Ode to London

As hinted at in the previous post: we did London.

The Sun was out and after breakfast, I set off for Surbiton station. I’d checked, and all three local stations, Surbiton, Tolworth and Chessington North were a 25-minute walk from our Airbnb. I thought I’d go to Chessington, for old times’ sake. But as I walked through the door, a moment of panic set in. Suppose I missed the train? I’d have to wait half an hour. There’s a much more frequent service from Surbiton. So I turned round and walked there instead. Yes, I could have caught a bus, but neither Liesel nor I were yet convinced that travelling on buses was a good idea. Hang on, what happened to Liesel? Well, she was going to Woodmansterne to visit an old friend, Claire, whom we hadn’t seen for ages. The plan was that Liesel would meet me later on in London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

We debated whether or not to get Oyster Cards, as our old first generation ones might no longer work, but in the end, I just used my phone. It seems TfL work it all out nicely, so the daily fare is capped. All I had to do was remember to scan in and out. Quite a challenge for someone who hasn’t used public transport for well over 18 months. But quite exciting at the same time.

It was pleasing to see that most people on the train were wearing masks. And also nice to see that the train wasn’t packed. No standing, and nobody had to sit right next to a stranger.

Travelling into London felt so normal, despite the masks. More graffiti than I remember on the walls just before Wimbledon. Battersea Power Station is looking good, nice and clean, although harder to see now thanks to the many blocks of undoubtedly luxury apartments built at Nine Elms, close to the newly relocated US Embassy.

Waterloo Station was London to me, when I was small. A small part of me still thinks that the trains now operated by South Western Railways aren’t the genuine article. No, a real, proper train has the green livery of British Rail’s Southern Region, with slamming rather than sliding doors.

And so my long-anticipated walk in London began. Through the unusually thin crowds at Waterloo Station, past a lot of newly installed seating, very welcome I’m sure. I recalled the time most of the seating was removed to make space for ‘retail opportunities’ according to ‘public demand’, they fibbed. Down the stairs by the War Memorial and towards the South Bank. Beggars, Big Issue sellers, discarded Metro newspapers, some things never change.

‘We’re so glad to see you’. ‘We’ve missed you’. ‘Welcome back to our home’. These were the messages that greeted me as I climbed the stairs towards the Royal Festival Hall. I don’t usually speak to concrete infrastructure, but I did say it was nice to be back, thank you.

I also nodded at the bust of Nelson Mandela as I passed by and smiled at the sight of the Modified Social Benches. This is the sort of thing we love about London. Nothing wrong with being quirky.

More comfortable than it looks

Usually at the point, I would nip into the RFH to use their facilities, but there’s no need to go into more buildings than necessary. But we do look forward to seeing live performances here, and elsewhere, as soon as we can.

The second-hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge were not open today. I’ve squandered many an hour here, looking at books and maps and other things that I’ve no real intention of buying.

Outside the National Theatre, I acknowledged Sir Laurence Olivier and tried to recall all the plays we’ve seen here. One day, I hope to return to see a young actor perform here: hello Lesley!

Sir Laurence

Lesley was a barista at Boxx2Boxx in Northenden, look out for her on a stage near you! Many actors while between rôles have to take temporary jobs, and another one was operating the coffee stall right outside the theatre. He was due to go to rehearsals later in the day, but meanwhile, he made me a fine cup of coffee!

Thank goodness Boris Johnson’s vanity project, the Garden Bridge, was never built, it would have ruined this stretch of the South Bank. I wonder if he’ll ever repay the millions of pounds he squandered on it?

The Post Office Tower stood proudly way over there on the other side of the river. I’ve only been inside a couple of times: once soon after I’d passed my 11+ exam. And once just a few years ago when, for charity, I climbed the stairs inside. They said it was 1,000 steps, but in the end, there were only 870, more or less. I’d trained by climbing the long staircase at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge, towards which I was now walking, sometimes at my own default, fast pace and sometimes slowly, to take in all the sights.

The promenade along the South Bank is known as The Queen’s Walk. Well, I’ve never seen the queen there, but I have seen David Bowie. Not the real David Bowie of course, but a sand sculpture of his image, created soon after his death in 2016. In fact, the stretch of the beach revealed when the tide is out has been used for sand sculptures for quite a while, some of them ridiculously extravagant, considering their transient nature. Today, however, there was no sculpture. In fact, the normally pristine sand has been covered with darker coloured gravel. Which is a shame.

It had rained quite hard the previous day (when we were at Polesden Lacey) and some of the Queen’s Walk was still flooded. The Great Flood of London? No, just a big puddle.

Every time I walk by the Bankside Gallery, I think I should spend some time there. But I never do. The piece of art outside lifts the spirits though. It’s a nice bit of competition for Tate Modern, a bit further along.

Bankside Gallery

The buskers were out in force today, at least four along this stretch. One played an accordion, one a guitar, one a mandolin and under one of the road bridges, we were treated to a tenor performing On The Street Where You Live.

Liesel and I had thought about seeing a play at The Globe: we would be outside, after all. But in the end, we missed out on Twelfth Night and Metamorphoses. But still, what a cool building to find by the Thames. My daughter Helen and I saw Macbeth here twenty years ago and I still regret not going the following week too, when we could have seen Macbeth performed in Zulu: uMabatha.

What a happy bin

I still wonder if The Golden Hinde is in the best location. There’s just too much going on all around it, you can’t view it well from the side. It still reminds me of the model I had when I was younger. I wonder what happened to it?

Southwark Cathedral is a good sign that we’re approaching London Bridge. I first visited this cathedral in about 2000 when the author Michael Arditti was promoting his then new book, Easter. I bought a signed copy for Sarah and when I read it, well, it was a bit more racy than anticipated. Liesel and I visited the cathedral, as tourists, more recently.

‘There are two things scarce matched in the universe: the Sun in Heaven and the Thames on Earth’. Such is the quote by Sir Walter Raleigh inscribed on the wall just round the corner from London Bridge. And looking out on the Thames at that very moment, I witnessed the passage of an Uber Boat. This service is run in partnership with Thames Clippers, and is not to be confused with a U-Boat, something far more sinister. Another item to add to the long list of ‘Things to do the next time we come to London’.

HMS Belfast is famous for, amongst other things, its forward guns aimed at Scratchwood Services on the M1. There was no sign of them being fired today, but there were a lot of people on board a very interesting ship.

HMS Belfast

Liesel and I did the tour of Tower Bridge a few years ago, including avoiding walking on the glass panels in the floor of the high level walkway. Obviously, you always hope the bridge will open while you’re watching, but you have to time it just right. No sign of it opening today. And I wish I could stop thinking of the Spice Girls’ bus jumping over the opened bascules in the fabulous film Spiceworld. All expense was spared on the special effects.

London City Hall is I’m sure a hive of industry, especially as the Greater London Authority will be moving to new premises by the end of the year. We’ve only been inside once, and enjoyed walking up the spiral slope.

Over the river is the Tower of London. Again, a place I first visited as a child (I still have the little booklet, priced 1/6d) and again since then a few times with various family members visiting from afar.

I was taken aback by the number of people walking across Tower Bridge. As a pedestrian, you’re meant to keep left, according to signage on the ground, presumably to assist in Covid-inspired social distancing. I think more than 50% of people were complying, but I didn’t want to hang around longer than necessary and count!

One happy couple were being photographed, and it was fun to watch a professional photographer at work. The bride and groom spent a long time arranging the veil to blow in the wind, which to be honest, was not being very cooperative. Of course, I’m making an assumption: maybe they were models, not a newly-wed couple. In any case, I think they wanted City Hall and The Shard in the background of their pictures. Ah yes, The Shard, another place we should visit one day but £25 just to ride up in a lift seems a bit excesive.

May all your troubles be little ones

I strained my neck looking up at the glass floor in the overhead walkway and felt a little queasy. The thought of someone falling through and landing on my head… Or me falling over backwards into the water below…

A quick check on my phone confirmed that I still had time to walk to the V&A, but I could always catch a bus if necessary. From now on, I would remain north of the river.

There’s a small section of an old Roman wall near the Tower, a reminder that in the past, Liesel and I have joined several organised walks around London. Nearby, there are paintings decorating the walls of an underpass. One of the portraits, by Stephen B Whatley, depicts Anne Boleyn, someone to whom I am distantly related by marriage, I recently discovered.

Anne Boleyn, g-g-g-… -g-great-grandmother n times removed, or something

Tower Hill was my station of choice when I worked in the City, in Crutched Friars, to be precise. Lunchtime entertainment was sometimes provided by the Metropolitan Police Band. Today, it was mostly visitors milling about. I remembered where the public toilet was but I’d forgotten it cost 50p. Thoughtfully, they’ve installed a change machine so I changed a nice crisp £10 note for a pile of £1 and 50p coins. 50p for a pee though, that really is taking the p. On the other hand, I now had some loose change to throw into a busker’s hat, should I encounter another one.

Despite much provocation and teasing, he kept perfectly still

This part of London is a fabulous mix of old and new architecture. Old stone churches and glass and steel office blocks. Through a small gap, along a narrow road, I spotted the Monument, the one that commemorates the Great Fire of London. We’ve climbed this edifice a few times, I have certificates to prove it.

Something old, something new (don’t click on the triangle, it’s a roof, not a ‘play’ button)

It would have been nice to stick to the Thames Path, right next to the river, but there are several places where you have to deviate, thanks to building work. The smell of chlorine probably came from the swimming pool inside Nuffield Health Fitness and Well-being Club. If not, then maybe I should have reported a dangerous chemical leak.

Dear America, we have guns on the streets too

The Queenhithe Mosaic tells the story of London right from its early days. This is a terrific work of art, 30 metres in length, and what a shame it’s so far off the beaten track. This is one of those things you can look at for ages. Yes, it too is on the list for a return visit.

My collection of photos of sundials continues to grow. Polar sundials aren’t very common, so I was pleased to find one. The lady sitting next to it offered to move, but I told her to stay put and add some scale to my picture.

Polar sundial

Over the river, beyond the Millennium Bridge, sits Tate Modern. I wanted to go in today, but you have to book online. In this I failed abysmally. The booking site must work, there were plenty of people in there, but I struggled. It kept telling me about the need to book in advance, but I just couldn’t find the actual place where I could actually book an actual timeslot. Sometimes, I despair at my own incompetence. Although, bad web design is a factor here, I’m sure.

Neither did I go into the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral for a coffee, although I was tempted. I’d only had one so far today despite passing 101 coffee bars and vendors.

Looking south over the river, I caught my first glimpse of the London Eye. I didn’t feel the need to go on that again, but who knows, maybe we will if any future visitors are interested. I did have a dream once that it very slowly fell over and into the river but fortunately, each of the 32 capsules automatically converted to lifeboats.

