On the Beach

Those meteorologists don’t know what they’re talking about. First, they say Friday is the hottest day of the year so far. Then they say Saturday is the hottest day of the year so far. Well, which is it? Certainly we’ve had a few incredibly hot days this week, not quite 30° here in Northenden, but hot enough. I refuse to say it’s ‘too hot’, just because it’s warmer than we’re used to, but admittedly, it is challenging. We’ve had to dig out the fans at home and blow the dust off. Actually, the fans could have just blown the dust off each other, I suppose.

We found ourselves walking in the shade of the woods a lot this week. Even the birds seemed more hot and bothered, and subdued, than usual. But the fairies have been busy.

More doors

The Rorschach Test at the top is new (to me) and my first thought was that it resembled two bottoms looking at each other in the room behind the window.

I know it wasn’t scheduled but I took this photo of this week’s transit of Venus.

Transit

What’s that? You don’t think it’s real? OK, it’s the straw through which I slurped my first mango smoothie of the season. While at Boxx 2 Boxx I bumped into Dan the choirmaster again. It didn’t cost tuppence to talk to him, even though he did recently meet the actual Queen when his Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus performed for Her Majesty recently.

St Hilda and St Aidan

Here are St Hilda and St Aidan, patrons of our local Catholic church here in Northenden. Now I know I’ve been out in the Sun a lot recently, but look over St Aidan’s right shoulder. Up in the corner of the picture. Is that really the hand of God holding a cigarette?

Something was a-tugging at my toes. In my early morning torpor, I thought I was being woken up to go for a local walk while it was still relatively cool outside. But no. Liesel took me to the seaside instead. We were on the beach at Formby by 9.30, well before most people arrived. The tide was high so it wasn’t too far to go for a paddle. The very slight breeze was refreshing and we shared the beach with, literally, hundreds of jellyfish. It’s sad to see so many stranded like that. The dead seal made us wonder whether there had been an ‘incident’ at sea. Maybe some toxic effluent had ‘accidentally’ been released again. I hope not.

Selfie of the day
Jelly of the day
Skelly of the day
Spot the difference

Sadly, there was a lot of litter on the beach today, hundreds of people have enjoyed their days out and their picnics and they’ve left the evidence. Our litter-picking kit was at home, otherwise we might have done something about it.

Bathing cap
Sea urchin
Beach ball

We saw some ferries heading for Dublin and/or Douglas and we agreed that one day, we’d visit those places too. One of them was Stena Sealink. I got the look from Liesel when I told her that some of their ships operate just for women. Really? Yes, Stena Lady.

Again, we heard what sounded like gunfire from the beach. We concluded it must be bird scarers, there was no other explanation for the random distribution of shots. On the way home, we saw the sign for Altcar Rifle Range. Aha! Although, at times, it sounded more like Altcar Machine Gun Range.

We walked a long way today, along the beach, up and down to the water. Many more people were on the beach by the time we left. But the good news is, a proper toilet block has been built in the car park.

Back in Northenden, we enjoyed watching strange people out and about in the heatwave. There was a group of ladies doing exercises under a motorway bridge, tai chi or pilates, or maybe just gentle exercise. They were all in the shade of the bridge, apart from one perspiring glowing in the full glare of the Sun. I felt sorry for the dogs being taken out in the middle of the day, hot pavement, no socks or ice packs on their paws.

A couple of men were making signs at each other along the street, prompting us to wonder which house they were about to break into. More likely to be a drug deal, though, to be fair. We saw blokes wearing nothing on top and we saw people wearing thick anoraks. The runners looked even more miserable than usual and I thought, well, you could always stop for a minute. All carefully observed by us two mad dogs out in the midday Sun.

In the river, we spotted a supermarket trolley, a road cone and a chair all in one small stretch beyond Simon’s Bridge. And people were letting their dogs jump in to retrieve thrown balls.

We also saw people, humans, in the river, near the island. Swimming is understandable, but jumping in? Like the warning sign says, you don’t know what’s lurking beneath: sharp rocks, sharks, shopping trolleys.

We saw the heron most days but once, we saw an exotic white bird in the middle of the river. It was a great bustard. Well, I think that’s what I called it as it took flight before I even got my camera out. An utter, utter bustard. I was lucky enough to shoot some ducklings however.

Ducks

Even this lovely family are swimming away from me and my camera. Lots of DAs on show.

