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.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

North-West Scotland

Bad weather set in after Cape Wrath, and it rained on and off for four days. In my efforts to stick to the coast I went along some pretty hairy roads – (very) narrow with passing places. Mountains to the left and the coast to the right. When the road winds inland there are wonderful sea lochs to drive round with islands like sleeping giants protecting the coast from the Atlantic.

The hills are very green, with rocks pushing through the grass, and when the hills get bleaker there's more rock than grass. I had to tell myself this is a tour, not an endurance test, and I hadn't really gained much by sticking to the coast, in taking such an arduous route to Lochinver. Someone on my Cape Wrath minibus thought my foot (the one with horsefly bites) looked infected and I found a doctor to look at it in Lochinver. It was 7pm and the rain had subsided for a bit. The foot was fine.
I was aiming for Achiltibuie, on a promentary west of Ullapool accessible by only one road, where I had been told I could get a boat trip round the Summer Isles. The 15m from the main road to Achiltibuie took ages and I felt exhausted by the time I pulled up in a nice flat gravel carpark at 9.15pm. I felt sure no one would mind me stopping for the night, and found a bottle of beer in the fridge and cooked supper. I would be in the front of the queue for the boat ride to the Summer Islands in the morning.
It rained all night and in the morning a black VW van with no windows pulled up and a severe looking man got out. I was in the Free Church of Scotland car park, and I think he was the minister.... It was Sunday morning. He unlocked the gate and a herd of sheep scampered out of the churchyard. Then the minister disappeared. 

I asked at a cafe about the boat trip to the Summer Isles. Yes, I was in the right place - but no, it doesn't go on a Sunday. It didn't go from Ullapool either – not on a Sunday. So I never got to the Summer Isles and instead drove on to the lovely Inverewe Garden which sits on the side of Loch Ewe. The rain had stopped and it was a wonderful evening. Inverewe was developed in the 1860s, and has a fantastic collection of exotic plants and trees which thrive because of the Gulf Stream and the protection of the woodland behind the garden. I loved the willow sculptures – a horse and two men working the garden – made by Trevor Leat, which have a real presence here. The garden is magical.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Along the north coast of Scotland

Dunnet Head
I drove from away the ferry at Gill's Bay (near John O'Groats) late in the evening. The sun was still sparkling on the Pentland Firth to my right, calm and blue across to the hills of Hoy, the most westerly Orkney island. I camped close to the Castle of Mey on a flat plain with Dunnet Head rising away to the west. I was the only camper on the site and Baa was surrounded by chickens and ducks, next to a field of quizzical cows and calves - and the bull.
The Castle of Mey
The next morning I went to the Castle of Mey, the much loved holiday home of the Queen Mother which she bought in the 1950s. It is right on the coast, absolutely charming and the walled garden was in full bloom. As castles go, it is not very big or grand, and the room guides all had cosy but careful tales to tell of the Queen Mother's visits and the Royal family on holiday.
I did a little detour to see Dunnet Head lighthouse (58 degrees north) and then on along the coast past moorland and mountains on my left, and still the sapphire blue sea to the right, until I got to Bettyhill at the mouth of River Naver. One of things that has surprised me about the north of Scotland is the amount of sand! It has the most wonderful beaches. We once had a family holiday at Bettyhill and I had forgotten how lovely it was. (I do remember that I lost control of our very ill-disciplined dog and she disappeared completely on the huge beach, and there was a dead whale on the sand). The sandy banks of the Naver continue way up past where the road crosses the bridge.
The next time I stopped was at the postcard perfect Kyle of Tongue where there is a stopping place half way across the Kyle. I thought about staying the night there, and waking up to water on either side. Then I spoke to a man on that little stopping place who was with his wife and grand-daughter. He asked me if I was all right - being on my own – and I immediately felt that I wasn't!
The Cape Wrath Lighthouse!
I decided to drive on to Durness, and from there I could get to Cape Wrath the following morning. I hadn't realised that Loch Eriboll was quite so vast, or that the road around it would be so long and winding. It seemed to take for ever, and I was low on fuel. I was also a bit concerned about two (horsefly) bites on my foot which I got walking on Orkney two days before. ( They landed as soon as I took my boot off, and my foot had started to swell up.) All was well – I reached Durness safely, and got diesel (£1.50 per litre!) the following morning
My visit to the Cape Wrath lighthouse was a bit of a disappointment! It involved a short boat trip across the Kyle of Durness and then an 11m minibus ride to the Lighthouse. This journey takes 50 minutes because it's a rough road across land owned by the Ministry of Defence – it's a firing range, but there was no one about. Stuart was our very cheery driver, but the weather really closed in as we approached the Lighthouse and by the time we arrived the rain was coming down hard. I had flimsy canvas shoes on (owing to my swollen foot) and Britain's most north-westerly lighthouse was not visible from 50 yards away!

