John O’Groats

We had a slow start to the day despite Liesel’s best efforts. She had the washing in the machine soon after 7.30 and one very long cycle later, we hung it up. Indoors. Because it was raining. I think they call it mizzle around here, a great word, somewhere between mist and drizzle.

Looking north

The short drive to John O’Groats was spectacular. The views towards and over the sea are a continual reminder of what a big country this is. And of course photos, especially those taken with a phone, can never do justice to the vista.

What?

No, this isn’t a realistic animal at all, is it, but it greeted us on arrival at John O’Groats. In the background, you can see the Orkney Islands. We’re missing them out this time, but they’re on the (growing) list of places to go back to one day.

Selfie of the day

Of course, we had to take a photo with The Sign. Just as I did 30 years ago at the end of a three-week bike ride from Lands End. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that? Yes, over 100 of us were in that group, and Liesel was delighted to see the field that we all camped in that night. The books that ‘end-to-enders’ sign are all in storage right now, but it is hoped they’ll be put on display soon, and maybe even digitised. It’ll be fun to see my 30-year old signature.

There’s a lot more here than I remembered, much more than just a hotel and a gift shop which is what I think I was expecting.

Dunnet Head is the most northerly point on the mainland of Great Britain. It’s a fabulous place for bird watching. Wild rock doves, they claim, are the wild ancestors of domestic pigeons. Well, I think the place has just been invaded by plain ordinary pigeons, they look the same to me!

A cliff full of seabirds

There are plenty of other seabirds to choose from though, fulmars, gulls, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes but of course what everyone wants to see are the puffins. And we did! First puffins we’ve seen in the wild. We don’t know why they should be thought of as more cute than the other species, but they really are. Today for once, I did experience lens envy. The bloke with the three-foot long zoom lens undoubtedly achieved better photos than I did with my phone.

Puffin!

Dunnet Head lighthouse is off limits to the public, but I’m sure the view from the top would be stunning. There is a path leading to a 360° viewpoint, and you can see for miles out to sea and around the coastline.

Dunnet Head lighthouse
Looking towards Stroma
Looking back at Dunnet Head from near the Castle of Mey

Passing through John O’Groats for a coffee was a sad occasion. There will now be a two-paragraph silence in memory of the hat I lost in John O’Groats today.

Shhh…

Shhh…

Why do I keep losing apparel in this tiny place? The last time I was here, I managed to lose one of my cycle mitts. Anyway, we drove to Duncansby Head for another walk and a chance to see more seabirds.

Duncansby Head

It’s a very sandy place, and there are sheep living here. Just like Dunnet Head, there’s a lighthouse that we’re not allowed to visit. There’s also a trig point at both locations, without which our OS maps would be much less accurate.

Half Shawn
Bonus selfie of the day

The beach here looks very inviting, but nobody was taking advantage of it. Hang on, you’re thinking, I thought you lost your hat? I did. This is my number 2 hat, the waterproof one.

More seabirds

The path took us much closer to the nesting birds here. So close, we could smell them. A bit fishy, a bit ammoniacal, probably because of all the guano. There were a few puffins here as well, but mostly I think they’re fulmars. And pigeons. Oops, I mean wild rock doves.

The Stacks of Duncansby

We had a fun long walk here, it was nice and hilly, and you get used to the stench of wildlife after a while. We could see The Old Man of Hoy way over in the distance, another seastack. I said to Liesel, ‘Well, I can’t climb it again today, but maybe I can take its picture’. ‘You’ve climbed it?’ No, of course not. Turns out, I couldn’t take its picture today either, it was just too far away and too hazy.

Back at our place, we listened to James Taylor and Mary Hopkin while reading and writing and eating. A very nice way to end the day, thank you Liesel xx

Helmsdale to Wick

I woke up at ten past four which was perfect. This was the time for sunrise and I was hoping to see the Sun emerge from the icy depths of the North Sea. But it rose more to the north-east, from behind a hill rather then the sea. It was still a pretty sight to see, but I think we’ll have to come back to Helmsdale in about September for optimum sunrise over the ocean opportunities.

Sunrise over Helmsdale

I went back to bed of course: what a ridiculous time of day! We said goodbye to Ruth and before we left, I took down details of the place next door, which is ripe for development.

Derelict

The asking price is a mere £95,000 but I suspect you’d need that much again to make it habitable.

Helmsdale harbour was all about fishing, which is why the place exists in the first, really.

Fishing tackle

We spent some time in the museum here, known as Timespan. Some folks had a hard time. Especially the women whose job it was to cut the heads off and remove guts from herrings. They could process up to 60 a minute. Yet in the census, they were just referred to as a fish-wife, the wife of a fisherman.

Also here, we saw a small, insignificant stone that was taken into space in 2019 by Scotland’s first astronaut, David MacKay.

We are now well on our way on the NC 500 tour, the 500 miles that takes visitors around the north of Scotland. The main road, the A9 goes up and down, more or less following the coast. It’s quite steep in a few places, so much so that there are emergency escape lanes. I can’t believe that 30 years ago, I was fit enough to cycle along this road, from Helmsdale to Wick. The views were stunning, on both sides: the sea and the mountains.

