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.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Into Cumbria

South into England to Carlisle, I turned hard right along the south side of the Solway Firth. There are wonderful views back across to Scotland as I drove west to Burgh (Bruff) by Sands where a monument to King Edward I stands by the side of the Solway. Edward died here in 1307 during his last attempt to conquer the Scots. What a spot!
The monument is right out in an open plain, looking north across the water to Criffel, one of the highest hills in southern Scotland, with Skiddaw rising high out of the Cumbrian hills to the south.
Port Carlisle was just a little fishing village until a group of businessmen decided to build a canal linking it to Carlisle in 1823. The place hummed for a while as coal and wheat and the wherewithal for all those biscuits (United Biscuits and Carrs all came from Carlisle) moved along the canal, but it became unviable and the canal was replaced with a railway. I was hoping to see what remains of the canal, but couldn't find anything.
It is very quiet in Port Carlisle now, and next door in Bowness-on-Solway, and I wondered what the people who live there do...? Mostly retired I imagine and it isn't far to go to work in Carlisle, but there was a bees-buzzing, sunny, sleepy,  slowness to that remote north-west corner of England.
Silloth promenade
Not so sleepy round the corner in Silloth, once a humming Victorian seaside resort, and it's still a popular family holiday destination. The promenade runs along the Solway – with that same wonderful view across to Scotland – and there's the biggest village Green I have ever seen. A recently restored Victorian pagoda stands next to a small amusement arcade and dodgems for toddlers; families were having picnics on the Green, walking their dogs and flying kites. There's not a lot happening in the town – a Spar and a Co-op, charity shops and several funeral parlours – but I found a chemist and bought antihistimine as I have been attacked by mosquitos again.
Maryport harbour
The whole of this north-west coast is very Roman; and Maryport, 15 miles south of Silloth, was an important Roman port. There was a Roman fort here and many of the Roman remains are in the (very good) town Museum. But the town today has echoes of the successful town it was in the 19thC, when fishing and coal brought prosperity and a very handsome, large harbour with smart merchants' houses on the hill behind. I had been told that the Captain Nelson pub, down by the harbour, was the place to eat “if the grandmother is cooking”. I don't know if she was or not because I didn't want to eat and headed south for Whitehaven.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dumfries & Galloway

Dumfries & Galloway stretches from Stranraer in the west to east of Langholm, along the top of the Solway Firth; the skyline is dominated by the lovely Southern Uplands. Its coastline is dotted with pretty fishing villages and fringed with sandy beaches and the region is the centre for the visual arts in southern Scotland.
On the way up from the Isle of Whithorn, I went to Wigtown, Scotland's National Book Town which is stuffed with book shops and has a popular annual Book Festival in the autumn. Further east, Kirkcudbright is a pretty harbour town of Georgian houses and coloured paintwork with an arty crafty vibe: it is known as the Artists' Town. The artist E A Hornel came to live here in 1866 and several of The Glasgow Boys – a collective mostly trained in Glasgow who depicted different facets of Scottish life - followed him. At about this time the successful artist and illustrator Jessie M King and her artist husband E A Taylor also came to live here. For artists, the light of Dumfries & Galloway is of exceptional quality.
Cathy Agnew, whom I have mentioned earlier, has played a key role in the recent cultural development of this region. She managed the reincarnation of what was a derelict primary school in New Galloway into a vibrant arts and community centre called CatStrand – so named after a stream that runs under the building. A £1million development project over seven years created what is now a hub of activity in this small town (Scotland’s smallest Royal Burgh) with a full programme of visiting artists and performers as well as classes and functions for the locals.
Cathy is now Project Director of the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust which was set up to save and refurbish a Georgian townhouse called Moat Brae in Dumfries. J M Barrie played in the garden at Moat Brae as a child and said it was the inspiration behind Peter Pan's Neverland. The plan is to create a national Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling which is set to open in 2017. It's an exciting vision with Joanna Lumley as its Patron and, having visited Moat Brae, I can really see how exciting and magical it will be.
Castle Douglas has been designated the Food Town of the area and I dropped in to the cattle market there to see Cathy's husband, Richard, selling some beasts before I headed for England.
That was a baffling experience! I couldn't understand what was going on because the auctioneer talks incredibly fast in indecipherable cattle-speak. I had been strongly advised by Richard neither to wave at him or catch the auctioneer's eye, and thus I avoided heading south with any cloven-hoofed passengers.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