In medical news, I am still finding new bite marks from the midges in Scotland. I mean, the marks are on my skin, the bites were acquired in Scotland: stop confusing me. They’re different from, for example, the spider that got me on the back of my elbow this week. A different quality of itchy irritation.

The radio show this week was mostly songs in which the singer or band namechecks themselves. I had a chat with Chantel from Thrive Manchester, whom we met on the well-being walk last week, and she picked a couple of bangers for the show too. Here it is, if you want to listen back.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics have started and we sat through the Opening Ceremony. The end was better than the start, in case you haven’t watched yet. We’re looking forward to seeing some different sports and I have had to promise my sister that I won’t whinge about the BBC’s presentation for the whole two weeks. What they did to the Men’s Cycling Road Race this morning was diabolical. Cutting away at an exciting time to interview someone who was watching from home? Interrupting to show a glimpse of a different sport? Having to switch from one channel to another several times? Oops, sorry, Sis.

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.

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!

Wick to Durness

I may have been a bit scathing about the views from our Wick Airbnb, apparently. In fairness, not many places can have views to compete with those from our stay in Helmsdale. And even here in Wick, if you look away from the plain windowless walls of Nucleus, there’s a large field, filled with Queen Anne’s lace.

A field

Our time here in Wick is over. Time to move on. The road was narrow at times, with passing places, but what a glorious drive. Google Maps said we could cover the 92 miles in two and a half hours. We checked out at 10am so, theoretically, we could arrive by 12.30. But we’re not allowed to check in to the new place until after 4pm. Because of Covid, they need six hours to clean a place and leave it empty for three hours. That’s the rules. So somehow we had to ‘waste’ at least three and a half hours. It was not at all difficult. Such an interesting route, we stopped several times.

The day started with rain, but as this eased off, the wind strengthened and later in the afternoon, it felt quite cold. We didn’t let the weather dampen our spirits. You just have to gawp at the spectacular scenery and the weather becomes irrelevant. It’s a pity one of us has to drive. One day, we hope to afford a chauffeur or maybe driverless cars will be within our price range.

The first stop was a return visit to Wicker’s World where we filled our flasks with coffee for the journey. Even the girls in here were whingeing about the weather, which tells us it’s particularly bad right now.

Cannabis tea

Sorry to say, I ordered the usual coffee, although the cannabis tea might be worth trying one day.

The first beach of the day was at Scrabster.

Scrabster

Other than going down to the ferry port, we couldn’t see how to actually get out for a walk on the sand. The Orkney Islands were just visible in the distance and we could even look back at Dunnet Head.

In Thurso, we wanted to go and watch the surfers. The best place to do so apparently is close by Thurso Castle. Could we find a way to this landmark? Without going on private roads? Sadly, no. We don’t even know if there were surfers out today, but this is apparently the best place in the UK to participate in the sport. The waves of the Pentland Firth are quite challenging. Liesel and I don’t have our own surfboards as we don’t go surfing very often. When we do go though, we just cut the legs off the ironing board and use that.

Thurso did provide the opportunity for us to do something really special for the first time. We each paid 50p for a pee in the public toilets by using my phone and contactless payment. Ten shillings to spend a penny. There’s a sign saying that if the toilets continue to be vandalised, they’ll be closed. I wonder why people get so cross here?

There is a lot of energy in the north of Scotland, old and new technology in fairly close proximity. I’m surprised there aren’t more wind farms, there’s certainly plenty of wind to go around.

Wind farm

Meanwhile, just down the road, the UK’s first nuclear power plant at Dounreay is being decommissioned. They hope to finish by 2025. And as we now know, all the archives are stored at Nucleus in Wick. We couldn’t get too close to the power station. We weren’t scared of all the warning signs and threats and CCTV cameras. No, we just didn’t want to end up glowing in the dark because of the radiation.

Nuclear power station

Liesel suggested that this former fast breeder reactor site could be turned into a prison. The security infrastructure is in place already. Sounds like a good plan to me. Very soon after, Liesel drew my attention to the very large bull checking out a cow’s bottom. Nature is wonderful.

Selfie of the day

We stopped down by the water in Portskerra for lunch. We had the place to ourselves. A red van came down the hill, but we stared at them with our laser eyes and they drove straight back up the hill again. I think this picture gives an idea of how cold and windy it was at this point.