And then over the river, I spotted the Oxo Tower. I’ve never ventured beyond the craft shops on the lower floors but I do recall one story related by a former postman colleague. Skip this paragraph if you’re under 18. Andy was very gleeful one day and if he told us once, he told us a dozen times that
the previous evening, he’d taken his wife up the Oxo Tower. I know, I know. Then he asked us all whether we’d ever taken our wives or girlfriends up the Oxo Tower. Sorry if you’re having your tea.

I passed by one of the dragons that guards the City of London and entered the City of Westminster, walking along Victoria Embankment.

Here be dragons

Near Temple Station, I found another sundial. It’s not much use though. Not because it wasn’t sunny enough, but flowers have grown over the useful parts.

Spherical sundial

Earlier, I said that Waterloo Station was London for me, when I was small. Everything else was a bonus, including Victoria Embankment, and it was occasionally my job to lookout for Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk guarded by two sphinxes facing the wrong direction. The obelisk was completed in 1450 BC and presented to the UK in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, one Muhammad Ali.

Cleopatra’s Needle

As usual, when I pass by or walk over Waterloo Bridge, one old earworm rears its head, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. I was still humming the tune to myself as I approached St Martin’s and Trafalgar Square. Ah, Trafalgar Square, that would be a good place to stop for a coffee, I thought. Not today. The whole square was cordoned off, probably being prepared for a future event. I was delighted to see the new work of art on the fourth plinth though. I couldn’t get close enough to read the plaque, so this is from The Greater London Authority website:

Heather Phillipson’s vast physical and digital sculpture tops the Fourth Plinth with a giant swirl of whipped cream, a cherry, a fly and a drone that transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square. Entitled THE END it suggests both exuberance and unease, responding to Trafalgar Square as a site of celebration and protest, that is shared with other forms of life. The live feed of Trafalgar Square picked up by the drone’s camera is visible on a dedicated website www.theend.today giving a sculpture’s eye perspective. (Good luck with that, I couldn’t get it to work.)

The End and Horatio Nelson

As I couldn’t walk across Trafalgar Square today, I walked around. This was when I acknowledged that I was on a giant Monopoly board. I’d just passed The Strand, here’s Trafalgar Square, I’d narrowly avoided Whitehall and was about to walk along Pall Mall.

There’s a new lion here too, between the Square and the National Gallery. It’s the only member of the Tusk Lion Trail that I saw on this occasion, a nice colourful beast. Maybe we’ll have an opportunity to hunt down some more lions on this trail one day.

Designed by John Cleese and his wife, Fish

Nelson watched over me as I crossed the roads and I was pleased to see the so-called diversity street crossing signs are still being used. They were installed for Pride 2016 and haven’t been replaced. Instead of a green man, when it’s finally time for you, a mere pedestrian, to cross the road, you see a couple holding hands, or maybe two male or two female symbols ♂️♂️  ♀️♀️ but green of course!

The Athenaeum is a lovely building to see, the home of a private members’ club that I haven’t been invited to join yet. I also passed by the back door of St James’s Palace only identifiable by the presence of two bored-looking but armed police officers. I found my way through to Green Park which was all but deserted. Even the squirrels sauntered across the paths rather than scurrying as they usually do. In the distance to my right, The Hard Rock Café on Piccadilly, but no, I wasn’t tempted to deviate for a coffee there either. In fact, I might still have a grudge against them. We tried to book a table once and they told us we couldn’t. Then, when we turned up, we couldn’t get in because it was fully booked. You should have booked, they said.

Hyde Park Corner is a nightmare whether on foot, or in a car or bus. It had to be negotiated though. I smiled when I saw Wellington Arch: I’m proud to say I cycled under it in 2005, naked. Here’s a link so some photos… oh no, sorry, I just remembered, I’ve closed that particular account. One day, I might repeat that most enjoyable bike ride around London. Not today though, I didn’t bring my bike.

Today’s long walk was taking place on Liesel’s birthday so as I walked by The Lanesborough, I wondered whether I should book afternoon tea. But then I remembered we probably wouldn’t have time. Plus, of course I wasn’t dressed properly for such a venue. We have had tea here before, though: I remember being slapped on the wrist when I tried to pour my own tea.

Knightsbridge was busy, but there was no avoiding it. I was surprised that the big street sign called the area Scotch Corner, especially since the shop after which it’s named, The Scotch House, hasn’t been there for years. I worked in the area for six years, and I was disappointed to see that the sandwich shop where I bought my breakfast after a long nightshift, Crumbs, has gone and been replaced by something far inferior.

But this pub, Tattersall’s Tavern is the first and only venue where I have consumed eight pints of beer in one sitting. That was after a very long shift at work, and in the end, just me and Bob, the manager, were leaning against the bar.

Coming down to Tatts for a quick one?
Harrods

Harrods doesn’t change. Once, I went in to buy a pair of shoelaces, without success. Today, the window announced a coffee bar on the ground floor. That’ll be different, thought I. So I walked through. Do you think I could locate this coffee bar? No. Instead, I carried on and found a coffee at Steps Coffee Haus, across the road. Well, I just felt sorry for them, that their pop career hadn’t worked out. Tragedy.

Also at Harrods, many years ago, I met Ffyona Campbell. I often think of her when I’m on a ramble. She walked around the world in the ’90s and signed a book for me. The following week, Naomi Campbell was going to be signing the book that she ‘wrote’, even though, as it later emerged, she hadn’t even read it! On the other hand, it turned out Ffyona had had to ‘cheat’ in USA to keep up with planned media appearances, which is a shame. It must be painful to be extracted from The Guinness Book of Records like an unwanted, rotten, decayed tooth.

This is busy London, lots of pedestrians and lots of traffic, and I was torn between feeling imposed upon and just enjoying being in this vibrant city. I recognised some shops, but many were new to me, and the architecture is wonderful of course. Don’t ask me to describe the various styles, but when I see a new build that doesn’t fit in, I do wonder which developer bribed which councillor. Cynical? Me?

I reached the V&A just a few minutes before the agreed meeting time. This was when I received the dreadful news from Liesel that she’d only just left and would be quite late. I had both our tickets on my phone so I forwarded them to Liesel, telling her to use the second ticket, I’d use the top one. Yes, I could have waited a while before going in, but my bladder couldn’t.

In the end, although our electronic, timed tickets were checked by a person, neither was scanned electronically, so we weren’t in any real danger of being refused admission.

When Liesel arrived, I was sitting in the quadrangle with a nice cup of coffee and a large baguette, soaking up the Sun. Before I’d left this morning, Liesel had predicted that I’d walk over 20,000 steps. No way, José, I said. But she was right. At this point, the pedometer displayed over 23,000 steps. Liesel bought some (late) lunch too after which we went inside to look at some exhibits.

I quite liked the French Globe Clock, I think it would look very nice in our living room. But mostly, we looked at and admired the wrought and cast iron items. Why? I think we found ourselves going to galleries with the fewest people. In one room, a couple were dancing to the music in their heads.

Breathless is a collection of silver-plated brass instruments squashed by one of Tower Bridge’s 22-tonne lifting mechanisms. Who comes up with these weird ideas? In this case, one Cornelia Parker from Cheshire.

Breathless

As it was Liesel’s birthday, it was her choice of places to eat out. She remembered a Japanese restaurant somewhere near the Southbank Centre, so we set off back along Cromwell Road, Brompton Road and Knightsbridge. Yes, I was retracing my steps, but it was a first time for Liesel to be walking along the A4. The A4! And yes, we could have caught a bus, but apart from the traffic, it really was a pleasant day for walking in the city. After crossing the glorified roundabout that is Hyde Park Corner again, we veered off to walk by Green Park, along Constitution Hill.

Of course, as tourists, we were perfectly entitled to take a selfie with Buckingham Palace in the background.

Selfie of the day

The Victoria Memorial was shining brightly in the early evening sunshine, and, what’s this? A new innovation in London transportation? A man was walking along the road, in a giant metal wireball, a steel zorb. We don’t know why, but he did say he was doing this for ninety days.

A man in a zorb

The Mall was much more busy than we’d anticipated, disappointingly so, really. I have fond memories of riding onto The Mall after my 100-mile Prudential Bike Ride back in 2014, in the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha. I dream of being fit enough to do so again.

I’ve been to the ICA, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, for a few events over the years but so far, Liesel’s missed out. Yes, it’s also on the list of places to visit one day.

Eventually we crossed  the Golden Jubilee Bridge, again admiring the London Skyline to the east, beyond Waterloo Bridge. I resisted the urge to take a picture, since I already have several hundred. Unfortunately, the Japanese place has been replaced by a very stinky burger joint. So we went down to Wagamama for a very civilised meal. Plastic shields separate you from other diners, and I wonder whether they’ll keep these once the pandemic’s over? Or will we once again be forced to sit next to strangers on the bench? And you now pay by scanning a QR code on the menu, going to a website, typing in your table number and payment details. I’m not (usually) criminally minded, but I did think about entering somebody else’s table number, someone who perhaps has only ordered a couple of cheap drinks so far.

We walked back to Waterloo Station and returned to Surbiton.

Massive teapot samovar

I’d walked over 17 miles by this point, and while I didn’t say so at the time, I was quite relieved that Liesel had parked the car at Surbiton Station! The thought of walking back to our Airbnb after sitting down for half an hour on a train somehow didn’t appeal.

After a fairly good night’s sleep, we returned to the city. And we should have known it wouldn’t be straightforward. There’d been an ‘incident’ and all the trains were delayed. Sitting on a stationary train was the perfect opportunity to finish the book I was reading: Bitterhall by Helen McClory, so good, I gave it a 5-star review.

Later than planned then, we walked from Waterloo, along the river to Borough Market. We passed a couple of the same buskers as yesterday, and I was able to hurl some coins at them.

We were pleased to see that the Southbank Centre’s undercroft is still being enjoyed by skateboarders and graffiti artists: in fact, we caught one in the act. Also, being a bit later in the day, the book stalls were all out under the bridge, but we wasted no time browsing, we had a market with food to get to.

Urban artwork at its best

We acquired a picture of ourselves with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background thanks to a helpful pair of ladies who noticed that I was pretending to struggle taking the obligatory selfie.

Not strictly speaking a selfie

We ate our way around Borough Market: the best chips we’ve ever had, a very cheesey cheese straw, a tasty spinach muffin. The market was nowhere near as busy as we’ve seen before, but someone talking on the phone said it was absolutely rammed.

Borough Market and its bell
Borough market

One market’s not enough, so Liesel suggested visiting Spitalfields Market. It was a good excuse to walk along some long-neglected city streets. The Monument was gleaming in the sunshine, another selfie opp, of course.

Another selfie of the day

On the way, we walked through Leadenhall Market, one of our favourites, which in contrast, was much, much busier than we’ve ever seen it. Possibly because in the past, we’ve only been here on a Sunday. The bars were all open and full of city workers probably talking shop, definitely speaking loudly, a sign of normality if ever there was one, although of course, the spectre of Covid was never far away.