South-west Scotland

South-West Scotland was a complete revelation to me. I like its coastline and its lochs and gentle green farmland, and the Turneresque purple, blue and grey hills of the Southern Uplands. Cathy, who had joined me on Arran, and I set off down the Ayrshire coast from Ardrossen.
Just south of Ayr, the village of Alloway is the birthplace of the 18thC poet and man of the people, Robbie Burns. The Robbie Burns Birthplace Museum opened in 2010 and goes a long way to explain how he grew from humble farming roots to superstardom in his short life. He died at 37 after living a very celebrity lifestyle. The museum is very hands-on for children and crammed with exhibits, but it's directionless and badly lit. There is a handsome monument to Burns near the museum and the cottage where he was born is also open to the public.
Culzean Castle
Culzean (Cull-ean) Castle is beautiful and classical; on the site of an older building it was redesigned by Robert Adam in 1777, and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Eisenhower was gifted a suite of rooms in the top of the castle, as a token of gratitude for being Supreme Allied Commander Europe during WWII. Now the Eisenhower suite can be rented and it must have the most stunning views because the castle sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay.
Down the road Turnberry announces itself as “Golfing Perfection”. The hotel has been bought by Donald Trump who is going to pump millions into it, and improve the course, so it'll be even more perfect. It is in a beautiful situation looking out towards Arran and Ailsa Craig.
The Rhins of Galloway is a hammerhead that sticks out to the west of Dumfries and Galloway. Poor Stranraer, which sits in the top half of the hammer, really feels a bit sad since Stenna Line moved their ferry service to Ireland up the road to Cairnryan. The huge ex-terminal is bleak and empty with signs askew and weeds growing up through the tarmac. I think it's going to become housing.
Portpatrick in the middle of the west side of the hammer is a pretty fishing port turned holiday resort; a horseshoe bay lined with cafes and souvenir shops, and with children building sandcastles on the beach. When I approached the sun was out but a sea mist hung over the village. 
At the Mull of Galloway, the most southerly point in Scotland, the mist was a thick fog;  I walked to the lighthouse but couldn't see the sea!
St Ninian's Chapel
The whole of the southern part of the region was shrouded in mist (I could just make out some lovely sandy beaches) until I got to the Isle of Whithorn, when the cloud lifted. This is barely an isle – it feels attached to the peninsular, which is beautiful, wild and windswept. The chapel was built in 1300 for pilgrims who came ashore to visit the shrine of St Ninian. Today there is a small busy community here and a pretty harbour with holiday houses and bars.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A monsoon on Arran