Shetland oil

As well as its natural beauty, archaelogical sites and its wildlife – Shetland has great commerial prosperity. Since the 1970s the oil terminal at Sullom Voe has brought great wealth to the islands. Oil is brought by pipeline from the North Sea, and now also from the North Atlantic, and goes by tanker to refineries all over the world. There is a huge new gas terminal being built too and 'accommodation barges' have been brought in to house all the construction workers.
The road to Sullom Voe is like any other on the island, with striking views, and a few stray sheep to negotiate. We thought we might be on the wrong track and suddenly, round a bend, we came upon it, one of the biggest oil refineries in Europe. A vast James Bond-style panorama opened up, ultra modern and totally out of step with those grazing sheep we'd just passed. The nearby airport which is largely there to serve the oil fields is buzzing, with jets, small planes and helicopters. I stopped and gawped at it!

When North Sea Oil first came to their shores the Shetland Islanders negotiated that, rather than allowing lots of companies to open up there, BP should manage the whole business. The strength of the oil there will ensure that the Islands' foreseeable future is safe – I do hope that is the case.
They also have a huge fish farming industry – mainly salmon, mussels too – which I was told, though I find it hard to believe, makes even more money for Shetland than the oil industry.
Shetland certainly is a pretty magical place in the summer – it is just a very, very long way from home. I got a ferry south at 6pm which was much better than the outbound night crossing, and seven hours later I was back on Orkney, in Baa and in bed. Still a very long way from home!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Island of Vaila, Shetland

I went to the Shetland Islands as a foot passenger and left Baa in the long-stay carpark at Kirkwall. I thought my ticket was pretty reasonable for a seven hour crossing – but then I hadn't booked a cabin. .. It was 11pm when we left and, as advised, I went straight to the cinema; there was no film showing and it was warm. True, but the recliners didn't recline much and I couldn't get comfortable. So I moved to the bar which was draped with sleeping bodies, and found a curved banquette – I can describe it no other way - and slept surrounded by empty glasses and bits of Pringle.
Into Lerwick at 7.30am and a call from Richard Rowland, already up and about, who was coming to meet me. He was soon outside in his VW van with young Daniel from Brazil who was also staying with Richard and his Polish wife, Dorota Rychlik. Daniel looked a little strange; he had come off a bicycle the day before and had been bandaged up in A&E.
You can't get close to Vaila sheep!
It was a beautiful morning and we stopped a few times to take photographs. Shetland is wild and rugged, more so than Orkney. There are more than 100 islands, though only about 15 are populated. It's not a place for townies; life here is out of doors... farming, walking, archeology and miles and miles of stunning coast teeming with seabirds.
Dorota was waiting at the on-shore base with Alijia, a guest from Poland who is a spinner and weaver, and we were soon crossing to Vaila. We stopped to feed the ponies and then the pigs, before reaching the house. Over a breakfast of boiled eggs Alijia explained how to dye wool with wode. It makes indigo if you do it right, and a nasty brown colour if you get it wrong.
Vaila Hall with the Watchtower in the distance
Dorota has a herd of 120 pure Shetland sheep which she is developing for the widest variety of natural colours. Theirs was the first orgnic farm on Shetland and the resulting Vaila blankets are sold at Dorota's art gallery, Vaila Fine Art, in Lerwick.
Their home is a large Gothic mansion, rebuilt in Victorian times, which they bought 20 years ago, lock, stock and barrel including an impressive collection of stuffed native birds.
I walked round the island with Alijia – it is 800 acres of sheep country, steep cliffs, and a formal garden. The sheep are incredibly wild and you can't get near them, and the ground, in places cropped and smooth as a golf course, is littered with rubbish dropped by the seabirds – crab and mussel shells and other fishy body parts. It's a wild and wonderful place.

Sunday, 13 July 2014


The only day I had bad weather when I was on Orkney, was the day I went to Sanday, an outlying island to the north. I got the Friday morning ferry from Kirkwall and stayed the night before in the harbour car park by the public loos, to ensure parking for the day. I woke to rain drumming on the roof, and it didn't let up until the evening. (Incidently the loos on Kirkwall harbour are 5*, stainless steel and clean enough for brain surgery.. at least they were at 8.30 in the morning.) I bought my ticket and thought I would get a paper to read on the ferry... silly, they don't come in until 1pm.
On the ferry I met a young German electrician, Eugene, who was going to Eday, the island south of Sanday, for a couple of weeks. He works on one of the test sites trialling tidal power which, if it can be made viable, will be the next thing in renewable energy. He was excited about his work, but not about the prospect of two weeks on Eday. “There is one pub,” he said, “but it isn't often open..”
Sanday is the island 'Where sand, sea and sky meet' and, apart from the wind turbines that greet you by the harbour, it has stunning scenery with the most dramatic beaches and dunes, teeming with seabirds and a large population of seals. I went to visit Fenella and Steve Ray who have a farm with sheep and a couple of cows, dogs, chicken and ducks.. They are friends of friends of mine and have lived on Lewis and in Ayrshire, but this is the most remote place they have lived in.

