Friday, 16 September 2011

Thursday 15th September

Two apologises - firstly I should have changed the ‘blog skin’ as the weather was brilliant on Wednesday. Secondly, I posted some photos to the wrong site on Sunday, so there should be a few extra for you to see now. (scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on a photo)

After my conversation with Geoff, It did not seem practical to take in Newcastle, Gateshead and Durham, plus Whitby, and be in Grantham for early evening. I decided a return trip would be needed one day to see Geordie Land, so headed for the A1 and Whitby.
I did, however, allow myself a short break to see the ‘giant’ Angel of the North - the monstrous steel sculpture by Anthony Gormley that dominates the skyline overlooking the A1.
I am still not sure what it represents, but like the Millennium Wheel in London, or the Pyramid at the Louvre, we soon get used to these permanent structures - a strange mix of technology, geometry and art.

I reached Whitby at 12.30. Parked by 1.15. It was packed. I don’t know why I keep being surprised by meeting crowds of holiday makers - the ‘older generation’ mostly on permanent holiday.
Whitby needed more time than I allowed to explore it properly, but managed a good walk through the cobbled lanes with their smart souvenir shops, art shops and many patisseries to admire. I snaked my way through these alleys to the harbour walls and the impressive expanse of beach, which always looks more photogenic when the tide is out.
I climbed the 199 stone steps up the cliff face to see Whitby Abbey, the iconic gothic ruin. Nearby is also St Marys church, much later than the Abbey, around 1905, but with hundreds of ancient headstones surrounding the church.
From here, the panoramic views of the Yorkshire coastline are magnificent. (Note to myself - must go back and stay longer).

I considered moving on to Scarborough as I had been told this too is an interesting seaside town, but time was not on by side. I calculated it would take around three and half hours to Grantham, so I pencilled Scarborough in for another day.

I headed out of Whitby and found myself driving through the North Yorkshire Moors. I thought for a moment I had been transported back to Scotland - the rugged contours of the moors, the vast expanse of deep purple heather, and the sheep, gave me déjà vu.
For some bizarre reason I followed a signpost to Goathland, deep in the moors. I still do not know why I was drawn to this route, but it was an interesting experience.
I obviously do not get out enough as much as other people, because, you guessed it, the village of Goathland was packed with visitors. I approached it from the north which took me in via the wonderful old wooden Victorian station, and in the station stood a steam train, complete with four carriages. I learnt later this is a magnet for steam train enthusiasts, as it runs regularly from Pickering, on the south edge of the Moors, to Grosmont, about a 10 mile journey.
Needless to say, I could not park near enough to take a closer look so continued into the village which was even more congested with visitors - where had they all come from and why?
This picturesque village is overrun with visitors because it was the location for the TV series Heartbeat, the quaint 1960’s police drama. I really could not park anywhere close enough to enjoy a walk around the village, so it will be on the list to revisit with the rest of the East coast.
That would have been then end of my description of my journey over the Moors except for one spooky thing that happen. I turned on Radio 4 to hear the news headlines (I had not kept up much over the last week except for weather reports). Immediately after the news there was a ‘Country File’ type of programme from!!!!! The North Yorkshire Moors . . . they were interviewing the men who lease and run the 7,500 acres of heather land, primarily for Grouse Shoots, but also for conservational and wildlife projects. I had driven over this area just 30 minutes ago and now I was getting a first hand account of its management and history. . . what a coincidence.

The remainder of the journey down to Grantham was uneventful, but I was glad in a way it was coming to an end. It was also good to see our old friends Mike & June again, and thanks guys for the room and the excellent dinner.

I headed on home to Surrey after a light breakfast (no more fry-ups for a month at least) and thought of the journey I had just been on; ten days driving, 1,919 miles, nine B&B’s, four concerts, 500 photographs and a life time of memories - but it was worth it.

If you think the Blas festival sounds interesting for next year, visit for more information.