From Bettyhill viewpoint, we could just see the mountains through the murk. Mountains such as Arkle, Foinavon, Ben Tongue, The Watch Hill and Cranstackie. At least two of those were named after Grand National winning horses. Or vice versa. Or maybe it’s just a wonderful coincidence.

The view from Bettyhill viewpoint

And of course, Bettyhill was named after my lovely Mum.

We passed many cyclists today, but they were all going in the opposite direction. If they’re riding (even a part of) NC500, they’re going clockwise whereas Liesel and I are travelling widdershins, anticlockwise. Maybe the prevalent wind direction dictates which way they go. Mostly men of course, but the women all got cheers from us.

There were lots of sheep in fields and by the side of the road. I started counting them but I kept falling asleep.

Somewhere near Swordly we saw a sign saying ‘Coast’. Coast? We’re nowhere near the sea here. But then, like a welcome oasis in the desert, we saw it. Coast is a mobile coffee vendor, parked up just off the main road. We stopped and I got the coffee. The barista is also retired and told us about the elderly couple who live nearby, both 85, who retired here from Salford 25 years ago. They’re hoping to see their family in Manchester this July, but given the rising number of Covid cases, who knows what further restrictions will come in?

A typical Scottish bridge
Coast Coffee

The Kyle of Tongue sea loch was an interesting place to stop for a moment. We crossed the Causeway or the Bridge and stopped halfway across. It looks like a causeway, but water must get past it somehow when the tide ebbs and flows. Both terms seem to be used almost interchangeably: the Kyle of Tongue Causeway and the Kyle of Tongue Bridge.

The Kyle of Tongue Causeway

The sand here is quite coarse so walking on it was a challenge. A few other people had trodden here earlier, so I knew it was safe, no quicksands, but the footprints were unusually deep.

Moine House is part of the Flow Country, the area of Sutherland and Caithness that is covered in very deep peat, thanks to the mosses that have been growing here since the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago.

Inside Moine House

It seems a local artist decorated the interior of this former dwelling some time ago. But from the outside, I think we can safely say nobody lives here any more.

Moine House

Finally, we did find a beach to walk on. Ceannabeinne Beach is the home of the Golden Eagle Zip Line. You can fly at 45 mph over the beach while looking over at the Atlantic Ocean and screaming your lungs out. The ride was closed today because the winds were too strong but the gales didn’t stop us from venturing out onto the sand.

Ceannabeinne Beach

There were just a handful of other people around, and we all kept ourselves to ourselves. The geology here is fascinating, volcanic and with a lot of movement and upheaval, given the nearly vertical strata.

Nature’s first bar code
The cave

I don’t know if I was glad or disappointed that there was no bear lurking in this deep, dark cave. The other danger was posed by the sea, it was quite violent in the strong wind. No surprise then that there were no surfers here.

Breakers

Having managed to occupy so much time en route, we arrived at our Airbnb in Durness at a reasonable hour. Sandra greeted us and we hauled the luggage to what will be our home for the next few nights.

We’re staying in one of these shepherd’s huts, but which one?

Earlier in the week, we mentioned that we haven’t seen many rabbits in Scotland. We now know why. They’re all in the field next to us. Dozens, scores, nay, hundreds of them running and jumping about, flashing their scuts, having a grand old time. So far, we haven’t seen any birds of prey hovering, licking their beaks in anticipation.

More fast breeders

Just down the road on a short perambulation, I found Balnakeil Craft Village and I’m sure we’ll spend some time there soon, but I couldn’t resist buying hot chocolate for us from Cocoa Mountain which I also came across by accident. So tasty, so chocolatey. We’ll be back! A perfect dessert following Liesel’s delicious risotto, thank you.

Liesel and I are are self-catering and Sandra told us there are only two places to eat out in Durness. And currently one of them is closed because someone tested positive for Covid.

Our entertainment this evening has been provide by Radio 2: Sara Cox and then Tony Blackburn’s Golden Hour. An old 6 Music show with Maxine Peake followed by some relaxing sounds while we wind down.

And to answer the question that’s been bugging you: yes, the view from our hut this evening isn’t too bad at all. We can see the sea over there, and mountains over there plus lots of sky.

The view from our kitchenette

Much ado about nothing much

The last couple of days, I’ve come out of the shower feeling decidedly disoriented. What’s going on? Is there something in the water? Something in the air? It finally clicked.

