Sunday, 23 August 2015

Life lessons from an 8 year old.

In the past I've banged on about slowing down and appreciating life and hiking.  Take the time to love Cumbria I said.  Find the time to stand and stare I said.  Well today I well and truly met my match, and it came in the form of my 8 year old, 3 foot high nephew.

I was charged with looking after him for the morning and, as I was at the in-laws in Bucks, decided to take him a favourite local walk known as "the golf club walk" (on account of the fact it crosses a golf course twice.)  This walk normally takes around 30 minutes.  40 if you're dawdling.  Today it took me an hour and three quarters.

Admittedly I had given him an old pair of binoculars to "spot wildlife" along the way - and boy did he seize that remit with vim and with vigour.  We spotted grasshoppers, doves, buzzards, bees, flies, dragonflies, butterflies, aeroplanes, wasps, beetles, apples, cherries, more aeroplanes, a number of very patient golfers and an enormous pile of horse pooh.

The conversation along the way revolved around what, why, where, why, how, why, when and why.  The topics covered included, but by no means were limited to, dinosaurs, the Bugatti Veyron, assorted computer games, space, time, Egyptians, black holes, relativity and the reasons I wasn't going to allow him to a) balance on a fallen down tree across a stagnant pond and b) why I thought it was a bad idea to take home 2 corn on the cobs left in a bonfire for him to wash and eat later.  I did let him eat blackberries from the bushes we passed though.

By the end of the near 2 hour very gentle hike I was exhausted.  He claimed to be too, but I didn't believe him as he bounced back along the driveway to the house.

I left after lunch to make it to a campsite near Chichester where I'm based for the week while I work for a local law firm.  As I took a stroll around the nearby harbour I thought back to my morning hike and pondered how sad it was that we lose the inquisitiveness of children - racing through hikes and life in general at a break neck pace.

The headlines at the moment are dominated by the awful news of the air crash near Shoreham, just a few short miles along the coast from where I'm camped.  None of us know when our time is up so maybe slowing down a little to appreciate the little things - sun on your face, wind in your hair, grasshoppers, birds and enormous piles of horse pooh - isn't such a bad way to live afterall.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Expensive Bottle of Whisky

The last time we took an extended break in Delores we ended up moving 300 miles north to Cumbria and changing our lives completely.  This time the break was slightly shorter and the life change(s) are correspondingly smaller.  Well, individually they are, together they add up a bit.

I love whisky.  I particularly love a good single malt.  My long time favourite has been Laphroaig, but following our recent trip there's a new kid in town.   Meet Tomatin - a small but perfectly formed distillery just south of Inverness.  I'd been on the lookout for a small distillery to visit and this fitted the bill perfectly.

We were sadly unable to take the full tour and, owing to the fact I was driving, I couldn't taste much either, but we did have a lovely long chat to the folks there and I tried the teeniest small sip of a version of the bottle pictured above.  A whole lot less peaty than Laphroaig but smooth and slightly spicy with a wonderful hint of peat right at the end.  I was smitten.  So smitten in fact that the miniature bottle I intended to buy somehow morphed into the bottle in the photo, setting me back £50 on account of the fact it's a limited edition finished off in Bourbon casks.  (The lady who sold it to me told me folks usually bought the limited editions to keep rather than drink.  I laughed before I realised she was serious...)

While not eye watering in the whole "expensive bottle of whisky" world, it was certainly expensive for us, so much so that I feel I need to justify drinking it, so here's the deal.  In a little under 2 years I will be 50 years old (??!!!!) - I promise that I will keep the whisky to drink on my 50th birthday but ONLY if I fulfil the following life changing criteria.  (And if you doubt my resolve may I refer you to this blog where we began our new life in the north, in a campervan, in January.)

1.  By the time I am 50 I will have a library.  Not a big library, but a library nevertheless.  I love books almost as much as I love whisky and have always dreamed of my very own library.

We have planning permission to extend our bungalow and the photo above is where my library will be.  Bit draughty at the moment. We need to work hard to raise more funds and take the plunge.