If you are staying on the west coast of Scotland I recommend Balcarres B&B at Fort William. 10 out of 10, and very reasonable.
On the east coast near Inverness I highly recommend Cromal Bank B&B at Ardersier.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of discovering parts of this country I had been so unaware about. The people I have met have been kind, friendly and welcoming, and despite the weather, I have to say it has been one of the best (solo) holidays I have undertaken.

Thanks to all who have taken the trouble to read these ‘letters’, and I hope it may have inspired you to visit some of this wonderful and exotic country of ours one day.

Goodbye until next time

David Balaam

Question: Who is George Morton?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wednesday 14th September

Woke up to blue skies and brilliant sunshine . . but still windy . .cant have it all. Now where did I put my sunglasses?
After a good breakfast, I took advantage of the weather and spent 30 minuets revisiting North Queensferry. Although small, and a largely forgotten village since the opening of the Forth road bridge, there is a lot to see and to explore.
One of the reasons I wanted to come here was for some research on the road bridge - for what purpose will be revealed soon . . .

On the road again now heading for Northumberland. The Borders countryside is still beautiful this time of year, and the farm fields are mostly harvested with giant rolls of wheat, some lying end to end like long golden conduits.

My friends Geoff and Roz (brother & sister) have given me some places to visit on my way down from Edinburgh - Geoff lives in Northumberland and loves the east coast.
Thank goodness, again, for my SatNav. Most of the small towns and villages I wanted to visit were miles off the beaten track, and I would surely have got lost, or wasted so much time finding them, I would have turned back.
Eyemouth is a lovely fishing port with a good fleet of boats and an important fishing community. I even spotted by first seal in the harbour waters (see pics).
The larger town of Berwick was easier to find. It is an old market town and is still very busy with tourists and locals. I spent a pleasant hour wandering around the old town wall walk, and photographing its three historic bridges.
I had high hopes of visiting Holy Island off the coast, but my timing was not good. The high tide was due in within the hour, which would not have given me time to explore this fascinating refuge. I had heard tales of people being stranded for hours until the next low tide, and worst still, cars being half submerged trying the escape the rising tide. I will return one day and plan my visit carefully.
A few miles further south, but by no means a direct route, was Craster. My SatNav took me through miles of narrow country roads, turning left, then right, and left again - I thought she had gone mad (sorry, all SatNavs are female). I eventually arrived at the village of Craster, where I was directed to the main car park - it was packed full!!! Where had all these people come from? I had hardly seen a sole on the rollercoaster journey here, but now it seems the whole world is here.
The attraction is two-fold. You have miles of beautiful country walks and sandy beach walks, plus the popular National Trust attraction of Dunstanburgh Castle. (thanks Roz for warning me of the mile walk from the car park - not).
It may be a spectacular ruin of a castle, but hugely popular. I walked (almost) to it, but time was getting the better of me, so I had to be satisfied with some photos. The walk was very bracing Roz.
I am staying in a quaint B&B in Morpeth, and had arranged to meet Geoff for a pint and chat, and thank him for all the help and information he had provided. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours chatting and sharing stories of the locality in a very nice pub, selling good local real ale, and could have continued all evening, except he is heading ‘down south’ in the morning to collect his daughter from the airport.
I still had to eat, and had noticed a smart looking pub/tapas bar on my way into town. Not all English Tapas bars are good - they are either too expensive, or serve too large a portion. I selected just two dishes, slow cooked belly of pork with an orange marinade, and a tortilla with pimentos. Yes, the portions were larger than in Spain, but not unmanageable. The price was also reasonable, and together with a glass of good Rioja, I reflected on a very pleasant evening.

Tomorrow is my last day, and night, on my ‘road trip’. I plan to visit Whitby, and will be spending the night with my friends Mike & June near Grantham.

I hope you can put up with me for one more day . . .

