Lindisfarne

Two days later the car park was almost full, and streams of people were walking to the village and Priory, or to the Castle a mile away.
The Priory is 7thC, founded by the Irish monk Saint Aidan, and Lindisfarne became the base for spreading christianity throughout the north of England. By the 11thC it was known as The Holy Island. St Cuthbert, the 7thC monk who is so evident all over this part of the country, was to become Abbot of the Priory and and then Bishop of Lindisfarne. In the 9thC the Vikings controlled Lindisfarne and the north of England. The monks fled the Priory which was rebuilt after the Norman Conquest. It has always been a farming community, and lime kilns were established in the 19th century.
The Priory
The Priory was destroyed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and I felt a strange absence of the sense of spirituality I was expecting. Much of the stone from the Priory was used to build the Castle. Henry VIII wanted fortification against the Scots and this work was finally completed in the 1570s but the accession of James I, uniting England with Scotland, made it a somewhat token garrison.
In 1901 Edward Hudson, who owned Country Life magazine, leased the Castle from the Crown and got his friend Edwin Lutyens to make it into a 'holiday home to be proud of'. It is wonderful, very arts and crafts, well propped with furnishings etc. Lytton Strachey stayed there and wrote that the setting of the Castle was perfect, but that it was most uncomfortable and that he dreaded having to hurry to dinner because 'if you fell on all that stone you'd surely die'. Gertrude Jekyll made a garden which is away from the Castle so as to be visible from the high windows.
Gertrude Jekyll's potting shed
Nick and I did have to hurry... we suddenly realised that the danger time for crossing the causeway was fast approaching and the crab sandwich we had planned to have at the pub had to go by the board. Shame! We just made it over in time, and headed for Scotland.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cooking and twitching

I have been a fan of the cook, Jane Lovett, since I was given her book 'Make it Easy'. She calls herself a 'home cook' (but not 'chefy') whereas I'd call myself a home cook, because I cook at home. Jane's cordon bleu trained.. and has taught at Leiths, for goodness sake. She lives in Northumberland and I went to one of her demonstrations this week. It was fun, and she showed us lots of 'get ahead' ideas, short-cuts and tips. I came away with some good new recipes.
I had to leave pronto to meet Nick who had done a walk from Jane's house along part of St Cuthbert's way. We had booked ourselves on  Billy Shiel's boat from Seahouses around the Farne Islands and had no time to spare.
The Farne Islands are run by the National Trust and home to a huge colony of seabirds. We (a boatload of tourists) were taken around several islands, and saw thousands of guillemots and puffins, shags and cormorants, flying and fishing, before we were left on Inner Farne for an hour. The terns, particularly the arctic terns, lay their eggs right by the footpath, and are bold and protective... They have long, pointy, vicious beaks! We were warned to wear a hat, or put up an umbrella, or just wave our hands over our heads, but still there is little escape!
A tern, or sea swallow
At the cliff by the lighthouse everyone crowded round where the shags and guillemots were sitting on eggs, some had hatched and were feeding their young. We were feet away from them and I felt intrusive... but they didn't seem to mind. A razorbill was feeding a tiny chick – regardless of people poking our cameras at them.
In yer face
The birds got their own back; as the boat skipper said “watch out, if it's white and comes out of the sky, it won't be snow!”
Puffins lay their eggs – one per couple – in burrows in the grass. The parents are very busy (they fly at 400 wingbeats per minute!) fishing to feed their young. One flies off and the other stays to mind the burrow... there are always gulls strutting about waiting for a returning puffin so they can filch the sandeels off them. It's comical to watch.
The look-out puffin
The baby puffins are fed for a few weeks and then the parents leave the burrow and go to sea. The babies wait and they wait, and then they realise no more food is coming, and they have to set off and look after themselves. They leave the burrow at night, so as to avoid predators (gulls) and hop and flop to the edge of the land and drop into the water. They're on their own...

The eider duck male is exotic looking, with sharply defined monochrome colouring; we saw them in flight and in the sea, but not in the breeding colony. He is a vain and useless creature; he and Mrs Eider only get together to mate, and then she brings up the young entirely single-handed.
The female Eider duck likes to keep a low profile
The male Eider Duck!