Who would think that a big lump of red, molten, plastic bottles could result in such a fabulous work of art? Tatiana Wolska, that’s who. What looks like a big red balloon, in the shape of a small human, floats above us in the market, competing with the very decorative star-studded ceiling.

Untitled by Tatiana Wolska

We found more Sculpture in the City in the form of Orphans, geometric solids made from orphaned paintings, those left behind by deceased people and unwanted by their heirs. Bram Ellens is responsible for this one, which is outside, exposed to the elements, so I hope it’s OK. I’m sure the artist knows what he’s doing.

Orphans by Bram Ellens

We sat down for a break in the courtyard in front of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping in Fenchurch Street. This is just round the corner from where I once worked, in Crutched Friars, a strangely named street that we didn’t quite get around to re-visiting on this occasion.

In this courtyard is a lovely sculpture, a mirror-polished stainless steel ship, with water running down and over it, very refreshing. The office workers returning from their lunch breaks paid it no attention as they made their way upstairs, some in more haste than others.

Our wander continued, passing the site of Petticoat Lane Market, which is only open on Sundays. Lilian Knowles House was new to us, as was Donovan Bros Paper Bag shop on Crispin Street, what a quaint area. The shop was closed, but I wanted to buy some paper bags just to see if Donovan or his brother would put them in a big paper bag. And a good reminder that despite living in or near London for forty years or more, there is still plenty to explore.

Liulian Knowles House
Donovan Bros

We like these strange, old places, but some new ones are quite pleasing to the eye too. Of course, it was a nice sunny day today, I wonder if looks as good on a gloomy wet day?

St Botolph Building

The first thing that drew my attention in Spitalfields Market was a bronze representation of Mwashoti, an orphaned male elephant rescued a few years ago. He is just one of the Herd of Hope roaming the market, drawing attention to the plight of orphaned elephants.

Mwashoti

The second thing I noticed was the second-hand hat stall. One day, I might decided to go for a 1950s titfer, but not today. We just walked around the market, a vibrant, colourful emporium. Yes, there was some tat, but a great place for people who collect, inter alia, old vinyl records. I had a quick browse, finding some David Bowie bootlegs that I’d not seen before. Tempted? Of course I was.

A load of old hats

It was someone’s birthday and as she posed for photos with a cake, she was surrounded by some of the most colourful, costumed friends you could imagine. They were more than happy to have their photo taken by us more sedately dressed weirdoes.

Why not stand out in a crowd?
Birthday girl

Liesel was delighted to find Humble Crumble, a stall that she’d read about, selling pies. I think this is just one factor that later led Liesel to suggest that Spitalfields is her new favourite market in London, knocking Borough Market off the top spot.

Old Spitalfields Market

Dogman and Rabbitgirl with Coffee is another delightful sculpture that we admired just outside, before setting off to bus stop J.

Dogman and Rabbitgirl with Coffee by Gillia and Marc

Yes, after discussion, we decided to, gulp, mask up and take a bus back to Waterloo, our first bus ride since, as far as I can remember, before the first lockdown. I didn’t even use my Old Fart’s Bus Pass (or whatever it’s called) because, well, I just forgot I could.

Fleet Street, Hoare’s Bank, The Royal Courts of Justice, Waterloo Bridge: what a fascinating, very nice, evocative bus ride.

Demon Barber of Fleet Street

From Waterloo, we took a train to Kingston, and this concludes two days in our glorious capital city. It was an itch that I feel has been well and truly scratched, but there are plenty more things to do and see, including theatre visits and other live performances – in London and Manchester.

Quebec House for students, in Kingston

We look forward to travelling on the underground again. Liesel had taken the tube from Wimbledon to South Kensington yesterday, but I totally avoided it on this occasion. Before moving away from Chessington, I had planned to visit every one of the stations on the London Underground system. It might happen one day. We were a week too early to visit the 21st century’s first new ones though: Nine Elms Station and Battersea Power Station Station, both, bizarrely in Zone 1.

Battersea Power Station way over at the back

Let me paraphrase Lord Kitchener:

          London is the place for me
          London this lovely city
          You can go to Didsbury or Manchester,
          Wythenshawe or Northenden
          But you must come back to London city
          Well believe me I am speaking broadmindedly
          I am glad to know my Mother Country
          I have been travelling to countries years ago
          But this is the place I wanted to know
          London that is the place for me.

My show on Radio Northenden this week might well be an homage to London. London is our capital city. Maybe I’ll call the show Capital Radio. That’ll confuse some people! Please join me at 4 o’clock, Friday afternoon right here, and say hello in the Chat box!

Travels down south

We went a long way south this week, for the first time since before the first lockdown. What an adventure. But first, here’s Northenden in all its glory.

Yellow flowers

Some flowers manage to escape the confines of their own garden, which brightens up the local roads.

Liesel had some work to do so, sadly, it was down to me to look after Martha and William for a few hours while Liam and Jenny went off somewhere for some peace and quiet. I enjoyed the walk to their house, and back, in ideal weather conditions. Not too hot, not too cold, not too windy, just right, just like Baby Bear’s porridge.

By way of a mental exercise, I decided to count the numbers of cyclists, runners and walkers that I saw on the way over to Cheadle Hulme. In the end, there were 13 cyclists, 17 runners or joggers, some looking happier than others, and 35 people walking. But, there were also two people pushing their bikes. Do I add them to the cyclists’ or to the walkers’ tally? This is the sort of nightmare conundrum that statisticians have to contend with all the time. Oh well. Also, one dog, one cat, one buggy and of course, innumerable cars. More exciting stats later.

Martha and William both had so much to show me, toys, books, puzzles. Martha’s written the first story in her school book. Getting them to pose for selfies was fun: William got into the spirit, training for the new coal mine about to open in Cumbria.

Selfies

There was a visitor in the garden. They weren’t bothered. True, it was only a squirrel, but even so, I thought they’d be more excited than their aged grandfather was! Jenny had prepared lunch for us all, thank you, and they ate very nicely. When it came time for dessert, it was Freddo chocolate bars or animal biscuits.

Later, both were still hungry. What do you want? Freddo? How about some fruit instead? I peeled Martha’s orange for her, while William peeled his own banana and very nearly put the whole thing in, in one go. Try harder, young man!

This dialogue didn’t really happen. I could have asked either, “What would you like to play with right now?” And the answer would be, “Whatever my sibling has, of course!” I’m sure most parents and grandparents have had this experience.

It’s a funny old universe, everything balances out in the end. Mummy and Daddy returned and I walked home. Martha and William were quite tired, but I was buoyed up and happy: what a remarkable demonstration of the law of conservation of energy.

Gnarly old tree

I walked home a different way, a more pleasant route, away from the main road as much as possible. So we’ll remember that for the next time. It was nice to see some young people playing football on the school playing field, it reminded me of watching Asa and Gideon playing three years ago, at the start of our travels.

And so, Monday morning arrived full of expectation, the cue for us to pack for our trip down south. We still weren’t 100% sure it was the right thing to do, given the Covid situation, but it’s been so long, and there has to be a first time some time. It’s a thin line between being cautious and living in fear, after all.

The M6 is a marvellous feat of engineering and construction and I know there’ll be a big, big party on the day it is finished, when there are no roadworks, no improvements, just an unencumbered drive from A to B.

And it’s always good to see this.

The Pies

It reminded me, I must try and find the album released by The Pies many years after the graffiti first appeared.

Rather than going straight to our accommodation in Tolworth, or Surbiton as our hostess would have it, we drove to Richmond Park, probably my favourite of all the London parks. We were mainly going for a walk, but we definitely cheered when we first saw the London skyline in the distance

London from Richmond Park

A couple of sections of road in the park have been closed to motorised vehicles, in order to restrict the amount of rat-running. That was good to see, even if, on this occasion, it meant we had to drive much further to our chosen car park.

We walked through Isabella Plantation, a nice, peaceful haven. I’m sure it’s been affected by the pandemic, much of it is very overgrown. In places, you can’t even see the stream because the vegetation is so lush. Gardeners and volunteers have probably been unable to devote so much time to the usually well-groomed area.

Here be a hidden stream

We wandered over to and around Pen Ponds. We didn’t have the place to ourselves, we shared with a few other people and their dogs, as well as plenty of birds.

Cormorant

We probably have seen cormorants here before, but mainly it’s geese, ducks, coots and even when you can’t see them, you can certainly hear the ring-necked parrakeets.

Walk like an Egyptian

I’d forgotten how much bracken there is in Richmond Park, and recalled how several years ago, there was a big scare about how carcinogenic the spores are.

At this point, we didn’t know why the roads were closed. So I walked down the steep Broomfield Hill and thought about stopping a struggling cyclist halfway up to ask if they knew why the roads were closed. But that would have been cruel. It’s always an achievement to ride up that hill without stopping and who knows, maybe one day I’ll do it again too. It was good to see so many cyclists in Richmond Park, but these weren’t the only ones we saw.

We found our way to our Airbnb in Tolworth Surbiton via Kingston. What’s this? County Hall has been sold? Surrey County Council’s HQ is now in Reigate, not Woking or Guildford as I would have expected. So who bought County Hall? I know when I worked at Kingston University, the then Chancellor wanted to buy it to expand his empire across the road. And the University’s Town House is a brand new building, not the pile of portakabins that it used to be. So many changes in such a short time.

After checking into our place, we set off for Byfleet to meet up with an old friend. Even though it’s been a long time since we’ve been here, it was all familiar. No real danger of getting lost, here.

Rosie took us to a nearby Indian restaurant for a delicious but very spicy meal which left me no room for dessert. It was while walking through the tunnel under the railway station that we saw more cyclists.

West Byfleet Station underpass

How wonderful to witness the reunion between Liesel and Rosie, after all this time!

I think it was Benjamin Frankin who said: “… but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes and roadworks on Leatherhead Road.” And so it proved to be on this occasion as we drove the next day, yes, even further south, to Polesden Lacey. Is Leatherhead Road the most dug up highway ever?

It was raining and, in fact, this turned out to be the only rainy day of the whole week. Here we met up with Helen and Steve for lunch and a quick walk around the grounds. The House itself was closed, so we still haven’t been inside, despite so many visits to Polesden Lacey over the years.

Looking south

In the rain, I started to sing Oh What A Beautiful Morning, but it wasn’t fully appreciated by my other half.

Atmospheric is possibly the word I’m looking for. Even when the rain stopped, you could feel it, on the borderline between drizzle and tropical-style humidity.

Raindrops on leaveses…
Selfie of the day
Beech nut sculpture

This sculpture was created by Iain Crafer, inspired by the local beech trees.

We bade farewell to Helen and Steve and before our evening assignation, we made a detour to Bushy Park, one of our favourite London parks. Here too, the main road through the park, Chestnut Avenue, has been closed to through traffic. How jolly civilised.