Fenella and Steve on Tresness beach

The summer days here are very long; it doesn't get really properly dark at all, people carry on working until midnight. But then in the winter the days are so short – the very mention made Fenella look crest-fallen. It is not just, she said, because the days are so short, but because winter goes on for so long... October through to May. Orkney doesn't really do autumn and spring – it goes from summer straight into long dark winters.
Steve took me to see the island including an archaeological dig he has been working on which is going to be moved in its entirety to the Heritage Centre as one more winter will see it washed out to sea. There is a renovated croft at the Centre which was once home to a family with 13 children.
Avoid a spitting Fulmer
After lunch we took the dogs to walk on Tresness beach on the east of the island. Fulmers nest in the dunes behind and you don't want to get too close to a nest because they will defend themselves by spitting a mouthful of stinking, oily regurgitation at you. There was one struggling in the sea trying to up.. and failing, getting more and more water-logged. They have stiff straight wings, floating and only occasionally beating their wings. If you find one standing in the road you you should pick it up and throw it in the air to get it airborne. 


The ferry from Gill's Bay, by John O' Groats, takes a bit over an hour to reach Orkney at St Margaret's Bay, on South Ronaldsay. We saw guillemots, puffins and two dolphins, but Janet, who I was standing with on deck, had seen an Orca whale last time she did this crossing. It was sunny and calm except for a patch of water in the middle of the Pentland Firth (remember Orkney is “where the Atlantic and the North Sea meet”) where the currents are famously hazardous for sailing boats. The sea blew up frothing and choppy, and caused all the car alarms to burst in to song. (Baa kept mum, no alarm.)
Orkney mainland was bathed in sunshine when I drove off the ferry and headed for Kirkwall. I felt most uncomfortable because I had had to back on to the ferry, and had ricked my neck.  I drove over the Churchill Barriers which bridge the southern islands. In 1939 a British warship, HMS Royal Oak, was torpedoed by a german u-boat in Scapa Flow with 833 lives lost. Churchill had the barriers built to protect the eastern approaches from further loss.
The Italian Chapel
Italian prisoners of war were brought in from North Africa to help construct the Barriers and they built a charming chapel out of a couple of nissen huts. It is the only remaining bit of the camp, and has been recently restored. An artist POW copied Barbarino's Madonna and Child behind the altar from a card his mother had packed in his bag when he went to war.
I went straight through Kirkwall, which is functional but a bit drab except for its stunning, red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral, built in 12thC.
I was going to see Susan and Len Hunt who I didn't know, but who are friends of a friend who had put us in touch. They live in the West Mainland, and were so hospitable and kind and full of local knowledge: Susan is Orcadian, and they returned to live here when Len retired. I parked in their field and went out each day to different sites – archaeological and coastal – and returned for little eats, and gin and tonic in the evening!
Len and Susan
Orkney is peppered with the most amazing archaeological sites – mainly Neolithic – which are fantastically preserved, mainly because most of their 3000 BC houses and furnishings were made of stone. It also has the most wonderful beaches and cliffs, and soft, green rolling farmland. Most farms are beef cattle, some dairy and very little arable. Cows and calves are everywhere, running with their huge, very content looking bull.
Farmers were cutting and turning grass for hay and the cut fields were covered in hundreds of oystercatchers, curlews and gulls. (Oystercatchers and curlews stick together, gulls and crows in the next field.) I love the oystercatchers with their peeping whistle, their red beaks and legs - and they are everywhere on Orkney - on fields, cliffs and on the shore.
Susan took me to see Stromness, the island's second town (though folk there probably wouldn't say so) which is smaller and more arty than Kirkwall. It has an excellent museum with lots of artefacts about their local hero, John Rae, who was a great Arctic explorer and found the North West Passage.  In the 18thC the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada set up an office in Stromness, recognising the qualities of the steadfast and tough men or Orkney.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