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tuesday 13th September

Going back to Monday nights B&B in Ardersier, the Cromal Bank, run by John and Alison; Tucked away up a back road, but with good views, I highly recommend this if you are in the area.
John is a most interesting guy, and he plays in a ‘fiddle’ band, as does his four sons. Has regular Ceilidh get-togethers, and loves music, whisky, food and travelling - we had a lot in common. Has 3000 acres deer stalking land, his wife breeds pheasants and he owns half the village - goodness knows why he wants to work. Needless to say I left later than I intended, but it was worth it.

The weather, although wet, was not windy, so I elected to take ‘the pretty route’ to Perth through the Cairngorm National Park and over the Grampian Mountains - and what a spectacle it was. Notable places I stopped on route were, Tomintoul, Ballater and Braemar.
The guy in the whisky shop said Tomintoul was the highest village in the Highlands, at 1,132ft above sea level - I couldn’t ague with that.
Braermar is a famous sports and walking location, and has several ‘grand’ hotels, a museum and numerous kilt shops.
Much of the A939 follows the River Avon through the National Park, weaving its way under and over this fast flowing wide river, which gives a extra dimension to the scenery.
You will see from my photos (which do not do it justice) the patch work quilt like effect of the mountain ranges. I soon gave up waiting for the official ‘parking bays’ and stopped whenever there was a photo opportunity.

Towards the outskirts the land becomes flatter, and for the fist time in a week I start to notice farm land again. Golden coloured acres of wheat blowing in the wind. Some fields cut, others waiting to dry our after the bad weather up here. The farmers have had a bad year and many will not see a good return on their hard work.

The mountain roads all to soon give way to busier roads leading to Perth and Edinburgh. Soon I see the expanse of the Forth Bridge, and know I am nearing by last Scottish B&B in North Queensferry.
This is a small village with a good tourist trade in the summer months, mainly for walkers and cyclists.
The B&B is literally UNDER the Forth railway bridge, and I hope the last train stops soon!!!
Both bridges are very impressive, especially the rail bridge, being the older of the two, and built in an entirely different way to the road bridge. I have put a link on this because it has a most interesting history - more than I could explain here.

With no concert to go to I have been catching up on the blogs, and editing my photo collection. The ones I have uploaded so far are just a small selection out of the 300 hundred I have taken. If you really want to see all of them they will be upload next week.
I also found a very nice local hotel to have a meal. You may recall my reference to the ‘hotel inspector’ in me recently - its getting worst; I’m becoming a ‘restaurant inspector’.
The hotels restaurant and bar showed promise. Friendly staff, a real fire, good beer and a reasonably priced menu. I had Lobster Bisque, which I was assured was home-made, and braised shoulder of beef. The table was set well but with PAPER napkins, -10 points.
The Bisque was served piping hot - too hot for soup, and I am still not sure it was home made, -10 points.
The braised beef was in fact rather good, served on a round of mash with a rich dark jus, which my shirt can testify to. (sorry Carol).
I may sound ‘picky’ but when sitting on ones own, its easy to be distracted.

Tomorrow morning I leave Scotland and head for Northumberland, and more exciting new places to visit.

Monday 12th September

Monday, a new week, and already seven days since I left home. Can’t believe how far I’ve come, and what I’ve seen in such a short time.
I bade farewell to Strathpeffer and headed southwards. My next stopover was not that far away, Ardersier. on the south side of the Moray Firth.
Before then I visited Dingell. A small quaint town, and on a sunny day would have been very attractive.
Again the weather was not conducive to sightseeing, which by now is getting tedious, and driving around in circles is no fun.
I headed for Inverness in the hope of some refuge from the weather, but it followed me all the way. I think I missed the server storms that the west coast and central Scotland had, but never the less, it was heavy rain. Inverness I am sure has attractions, but none jumped out at me, and apart from the castle I was at a loss. I then remembered one of my good customers is the Inverness Leisure Centre. My SatNav said I was just six minutes away, so I made a house call. I think she was pleased to see me . . .

I then decided to head for the B&B in Ardersier. Those of you with an interest in all things military will recognise the name. Fort George was built in the 18th century after the 2nd Jacobite uprising, and has the distinction of never being attacked. It is still a home to the Royal Highland Fusiliers today.