We had a very pleasant walk around, finding paths that neither of us remember trampling nor cycling on before.

Stag

If you look closely, you can see stags having a lie down in the long grass.

Another gnarly old tree
Heron

Here’s a heron in Leg of Mutton Pond, so I passed on greetings from his cousin in Northenden. And we probably would have made friends with this moorhen too, if only we’d had some food for him.

Moorhen

We spent two days in London. At the end of our second day, we caught a train to Kingston where we loitered for a while before setting off on another walk.

Party Animal

This sculpture is one of a set, constructed by Alex R T Davies, on display in Kingston. This goat really does have a traffic cone on his back, and we are invited to touch and even sit on him.

The Thames was very busy, with rowing boats with crews of 8 and of 2, paddle-boarders and swans.

Messing about on the river

Walking along the Thames to Surbiton in the early evening is a very pleasant experience, even if looking across the river means glimpsing the bright, setting Sun so, yes, there were moments when I couldn’t see much other than green blobs floating in front of me. Nevertheless, we found our way to one of our old haunts from a few years ago.

It was reassuring to pass another establishment to see that they’re still having trouble keeping the L stuck on. Every generation of vandals probably thinks they’re the first, the original!

Clocktower Café

In Allegro, the proprietor, whose name we ought to know by now, recognised us even though it’s been at least two years since our last visit. During the pandemic, he closed up shop and took advantage of the opportunity to refurbish the place. He only reopened a few weeks ago and very nearly had to close again. Someone driving away from Surbiton Station hit the accelerator instead of the brake, driving into the tree in front of the restaurant. 

We enjoyed a nice meal with Helen and Steve and went back for our final night in Tolworth Surbiton, at least for the time being.

Early Friday, we got up, packed, and departed, stopping in Surbiton, yes, proper Surbiton, at The Press Room for some coffee to take with us. Even the Big Issue lady recognised me from two years ago, so I must have left an impression there.

We were meeting up with another friend on the way back, over in Gloucestershire. Sandra worked with Liesel many years ago, and we’d arranged to meet up for a walk around Sherborne Park Estate, which belongs to the National Trust. And what a pleasant walk it was too, just the sound of insects and birds and two women catching up on several years of gossip. We’d seen deer in Richmond and Bushy Parks of course, but none as spectacular as the one we saw here.

Sherborne deer

Down the road, we had a break outside Sherborne Village Shop and Tea Room. This was the most restrictive venue we’d been to all week. Only two customers at a time, wearing masks, which is fair enough, but you don’t know there’s someone else inside until you’ve crossed the threshold, then you get a good telling off.

There is a fabulous library cum defibrillator storage facility just down the road.

Nice use of an old phone box

Regular visitors will know that I am not very lucky in my attempts to take pictures of dragonflies. But I got one today.

Dragonfly

Oh, alright, I know it’s only a wooden model, but it kept still long enough for me to get my phone out and press the button. Something else I’ve always admired is the skill of the dry stone wall builders, here in the Cotswolds and elsewhere.

Dry stone wall

On the way home, we passed by Bourton on the Water and Stow on the Wold, both places we’d love to revisit properly, as well as Stratford upon Avon, and eventually we were back on the motorway system. We were soon reminded why we should never drive anywhere on a Friday evening. Google Maps was helpful though, telling us where the least worst hold-ups were. In the end, we drove along a section of the M5. I don’t think I’ve been on that motorway since the time Sarah and I were driving to Bristol to meet Ruth, when a thick pea-souper made us slow to a crawl, and we had to give up on that trip.

We successfully arrived at home, got the mail, had a quick gin and tonic, and welcomed the sensation of sleeping in our own bed.

Katie was kind enough to broadcast my pre-recorded radio show this week, thank you, two hours of Earworms, but hopefully not the annoying kind. You can catch up here.

What’s that? What about London? Watch this space…

I promised some more stats. So turn away now if you’re likely to be unimpressed.

The Earth’s circumference is just under 25,000 miles and at some point in the last couple of months, I passed the milestone of walking half that distance since I first using a Fitbit in April 2015. So, 5½ years to walk 12,500 miles, halfway round the world, that’s not bad, is it! That’s at an average of about 12,586 steps per day or an average of 11,413 steps per day since I stopped working as a postie in January 2016, so that just goes to show how far postal workers have to walk each day.

Home and Away

One final half a day in Scotland then before declaring the end of this very welcome and much anticipated break from every day life. We’ve seen some beautiful thistles, the national flower of Scotland and it would be a gross omission not to share a photo.

Thistle of Scotland

We thought we’d lose the scenery fairly soon after leaving Fort William but no, the landscape gives and keeps on giving. Driving through some thick woodland, you can occasionally glimpse the mountains behind.

High lands
Mountains through the trees

And then of course, not too far down the road, we drove through the beauty that is Glen Coe. Now this is a proper Glen! We stopped for a few minutes to breathe in the air and the soak up the atmosphere, saturated with magic feel-good awesomeness.

Glen Coe
Old road in the Glen

Loch Lomond also hid behind the trees for a while, but have no fear, we’ve already decided to return and explore this area properly.

Fishing in Loch Lomond

It was a pleasant drive, but it did rain a couple of times. We drove into a small parking space that happened to have a coffee vendor in a van. The business name was Sassenach, so we knew it was meant for us. “It’s not like you to get out of the car in the rain,” I said. “I’m not,” said Liesel, “You are.” So I got out and the nice ladies in the van filled our flasks with the best coffee, very welcome.

A couple of observations before we leave Scotland. I don’t know if it’s old age or a Covid symptom, but over the last couple of days, I’ve been referring to Ben Nevis as Big Ben. Yes, I admit, I can’t wait to return to London but that’s just crazy.

We’ve noticed rhododendrons all over the place. They’re not native to Scotland so we concluded that Victorian gentlemen (it would be blokes) probably walked around after the clearances with seeds in their pockets, fresh from Nepal or some other exotoc location, distributing them willy-nilly.

A lot of development has been completed with funding from the European Union. Certainly some of the paths and tracks we’ve walked on, and of course, the glamping place at Durness. No wonder the Scots voted not to leave the EU and will re-join as soon as possible after gaining independence from their English overlords.

Welcome to England

Almost home then. And almost as soon as we crossed the border, I had a sneezing fit. The pollen in the north of Scotland must be more agreeable to my old passages, because I hardly sneezed at all there. But here in good old England, and especially near home, I’ve been scaring my wife and the neighbours with the force and volume of my nasal explosions.

Always such an anti-climax, the end of an adventure away from home, so it’s good to have something else to look forward to. Who knows what will happen when everything opens up on July 19th? We’ll either embrace the so-called ‘freedom’ or, more likely, we’ll carry on avoiding people as much as possible and not going out.

Our first wander along the Mersey for a while and my goodness, the vegetation has grown a lot, almost overwhelming the path!

The Mersey

This early morning walk was greatly enhanced by the fact that not many other people were around. It’s not that we’re becoming misanthropic in our old age (well, not much) but trying to keep a respectable distance from other folks who don’t seem that bothered can be quite exhausting and certainly frustrating.

Our return to Kenworthy Lane Woods was revealing too.

Thistle of Northenden

So there have been thistles here all the time. We didn’t need to visit Scotland after all. But I’m so glad we did!

Fort William and Ben Nevis

We failed again to consume everything supplied for breakfast, so we took the rest with us for lunch: fruit and a big raisin bun. It was time to say farewell to Susan, Kiva and the lighthouse. This would have been the ideal place to end our little break but we had a couple more nights to spend, at Fort William, before the long trudge home.

We awoke to the dawn chorus of sheep shouting at each other. By the rock over there, they were queueing up to scratch their butts. You could see the smiles of relief spread across their cute little faces.

We stopped one more time in Gairloch, briefly, noting that the beach car park was now fairly empty. We could have stopped there of course, but for the fact that we had booked a ferry so, unusually, we had a deadline to meet.

The mountains, lochs, scenery all continued to impress as we headed south.

Not the Olgas

The first proper stop on the way was by Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. This would be a fanstastic hike: and yes, it’s on the list for next time. This is the only waymarked mountain trail in Britain, so we probably wouldn’t get lost.

Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail
Tent for people who don’t like lying down

Not sure you’re allowed to camp in this car park, but Liesel suggested this might be a shower. We didn’t knock on the door to find out.

Tunnels

Well this was a surprise, tunnels on the A890, wide enough for one vehicle. What happens if you meet someone halfway through coming towards you? Well, it’s a very short tunnel, so one party or the other should have enough time to move into the passing place. I’m sure we’ve seen tunnels like this in the Alps during the Tour de France.

As we reached Kyle of Lochalsh, we caught sight of the bridge over to the Isle of Skye. An online friend of mine lives on Skye, but way over at the western side, too far to go today, and be back in time to catch our ferry. Next time, Sheila, OK?

Bridge to Skye

Yes of course we didn’t spend anywhere near long enough on Skye. Add it to the list for next time. But what we saw was stunning. Very green, lots of trees, plus the hills, the Cuilins, in the distance. So much to explore.

Too narrow

After taking a detour off the main road, we encountered this very narrow track. We chickened out and returned the way we came. The map suggests this track would take us back to the main road, but, well, would you risk it?

Looking over towards the mainland
Selfie of the day

Here we are looking cool and relaxed on the ferry back to the mainland. The breeze on board was warm and refreshing, we didn’t need to cower inside, out of the elements. Guess how many dolphins we saw during this 25-minute passage?

Glenfinnan Viaduct is now most famous for its starring role in the Harry Potter films. It is a wonderful feat of engineeering, the first time concrete had been used for such a major project. We tried to book a ride on a train between Fort William and Mallaig, which would take us over the viaduct, but it was fully booked for months ahead. Now we know, we’ll catch it next time.

The Viaduct behind the trees

The car park was full, the busiest place we’ve seen for a long time. Many of the visitors were east Asian, and we can only assume they’re students here in the UK. I heard at least two languages being spoken: Japanese and Chinese, but whether Mandarin or Cantonese, well, my ears weren’t fully tuned in.

Expelliarmus

Who mentioned Harry Potter? And do the actors get compensation for this use of their images? We stayed away from the herds and hordes of people as much as we could while walking towards the viaduct on a lovely gravelly path.

You lucky people, another selfie

I walked up to the first Viaduct Viewpoint, where many people were sitting and standing around and I thought maybe they were waiting for a steam train to come a-puffing over the viaduct. But no, they were, as far as I could tell, talking about the engineering problems posed in constructing such a marvellous edifice, and counting the 21 arches. Certainly the view from above is very impressive.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Nearby, just over the road, is a monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie. The story is told in Latin, English and Gaelic. The Prince is on top of a column, so it’s quite hard to make out his features.

Glenfinnan Monument
Prince Charles Edward
The ’45 Jacobite Rebellion

We reached Fort William and I was a little disappointed that we weren’t greeted by a big welcome sign. I wanted a good photo for grandson William who is beginning to recognise his written and printed name.