The island of Arran is sometimes referred to as 'Scotland in miniature', and I am not sure quite why. It's a lovely island, and certainly has a lot of ingredients deemed to be Scottish – highlands and lowlands, a castle, good beaches, lots of water and lots of sheep – but I don't know why it is thought to encapsulate more of the essence of Scotland than other places. 
When I got off the ferry at Lochranza the rain was sheeting down so hard I could barely see the road ahead. I narrowly misssed mowing down a group of about eight young Indian men who were trying to hitch a lift. They weren't dressed for the weather and were so comletely drenched that I nearly did stop... but then I didn't. It was only partly because I have been told not to pick up strange men - let alone eight of them - but more because I couldn't bear the thought of them dripping all over my van!
Brodick Bay with Goatfell behind
I drove the 14 miles round the very hilly north of the island and down to Brodick. I saw a nice hotel looking on the front, and when the rain had abated I went inside, ordered a drink, and used the loo and the wifi. At 9pm I moved Baa out to the promenade near where the Caledonian Macbrayne ferries come in – big ones for the crossing from Ardrossen. A few drunks stumbled about a bit later on but I slept well with the rain drumming on the roof.
By the time Cathy came in the next day the rain had stopped. We had lunch and went round Brodick Castle, a handsome pink (red sandstone) baronial pile overlooking the bay with the magnificent pointed Goatfell rising up behind it. Brodick was home to the Hamiltons, then Montroses (or perhaps it was just their hunting lodge) and dates back 800 years. Cathy did retail therapy in Arran Aromatics and we set off south to loop round to Blackwaterfoot on the west of the island where we were booked into a campsite.
Looking towards Holy Island
Holy Island lies just off the east coast, pretty as a picture with its lighthouse; and further south and further out Ailsa Craig, a great volcanic plug of an island is where they quarried granite for curling stones. There are many Bronze Age standing stones etc on Arran and we stopped near Machrie to see a Bronze Age burial cairn.
The campsite was a good one, and quite an experience for Cathy. There weren't many people – six or seven other vehicles. One poor couple had had their car sliced up by the Lochranza bus and were waiting for it to be made driveable by the local garage so they could return home to Suffolk. A cyclist from a campervan similar to Baa was in Lochranza hospital having suffered a fit, poor lady, and another man had had to see the doctor because of trouble with his insides. Cathy met his wife at the dishwashing area when she took our dirty plates in the morning and got all the details...

Gigha & The Mull of Kintyre

I found a campsite close to Tayinloan where the the ferry goes to the island of Gigha. I wanted to get the first crossing in the morning and be back before the stormy weather set in.. predicted to be 3pm. The wind blew up in the evening and all the campers were checking their tentpegs and securing their awnings: it seemed at 10pm that there wouldn't be a tent left standing in the morning. I was thankful to be in a Baa, rocking somewhat, and double-checked the handbrake.
I got to the shower block early in the morning. The wind had gone and the tents, as far as I could see, were all standing. By 9am when I parked Baa, and boarded the ferry as a foot passenger, the sun was out.

A nice couple in their Jaguar who were going to play golf gave me a lift from the ferry to the shop. They love playing golf on Gigha, and said there's a sign at the club which says 'Visitors welcome. £10 for 9 holes, £10 for 18 holes, £10 per day... just to avoid confusion...' !The shop is the hub of things, selling a better selection of groceries than most small island shops (classy people must rent holiday homes here) and they hire out bikes.
The island is about 7 miles long. I cycled down to the southern tip, to see its little harbour, and then up to where twin beaches fringe a ridge at the north end. I was horribly puffed by the time I finished - and it is not hilly! One of the highlights of visiting Gigha – apart from its warm micro-climate, safe beaches, seals and otters – are the Achamore Gardens which were created by Sir James Horlick who bought Gigha in 1944.
The Gardens are 54 acres in all, with wonderful trees introduced by Sir James, lots of rhodedendrons, and a two-acre walled garden. It is now owned by the island of Gigha, and I have to say that it did feel somewhat overwhelmed. I was there late in the year – it's a garden to see in May and June – and I just hope that the new Head Gardener can turn it round.
The couple who run the shop serve freshly made rolls, so I ordered a crab one. “Would you like some salad with that?” said the nice lady spooning lunch into her enchanting baby girl. Yes please! Her husband popped out to the garden and moments later he reappeared washing leaves. “There you go,” he said, packing my lunch in a paper bag, “fresh crab with a little mayonnaise and some fresh rocket, coriander and sorrel!” Wow! It was absolutely delicious, a taste sensation, zingingly fresh.

I got back to Baa by 1.30pm and set off down the west coast of the Mull of Kintyre, with its lovely sandy beaches, islands out to sea and pretty 'Cornish' fishing/holiday villages (white houses, blue paintwork). By the time I got to Campbelltown at the southern end the bad weather really had set in, so I didn't stop long. The road up the east coast is STWPP*, with a couple of steep ravines to negotiate, good beaches and a few tiny villages – and not much more.
It was a bit of a white-knuckle ride so I was surprised that I reached Cloanaig quicker than I thought I would. I was due to cross to Lochranza (on Arran) the next morning to meet my friend Cathy Agnew at lunchtime. The ferry dock is Cloanaig, there's not much else to see, and as the rain was chucking down and there was a ferry in, I got on it.
* single track with passing places