2.  I will finally sort out my veg plots and grow lots more of my own veg.

As you can see we've made a start but we plan to add 4 -5 more plots and get to grips with veg growing and being more self sufficient.  We already have heaps of fruit trees, now we need more veg.  My fingers are not remotely green.  This will be fun!

3.  I will make more use of the fruits and veg that we grow.

I've had a stab at making a few jams in the past.  Failed at pickles and chutneys and slam dunked sloe gins etc.  The cupboard in the picture will be emptied, de-cluttered and filled with jars of jams and pickles by christmas and kept topped up throughout the year as I learn how to make the most of the free fodder around me.

4.  I'll do more creative stuff.  Our first book is out in October this year so that should help.  Just today we've seen the first draft of the cover and we're over the moon.  No photos here yet, but there will be when it's finalised.  I've come away from the writing recently as I've had so many requests for training delivery, which I love but it takes me away from home more.  By the time I'm 50 I'll be doing a LOT more writing and creative stuff.

5.  We'll explore a lot more of the UK.

Delores at Rosemarkie

While we were away I grabbed a map of the UK and, though mildly intoxicated, I felt sure that we'd seen loads.  Turns out we've barely scratched the surface - so my mission is to spend more time exploring all the amazing stuff across the British Isles.  The world is a huge and exciting place, but so often we miss the spectacular sights right on our doorstep.

So that's it - I've got a lot to learn and do in the next 22 months and now I've said it publicly I'd better get on and do it!  (If I'm honest, I'm pretty sure I can manage the 5 things above but somewhat less confident of my ability to keep my grubby mitts off the whisky...)

Saturday, 15 August 2015

10 "Must See" things in northern Scotland

Well, we're finally back home safe and sound.  Delores has been emptied and the washing machine is churning away in the background dealing with a 5 week backlog of grubby undies.  Several dozen emails have been dealt with and around 3/4 of the mail delivered has been binned (how much junk mail?!)

We're going to be sorting through the pics properly over the coming weeks but in the meantime, if you're thinking of heading that way, here are my top 10 tips for things to see and do:

1.  Ben Nevis

It's a loooong old hike but it's really not tricky.  Unlike Scafell Pike which has an assortment of reasonable routes to the summit, Ben Nevis really only has the one main route which means it's going to be busy.  There are other ways up and down but you need to be good with a map and compass or Leo Holding.

2.  Steall Bidge

How cool is this place?  And who could possibly resist the lure of a rope bridge across a rive in the shadow of Ben Nevis?  Clearly not Steve!  (or me!)

3.  The Cuillins

I honestly don't know if I love them or hate them.  They're so absolutely different to any other mountains - menacing slabs of black rock stretching from the sea to the sky - but they are mesmerising.  They are also a bugger to hike around with very little in the way of sanitised routes and a lot in the way of bogs, rocks and bridge free streams.  I cursed them, I swore at them, but I really want to go back and see them again.

4.  Beinn Eighe

We didn't tackle the summit but we did make it to Coire Mhic Fhearchair.  It's not an arduous hike, the landscape is jaw dropping and no photo can do justice to the triple buttress.

5.  Poolewe and Firemore Beach

The beaches in this part of Scotland will blow you away - stunning stretches of golden sand and deep blue seas opening up as you wind along the coast road.  This one in particular stood out - not only is it breathtakingly gorgeous but the entire area is full of WW2 history with info boards at every point - we took the bikes and it's a very pleasant ride out from the campsite at Poolewe - or there's a large campsite next to Firemore Beach run by the community, no facilities just fantastic views and a small charge which goes towards the maintenance and protection of the dunes.

6.  Cape Wrath & Smoo Cave (Durness)

A short ferry ride and 11 of the bumpiest miles known to man will bring you to Cape Wrath.  Here's a tip - the main trip will only allow you 50 minutes at Cape Wrath itself BUT if you get the early ferry you can ask to come back on a later bus, giving you several hours to enjoy being at the most north westerly point of the British mainland.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave - it's not massive inside but it's very impressive from the outside.  And be sure to take the tour by Colin the Caveman - only £4 each and worth every penny!