On the way into town, the only radio station we could tune into was Nevis FM, playing songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s. There was almost too much choice of places to eat. Deep Fried Pizza sounded good. On closer inspection and reading the sign properly, it was in fact Wood Fired Pizza. Unfortunately, they were fully booked for the night. Another place down the road also had a long queue outside. So we ended up right where we’d parked the car: Spice Tandoori and we had the best Indian meal we’ve had for a long time. And it was a strange feeling sitting inside a restaurant with other guests.

Our b&b was conveniently located but sadly what struck me as we went in was the stench of cigarette smoke. What struck Liesel at first was one of those gadgets that squirts a cloud of smelly chemicals into the room every few seconds, presumably to disguise the other smells. Oh well, a bit of an anticlimax after the lighthouse, but it’s only for a couple of days. How can we tell we’re in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain?

Everything Nevis

Neither of us had a particularly good night’s sleep. The view out of our window is OK but it was raining a bit as well. After a late breakfast of cereal and croissants, we went for a walk to the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre. Or the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, depending on which street sign you believe, or whether you trust Google Maps. It was less than a couple of miles from our b&b but nice to be out in the fresh air.

West Highland Way

The idea of a certificate was quite appealing. So did we collect one? Well, the trouble is, if we’d gone in and lied about walking the length of the West Highland Way, they might have asked us for proof. They might even have asked us where the other end was. So we carried on along the road.

The entrance to Glen Nevis

For a while, we walked along a track that was more or less parallel to the road, to our right, with the River Nevis to our left.

Curling is a popular sport in Scotland, but we just usually see it at the Winter Olympics. We found an old rink with some old stones. I was going to have a go at curling but I couldn’t even lift the blinkin’ stone.

Curling Stone Henge
Mick of the stones

No, it wasn’t really too heavy, it was cemented to the ground. Honest.

Amongst the interesting artefacts at the Visitor Centre was this old machine, which brought back many happy memories.

Old postman’s bike

Actually the main memory it brought back was the day I was finally able to retire from the job. It was never as good once they got rid of the bikes.

The foothills of Ben Nevis

The climb to the summit of Ben Nevis is a long walk up a sometimes narrow path. The views are stunning of course, and near the top there’s a section which is fairly flat before the final steep incline to the top. It’s much colder at the the top, so I was glad I took up an extra layer of clothing. No, this wasn’t today’s climb. This was my memory from about 1997. Today, we walked up as far as the first stile, but I suspect we might be back one day to conquer the mountain.

After the brief hike up a slight incline, and not being able to see the actual summit from where we were, we began the walk back to town. We found an alternative path, on the other side of the road this time, and enjoyed the warmth, the scenery and the flowers.

Water lilies

These water lilies with pink flowers wouldn’t be out of place in a Fijian or Japanese pond. And, something else out of place was a small green van selling refreshments such as an egg bun and coffee. We sat on a rock and had a break. An egg bun is what we normally call a bread roll with a fried egg. Or, a fried egg barm, in Northenden.

As we reached the more built-up area of Fort William, if you’d asked what sort of bird we would see, I don’t think either of us would have guessed this one.

Oystercatcher

And just like the best avian subjects of my photos, it flew off before I could get too close, straight back to its home on Loch Linnhe, presumably.

Garden dedicated to NHS workers

Yes, it’s great having a garden dedicated to the hard-working men and women of the NHS. But just like clapping for them on a Thursday night, I’m sure they’re rightly thinking they’d rather have a payrise of rather more than a measly 1%.

A quick visit to the railway station wasn’t very interesting in the end. I was hoping to see one of the steam engines that take people across the viaduct to Mallaig, if they book online early enough, of course, but all I saw was the Caledonian Sleeper.

We wandered slowly through the town centre, only venturing into one shop, but noting how many shops were closed, and not just because it was Sunday.

The Piper

The Piper played his tunes, which, as we discovered a bit later, could be heard quite a long way away.

Bronze Model T Ford

In 1911, Henry Alexander of Edinburgh drove his Model T Ford to the top of Ben Nevis. Liesel and I looked at each other. What a terrific idea. (There is more about this story at this Ben Nevis website, which has a lot of other fascinating information too.) We didn’t walk up today, but maybe we could take the Mazda 2 up? We abandoned the idea because neither of us wanted to reverse all the way down again, plus, I couldn’t remember whether there was enough room at the top in which to turn the car around.

Flowers of Scotland (again)

We started walking back to our b&b, only 10 minutes away from the town centre, although it had seemed a bit further last night. We caught up on another couple of stages of the Tour de France and I think it’s fair to say, it’s been the most exciting first week we’ve seen for a few years.

This has been a terrific couple of weeks. Scotland’s beauty can only be described in words by the best of poets. But in the greater scheme of things, I think we’ve learned that we need to keep up a much more rigorous exercise regime. Despite our best intentions, during lockdown, we’ve become more comfortable, staying locked down, locked in at home. Also, we need to plan to do more things, not necessarily two weeks away, but some nights out, at music and comedy gigs. Having things to look forward to certainly is an aide to our mental well-being. Thank you Liesel and thank you Scotland.

Flowerdale Waterfall and Camus Mor

A return to Gairloch Beach was on the agenda today. Plus, we had a couple of shops to visit. And I would have access to 4G so that I could post the latest antics here, and then sob briefly when I inspected the end of month bank statement.

But first, breakfast. It’s brought to us in a picnic basket and there is so much food. We had a large meal at dinnertime last night too. I think we’re being fattened up, just like the sheep who live here.

It is a beautiful view over the sea, a lovely shade of blue, and even the sheep gaze longingly at the sight.

Living on the edge

The drive back along the road to Gairloch was uneventful, apart from the mist bank that we had to pass through. Oh mist rolling in from the sea. I think there’s a song in there somewhere.

Play Misty for me
Gairloch Harbour

The harbour is a busy, bustling place with fishers, kayakers and canoeists messing about in the water. We even saw someone on a paddle board, taking advantage of the calm conditions. This signboard is very informative.

See what condition my condition is in

Yes, I can confirm, the midges are very annoying. I came back today with even more bites. My legs look like a star chart of the constellation Ophiuchus. We can’t say for certain that we saw any of the birds listed, but cormorants are quite distinctive, even in flight.

On the way to the harbour, we noted that the car park for the beach was already full. We decided to walk to the beach, from the harbour, once we’d completed the hike to a waterfall. Unbeknownst to us when we came up with this cunning plan was that Flowerdale Waterfall was twice as far away as we thought. The sign telling us it was a 1.5 hour walk, 3.5 km was not referring to the round trip, just one way.

The Estate of Gairloch is, we think, in the business of producing attention-seeking signs. It was a nice enough walk to see the waterfall, but we didn’t need to see so many bright blue signs. Don’t take photos of the house. Shooting takes place so don’t be alarmed. One of the bridges is collapsing so don’t walk on it. Well, that one’s fair enough.

I think it must have been on this hike that I became dinner for the midge population. So tiny, and very few even tickle when they land on a hairy limb. You just notice the itch a bit later, and scratch off the scab you didn’t even know was there. Graphic photos of the worst bites to follow. (Only for those paying premium rates.)

Is this it?

No, this minor cascade is not the waterfall we were looking for. Liesel and I noticed that when we walk in step on the gravel path, it sounds like an army of hungry soldiers on the parade ground. The path became rougher and steeper as we progressed, so we thought we must be nearing the end, surely. No, I don’t know who Shirley is, either. Certainly the sound of rushing water was louder.

We found the bridge that is in need of repair, but instead of fording the burn, we made use of the carefully placed stepping stones. As I was so hot and bothered, I plunged my head into the peaty water and it felt good and refreshing.

Flowerdale Waterfall

There are a lot of trees on the Estate so you have to be in just the right place to see the waterfall through the thick foliage, but we got there in the end. A young family were having a picnic: they didn’t mind us trampling over their sandwiches in order to take this magnificent photo. Could we have got closer? Possibly, but it had become harder to see where the path continued from this point.

On the walk back, we saw another butterfly, a lovely blue one.

Butterfly

So that’s two butterflies so far this trip. In the olden days of course, we’d go home boasting about having seen so many species of butterfly, not just the small number of individuals.

Selfie of the day

Pooh sticks? As Ian McMillan the poet would say: yes, it does. But no, we didn’t play, we just captured our shadows in the burn.

Another garish Gairloch sign

I imagine this is the place where women were murdered for witchcraft. Can you cure the laird of this disease? If not, you’ll be punished. If you do, you’re a witch, so you’ll be punished.

Paddle boarder

Yes the paddle boarder continues to paddle around the harbour. The beach car park was still full so we headed back to the lighthouse. The bank of mist was thicker on the way back, and cold. The car windows were open because it was so hot, and the cooling mist was an unexpected treat. What strange weather they have in these parts. And the midges are thinking, maybe strange to you, but it’s ideal for us.

Baa-ssing Place
Narrow bridge
Look out for bears

Back at the lighthouse, we went for a walk down to the jetty. This is where goods for the lighthouse staff were originally brought in. But the lighthouse is fully automated now.

Sloping rocks

The rocks that slope gently towards the sea are what give the lighthouse its name, in Gaelic.

We had the jetty to ourselves but do we go in the water? The barnacle-covered steps down were a challenge, especially with bare feet. But the water was cold. Much colder I think than either of us anticipated. It’s supposed to be warm water here, fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Brrr. I poured some over my head thinking I just need to get used to its temperature. No. It’s really cold. Ice cream headache ensued within milliseconds. My bravado evaporated, I climbed back up, got dressed and enjoyed the sunshine instead. Liesel clambered up the rocks for a better view of the sea and all the wildlife out there. All just below the surface, I’m sure.

We had a chat with fellow guest Steve and host Susan and we discovered some interesting things. Sheep have learned to cross cattle grids by rolling over them. The mums show their lambs how to do this too. Now, is this a lie to tell tourists, or has it really happened? Some people want to reintroduce wolves into Scotland, but obviously not into areas such as this, with a large sheep population.

Tap water

This tap water has been filtered three times including once with UV light. It tastes OK, not at all peaty, but that’s where the strange hue comes from. It does indeed look like very weak apple juice, or watered down wine or whisky. But it makes a jolly nice cup of tea.

No internet means we have lost track of the Tour de France. And we’re getting behind with our podcasts too. The weather apps are no use at all. So thank goodness we have a phone full of our own music. Who have we listened to over the last few days? David Bowie, Eddi Reader, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jessica Lee Morgan, Jack Johnson, Tasmin Archer, Rosanne Cash and yes, these are mostly the performers who appear on my radio show quite regularly. What a coincidence!

There was no staying out late tonight to watch the sunset. An early night was called for and a good night’s sleep was had by us both.