Dunbeath is a cute little place. We parked up by an old mill and went for a long walk by the side of a burn.

Dunbeath Water

We walked across a pedestrian suspension bridge, designed by Thomas Telford. It was a bit wobbly, and it has been tethered to the banks presumably to remedy this.

Suspension bridge

The path alternated between grass and stones, some shingle, a few steep parts too, which were mostly OK, but next time, I’ll put trainers on rather than retain my sandals. Well, I didn’t think we were going to walk as far as we did! There was evidence of sheep but no rabbits, strangely. We investigated the remains of a broch, an old structure that was originally nine metres tall, with really thick walls and an entryway that you have to stoop to walk through.

Inside the broch

We passed the remains of an old monastery too, saw a few standing stones and a now overgrown cairn. Best of all, we found a bench to sit on for a while.

Log bench

It looks as though it would be too lumpy to sit on. But no. I think the time we spent here was the best half hour of the day. What could be more pleasant than spending time with the one you love, outside, on a beautiful day, in the middle of nowhere. The only sounds were small birds singing, some bees buzzing around, the leaves rustling in the trees and the water burbling and gurgling over the stones in the burn. This is what peace and serenity feels like, totally at ease with the world, away from people and everyday problems.

The walk back to the car was somehow easier and quicker Our picnic lunch today was enjoyed outside by the mill, not in the car! I was walking behind Liesel most of the time, and I stopped to make a new friend, so I was delayed.

Pheasant

She was very chatty and I think was protecting a chick in the bushes.

Before continuing our journey north, we stopped off at Dunbeath Harbour. The breakwater is comprised of hundreds of concrete cuboids, laid out as though it were a work of art. Another striking image was this sculpture.

Kenn and the Salmon from ‘Highland River’

Next stop: Whaligoe Steps. We didn’t know whether we’d follow in the footsteps of those hardy women who carried empty barrels down the 330+ steps, gutted herrings all day, then carried the barrels back up, now full of fish. Weights of up to 100 lb have been suggested. Well, the best laid plans of Mick and Liesel gang aft a-gley, as they say in these parts (I don’t think they do, really). The steps and the café were closed, disappointing us and several other visitors, one of whom may have jumped over the barrier when he thought nobody was watching.

Should I or should I not walk down the steps?
Seabirds

We saw seabirds, gulls and possibly oystercatchers, making their homes in the cliff face. But no, we didn’t bother walking about thirty feet back to fetch the binoculars!

And so, we reached Wick, where we will stay near the airport industrial estate for a few nights. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound very inviting at first, but it’s a nice house, and the fact that the industrial estate and the council dump are close by, well that’s the yang to yesterday’s yin, the lovely view over the sea.

Wick Harbour

The place is called Wick, the coffee shop is called Wicker’s World, a play on the name of an old TV series in which Alan Whicker reported from all around the world. In Twickenham, there used to be a travel agent called Twicker’s World, so it’s a well-used pun.

Tonight, we listened to the soundtrack from the film Brave, Wynton Marsalis’s album Joe Cool’s Blues and some Scottish music from Eddi Reader, live in concert in Japan a few years ago.

Before we left home, we had a discussion about how to play the music from my phone. If we go alphabetically by artist, then we get all the Beatles songs together, for instance, and each day will be different but not very varied. We tried playing tracks in alphabetical order on a previous trip, and that ensures you hear everything, but you’ll hear, for example, four versions of Life on Mars? in a row. So, random shuffle is the best bet, you’d think. Except that it’s not totally random. Some tracks are repeated as if on heavy rotation, while others are totally ignored. The compromise so far has been to choose specific albums or artists each night. What a conundrum. As I think I said, if this is the worst problem we have to deal with, then we are very lucky people indeed.

Two distilleries and another castle

What else has gone wrong? Nothing really, just a few more bug bites. Mick is obviously more tasty than Liesel, she hasn’t reported any bites so far, not even a tickle. It’s not nice being bitten, but it’s still sad to see so few insects around. We were talking about how, in bygone Summers, you’d arrive at your destination with a windscreen caked in dry, squished bugs. You’d have to scrape them off with a hammer and chisel.

The first exciting port of call after leaving our Inverness b&b was, wait for it… Aldi. Yes, already, we had food shopping to do. But it was nice to meet Dorothy, our host, just as we were leaving. She’s hoping for more guests later in the year as Covid restrictions are lifted.

Aldi, yes. The less said, the better, as the song goes.

We drove over a couple of bridges today that I cycled over way back in ’91. Kessock Bridge out of Inverness and Dornoch Firth Bridge. The latter was opened in 1991 by HM The Queen Mother, but two or three weeks before that, a group of us cycled over it on our way to John O’Groats from Lands End. We felt very privileged: I think it would have been a 60 mile detour without that bridge!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kessock Bridge was longer than I remembered and soon after the crossing, we stopped for a short walk. Path to North Kessock, the sign said, 100m. I hoped it was 100 metres rather than 100 miles, and so it was. Down steps. 146 of ’em, that we had to walk back up again.