By B&B overlooks the bay, and on clear day you can see the Black Isle on the north side of the Moray Firth. (more about the B&B tomorrow)

Last nights concert was at an unusual venue - Inverness Airport. I picked the B&B as it is only 10 minutes drive (nowhere actually near Inverness). It is a very smallish, modern airport, and the Blas had taken over the restaurant area. Because of the locality, it seemed the attendance would not be as full as previous concerts, but around 7.20pm a coach load of young Germans (probably students) came and swelled the numbers.

By now you will realise I did enjoy the music. The group Outside Track were playing again - I saw them up Cairngorm Mountain on Friday, but they played a different set last night.
All the other artists were excellent, including an unusual duo, Iain Morrison and Daibhaid Martin. Ian reminded me of singer/songwriter Ralph McTell, but in a much deeper way. He sang his own compositions in English, and Daibhaid recited his poetry between verses in Gaelic. Not everyone’s cup-of-tea, and no foot stamping/handclapping rhythms, but it shows the diversity of this genre of Scottish Highlands music - the common connection is that these guys come from the Highlands and understand their heritage. I am sorry that was my last concert.

Tomorrow I head southwards to North Queensferry, just north of Edinburgh. I still have a lot to look forward to: The Borders, Northumberland, East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Monday, 12 September 2011

I will catch-up with the Blogs on Tuesday evening. Thanks for following

Sunday 11th September

I planned to tour some of Sykes beauty spots as recommended to me by my friend Roger, but soon discovered it was not going to be a good day.
Ever the optimist, I set out for the west side of the island, and within a few minutes I was on a B road crossing the backbone of Skye. Again the scenery was superb - what I could see of it. These roads are mainly single track roads, but at 10.0am on a Sunday morning I did not except to see much traffic. In fact the first encounter with anything resembling traffic were several cows (see pics). The large horned beast stared at me as if to say ‘not another tourist’.
I was so determined to explore the island, I had taken my eye of the fuel gauge before leaving Portree. Being stranded in the middle of Skye with no mobile signal was a worrying prospect, no matter how beautiful the surroundings are.
I carefully made my way back onto the A863 to the next largest village, Dunvegan. Hallelujah, there was a petrol station, open on a Sunday. I soon realised why. It also served as a provisions store, post office and general meeting place for the local community, many of whom were there buying the Sunday papers.
I was so pleased to find this oasis, I had not seen the notice on the pumps saying ‘cash only’. I immediately stopped filling and checked my wallet. Just £25 and loose change. The pump counter read £24.76. At least enough to get me back to the mainland.
The rain was now heavy, and visibility very poor, so it made no sense driving around looking for places of interest I could not appreciate. I headed back on the Portree road and continued to the Skye bridge. Sorry Roger, I will have to come back in the Summer.
One activity I would have loved to have gone on was the Sea Eagle boat tour, but after a full cooked breakfast I was not taking any chances in those seas.

Just after the Kyle of Lochalsh, I took the A890 road across the heart of the Highlands, heading east to Dingwell and Inverness.
This route again would have been delightful in Summer, and would have taken me twice as long after stopping so often to take photographs and to admire the views.

I reached Strathpeffer, the Victorian Spa town, by 3.30 and checked in to my B&B, Heatherlie.
The Spa Pavilion for this evenings concert was literally five minutes walk, so I had plenty of time spare.
The weather by now was actually improving a little, so I took advantage and drove back to a well publicised tourist spot, Rogie Falls. This is a spectacular range of waterfalls/rapids which Salmon can be seen ‘jumping’ up through the raging currents to spawn. This takes place between June and October, but I was not to witness one of natures extraordinary rituals on this visit, but the walk through the surrounding woodland was bracing.