Except that I woke up having failed to interview Joni Mitchell. I was in the right room, and I could see that she was looking for me. But she kept being stopped by young people at desks who were asking questions such as “How much experience do you have in fashion?” and “How long have you been a make-up artist?” Even though it was my own dream, I don’t know if they were interviewing the wrong person for a job vacancy, or maybe they worked for a magazine. All I know is, my carefully planned in-depth interview with a folk icon didn’t happen.

Today we decided to go for a walk locally, towards a place called Camus Mor. There’s a nice white sandy beach which is always welcome on a warm sunny day such as this.

The path I think was originally laid out by sheep, there was no logic to its direction, up and down, sometimes on a steep slope and again with a few steps. Some of the ground was quite soggy but neither of us sunk.

Selfie of the day

Congratulations to everyone who took a nice crisp fiver to William Hill, fairly certain that we would provide a selfie with the lighthouse in the background. I hope you enjoy your winnings.

Never mind Proust and his madeleines. As we were walking up a steep slope, I had a sudden vision of (probably) my first ever encounter with the Scottish Highlands, as a child. A 1960s Sunday afternoon serial on TV, Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I could see Allan Breck and young Davie Balfour scrambling up a very similar slope while escaping from the redcoats. Kidnapped is still one of my favourite books. I have just finished another book about kidnapping, also based in Scotland, at least to begin with. Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair is magnificent. It’s a good story well told, but what I find fascinating is how Elizabeth, the narrator, can tell us readers something that she herself doesn’t notice or register. That is some very clever writing. Highly recommended. You don’t have to read Ailish’s previous book, The Mermaid and the Bear first, but it is equally engaging. Both are based on some pretty awful historic events, the sort of history we never learned at school.

I don’t know why the intense blue colour of the sea here continues to surprise me. On one trip to Scotland, from a ferry, the sea looked black, reflecting the sky that day perfectly. So that’s now the default image in my mind. But this is stunning:

Blue sea

We were never exactly sure which direction we were walking or looking in. We think these are islands in the distance but they might be far distant headlands on the mainland. What we need is an up to date OS map and a compass. We did remember to bring the binoculars, so it was easy to identify all the wildlife and birds that we encountered. Well, they would have, if we’d seen any!

At the top of one hill, we came across a little lake or pond or a big puddle, depending on your point of view. Is there a name for such a tiny body of water, we wondered?

A little loch-ette

As you can see from this picture, we were not alone. We continued to follow the path, occasionally having to guess which way to go when it bifurcated. And then suddenly:

Turquoise sea

We could be in the Aegean on in Hawaii with sea this colour. Only when you look at the landscape and the vegetation do you realise this beauty is in Scotland.

Stack

Another surprise was seeing this little sea stack. You can count on the fingers of zero hands just how many seabirds we saw in residence.

Lichen

Many of the rocks are covered in lichen, and the geometric patterns are fascinating. Some of the little flowers are very pretty too, but I think most of the heather will be at its best later in the year.

Flowers of Scotland
The beach

We saw the beach way over in the distance and decided to quit while we were ahead. My legs were protesting: maybe I just need a day off. All this activity in the hills after so many months of being confined to Northenden, not famous for its challenging inclines, has taken its toll. But, again, we agreed that we would have to come back some day and complete this hike.

We took our time going back to the lighthouse, sitting down occasionally for a rest and a slurp of water. Oh, and looking around and saying ‘wow’ a lot, internally at least.

The only animal activity we saw in the water was a lone kayaker. I think the Scottish Tourist Board have made up some of these animals. Otters? The only otter we’ve seen is the sign on our door.

Otter

Seals? There’s a seal that lives in Gairloch Harbour apparently, but we didn’t see it. I strongly suspect it’s a rubber seal that’s fallen off a boat.

Sea eagles? Don’t exist. I think the clue is in the name. If you say it fast, it’s exactly the same as sea gulls.

Rock doves? Plenty of them around, but they still look like pigeons to me.

I know we saw some stags a few days ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be animatronic. Cynical? Me? Not really 😉

Back at the ranch, we listened to a sheep and her lamb yelling at each other. Come here. No, you come here. Me-eh. Me-eh-eh. Me-eh. To be honest, the baa-ing to and fro just reminded me of the mass debating chamber that is the House of Commons. We sat outside for a while, crocheting and reading and soaking up the Sun. I went for one more quick jaunt down to the jetty and along to a little rocky beach, expecting to see dozens of basking seals on such a warm day. But no, not today.

Sheep

No, the nearest we saw to wild life was probably this sheep, who would have been absolutely livid if she’d slipped and rolled down the slope into the sea.

As the final day here at Rua Reidh Lighthouse draws to a close, we notice the clouds are moving in. A change in the weather for the weekend is on the cards. Time again to move on.

Ullapool to Rua Reidh Lighthouse

Time to move on again. On from what I referred to as civilisation, Ullapool, to a more rustic, rugged location, literally miles off the beaten track Anyway, you don’t care about that. You’re just wondering about the baby seagulls. They’re on top of the world.

Gull-lets

We ate breakfast, packed, checked out and set off in a roughly southerly direction. It felt tropical outside: hot and humid. The first stop today was Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. This was after a period of ooh-ing and aah-ing at the views, of course. The gorge is deep, man, and it’s a long walk to reach it, along a well-made path.

Trees
Memorial bench

Yes, a well-made path but it was hilly and there were lots of steps. Thankfully there are plenty of memorial benches on which to rest a while. This unusual one is dedicated to the memory of Leslie B Butcher and the little plaque has a quote from John Yeats: A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And the first sign that proved we were really in an actual gorge proves the point.

Sheer wall

This gives an idea of what was to come after a few more bends. The suspension bridge is fairly solid, but it did sway from side to side a little on the return trip. A maximum of six people is allowed on the bridge at any time, and this is not just for Covid related reasons.

Suspension Bridge
The waterfall
Bridge and waterfall

I don’t know how else to try and give some idea of how deep the gorge is, but this is what you see from the viewing platform. It’s at the far point of the circular walk, but the return trip was shorter, if steeper in places. This path is described as ‘accessible’ but the lady in the motorised wheelchair just glared at me when I joked that she could be going faster.

Further along the road, we saw what we assume to be an RAF jet flying past these mountains.

Mountain mist

As we approached this mountain range with its fringe of cloud, we noticed just one patch of snow that has so far survived the heat of the Summer.

Summer Isles (we think)

As we proceed towards our final destination for the day, the main subject of conversation is regarding the beauty of the surroundings. Wow, look at that. Did you see that? Where are we? Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint our location on Google Maps, even when we have a good signal. Loch Ewe is gorgeous and we drove beside it for a while. In the middle of the loch is an island. Isle of Ewe. And I thought, ahh, that’s nice, Isle of Ewe too ❤. Soon afterwards, we found our next place of interest, Inverewe Garden

Butterfly

This guy welcomed us to the Garden and we returned the favour by encouraging him to fly away from the car park. We thought this was a good omen, we’d see many more butterflies but no, this was the only one, sadly.

Our second long walk of the day was around the well cared for gardens. The map supplied was great: you could find your way around with it, which isn’t always the case.

South Africa

There are plants here from all around the world that you wouldn’t expect to thrive in Scotland. But the gulf stream brings some heat and the gardeners here take full advantage, especially in the Walled Garden.

There are a couple of viewpoints overlooking Loch Ewe. Otters have been sighted here, but of course, not today. In fact, we didn’t spot any of the others collectively known as Scotland’s Big 5: red squirrels, red deer, golden eagles and harbour seals. We might have seen seals way off on a small island, but of course we’d left the binoculars in the car, so we can’t be sure.

Encroaching on the path
Walled Garden
Rhododendron barbatum

Rhododendron? No, I didn’t believe it either, at first. This plant is from the Himalayas and is obviously doing very well.

Pretty in pink

These little flowers drew Liesel’s attention: so much detail in the tiny petals. No idea what it is though. There were places where the only sound was from busy bees, dozens of them working together. We looked, but there were no frogs sitting on the lily pads in the pond.

After another very enjoyable walk, we went to the café. Of course we did. Coffee and we shared a millionaire’s shortbread.

Suitable for vegetarians

Did we? No, we didn’t try this unusual offering. But while slurping our delicious beverages, we were joined by a couple of birds, a chaffinch or a nuthatch and a thrush (we think).

Birdies

The final planned stop today was Gairloch Beach. We saw a sign towards Big Sand and I thought, that’s funny, I remember her, she used to be the barmaid at the pub in Hammersmith that me, Mike and Nick used to go to.

Gairloch Beach was big and wonderful, we shared it with about 30 other people. Again, the texture of the sand varied up and down and even along the beach. The few rock pools had nothing of particular interest. But people were swimming in the sea.

Gairloch beach
Crab

This wee beastie didn’t chase us along the beach, I’m not even sure he was awake. Probably somebody’s dinner the night.

Gairloch Beach

Not being allowed to check in to our new accommodation until 5 o’clock was great, it meant that we could take our time today. The final stretch entailed turning north again so the sea was on our left. We both exclaimed at the same time when presented with this vista that could be from the Mediterranean.

What a sight

On the other side of this body of water lie the islands of Lewis and Harris, named after a couple of Morse’s sidekicks, I think. The road is narrow, yes, with passing places, but it’s undulating and winding and challenging. Definitely a rollercoaster. Why anyone would want to drive faster than 20 mph is a mystery, but judging by the gouge marks, some folks have done just that.

Suddenly, there it is. The first glimpse of our final destination today: Rua Reidh Lighthouse. Our home for the next few days. What a stunning place to be, and what a glorious day on which to see it for the first time.

Rua Reidh Lighthouse

The road continues to meander after this point, and we had to open a couple of gates before we could finally park up. Some sheep looked at us but we were greeted properly by Susan and Kiva. I am so glad I didn’t vocalise my first thought: you must be the lighthouse Kiva, then.

He showed us up to our room. The wooden door creaked open and we entered the lighthouse. The light from his hurricane lamp illuminated our climb up the slightly damp spiral staircase. Up and up and round and round we went. Finally, we reached the door to our room. The locks were a bit rusty, but the room looks comfortable enough. There’s a big sign asking us not to turn the lights off at night. No, of course, that didn’t happen. Our room is in a separate building, which was used as a youth hostel as one point in its history.

The Lighthouse

From about 9pm onwards, I was keeping an eye on the Sun because of course I wanted to see it set over the sea.

An hour before sunset

I joined several of the other sunset-viewing guests at about 10.30, when, unfortunately, a bank of cloud obscured the Sun, but the sunset itself was still spectacular.

The clouds, the clouds

Dolphins, porpoises, minke whales and even orca have been seen in this stretch of water so we’re keeping our fingers crossed. I can’t believe I was out there chatting with Steve until very nearly midnight. He agrees that there aren’t words to adequately describe the beauty that is the Scottish Highlands. I’ve shared some photos here, but those pictures can’t convey the scale of the place . And when you’re aware of the local history, the clearances for example, you can almost feel the sadness emanating from the landscape.