Kessock Bridge from North Kessock

While at the bottom, we had a quick chat with a couple of locals. They were saying that they used to see dolphins and seals all the time in this, the Beauly Firth. All we saw today was a man fishing. The other attraction here was a Costcutter supermarket. If only we’d known. We could have bought our shopping here instead of Aldi and lugged it all the way up 146 steps.

The first distillery we visited, Glen Ord of Singleton, was probably very interesting. We would have loved sampling the wares. But it was closed. It’s Monday. Oh well, onwards and upwards. Here’s a tip: check that places are open before you turn up unannounced.

We checked and the Glenmorangie distillery was open. And very popular. I tried one whisky and it was so smooth, we had to buy a bottle. I know, I know, we buy whisky faster than we drink it at home but, new year’s resolution: we will finish at least one bottle soon.

Glenmorangie giraffes

What is the significance of all the giraffes? There are pictures all over the place, and several models, all with extremely long necks. This distillery has the tallest stills in Scotland, which we could just see through a mesh, not ideal for taking pictures, so it’s a good job we’re not into industrial espionage.

Yes, I sampled about a quarter of a dram of whisky so of course I found it hard not to nod off in the car. The scenery is always spectacular of course, and we’re not even in the highest of highlands yet. But I’m sure I missed some beauty spots while resting my eyes. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Liesel was driving.

It wasn’t raining today, but we still ate our lunch in the car, admiring a field of barley or something like that. The seeds had spread far and wide, encroaching onto the precious space set aside for a lay-by off the A9 or wherever we were at the time.

Today’s castle was Dunrobin.

Dunrobin Castle

I found this one more interesting than the other two, partly helped by the fact that it was well illuminated. The Covid-inspired one-way system worked well too. Lots of stags’ heads on the walls, and lots of portraits of Dukes and Earls of Sutherland and their gorgeous wives. The portrait of Queen Victoria was I think the best I’ve ever seen of her, but not easy to take a picture of, unless you want to look up the royal nose.

The castle looks out over some well maintained gardens, and beyond those is the North Sea. We’d pay extra for an Airbnb with this view.

The view from Dunrobin Castle
Selfie of the day

I’d like to say our selfie skills are improving, but this one disproves that assertion. If I lost some height or if I could persuade Liesel to wear extremely high heels, that might help. Still, we keep ourselves amused by trying.

Cups of coffee were taken here before we left for our final destination today: a cottage way up a hill, just south of Helmsdeep. No, not Helmsdeep, that was the site of a big battle in Lord of the Rings. We’re just south of Helmsdale. I was last there 30 years ago, on the same bike ride referred to earlier. We set up our tents on the beach, close to a shipwreck. In the morning, I noticed what must have been a rabbit hole between the inner and outer sheets of my tent. Do rabbits really burrow on sandy beaches?

Tonight though, after driving up the steepest road imaginable, we are indeed enjoying a beautiful view.

Top view

Over the water from left to right, there is Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland. We can only see the last one on that list of course.

After supper, I went for a quick walk. I couldn’t get much further up the hill because the vegetation was too dense. So I walked down.

Anyone lost an exercise bike?
Me and my shadow

The length of that shadow! And there are still three and a half hours until sunset. This is the day of the Summer Solstice, so days start getting shorter now. It’ll soon be Winter. Yeah, I know how to bring the mood down! And yes, that lump in the middle of the road is horse manure. That horse must have had 27 pints and a huge curry last night.

The yellow of the gorse was very nearly surpassed by the purple and the white foxgloves.

A pair of foxgloves
Gorse, of course

Our evening music was provided by Wings, the London Town album, and by Martha Tilston, as many albums as we can fit in before bedtime. We haven’t turned the TV on anywhere except briefly so we could listen to BBC 6 Music. I finished my book last night, a detective story that was good but, I think, a bit long, just one too many false leads being followed. But we’re in Scotland now and I am looking forward to reading Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair, a depiction of more historical Scottish events that we don’t learn about in school. I loved her previous novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, so I know I’m going to enjoy this one, even if the use of the Scots language slows me down a bit!

Oh dear, look what I found

Our host Ruth has left us these treats. Well, it would be rude not to. Cheers! Slàinte Mhath!

Two castles and a battlefield

Yesterday I expressed a desire to see a red squirrel. That wish didn’t come true, but we did see a blue one.

Blue squirrel

We saw this chap just down the road, here in Inverness, one of a series known as The Go Nuts Art Trail, raising funds for the Highlands Hospice. This one’s design is based on Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Today we were tourists. Our first destination was Brodie Castle, named after the anti-hero from the American TV drama series Homeland. We saw a plume of smoke as we approached Inverness Airport and hoped it wasn’t another terrible incident on the road. No, just a harmless factory of some sort.

Nice smoke

But nicer than that is the fact that the runways at Inverness Airport are configured to look like a snowflake when viewed from a suitable height.

Brodie Castle looks alright, so we thought we’d ruin the view by standing in front of it.

Selfie of the day

Each room had its own guide, and they spoke for up to ten minutes. The tour groups were kept separate of course. But it was quite dark inside. Actually, it was pretty dismal outside too. The library was probably fascinating: I would love to have studied the children’s books in case there were any that I remembered from my own childhood, but there just wasn’t enough light.