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Northumberland coast

The overnight rain stopped and we woke to a wonderful sunlit view down Newbiggin beach to Blyth where a huge industrial chimney in the distance and a sharp, square factory close to the shore looked positively artistic in the morning sun.
We had a token drive through Ashington to pay homage to the birthplace of the Charlton brothers (Jack and Bobby). This town was in the heart of the the north-east's coalmining industry and suffered terribly in the 1980s as so many villages did. We weren't there for long but it appears today to be a busy, purposeful place. I like the sound of the Go As You Please Funeral Parlour!
Cheryl's (Dorset Art Weeks) sister, Viv, lived up here for several years and said Cresswell was her favourite beach, so that's where we headed. The tide was out and the sun was warm and it certainly is a wonderful beach – all rockpools and golden sand. It also has an ice-cream parlour where the lady makes all (we only had one each) of the excellent ices herself.
Druridge Bay
We drove a little further past farmhouses and grazing cattle and parked by the road to walk through the dunes to Druridge Bay, a 12-mile stretch of beautiful beach and calm, blue sea for as far as you can see. We had the beach to ourselves, apart from a few dog-walkers.
 It is said that the Northumberland coast is Britain's best kept secret and I feel torn between keeping it that way and shouting at everyone to come and see it!
Along the coast there are lovely villages: the houses (and castles!) are mainly built of warm, soft sandstone – it can't be that soft, but it looks it. We stopped at the excellent farm shop at Widdrington (another Viv recommendation) on our way to Alnwick.
Alnwick Castle
Here's a tip – if you decide to visit Alnwick Castle and Gardens, make a day of it. There's so much do and see. We had an excellent guide (Amy) who took a party of us round the outside of the castle telling us of the history of the Percy family. The castle dates back to Norman times and the Percys have been there for 700 years. It has fantastic states rooms filled with treasures, largely due to Lady Elizabeth Percy who was an avid 18th century collector.
We just had time to get to Craster in time to buy kippers for tomorrow's breakfast – they are said to be the best in the world, and though not a great kipper expert, I would agree. That night we camped at a lovely site far away from busy roads on a farm at West Kyloe close to Holy Island. We had a somewhat hilarious episode with hose pipes - confusion over which which was the fresh water hose -  which I was going to recount here but then think perhaps it wasn't quite so hilarious - I was very tired! Suffice to say nobody got cholera. We cooked supper to the lowing sound of cows, and birdsong, and it was still light at 10.30pm.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A short break in Dorset

Jane, Cheryl, me and Malcolm

Diverting from my anti-clockwise coastal route around the UK, I have just spent 10 days in Dorset with my sister Jane who had a hip replacement at Circle Bath Hospital. She kept referring to it as “a really lovely hotel... I mean hospital”, and I am not surprised, as it was beautifully run, and sumptuous. More importantly the operation went well and she came home after only two days. Her confinement happened at the beginning of Dorset Art Weeks when studios and galleries all over Dorset are 'open house' for two weeks. Jane exhibited with two friends, Cheryl and Mary, and they managed the studio while she managed the stairs and the walking sticks and a few half-shifts in the studio. She's doing brilliantly. I was nurse/driver/housekeeper. 
Baa rested at Callerton Parking, close to Newcastle airport and I returned there with Nick yesterday. We set off for the coast again along the north side of the Tyne. Tynemouth is a lovely place right at the mouth of the river. We parked in Front Street which is full of chic shops and bars – even a chocolatier – and visited the castle and priory which dates back to the 11th century. The imposing figure of Admiral Lord Collingwood looks out across the river mouth – he was a Newcastle man and a very important admiral under Nelson, being first on the scene at Trafalgar. Beneath his monument Nelson is quoted: “See how that noble fellow Collingwood takes his ship into action.”
Admiral Lord Collingwood
We moved on through Whitley Bay and Blyth to Newbiggin by the Sea where we bought provisions and had a curry on our way to the Sandy Bay campsite near Ashington. 
The sound of the waves on the beach below the campsite as we went to bed were just a taste of the amazing Northumberland coastline that lay in wait.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Seaton Carew

Saltburn-by-the-Sea is impressive, approached from the south; winding down a small road I could see the crashing sea below and the impressive Victorian iron pier, and handsome hotels on the cliff above. Fishing boats were lashed down on their trailers by the sea wall.
The pier is the only remaining iron pleasure pier in the north east. When it opened in 1869 it had 50,000 visitors in the first six months! This was quite a place in the 19th century but over the years its fortunes, largely connected to the iron industry, have been mixed. The pier has suffered numerous catastrophes, mainly due to the battering effect of the North Sea, and once it was hit by a ship which took a 210ft bite out of it. It has been restored and repaired countless times, and is now half its original length.
Saltburn Pier on a nicer day
I climbed (1st gear) up the hill and wondered if I had time to see Redcar race-course. No. I needed to find fuel, and it was raining hard. And then, in the time it took to fill up, and listen to the Archers, I fell into the industrial north. I was still wondering about Redcar, when I came down a hill on a wide dual carriageway. Traffic lights offered Thirsk, Middlesburgh or Teesport. I had never even heard of Teesport. (though, yes, I could work it out). I pulled over and called on Diana, my satnav. She pointed me towards Jedburgh, and past the Wilton Centre (a vast, modern, waste processing plant the size of a small town) and the Riverside Park Industrial Estate.

I wove my way along small roads, through endless industrial works: largely petro-chemicals and a few remaining steel works. Diana wanted me to cross the Tees via the huge meccano blue Transporter bridge which kept appearing between the factories and chimneys as I got nearer to the river. But it was closed.
A glimpse of the Transporter Bridge
Diana wouldn't accept this, so I switched her off and went to Middlesburgh and out again and picked up the A178. Between the road and the north bank of the river there are acres more industrial factories and marching pylons converging on the power plants. It was grey and grim at nearly 9pm. Cattle and sheep were grazing round the legs of the pylons.
I stopped at The Staincliffe Hotel at Seaton Carew and the kind receptionist took pity on me and said I could park for the night in the hotel car park. It was a dark and stormy night and I lay in bed thinking of John Darwin. He was the man who was thought to have come to a sticky end after setting off in his canoe in 2002.. from Seaton Carew! (He bobbed up again five years later in Panama.)
Baa outside the Staincliffe Hotel
The next day I had breakfast at the hotel and then went to find seals at the nature reserve I had passed the day before. It's amazing that they (harbour and grey seals) are living here in the Tees estuary again, having died out at the end of the 19th century. But sadly I didn't see any.