World Map

This map of the world is totally misleading. It’s on the window blind and it’s a repeating pattern, so that’s bearable, even if we do see Australia north of Siberia. No, what really messes this thing up is… well, look where the equator passes through the Americas. Just wrong. And you can’t avoid looking at it while cleaning your teeth. According to this erroneous cartography, we here in Wick are further north than Anchorage, Alaska, and we know that’s not really true. Not in this universe, anyway. In fact, we later discovered we’re at the same latitude as Juneau.

Musical entertainment while waiting for the rain to ease off a bit before going out was provided by Wythenshawe FM 97.2 for a while, then Guy Garvey’s show from last Sunday on BBC 6 Music. There’s a coffee making machine here, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a go. The leaking water hasn’t affected the electric supply so far, and while Liesel’s Americano was bitter, my café au lait was alright. Any bitterness was disguised by the very sweet Edinburgh Rock that I bought yesterday. The sweetest substance in the known universe and my teeth have just gone on strike.

The rain is getting harder, not easing off at all. After consuming a 75g box of ‘A fruity assortment of chopped rock sweets’, I feel full of energy. They’re quite healthy really: 0% fat and 0% salt. But 0% protein and a mere 96.7% carbohydrate, ie sugar. I’ve been challenged to walk/run my 10,000 steps in the house today. Well, as I write, I’m up to 300, time for a sit down, I think. Liesel is crocheting and also looking forlornly out of the window every few minutes.

Our original plan when we knew it was likely to rain all day was to visit the Castle of Mey, mainly because it would be inside. Unfortunately for us, it’s fully booked. Oh well, more plans gang a-gley.

Guy Garvey just played four David Bowie tracks in a row, saying, quite rightly, that it has to be done from time to time. Hunky Dory is 50 years old this year. And it’s still as fresh as the day it was first released.

When it rains…

Well, this positive message on our bedroom wall caught my eye as I jogged around the house. Yes, it’s raining. Not mizzle, this is proper rain, and lots of it. I’ve looked for rainbows as suggested but you need the Sun for those and right now, we have 100% cloud cover, so that’s no good. Sometimes you look out of the window and marvel at the view. Sometimes you don’t.

Nice view

I’ve no idea what this place is, but I just want to go out and paint a mural on that blank canvas. Some mountains or a sea view would be nice. If only I had some artistic skill. Oh, and some paint. But I don’t think we’ll be going out to buy paint any time soon. Time for more steps…

Up to 3176 now. Apparently my perambulation is in the manner of a silly walk. It’s not silly, I’m just taking very small steps so I can fit more into each trek up and down the length of the house. What else did I find on the wall here?

A paddle

Yes, a paddle. Now that tells me we might need a paddle later, if this rain keeps up. In fact, it’s even harder now. I’ve been running around indoors like a BAF, like a numpty, but I haven’t found the boat yet. On the other hand, we can’t even find an oven glove, so they’re probably well hidden in the same place.

Guy Garvey is now playing four songs about rain. Just for us. Even though the show was broadcast four days ago, and recorded four days before that. Specifically for Liesel and Mick anchored down in Wick. And, speaking of anchors:

Anchor

Yes, more evidence that there is a nautical theme to this abode. And what could be more nautical than a boat? Or an ark? I did think about moseying on into John o’Groats to look for my hat, but, well, call me a wimp, I don’t mind a bit of rain, but this is a bit extreme.

In other news, Liesel has decided to walk around after she completes each row of her latest crochet project. I keep looking at the clock and it still says it’s twenty to twelve. Yes, I’m tempted to wind it up but it looks like one of those old-fashioned ones with a really loud tick. Other than the sound of the rain pounding on the roof, we’ve enjoyed the sound of birdsong here, quiet a few house sparrows, plus the odd helicopter flying over.

Liesel’s latest beautiful creation

Has today been a wasted opportunity? No, not really. It’s wonderfully therapeutic to be passing time in a strange house, with no commitments at all. Yes, we would love to have a better view out of at least one of the windows, but we’re warm and dry and content.

A couple of things I forgot to mention over the last few days though. Liesel and I were talking about the fact that we hadn’t seen any rabbits all the time we’ve been in Scotland, not even any droppings in the woods or fields or anywhere. Well, we finally saw a couple of bunnies in John o’Groats in a holiday camp that we drove through by mistake. And if they weren’t cool and cute enough, we also saw some chickens by the side of the road on the way to Duncansby Head. There were a couple of donkeys too, so they may all belong to a petting farm.