What could beat seeing a blue squirrel? Seeing the biggest white rabbit in the whole of Scotland, of course.

White rabbit

The sign said to download an app that would animate this large rodent, but I couldn’t get it to work. The playgrounds on the castle site are fantastic, it would be a great place to bring children, or grandchildren, one day.

We had a nice walk around the grounds but while wandering around inside the castle itself, it started to rain. What a shame. Also, we were too late in the year to see the daffodil collection, put together by Ian Brodie after his awful experiences in the Boer and First World Wars left him with what we now know as PTSD. But if we can’t see thousands of golden daffodils, we can enjoy seeing the biggest monkey puzzle tree we’ve ever seen.

Monkey puzzle

It is a truth universally acknowedged that when Mick and Liesel go travelling in the UK, it is likely to rain. It used to rain when Mick and Sarah bed and breakfasted around the country too. We’ve enjoyed so many picnic lunches inside a car, watching the rain cascade down the windscreen while the windows fog up inside. Oh well, we tell ourselves, while chewing sandwiches in a car, in a car park, again, all this rain is what makes Scotland so beautiful.

According to William Shakepeare, Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, resided at Cawdor Castle. Not in real life he didn’t, because the castle wasn’t built until 300 years after Macbeth died.

Caravan

This isn’t the sort of caravan we anticipated seeing a lot of in Scotland. And no, nor is it our accommodation on this occasion. It’s outside Cawdor Castle, which was the next stop on our tour.

I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, as usual, but I did have a waterproof(-ish) jacket on too. The guide in the castle accused me of being dressed inappropriately. I pointed out that I was dressed correctly, it was the weather that was behaving badly.

Tartan carpets
Bike parking facilities

For a moment, I thought we’d entered an American house.

French arms

Too many firearms for one wall. This castle is occupied by one lady for half the year, and the rest of the time, it’s open to us visitors. Again, lots of historic artefacts. But again, I think I enjoyed walking around the gardens more, despite the weather.

Cawdor Castle
Minotaur in a maze

There’s a maze in the gardens, but we’re not allowed to enter it. Maybe they’ve lost too many visitors to the minotaur in the centre. We think it’s a minotaur, but we didn’t bring our binoculars with us today. Although they would have been useful as we watched some birds from a distance, finding something tasty on the path nearby. We saw a thrush, some chaffinches and a yellow thing that was too fast to identify.

Mum and baby

What a brilliant work of art. From this angle, the sculpture is of a Mum and her baby having a cuddle, but from the other direction, it’s a pair of hands supporting them both. Very clever.

Holding them up

Another record breaker was this iris.

Iris

This is the deepest purple iris we’ve ever seen, and it looks spectacular with a few drops of rain water.

On the way back to our b&b, we stopped at Culloden Battlefield. We’d been before, with Liesel’s Mom and Dad, and the place has lost none of its sense of eeriness. We know the terrible story, how many lives were lost senselessly. The grey clouds were perfectly matched the feeling of foreboding.

Culloden Battlefield

I went for a walk around the site, trying to avoid the other visitors. To be fair, they probably weren’t that keen on me, either. I found a couple of the memorial stones that we’d missed last time.

Clan Donald

This headstone marks the traditional site of a grave locally believed to be the resting place of the MacDonalds who fell in action during the battle. This stone was erected by members of the Clan Donald Society ‘to honour all MacDonalds killed at Culloden and in battle elsewhere’. A sad but salutory reminder of how lucky I am that I’ve never been involved in any conflict.

Memorial cairn

A very different day today, just pootling around rather than driving a long way to reach a destination. There’s plenty of that still to come of course.

So what’s gone wrong so far? My first injury was incurred yesterday when I was bitten on the ankle by some bug or other. I’d forgotten all about it until this morning after my shower when I noticed the wound was bleeding. The second injury was caused by hard furniture. My shin detected the coffee table in our lounge. It didn’t break the skin but there is a contusion, which, given we’re in Scotland, I’m naming Robert. Robert the Bruise.

As I write, we’re listening to the golden voice of Eddi Reader, but earlier we re-played my radio show from January, the one with Scotland as its theme. The one in which my microphone wasn’t working for a long time. Lots of fabulous Scottish music, but also an embarrassing amount of dead air.

Dumbarton and Inverness

When you’re packing, for the first time in well over a year, for a trip away from home, what’s the best possible interruption? Why, a visit from a grandson of course, with his Mummy. And if he were to put on a puppet show as well, that would be terrific!

William, Tiger, Giraffe, Elephant, Lion and Mummy

This passed a few minutes in our little car park, which is a good venue too for a quick game of ‘tag’ (without actually touching, of course) and hide & seek, even though the only places to hide really are behind the big oak tree and behind a couple of parked vehicles. The visit was prompted by the fact that Sunday is Fathers’ Day, which had totally escaped my attention this year. The card that Jenny gave me was designed and hand-drawn by William, so it is now taking pride of place on our book shelves.