The cue for me to turn in was the lighthouse lights coming on

The lights work

Oh, alright, I’ll admit it: I was beginning to feel a bit cold as well.

So, here we are at midnight, the last threads of red from the sunset still visible, the rest of the sky is too bright to see any stars, and the lighthouse lights are on. We have no connection to the outside world, no internet, no 4G, no phone signal, nothing. So there’ll be a delay of a couple of days until the next post. To be honest though, I am surprised and delighted that we’ve had good enough internet connection up until now for a daily post. Good night / morning / afternoon, gentle kittens: as I write, I have no idea when I’ll be able to send this. But you have it now, that’s the main thing.

Mollachin aboot

We’re staying in what can only be described as a quirky little hotel. Unusually, there is no TV set in our room. Not that we watch TV when away from home (except for the Tour de France), but how pleasant. Instead, there is a radio.

Our bathroom is not en suite. We have to leave the room, walk down the corridor to use the facility, which is ours alone, but we need a key to get in. Neither of the doors can be closed quietly however hard you try.

We can open the windows in our room but it was touch or go whether they would move. In fact, one of the latches was already broken: we weren’t the first guests to struggle. The curtains are nice and thick though, so the midnight light didn’t disturb us. No, I think what kept us up so late was the caffeine in the coffee, plus nearby doors being closed as quietly as possible. In other words, loud bangs.

But it is an old building, obviously. The lounge area looks out over the town and towards some mountains. We can look at paintings, some good, some just put up so as not to offend the artist, maybe. In the kitchen area, there are facilities to make tea and coffee (free) plus a variety of alcoholic beverages (paid for). And books. There are books everywhere: in the lounge, in every room. The book shop downstairs has a wide selection of books about Scotland, Scottish history, Scottish fiction and children’s books and, so far, as I write this, I’ve only visited twice.

Books

Breakfast was good. Instead of black pudding, we veggies are given fruit pudding. This reminded me of mince pies whereas Liesel thought it was more like thinly sliced malt loaf.

We watched the family of seagulls. The chicks were begging for food, but the parents didn’t feed them while we were watching.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull and babies

There’s a certificate on display in the lounge saying this place was voted by its employees as one of the top ten tourism employers in the Highlands and Islands. That’s great! In very small print, it’s dated 2008. I’m sure it’s still a wonderful place to work.

No venturing far afield today, we just spent time mollachin aboot this fine toon o’ Ullapool. It was a little cooler than yesterday, but still very pleasant. We passed by people, yes, people, in the streets, but we didn’t freak out. If we can’t handle this many people in a small town like this, how will we cope back in Manchester? Or London?

Ullapool Outdoors

Thankfully, we didn’t need to go into this particular shop. All the other shops seem to have their entrances more conveniently located at ground level.

Here’s a new pier and when it was constructed, they left rock pools at three different levels to encourage interest in the local sealife.

The new Wee Pier
Muted colours today
Passive aggressive messaging
We like a memorial bench

After our morning constitutional, we had coffee at the hotel, sitting outside, at table 48, since you ask.

After a rest (a rest!) in our room, we went out for the ice cream we’d promised ourselves. I went for the licorice flavour, Liesel the banoffee. Imagine the look on Liesel’s face when she realised, half way through the first lick, that she’d picked up the wrong cone.

Requirement’s

There was a time when I would have gone along in the dead of night with a bottle of Tippex and removed that superfluous apostrophe. Well, not really, I’m not a vandal. I would have sent my wife.

Garden in a boat

My task today was to do the laundry. But, because of Covid rules, we’re not allowed to operate the machines ourselves. Instead, we pay the lady in the shop to wash and dry for us. She provides a very good service and we should now have enough clean clothes for the rest of our trip. Unless, as I told Liesel, we have a number of messy accidents.

For the second night in a row, we dined out. Well, this time, we dined in, in our hotel. While eating, the England football team were beating Germany in the Euros. Or, if those fellow diners were Scots, maybe they were cheering for the Germans. We later found out that England had indeed won.

The sea starts here

Sadly, littering is a problem everywhere, but Ullapool is a really clean and tidy little town compared with some I could mention.

In the ice cream shop, I also bought a bottle, a glass bottle, of Irn Bru. Another disappointment. I knew about the sugar, but it also contains Aspartame and Acesulfame K, two artificial sweeteners. Bleurgh. It had approximately the flavour that I remember, but this is not the secret recipe they’ve been using since 1901, like it says on the label.

Irn Bru

No, I won’t be making that mistake again. So that;s Mars bars, Edinburgh Rock and Irn Brum childhood delicacies that I can no longer tolerate. What a shame. Maybe I’m getting old.

Thanks to all the correspondents who have been asking to see a pair of dancers made from chicken wire. Here they are, tripping the light fantastic in our hotel.

Tiny dancers

To round this relatively quiet day off, we’re watching today’s exciting stage of the Tour de France. And finally, a quick check on the seagull chicks: all present and correct.

Durness to Ullapool

All good things come to an end and that includes our first ever experience of glamping, here at Durness. Glamping? Yes, even though we were staying inside a modern day shepherd’s hut, it qualifies as glamping. No yurts here, or big tents with all mod cons.

Glamping at Aiden House

Part funded by the European Union. I wonder what you’d have to do to join such an organisation. We couldn’t bid farewell to our host Sandra because, overnight, she had to take her husband to hospital. In Inverness. Let’s hope he recovers soon, that’s a long way from home. Many of the photos today will be of the spectacular highlands scenery. There are not enough superlatives to describe the place. It’s big, it’s stunning, it’s almost overwhelming.

Final view from Aiden House

We thought we’d fill our flasks with hot chocolate. But, the first disappointment of the day was finding that Cocoa Mountain is closed on Mondays. And so to Ullapool, about 90 miles south. We didn’t stop at Smoo Cave in the end, we just pointed the car in the right direction and followed the one-lane road with passing places.

Sea loch

It was bright and sunny but quite windy. The further south we drove, the warmer it became and the wind died down a bit too. But looking at the scenery genuinely does put real life into perspective. These mountains will still be here long after our current inept government has been forgotten.

During the day, I was reminded of a few works of art that have entertained us over the decades. Here at Keoldale for instance is the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Standing stone

There were very few trees and bushes, which I think makes the landscape appear more rugged. Plenty of sheep and lambs around but we realised that other than on warning signs, we haven’t seen any deer yet. Then we saw on Twitter that that bloke from Location, Location, Location has been shooting them all.

Middle Earth

This could easily be somewhere dark and menacing from Lord of the Rings.

We stopped briefly near Scourie. From about this point, the road had two lanes including white lines down the middle. It’s funny how you get used to using passing places, you miss them when there aren’t any more.

Scourie Harbour
Selfie of the day

This selfie was taken from Kylestrome, looking over, we think, Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin. Sometimes, we just don’t know exactly where we are, which is a shame.

You’re driving along, gasping at every new vista, and suddenly, even something manmade can jump out, someting with a ‘wow’ factor.

Kylesku Bridge

This bridge should look out of place, but it really fits in, as minimalist as a bridge can be, not attempting to draw attention from what nature has to offer.

The view from Unapool
Beautiful blue loch

Everywhere you look, there is something stunning, almost out of this world. The next scene took us back to New Zealand.

Why did the sheep cross the road?

Nothing to do here except wait for the slow one at the back to catch up.

We pulled into laybys a couple of times, just to look around. Sometimes there’s a map. Here’s a tip to whoever produces these maps: please don’t put South at the top. We’re all used to North at the top. There’s no good reason for it, other than to wreak havoc and cause confusion amongst visitors and tourists.

Lunch was taken by the cool, clear waters of Loch Assynt.

Loch Assynt

Another couple stopped at about the same time as us, and, being British, we each complimented the weather and engaged no further in conversation.

From our picnic position, we could look over at Ardvreck Castle. Why didn’t we stop and have a closer look at the castle? Mainly because everybody else had.

Ardvreck Castle

Closer to our picnic site though was what’s left of Calda House, a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Calda House

It doesn’t look like there’s enough rubble there to rebuild the other two walls, so I suspect a lot of the stone has been recycled into other buildings.

Did I mention Lord of the Rings? Well, we found a place called Elphin. In fact, we stopped at Elphin Tearooms for coffee and cake, and sure enough, all the locals have pointy, elfin ears.

Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve is just a short distance along the road and by the time we arrived, we were well fortified, full of beans and ready to go. Why? Because the elfin barista made non-decaffeinated coffee for us by mistake, and it would have been churlish for us to reject it. We just tweaked her ears instead.

If you’re interested in geology, this is the place to come. So many different kinds of rock to study but first, we looked at the deer much higher up the hill, behind a fence unfortunately, but it was exciting to finally see some in the wild.

Spot the stag

No, I don’t know if Spot is really his name.

The rocks here have been accumulating for over a billion years.

A geologist’s dream

There is a beautiful hike here up to the top of the crag. There are slopes and steps made from the local rocks, and the whole track is reassuringly solid. Hard to believe that the views can become even more spectacular as you climb, but they really do take your breath away.

The geological history of Scotland over 600 million years is fascinating. It’s certainly moved about over the millennia.

Around the world in 600 million years
Scotland is near the equator

Inevitably some people will look at 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled Scotland, and they’ll think, huh, nothing’s changed then. Not us, of course.

Up and up we go, stopping to look around every so often.

Stairway to heaven

It was hard work climbing some of these steps, plus it was a lovely warm day. We certainly felt like we were getting to know the crag. It’s high and mighty and again, makes you realise that something like not having a wifi signal is not really a big problem in the great scheme of things. Not having a 4G signal here though, what a disaster. Here’s a tip: if you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no realistic chance of acquiring a 4G signal, put your phone into aeroplane mode, otherwise it’ll drain the battery as it keeps searching for non-existent radio signals.

Liesel having a well-deserved breather
Look at it. Just look at it

There came a time when we had to turn back. A number of factors combined to help us make the decision. I felt bad about not going any further with Liesel, but she said she was beginning to feel uncomfortable too:

  • I’ve never been too keen on heights, and I suddenly realised I was too high, well outside my comfort zone;
  • It was surprisingly hot, even at this altitude, and we’d brought no water with us;
  • After some short flights of steps, my legs were shaking, and taking a couple of minutes to recover;
  • Similarly, I was getting a bit out of breath;
  • Even though we wanted to climb to the top, we just couldn’t see how much further there was to go.

Do something scary every day, they say, and this was quite scary for a while. Really glad we got as far as we did, though, it was a physical challenge and the view from such a great height was definitely rewarding. Photos just can’t give a realistic idea of the scale of it all. But they’re a great reminder of a fabulous adventure.

Another surprise was seeing this homage to the Alaska pipeline.