North from the Black Isle

North-east of Inverness, The Black Isle is the peninsular which sticks out between the Moray Firth and the Cromarty Firth. It's a rich farming area with content-looking cows grazing on gently rolling fields, and some arable too. I drove along the south side of the Isle (peninsular) through Avoch, and a pretty fishing village called Rosemarkie with boats sitting in the sun on flat calm water of the Moray Firth. (A firth in lowland Scotland is an estuary or inlet.) At the end of the peninsular the village of Cromarty is quiet and sleepy with sandstone houses, tidy gardens, a couple of shops and a harbour.
Baa on board the Nigg ferry
I caught the ferry (four cars and a dozen passengers) the short distance across the mouth of the Cromarty Firth to Nigg. Oil platforms are brought in here, and further along at Invergordon, for decommissioning or for repairs. Like an upturned table, four redundant yellow columns rise out of the water - “The french rig,” I was told by some jolly ladies who were discussing different ways to wear a scarf, “they were meant to take it away, but they must have forgotten!”
I drove north and back on to the A9, over another stunning bridge, this time across The Dornoch Firth. I hung right to see the Royal Dornoch Golf Club which Nick said is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the country. It certainly is a lovely course (though I am no expert) with the most beautiful coastal backdrop. I risked my neck (head) to go and take a picture beyond the 18th which the pro said was the best view of the course.
The next landmark was Dunrobin Castle, home of the Dukes of Sutherland, which was closing as I arrived (6pm) so I only saw it from the outside. It sits in a fantastic position right by the sea. 
The A9 north

Then I thought I would drive up the A9 for an hour through Sutherland – and into Caithness – and see where I got to. I had been told that this was a dull part of north-east Scotland, but I didn't think so. Wonderful heather coloured hills to the left and sapphire blue dead calm sea to the right... sometimes the road runs frighteningly close to the cliff edge.
At Lybster the A9 isn't so close to the edge and I turned right to see the view. The road came to a stop one small field away from the cliff-top and next to a house where a man was watering his tubs. Brian Munro is a nuclear engineer, ex RAF, who worked on the fast reactor at Dounreay.
Brian at Lybster
He had quite a bit to say about the energy industry and the wretched and useless wind farms that the coalition government and Alex Salmond are so keen on.
I have been so lucky with the weather and was waxing lyrical about the view from his house. He laughed, and said such a calm sea was unusual and that I ought to come back and see it in the winter! He and his wife like to go cruising now he is retired. And when he's home and the sea is rough he likes to take a good book and a flask of tea down to the beach for a couple of hours, and settle in to a sheltered spot in a cleft at the bottom of the cliff.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Brief encounters at Fort William

I had a few days on the west coast with a friend, Susie Bagot. We stayed near Loch Morar which Susie knew as a child, and we went to Skye (I will record this later). We talked and laughed for four days, and stayed at some stunning places. But our location for Susie's last night was Best Western car park in Fort William. It was close to the station and she had an early train to catch.
There isn't much between you and the night when you sleep in a campervan and that night I lay in bed and overheard a man outside on his mobile arguing with his wife. He spoke with a lot of expletives while pacing up and down, not drunk but not entirely sober either. The gist of the conversation was that this was the first night he'd had out in months, and that he didn't like his job any more than she liked hers... but it went on, and on. I went from thinking I would open the door and deliver some expletives of my own, and feeling very sorry for them both. Eventually I went to sleep.
I felt sad to see Susie go. The reality of doing a trip like this - that I spend a lot of time on my own - is both good and bad. I meet more people on my own and I am a happy traveller, but at times it is lonely and I have no diversionary tactics, it's just me and Baa. But I met lots of people that morning.
It was wash day, and the lady at the Fort William station cafe told me there was a good launderette at a small village called Caol, just out of town. It didn't open until 9am, so I had breakfast in a cafe run by a very happy man from Birmingham. By 9.30 I had the washing on the go and was back in Fort William for fuel and provisions.
I met Bill Cottle in the Morrisons carpark, his VW Trident was parked next to Baa. He lives in his van at this time of year for for his work and was, I could tell, pretty envious of Baa's spacious interior. I won't explain the mechanics of campervan beds, for fear you might nod off, just say that he found his sleeping arrangement tiresome. But his van is fantastic (galley down one side, the bed/sofa at the back facing forward), the walls are lined with book-shelves and racks for his rods, and there's a pervading smell of pipe smoke. Bill, a professional ghillie, teaches people to salmon fish and was stocking up for a few days on the River Shiel, close to where Susie and I had just been.
When I was driving back through Caol my phone rang... and I picked it up. I saw the police car drive past, and I watched in my rear view mirror as it turned round and followed me to the launderette. Blue lights! Damn. The two policemen were very nice (the driver's mother has a van just like Baa) but I was cautioned in the back of their panda car. I will be hearing from the Procurator Fiscal. “Don't think about it, enjoy your trip!” Yes, but it's likely to be a £100 fine and three points... and I can only blame myself.
Onwards to Inverness, through classic highland scenery - (some) snow-capped mountains, vast lochs and miles of forestry. I was heading back to the east coast, to the mouth of the River Spey where I had left my anti-clockwise coastal tour.