We don’t think we’ve forgotten anything important. So far. The car was packed, mostly with food that we’ll eat over the next few days. Liesel said she’d packed more stuff for this couple of weeks than she did when we went travelling for ten months!

You may be wondering where we were going. Well, the title of this post is a clue. But the first picture I took, from the car, was of a hill close to the Lake District.

A hill

We’re off to sunny Scotland for a bit of a tour. It was good to be on a motorway again. We haven’t been on one since yesterday. We stopped at Tebay Services on the M6 as we always do when this far north, because their selection of vegetarian scotch eggs is lovely. That was the basis for our evening meal on this, the first evening away from home since March 1st last year.

The first of many saltires

On this day, England were playing Scotland in the first round of a European football competition. I know there’s a lot of rivalry between supporters of these two national teams, so I told Liesel to do all the talking: her American accent is perfectly neutral.

Our first stop on this trip was Dumbarton. The local council is West Dunbartonshire. Dum and Dun. That could be confusing. I went for a quick walk in the evening, and yes, many houses were flying the flag of St Andrew. The views were great: climbing up the hill was worth it: a novelty after the flatlands of home.

Dumbarton Cemetery

The view from the cemetery was especially nice. In fact, the cemetery itself, well laid-out and tidy, was a joy to walk around.

Premier Inn will probably send a questionnaire soon asking how was our stay? Did we sleep alright? Well, I had a nightmare, but I can’t really blame them for that. But the loud man next door who turned up in the middle of the night didn’t have to shout into his phone: that sort of thing went out of fashion a long time ago when mobile phones became ubiquitous, and you no longer had to announce to everyone in the same town or train carriage that you were in possession of such a modern device. Also, I’d advise the good people of Premier Inn to give this particular guest a bigger bucket the next time he checks in, in case he needs to chunder as much as he did first thing this morning. It wouldn’t surprise me if his entrails were all over the floor.

Those sound effects didn’t put us off a nice big breakfast though, before setting off for Geilston Garden, not too far from where we stayed. Geilston, pronounced like the end of ‘congeals’, not the same as The J Geils Band, whose big hit was Centerfold, a long time ago. And, Geilston wasn’t named after the Mr Geils who once owned the place. On the contrary, he bought it because it very nearly shared his name. And we agreed that we’d probably do the same too, if we could afford it. Mick and Liesel’s Big House? Yep, we’ll have that.

The garden was nice and peaceful, the flowers were gorgeous, there’s a walled garden too, a burn to walk beside, and a house that is no longer occupied except by wee beasties, spiders and mice.

The Clyde

We were close to the magnificent River Clyde, and yes, I sang the song, but Liesel wasn’t impressed. Oh the river Clyde, the wonderful Clyde, the name of it thrills me and fills me with pride.

Cedar
Selfie of the day
Cottage, burn, irises

We had the pleasure of driving beside Loch Lomond and already, we’re planning our next visit. We’ll spend more time by this loch and around The Trossachs.

Loch Lomond

The drive to Inverness was long and interesting. Mostly, the road surface was a delight to drive on. But there were patches that could have been imported from Surrey County Council. And some of the potholes were of Mancunian proportions. Some of the roads were narrow, with passing places, but that’s what makes Scotland so fantastic.

We passed through one small village and were greeted by a life-size cardboard cut-out policeman holding a camera. If this encourages people to slow down a bit, then that’s fine by us! We saw a sign warning of the presence of red squirrels, but we would much rather have seen an actual red squirrel.

Every day is a learning experience. The gorse is out in force right now, the yellow colour is almost day-glo. It’s known as Scotch broom in Oregon. But it’s still not the bush to fall into when you come off your bicycle.

We passed by numerous places today that we could have visited. We were within 33 miles of Stirling Castle, probably my favourite castle in the whole world. I tried not to feel guilty about missing it out on this trip. The sign to Perth caused me to recall that that was the very first town I ever bed-and-breakfasted in, in Scotland, thank you, Mrs Gourlay.

We also drove by Loch Tay, which reminded me of a Geography lesson at school for some reason.

We listened to Nation Radio. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I often announce to Liesel that ‘I played this song last week on my show’ or ‘I played this one recently’ or ‘I’m playing this one soon’. In the old days, I would tell Liesel ‘I’ve cycled here’ when appropriate. Well, there was a bit of that today too. As we drove north along the A9 towards Inverness, we were close to the cycle path on which I incurred my most serious cycle related injury. I fell off on the approach to Newtonmore, on a cycle path that could only be described as rubbish. I never managed to complete my second Lands End to John o’Groats bike ride because of that incident, very nearly 20 years ago now, and it still upsets me.

It’s funny how your perception changes in a short amount of time. Even a couple of days ago, a drive of 100 miles would have seemed enormous. Today, when we were still 100 miles from Inverness, I was thinking, ‘we’re nearly there, then’.

Cute couple

We followed these two in their really, really old Sunbeam for a while. But at least here the road was wide enough to paint white lines in the middle.

Liesel on Tummel Bridge

Here’s Liesel on the old Tummel Bridge, built in 1730. You can walk over it, but vehicles have to use the new, ugly bridge right next to it. Here, we were close to Loch Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch, where we’d stayed in about 1997. Again, close, but we didn’t make the detour.