I’ve wasted passed a lot of time solving Arrow Sudoku puzzles on my phone. The latest one took me over 66 minutes. So far, I haven’t used the ‘Hints’ option because I want to solve the puzzle myself, but also, when I’ve looked at the Hints in other Sudoku apps, I haven’t really understood them. ‘Obviously this, therefore that…’ Well, it ain’t obvious to me, thank you very much!

Three hours passed in a haze of drugs, alcohol and debauchery. Oops, no, that’s our other blog. No, we read and crocheted and listened to Amy Lamé on 6 Music and it slowly dawned on us that it had, finally, stopped raining. We sent out a pigeon wild rock dove and it came back with an olive branch in its beak, so we knew it was safe to go out.

Castle Sinclair Glenigoe is a short drive from our palace along some dead straight but narrow roads, that could well have been built by the Romans, if they’d ever ventured this far north. Noss Head lighthouse is here too, and we notice that all the lighthouses around here are decorated in the same way: white, black and yellow.

Noss Head Lighthouse

Maybe there was a good deal on those particular paints in the local DIY shop.

The castles, for there are remnants of two different structures, are right on the edge of the precipitous drop into the sea.

Castle Sinclair Glenigoe

There are more sea stacks here too with seabirds who seem to prefer nesting on the far side, facing the sea rather than inland. Maybe they just don’t like people much, either. I imagine they were delicious eating when the castles were occupied.

I couldn’t help but notice the similarity in structure between what’s left of the chimney stack and the sea stack.

A pair of stacks

Given the way the sea stack is being eroded, at the bottom, I don’t think it will be too long before before it crashes down into the sea.

One thing we didn’t expect to see on our walk around these ruins was the skull of a sheep. No idea where the rest of the beast is.

Shaun’s skull

I mentioned the fact that we don’t have a particularly inspiring or exciting view from any of the windows here in our Airbnb in Wick. Well, if you were using the latrines in the castle, this is the awful sight that would greet you.

Not too shabby
Northern marsh orchid

The other exciting place we visited was The Expensive Stinking Corporate Organisation, or Tesco for short. And I was amazed and delighted, not to say overawed to see this exciting new development ‘in-store’ as the marketing people but not real people like to say:

Amazing New Photo Booth

When will boffins stop inventing these amazing new things, eh? But what really irked me at this shoppers’ paradise was the fact that it has a better view than we do at our temporary residence.

The view from a supermarket

When the purchases were placed on the kitchen floor, the bags reminded us of other places that we dream of visiting again one day.

Bags for life aka shopping bags

In order to reach my target step count for the day, I went for a quick walk outside, in what was now quite a strong wind.

Wick John o’Groats Airport

Look at that poor old windsock straining against the wind, holding on for grim death. This airport is a mere 200 metres along the road from our current residence, but other than a couple of helicopters, we’ve not been disturbed by it at all.

I was delighted however to find a boat just round the corner.

Gem

I don’t think we’ll need it now it’s stopped raining, but good to know it’s so close. The bloke it belongs to is at home for a couple of weeks from the oil rigs and he’s looking forward to going fishing.

The ugly place next door whose identity I didn’t know earlier? Well, it’s Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. There are two very different archives here, one ancient and one modern. Because of Covid, it’s currently closed to the public, but I’m sure it’s a fascinating place to explore, especially on a wet day.

It is home to the archives of the UK civil nuclear industry which dates back over seventy years and include plans, drawings, photographs, film, microfiche and documents. Dounreay, the site of the UK’s first fast nuclear reactor, is not too far away, we’ll probably drive close by it.

Nucleus also houses the historical archives of the county of Caithness which date from 1469 to the present day and consist of documents in different formats including charters, minute books, correspondence, maps, photographs and plans. These historic collections are available to members of the public for family and local history research.

Nucleus

For those viewers who are keeping notes, or maybe even a spreadsheet, today’s musical entertainment has been provided by the rest of Amy’s show, which we interrupted when we ventured outside and Jo Whiley on Radio 2. We Got It On with Bryan Burnett on BBC Radio Scotland, he played songs that cheer us up. And finally, we tuned into Claire Benson as she presents her weekly Happy Thursday show on Radio Northenden!

In the end, then, against the odds, we enjoyed a very rewarding day and a total of over 11,000 steps were taken, the most enjoyable ones being out in the fresh air of course.