Tuesday, 5 August 2014


The Bridge Over the Atlantic
I drove through Oban and headed for Easedale, one of 'slate islands' close to the mainland, and part of the Inner Hebrides. The road crosses Clachan Bridge, known as the 'Bridge Over the Atlantic' which links the western mainland to the slate island of Seil, over the Clachan Sound – part of the Atlantic Ocean. I had my lunch at Ellenabeich, once the centre of the slate mining, by the harbour waiting for the ferry to the island – it doesn't run at lunchtime. The island is carless and the 12-man ferry runs backwards and forwards throughout the day for £1.85 return. Easedale, and its neighbours Seil, Luing and Beinahua are “the islands that roofed the world” and once it had a population of 500 people. But the slate mining industry on Easedale came to a grinding halt after a terrific storm in 1881 when houses were destroyed, animals washed away, mining equipment was wrecked and the mines filled with water. The other islands continued mining, but not for long, and Easedale was deserted. But it feels alive again now; some 50 or 60 people live there permanently, and the old miners' houses are let to holidaymakers.
Each household has a barrow for their shopping!

I stopped at Kilmartin Church to see the extraordinary Stones – elaborately carved slabs which would once have covered graves. They date from 900 – 1600AD and were removed after the Reformation but unearthed again in the 1950s.
The sun was low when I got to Dunadd, still in the Kilmartin Valley. Once an elaborate hill fort it was here that the Gaelic kings from 600 – 900AD came to place their foot on a ceremonial stone footprint to become one with their Kingdom. All that is left now is the hill and the stone (and I think that is a replica) and other stones. But it is a special place and worth the climb, particularly at sunset.
Footprint for a King
On to Lochgilphead, I stayed with Belinda Braithwaite, a friend of a friend and now my friend. We had a great evening, a delicious supper and a bottle of wine – which was lovely after all those stones!
The next day I set off down the west side of the Mull of Kintyre and the weather started to look very ominous.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Mull & Staffa

When planning my route around the UK the idea was simple: to stick to the coast as far as possible, and not to spend time in places I had been to before. I have gone where I have been advised or inspired to go. I have missed a few windswept promontories and, I am sure, some places of interest too. But I don't have limitless time or resources. I decided to miss the Outer Hebrides, for the reasons above, and I only fleetingly visited Mull, for the same reason and because I wanted to see the island of Staffa, and Fingal's Cave. Staffa is a small unhabited island 45 minutes by boat from Fionnphort on the west of Mull.
I got the last ferry from Lochaline to Fishnish (Mull) at 6pm – it's only a 15 minute crossing – and headed west. The road is good as far as Craigmure, where the bigger ferries come and go, then soon becomes STWPP (single track with parking places). There are narrow parts with overhanging vegetation, homely with oak trees, but the main part of the journey was through wide open green spaces, past hills disappearing into cloud. It didn't rain much, but the evening was wet and overcast. Some hills are vast - Ben More, a Munro at  966m high -  and when I got to Loch Scridan I thought I had got to the sea. There are isolated crofts and some smart-looking Victorian stone holiday homes and several B&Bs, but Mull is sparsely populated.
It was 8pm before I got to Fionnphort. After what I had come through this seemed quite a metropolis; the carpark was full and two or three restaurants were doing a good trade. What on earth were these people doing down here, and had they come the same route as me? Yes, they probably had, and maybe they were camping nearby and were also going to visit Staffa and Iona (just across the water from Fionnphort).
I parked where the ferries come in, went for a little walk and then cooked my supper. The wind was blowing hard from the west, the sea metal grey, and a few boats were bobbing about in the bay, straining on their anchors, hopping left and right. A few rays of sunlight hit the soft pink rocks on the far side of the bay, but it felt pretty bleak. I even considered filling my hotwater bottle! (No, it's July! and out of the wind it wasn't really cold.)
The next morning the sun was shining and the sea was blue. I moved Baa to the free carpark and joined the queue for the Staffa Tour.
Approaching Staffa
Staffa is an extraordinary natural wonder; it is built of hexagonal basalt columns. And the cave, Fingal's Cave, is an amazing sight - and sound - with those columns rising around its entrance. The experience was just slightly marred for me because realised I am not as brave as I used to be, and I felt quite twitchy scrambling round to the cave in a strong wind with just a little rail to hang onto.
Felix Mendelssohn held his nerve, and wouldn't even have had a rail when he went there in 1829.
Fingal's Cave
It was listening to the sound of the sea rushing in and out of the cave that inspired him to write his Hebrides Overture. It is pretty special and well worth visiting – and the rail is a sturdy one. The rest of the island is good for a walk and puffins.
I stopped for an hour on Iona to see the Abbey and the Nunnery on the way back to Fionnphort, and then headed back to the Fishnish ferry. It was sunny, and the journey took no time at all.