One place we did re-visit though was Dalwhinnie Distillery, which we’d taken Liesel’s Mom and Dad to on their visit all those years ago. Yes, maybe one reason it appealed was that it would have clean toilets, but we did buy a nice bottle of the hard stuff.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

The sight of snow was unexpected, although we knew we were getting high . In altitude, that is, not on drugs, that would be irresponsible while driving such long distances. Only small patches of snow, but still.

Patches of snow

Something else that we saw wasn’t so pleasant. Plumes of smoke ahead on the road, and traffic at a standstill. We hoped it was just a case of a car catching fire, but later we saw ambulances rushing to the scene.

Thick smoke

Fortunately, it was easy enough for us to turn round and make a detour. But this incident wasn’t mentioned on traffic reports on Radio 2, nor at any of the online traffic reporting sites.

We found our accommodation in Inverness easily enough, a nice flat and the host, Dorothy, has left us so many treats: crisps, fudge, shortbread, fruit, yogurts, and this is all on top of what we’d brought with us! Sorry to report, the fudge was all gone by the time I’d finished writing this.

After dinner, rice and beans since you ask, we went for a quick walk down by the River Ness. We felt a few spots of rain but it was really pleasant.

Back to the egg

We like a bit of nature, but we’re not so keen on wasps. So when one was posing on the outside of our kitchen window, how could I resist?

Wasp

Luckily, he stayed outside. I probably could have done with the exercise, chasing him round the flat, trying to encourage him to go back outside, but he was quite happy where he was.

Meanwhile, some people in Northenden thought they could have fun polluting the river. I’m sure they had a great time, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the ducks and geese and fish get up to in the Mersey.

Costa del Northenden

Tony Bennett famously left his heart in San Francisco, but someone left theirs in the woods near us.

Wooden heart

It was lovely to spend a sunny afternoon in the garden with William and Martha. They both seemed to like the blankets their Oma had made for them, and William wasted no time making himself comfortable!

Good night, William

We sat in the sunshine, enjoying a picnic lunch, we soaked up the Sun, and I was surprised that the water pistols didn’t make an appearance. I say water pistol, but William calls it a water crystal.

We played What’s the time, Mr Tod, which morphed into What’s the Time, Mr Wolf and lots of chasing ensued. Plus, both Martha and William watched the bumble bees doing their thing with the clover.

Bumble bee
Martha’s unorthodox swinging technique

We all receive a copy of the magazine from Chester Zoo every month or two, and Martha, with Oma’s help, repurposed the current issue into headwear. She is also secretly training to be a model, none of us told her to pose this way, it just came naturally.

She’s a model

A couple of days later, I drove into Manchester and just like my last visit there, it was purely practical. Straight to the Blood Donation Centre, then straight home. But I was delighted with the choice of biscuits on offer this time. I had a mint Club biscuit for the first time (I think) since the 1980s. The nurses, all the medics, were very welcoming and friendly. The health check questionnaire has been revised, and now, gay men are not excluded from donating blood, something that was deemed impossible, in the 1990s.

Our world is slowly expanding. We paid a visit to Stratford upon Avon where we met up with Helen and Steve from Chessington. It was warm but overcast, a nice day to mooch around a perfectly delightful little town. Lots of touristy shops, and just about everything has a connection with Shakespeare.

On the two-hour drive, we were reminded of things that we haven’t seen for a long, long time. The M6: the roadworks seem to have largely been completed. The Pies graffiti is still there on the bridge. We actively listened to the traffic report on Radio 2, although nothing affected us today. I scored 12 points on Ken Bruce’s Pop Master, over two rounds.

The four of us went on a 45-minute cruise on the Avon. Edward Elgar was quite rude about the then new theatre when it was built, so I had to laugh when the boat crew played Nimrod. Well, I didn’t laugh, I usually cry when I hear that tune, but it seemed so out of place. Something by Shakespears Sister might have been more appropriate. And then, they played The Swan fron Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, much better suited to the situation: see the picture after the next one (sorry, spoilers).

All Saints Church

Actually, the commentary was very informative. What happened to Shakespeare’s head after he was buried is really sad and unnecessary. Of course, it would be rude to venture out onto the Avon and not take a picture of a swan. So here it is.

Swan of Avon

We learned that swans are the heaviest flying birds in the world, and sometimes in Stratford, rather than fly, they use the locks to get from one place to another along the river and canal system.

We enjoyed this actor outside the theatre. He recited a couple of speeches, from Henry V or maybe Richard III: my English teacher would be horrified if she thought I didn’t know.

Not Sir Laurence Olivier

We had lunch at Boston Tea Party, another branch of the place we’ve been to in Salisbury several times. A long time ago, before the pandemic, that is. What’s nice about this place, at least according to the menu, is that they use Chew Valley organic milk from happy, jaunty, loveable, huggable cows.

The menacing pink sheep took us all by surprise, just standing there, guarding a shop. No, we hadn’t been drinking.

Pink sheep

But just when we thought we were beginning to understand Stratford upon Avon, we had to accept that, yes, it is a bit strange. As this inscription on the pavement confirms.