The Blas concert, as all the others, was amazing. The theme was ‘Roots and Shoots’. The Shoots being the youngsters playing everything; fiddles, pipes, accordion, guitar and harp, and singing. The final set saw over thirty musicians on stage all working together in the final crescendo climax of reels and jigs, and just mind blowing sounds.
These are not groups of kilt glad people playing old Kenneth McKellar numbers They are passionate about the music they play and are proud to be continuing what has been 25 years of the Blas Fiesh movement. They are world class musicians playing World Music.
Most of these concerts are held in small theatres or community centres, and such is the following and support for Gaelic music, the whole community turns out to support them.

I may well have been the only visitor from ‘South of the Boarder’, or certainly London, and that is a great shame.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Saturday 10th September

I cant help but to keep going over last evenings events at Cairngorm.
Was it fate or coincidence that I booked that particular concert.
Was it fate or coincidence that I talked to Mhairi Hall that evening.
Was it fate or coincidence that she knew Michael O’Soulibain
Was it fate or coincidence I had just £10 left to buy her CD
Welcome to the Twilight Zone . . . . . . .

I am sure the ‘hotel’ I stayed in last night was used to create Faulty Towers. The Ossian was built in 1880, as the Lairds hunting lodge, but the decor, plumbing and staff are all still the original!
Give me a B&B any day . . . Is it just me, but when I am travelling I turn into a ‘Hotel Inspector’ - its getting compulsive. I’m not going to bore you with my list of complaints - you can read them on if you really want to.

I was heading to Skye, and my expectations were high. I decided to take the longer route, via Inverness, so I could drive the Loch Ness Trail, which hugs the north side of the Loch. The cigar shape Loch is 23 miles long and is of course famous the world over. Although spectacular in its own right, because it is ‘long’ and narrow, compared to other Lochs, I did not find it so interesting. I did however stop at the most famous landmark on the Loch, Urquhart Castle. Largely destroyed in 1692, there is not a lot left to see, but the views from the one remaining tower are popular with tourists. It was here I encountered the largest number of tourists I had seen all week; mostly from abroad.
Moving on, I drove a further 2 hours to reach Skye. Before the bridge there is another notable castle, Eilean Donan castle. This castle was also mostly destroyed, but was restored in the early 20th century, and you will recognise it from a number of films. (see my pics).

From hereon in the weather worsened again, but the remainder of my journey to Portree was made more enjoyable by the scenery - and what scenery! I know I have gone on about how beautiful and varied the Highlands are, but the terrain I travelled today was different. In part, it reminded me of Dartmoor - rugged grasslands with streams and cairns. But now add to that picture tall ranges of hills all around you, and for as far as the eye can see. Not hills with neat peaks, but irregular shapes with veins of waterfalls cascading into Lochs. Some were lush green, others covered with the purple heather, and some with sides full of pine tress, the highest ones continually covered in mist or clouds. Somehow I find that more interesting from a photographic point of view, apposed to a neat range of hills and blue sky, which is less dramatic.

Portree is a lovely, very busy town, and is remarkably small to be called the ‘capital of Skye’.
My B&B is on the front so I have a wonderful view of the harbour and its colourfully painted terrace cottages.

My eating habits change when I travel, and not always for the better. The ‘full house’ breakfast keeps me going most of the day, and I will try to have a light evening meal. (not just a liquid one).
However, saw signs on the road for Scottish Beef and local Venison, which prompted me to look for a small restaurant offering good home made meals. Now I am not reserved when dining out, price wise, but the prices in Portree seemed even to me to be on the high side. If I was going to pay £40, for 2 courses, I would rather pay £80 and share the experience, if that makes sense. So I ate at a semi-chain-run style hotel brassiere, which was adequate, but I kept thinking of that elusive Venison steak.
And finally the evenings entertainment. Excellent of course. First another youth band playing jigs and reels, followed by the star group (in Gaelic circles) The Outside Tack. Very professional they were too, and it seems I am seeing them again on Monday evening in Inverness - I hope they change the jokes.

As I sit here, on my bed, with a wee Dram in one hand, and a wee mouse in the other, I realise I still have five more days of travelling ahead of me, and five more reports to write - I hope you are enjoying reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.