Saturday, 2 August 2014


I visited Skye with my friend Susie Bagot. We met in Fort William, bought provisions, and set off on the 'road to the Isles' alongside Loch Eil. We stopped to see the Catholic church of St Mary and St Finnan which was designed by Edward Welby Pugin and built in 1873. It sits on an elevated piece of land at the head of Loch Shiel and it was here in 1745 that Bonnie Prince Charlie gathered the clans and raised the Jacobite standard before the uprising in 1745. It's all very peaceful now driving round sea lochs and picture perfect highland views - we even saw The Jacobite steam train go by. We stopped for tea at Cafe Rhu on the roadside at Arisaig. Good luck to Euan Baillie, the chef/proprietor, who took over in February; he had an interesting menu (smoked mackerel cheesecake, hand-dived scallops and Stornaway black pudding), and the cafe is in a great position.
The view from the campsite

We were heading for Loch Morar for a little trip down memory lane for Susie who went on family holidays there as a child. We chose a wonderful campsite, beyond Arisaig, quite by chance (there are several close together). Such a nice woman runs the site alongside a small working farm (cows were calving), and a large patch or vegetables. Her shaggy dog patrolled the site and when I walked to the office I saw him sleeping among (but not in)  the baskets of washing. The facilities were perfectly adequate, nothing special (particularly good handwash in the ladies - Scottish Bog Myrtle) but it has great charm and the position is magical. 
Later that evening
We walked along the sand at low tide with children playing in rock pools and throwing sticks for dogs with the most beautiful backdrop of the islands of Muck, Eigg and Rhum. It was still light at 11pm and black rocks  stood out on the white sand as the orange sun sank down behind Skye.
The next morning we drove into Mallaig and bought a ticket for the ferry to Skye. Susie bought smoked salmon from Andy Race's Fishery. A review on their flyer said they sold “the best smoked salmon in the world”, and I have to agree – it was sublime. Skye is a mix of mountains and moorland, small farms and great beaches. There are plantations in the south-west and the middle of the island is mountainous. We tried and failed to reach some inaccessible places on the west coast and then drove round Loch Harport as the sun was going down.

We stopped for the night on the water's edge next to a fish farm... and cooked some fish we'd bought in the supermarket in Fort William! Two small trawlers came in at about 10.30 and unloaded their catch. By 5am (we didn't sleep very well) they had gone out again
The manager of the fish farm appeared in the morning and told us that this one was of only average size - they have 700,000 smelt growing in the enclosures in the bay. We talked about the forthcoming referendum.
Baa looking out over Loch Harport
He was rather non-committal but said he thought it might improve the business. Though, when it came to it, he would probably vote 'No'. .. It may seem strange that I have barely mentioned the referendum, but people seem reluctant to talk about it, and apprehensive as it draws nearer. People who live in outlying places seem more likely to vote for separation, but more people seem to want to stay in the Union. Who knows?
We set off round the east side of the huge Cuillin Hills – their peaks lost in the clouds – and saw flat-topped hills which looked liked their tips had been clipped clean off.
Beyond Dunvegan Castle, on the edge of Loch Dunvegan, we stopped to walk on the Coral Beaches. It was a lovely walk but I did feel a bit disappointed – I thought coral beaches would be coral coloured. They are not.