It’s too weird for me

And something else weird is occurring in Stratford. There are two golden post boxes, painted gold to celebrate local gold medal winners from the 2012 London Olympics. Only one of these two has a plaque attached. And the other one says that James Roe won a gold medal for rowing. Really? Nominative determinism?

James Roe the boat ashore

Stratford is a nice, quiet little town, but it could do with a few modern high-rise buildings to drag it from the 15th into the 21st century.

Just 531 years old

The most exciting part of driving home was spotting some new graffiti on one of the bridges over the M60.

Smoke Pies

I suspect this relates to the old Pies graffiti, daubed by the band of the same name over twenty years ago, maybe even longer. But what a surprisingly pleasant drive home, no traffic hold-ups at all. The car managed its longest trip in over 15 months, it didn’t complain once. Which is just as well, because we’re soon off on another adventure which is why this piece of nonsense has appeared earlier than usual this week.

Also, because we had made plans, I pre-recorded my radio show this week. You can listen live here on Friday at 2pm or catch up here soon after 4pm. The theme this week is Holidays, which is a remarkable coincidence, since we’re all going on a Summer holiday.

Memory almost full

In a moment of cynicism as I walked up the road, I mourned the end of Summer when I saw these leaves.

Autumn Colours

Autumnal colours, I thought, how pretty, but so early in the year.

But no, we’re still good, it’s warm and pleasant outside albeit a bit cloudy which, as you’ll see later, was quite useful one day.

The good news is, our car was washed and it passed its MOT. Liesel completed another blanket and you’re thinking, whoa, that was quick, but actually, she was crocheting this one and the previous one more or less in parallel.

Another fabulous crocheted blanket

We’ve both been making plans for the next few weeks so we haven’t been venturing very far from home. My phone has run out of storage, so I spent (far too many) hours moving stuff to its SD card. Let’s hope that stops it nagging. There’s a lot going on in Northenden though, especially on the river.

You have to wade through the water to get there, but it’s less than knee-deep, and unless the water’s flowing really fast, quite safe, I think.

The obligatory dumped car tyre

It takes some effort to place a tyre on this spot. Any normal, decent fly-tipper would just throw it in the river.

Geese and heron cooling off on the weir
Kayak

I’m sure they were having a good time, but they weren’t paddling in sync, and I waited in vain for at least one of them to fall in. Or fall out, depending on your point of view.

Nearby, the golfers were out in force, some more skilled than others, judging by some of the choice language reverberating among the trees.

Playing a round

But none of these players experienced the fate that befell Adam in Australia. He went to retrieve a loose ball from the bushes and was bitten by a snake. Pretty scary, and painful, but it was non-venomous. The photos are too graphic for this site.

On being told that Uncle Adam had been bitten by a snake on a golf course in Australia, Martha announced that she was never going to go to… a golf course.

I never thought I’d encounter a real life Gollum. Most of the fishermen on the Mersey have a rod. Not this chap.

Smeagol, my precious

He was trying to catch the fish with his bare teeth.

Meanwhile, the horses were having a good time on Northenden Village Green.

Neighbourhood horses, geddit?

We wondered whether these were the horses that pull the hearses for the local funeral director. Horses, hearses, that’s poetry right there.

Of course, I don’t visit Northern Den or Boxx 2 Boxx every time I go out, but on one hot day, I opted for the chocolate milkshake.

Chocolate milkshake

The ice in it kept me going all the way to Simon’s Bridge and back which was handy, because I’d forgotten to take a bottle of water. Yep, still not fully adapted to life in hot weather.

Google was kind enough to send me its usual email at the turn of the month, showing me all the exciting places I’ve visited. I thought I’d share it.

Google knows everything but Google knows nothing

Well, I don’t like knocking Google unnecessarily, but, yes, while that was my first visit to Middlewich, I have been to Sale before. Also, Sale and Wythenshawe have very similar looking places of interest.

Another day, another walk, another local eccentric.

Panning for gold

I think this bloke’s panning for gold, but I don’t think he’ll have much luck, this region doesn’t have the correct geological history, as far as I can tell. Now, if he were panning for car tyres, I could have pointed him in the right direction.

The highlight of the week was the opportunity to observe a partial eclipse of the Sun. Naturally, that day, we had 100% cloud cover, but after maximum obscuration, the clouds did thin out a bit.

I thought this would be as good as I could manage…
…but just a few minutes later, the clouds thinned

Then when the clouds totally cleared (briefly) I projected the image in the old-fashioned way.

Projected images are the best

Yes, I know none of those pictures, taken with my phone,  would ever win an astrophotography competition, but I felt quite happy that, despite the clouds, I was able to witness this, albeit unimportant, event.

My radio show this week consisted of a few requests, some songs left over from previous shows plus a few new or re- discoveries. Also, I chatted with Rachel Nicholas, whose new single Sloth was released today. She was also responsible for the Radio Northenden jingles last year, and is an all-round good egg. You can listen to the show here.

My ultimate criterion for whether Summer is truly here has not yet been satisfied. I’ll be more convinced when there are tan lines on my feet, now that I’m wearing sandals most of the time.