Strathkinaird pipeline

And here we are, back in ‘civilisation’. Ullapool always reminds me of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, because the Martians’ death cry is ‘Ulla’. (Sorry, spoilers.) We’ve been in the footsteps of Susan Calman to a certain extent, as featured in the TV series Secret Scotland. She tells the story of when she went on holiday as a child, with her parents, in a campervan. The only cassette they had to play in the van was War of the Worlds. Where was I? Oh yes, back in civilisation. How do we know? There are way too many people in the streets of Ullapool. Plus, there are double yellow lines on the roads.

Yellow yellow
I wonder what time we arrived here

This clock is the lovechild of Cogsworth and Lumiere from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

We wandered down to the harbour to watch people. So many to choose from. One family group were putting on their waterproofs, about to embark on a hair-raising, fast, boat ride. This guy from the Orkney Islands was very busy mending ropes.

George Roper

Well, I hope his name is George, but I didn’t ask. (I did ask if I could take his picture.) He loves it here in Ullapool, but he’d rather be reading a book and looking at the view.

We found our accommodation, Ceilidh Place, hotel, bar and restaurant, bookshop. After settling in, we went for a walk and joined the queue (yes, a queue) outside the chip shop. We took away our supper and ate al fresco, on the grass opposite our place. Very nice, very tasty.

Now, back in our room, I’m writing, Liesel’s crocheting, I’m listening and Liesel’s (occasionally) watching the Tour de France. There is a family of seagulls outside, three cute, fluffy chicks, and we’re glad their parents haven’t yet told them how to steal chips from tourists.

Yellow daisies

What a beautiful day.

Smoo Cave

After posting yesterday’s edition, we broke into the bottle of whisky bought a few days ago at Glenmorangie Distillery. Very smooth and a good way to end the day. Only it wasn’t really the end of the day at all, oh no. I wanted to see the Sun set over the ocean which was about 10.30.

Rabbits

We had a couple of visitors late at night. They weren’t at all disruptive or noisy. In fact I think they were more surprised to see me than I was to see them. They weren’t bothered about the sunset though. Which was, to be honest, not as spectacular as I’d hoped. But the clouds looked pretty.

Clouds at sunset

Waking up at 2.00 am, I was surprised at how light it still was. There’s a nearly full Moon but this light is from the Sun barely dipping below the horizon.

3½ hours after Sunset, 2 hours before Sunrise

Unfortunately my internal body clock failed to wake me up on this occasion, so I missed the Sunrise by at least half an hour. Oh well, there’ll be another one tomorrow.

Liesel crocheted and I gazed at a Sudoku while we listened to the radio: Broadcasting House on Radio 4, the only news show we deliberately choose to listen to, then Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music. At noon, we watched Jessica Lee Morgan on YouTube singing the songs from Mary Hopkin and Morgan Visconti’s 10-year old album You Look Familiar, and very enjoyable that was too. Here’s a gripe. On my PC, I can leave YouTube playing and do other things at the same time. If I dare try and look at something else while YouTube’s playing on my phone, it just stops. It demands 100% of my attention.

In today’s unbelievable news, we can confirm that yesterday, Liesel managed to get sunburnt. It was pleasant outside on the beach, not too hot. The UV levels were low, apparently. But Liesel’s shoulders are radiating their own heat. Take care out there, folks.

Puffin

This puffin is coming home with us.

I went for a bit of a walk this afternoon, just a solo jaunt on this occasion. In the craft village, there’s the Durness Deep Time exhibition explaining the local geology and displaying the various rocks found locally and the minerals they’re composed of. There’s way too much information to absorb in a quick visit, but the subject is always fascinating.

Deep Time rocks

In the opposite direction from our temporary home is the bustling metropolis known as Durness.

Durness Visitor Facilities

I was glad to be reminded about Smoo Cave: Liesel and I talked about it a few days ago. I sent a message but Liesel declined the invitation to join me. I passed another lovely beach, but resisted the temptation to go down and investigate. My mind was now focussed on finding a cave.

Sangomore Beach
The sheep that thinks it’s a cat
Durness Millennium Cairn

There’s a lovely garden next to Durness Village Hall. It was put together by 40 local volunteers. One of the highlights is the John Lennon Memorial.

John Lennon Memorial

John used to come to Durness on holiday between the ages of 9 and 16, staying with his aunt, whose grave we saw yesterday, and cousin Stan Parkes. The gorgeous song In My Life is partly inspired by John’s memories of this place, according to Stan.

Durness Village Green

The first sighting of Smoo Cave certainly surprises you, such a deep cleft in the rock. It’s easy to see that the cave may be inundated with sea water from time to time.

Entrance to Smoo Cave

I walked down the steep wooden staircase to sea level and then, looking back, away from the sea, there is the 50-foot high entrance to the cave.

Smoo Cave

We can go on a tour of more chambers in the cave, for a fee, but, because they’re in a cave, they can’t get a phone signal, so electronic payments are out of the question. And, of course, I had no cash on me. Whether Liesel and I come back tomorrow for the tour is to be determined.

One of the illuminated features

The cave has been inhabited in bygone millennia, but I’m sure any artefacts will have been taken away by now, to ensure their security.

I walked back up the 76 steps, which was harder that you’d imagine because the rise for each step is slightly higher than you’d normally expect. I pretended to study the back of thie sign while catching my breath.

Stickers

What’s sad about this is that the stickers we ordered hadn’t come back from the printers by the time we left home. ‘Mick and Liesel’s Antics: NC500 Tour June 2021’ could have been plastered all over Scotland by now. Oh well.

The walk back to our hut was of course much faster, despite the fact that I ended up walking through the caravan park. Here’s another house where the occupants have a strange set of priorities.

Airbnb at its best

I’ve come intae some money, hen, shall I get a new roof and some windaes?

Och, no, I’d rather have a satellite dish.

When I returned home, today’s stage of the Tour de France was about to finish. Somehow, I didn’t nod off until it had finished. No, I waited until Amy Lamé was playing some good tunes from past Glastonbury Festivals!

Here’s another moan from grumpy old Mick. I rarely imbibe soft, fizzy drinks: maybe once a year. Sometimes I’ll have lime and lemonade or maybe shandy in a pub, but that’s pretty rare too. Yet here I am in Scotland and I got the urge to sample the locally produced delicacy Irn Bru. So I put my mask on and entered the local Spar supermarket in Durness. I found bottles of Irn Bru rather than cans, but that’s ok. How much? £1.45 a bottle. How much? £1.45 a bottle. Or two bottles for £1.60. What a rip-off. Irn Bru might be made from girders but I’m not made of money, my internal, parental voice said. So I left the shop without a refreshing beverage and I didn’t buy anything else either. The tap water I drank back at the hut was perfect.

Life’s a beach

You can’t have a proper holiday without spending a day on the beach. And despite being in the far north of Scotland, that’s exactly what we did today.

I knew the day would be a good’un when Liesel brought me a cup of tea in bed. Followed by toast. The view from our bed is pretty good, so we just sat there and admired it for a couple of hours.

When we finally got up and set off for a walk, of course we went the wrong way. Well, it’s a 50-50 chance. Daisy soon put us right. She looks a bit full, but Liesel declined the offer of a drink of fresh milk.

Udderly full of creamy goodness

We passed by a pretty loch: in fact, there are at least a couple nearby.

Loch Croispol

Past the craft village, past an old church and we found Balnakeil Beach. The wind had really calmed down since yesterday, and there were very few other people on the beach. Just the way we like it.

Balnakeil Beach

What a lovely expanse of sand to walk along. The sand dunes are a Sight of Special Scientific Interest so we’re asked not to walk on them. We thought this might be due to the presence of nesting birds, but other than a few ordinary gulls (no offence, ordinary gulls), we didn’t see anything of unusual ornithological interest today.

We had several attempts at taking a selfie with a decent background. This is the least worst.

Selfie of the day

Halfway along the beach, there’s a rocky outcrop. I investigated, with a view to maybe clambering over to the other half of the beach. This proved too difficult. I could have walked around it, but the tide was too high. So I walked back and around: the long, sensible route that Liesel had taken and I caught up with her having a sit down on a nice grass tussock.

There were lots of little beetles scurrying about on the sand. There are 400,000 species of beetle but I couldn’t quite put my finger on which one this is.

John, Paul, George or Ringo?
Another one

Actually, there was a flock of small birds out on the water, too far away to be able to identify, but some kind of marine duck. They were happy diving but then after a while, we realised they’d disappeared.

The texture of the sand varied. Soft and dry in some places, fairly solid sometimes, and occasionally soft and squidgy, we were leaving quite deep footprints. The sea was very calm today, and as it was unexpectedly warm, I wish I’d brought my swimwear. But until very recently, I never even thought about a sandy beach on the north coast of Scotland, never mind entering the cold Atlantic waters.

We sat down for a while and watched the people. by which I mean the two other people who arrived just as we sat down. They drew a picture in the sand so of course, when they’d wandered off to the other end of the beach, I had to enhance their artwork. After which, we beat a hasty retreat.

A beach with a view

It’s the first day of the Tour de France so while on the beach, we watched it on my phone for a few minutes. What amazing technology, and really unexpected to have such a good 4G signal on the beach a couple of miles from the small town of Durness. You’re using up your 4G data allowance on watching TV, Mick? Yes, I know, strange huh? It’s a long story but I had to guess how much data I’d need for a couple of weeks here, knowing we’d be on Google Maps quite a lot. My previous allowance ran out on our first day here, so I just bought a reasonably big package. 80 GB since you ask. For a month. A week later and I only have 77.97 GB left. So squandering it by watching TV is not likely to cause problems later on!

We walked back along the beach, which was now becoming more busy. Nothing like Formby on a hot day, of course. We had a quick look at the old Balnakeil Church and its graveyard.

Balnakeil Church

I am indebted to Captain Mackay John Scobie whose tomb I sat on while shaking the last of the sand from my shoes. He worked for the so-called Honourable East India Company and died nearby in Keoldale aged just 44 in 1818. Also here is the grave of Elizabeth Parkes, aunt of the famous Beatle John Lennon, according to the information panels.

And as if the day couldn’t get any better, our walk back home took us past the craft village and, oh dearie me, Cocoa Mountain. We enjoyed a coffee here plus some of their fine chocolate.

Neither of us wanted to spend a lot of time looking at all the arty crafty places in the village, but we did venture into Mudness, where Martina MacLeod has been producing ceramics since 1991. Liesel came away with a yarn bowl and a small puffin.

Back at our hut, we watched the rest of the day’s live coverage of the Tour de France on TV, not at all enjoying the two big crashes. Poor old Chris Froome always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s great to see Mark Cavendish back at the Tour.

I completed another really difficult Arrow Sudoku puzzle. This one took 75 minutes, a record that I’m not proud of, but I am proud that I solved it at all, in the end. We watched the bunnies, we listened to Classic FM, thanks Moira Stuart and Andrew Collins. Liesel’s crocheting project continues, but I do miss the clicketty-clack of knitting needles!