Strawberries oceans ships forest

On a scale of one to ten, the weather this week has been turned up to eleven. It’s been bright and sunny, with blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, it’s been warm, it’s been Spring-like. At last. Well worth waiting for. We love a bit of sunshine, it’s been a long time coming, after the long remix of Winter that didn’t want to leave us.

We watched the end of the bike race on TV. I know, I know, gorgeous weather outside and we’re still indoors watching TV. But it was the end of this year’s Giro d’Italia, won by Egan Bernal (from Colombia) riding for the British team Ineos Grenadiers, hooray, proud to be British. It was a fascinating race and we saw a lot of the Italian countryside. In the Sun.

Cold
Brr that looks chilly, picture from TV

Mostly. High in the mountains, in ski country, the snow was still literally feet deep.

Deep snow (picture from TV)

We kept looking out of the window, just to make sure our sunshine was still there. Sorry to go on about the weather but it was  welcomed by everyone. Yes of course, some folks are already saying that it’s ‘too hot’ and I’m sure I’ll be guilty of that too eventually, but for now, I’m going to lap up every British thermal unit of heat I can.

So where was our first excursion in the sunshine? Oh, just local. Two bags of litter picked and some happy memories rekindled. I haven’t seen one of these for years, decades probably.

Golden Wonder

Golden Wonder crisps. Nowadays for us it’s all about Tyrrells low- or no-salt. But I wonder how long that packet’s been lurking in the bushes? I did enjoy Golden Wonder sausage and tomato flavour crisps in the late ’70s, but I suspect I’d find them far too salty now.

Fallen branch

I hope this branch was blown off in the last of the strong winds and wasn’t pulled off by our local heavy monkeys swinging from it. But look how bright everything is, and how sharp the shadows. Sorry to keep going on about the sunshine, but it really has been magnificent this week.

Boxx 2 Boxx provided the musical entertainment on bank holiday Monday, thanks to Angie, playing saxophone along to a backing track.

Angie sax

The coffee shop was the most busy I’ve ever seen it, all us pasty white locals taking full advantage of the opportunity. I think we just don’t believe the warm weather is going to last.

The best day of the week was spent at the seaside. We left very early to go to Formby, where we spent the day with William and Martha and Jenny and Liam. The tide was at its lowest, and way over there, we could see the wrecks of some ships that had apparently been scuttled during the second world war.

Wind turbines and ships in the ocean

The beach is flat, so at low tide, the sea is a long way away. As you walk towards it, you have to wade through a couple of dips in the sand. Well, I say sand, but in places, it’s proper mud, as William discovered.

William’s new socks

The children had a ball, we all did, really. We did comment on how popular the place was today. I think Liesel and I are just so used to having the vast expanse pretty much to ourselves.

William and Martha
Four go mad in the sea

Somehow William had learnt that you can wee in the sea. So he decided to save it. But in the end, he had to go at home before they left. It’s good that he’s now aware of such things. But as a grandad stripped from childminding duties because of the pandemic, I feel a slight loss that I won’t need to change his nappies any more. That’s progress, I suppose. Anyway, to celebrate William’s restraint, June 8th has been decreed World Ocean Day.

Selfie of the day
Martha, super sand castle constructor

We ate our picnic lunch on the beach, and as I always say, you can never go hungry on the beach. Why’s that? Because of all the sand which is there. I think I read that joke in a comic about 100 years ago, and it still makes me chuckle, even when it leaves everyone else cold.

For the second week in a row, our grocery order came with the reddest, sweetest, juiciest strawberries you could wish for. They disappear too fast for a family photo, so here are the last two survivors this week.

Strawberries

And while we’re contemplating bright colours, here’s the blanket that Liesel completed this week, a labour of love, a million crochet stitches and if she were being paid even at minimum wage, Liesel would now be a millionaire.

Liesel’s lovely warm crochet blanket

What else have we been up to? Indoors, we’re watching the Danish TV series The Killing and we’re nearly at the end of the third and final series, so please don’t send any spoilers. We watched Jessica Lee Morgan not once, but twice: her own weekly show on Tuesday (subscribe here) and she also replicated her mother, Mary Hopkin’s, show from The Royal Festival Hall, 1972, a concert that of course I wish I’d been to.

And for the first time in ages, we got tickets from the BBC, to watch, online, a recording of an episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Via the medium of some magic software, they recorded our reactions, clapping, laughter, whoops, wolf whistles for Samantha and it was a very funny show. They asked us not to take pictures or record the show.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue

Oops.

I’d love to relate some of the gags but, no spoilers here. The new series begins on June 14th, Radio 4 at 6.30, and our episode will be broadcast on July 12th.

I think I spent more time than usual this week preparing my radio show, mainly editing my chat with Tom Hingley from last week and then finding the music, most of which of course was not in our collection. Anyway, it went OK (mostly) and you can hear the result here.

Alternatively, if you’re in or near Wythenshawe on Wednesday, tune into Wythenshawe Radio, WFM 97.2 at 7pm for a (slightly edited) repeat. Or listen via TuneIn.