7.  John O'Groats and Duncansby Head

The most north easterly point of mainland UK, gorgeous stacks, lovely beaches and, if you look really, really carefully, cowrie shells - but don't collect too many, local legend says a few brings you good luck, too many and the luck reverses.

8.  Skara Brae - Orkney

Older than most of the pyramids - will anything we're building today last that long?  Orkney as a whole is stuffed to the gills with archaeology but not trees.  Very few trees as the wind blows them all over.  Take a hat but make sure it's wedged on tight!

9.  The castles around Wick

Old Wick Castle

Sinclair Girnigoe Castle

Keiss Castle

Three cracking castles which we found by accident. We got lost looking for Sinclair Girnigoe and found Old Wick Castle.  Then we decided to head across the bay to Keiss Castle as it looked interesting.  Very glad we did!

10.  Dolphins at Rosemarkie

Steve has some fab pictures of these which we'll upload when we get a chance, but poor as this photo is it does show you just how close you can get to them.  About 2 hours after low water they come out to feed and when they're done feeding they start larking around.  My tip - go for the early morning tides if you can, the evening "performances" are generally packed.

Can't believe best part of 5 weeks flew by so fast!  We stayed on plenty of lovely campsites which I'll bore you with another time, but for now I'll leave you with a photo from Tarbat Ness, far and away my favourite camping spot.  The skies were clear giving us spectacular views of the stars and we sat outside with mugs of coffee taking photos as the lighthouse lit up the area with not another soul around for miles.  Perfect.

Tarbat Ness lighthouse

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Intelligent Life?

"For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

My love for The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy knows no bounds, it is a work of genius and only improves each time I read it.  Dolphins have long held an attraction for humans and whether you simply enjoy watching their seemingly careless frolicking in the waves or are convinced they're trying to communicate a secret message regarding planet's impending doom, they're bound to put a smile on your face.

Fun frolics or doom laden Vogon warnings?

Apart from 1 long distance sighting from Waternish Point on Skye a few weeks ago, dolphins have eluded us.  Or avoided us.  We've been close enough to stags to count the points on their antlers and been dive bombed by giant skuas, but dolphin were still on our "to do" list, or more accurately our "not quite seen properly yet" list.

Our "Active in Scotland" booklet told us that "The Moray Firth is acclaimed as one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins.  Stand at Chanonry Point, Black Isle on land, or enjoy a wildlife boat trip".  We located Chanonry Point on a map and, as luck would have it, there was a Camping and Caravan Club right on the beach at Rosemarkie, within easy walking distance of Dolphin Central.  I'll be honest, ever since we arrived in Scotland we've been bombarded with the "it's easy to see XXX wildlife" messages, and it's usually a bare faced lie - or at least overly optimistic marketing spin - but this time they were right.

If I roll out of bed the wrong side, I may get wet.

When we checked in the lovely wardens told us exactly what time the dolphins showed up and where the best place to see them was.  Then they showed us to our perfect pitch, just 10 yards from the beach and close enough to hear the waves lapping on the shore at high tide.  (As well as the great pitches the facilities here are fab too, super clean loo blocks and very handy info centre.)

We parked up and headed for Chanonry Point where around about a dozen dolphins were already cavorting in the waves, chasing fish and generally having a good time.  I was gob smacked at how close in to the shore they were - I'd taken my binoculars but they were so close I didn't need them.

As close as they look.
After about an hour or so I headed back to sort out dinner leaving Steve to get soaked and take more pics (will upload them when we get home).  We'll be back later this evening for another encounter so prepare for me to turn into a dolphin bore again on social media later...

As well as dolphin watching there are lovely walks along the beach here, nice local pubs and a lovely little community cafe right on the beach with the most impressive memorial benches I've ever seen.  They also do a pretty mean bacon and egg mayo roll, all made with local produce.

This will probably be the last blog I manage before we reach home, it's been a fantastic adventure discovering wildlife and superb beaches so it seems only fitting that our final campsite is perched next to another couple of miles of sandy loveliness.

Right, time for another cold beer now before we take a stroll along the sand to watch the dolphins again this evening.  I've always said you don't need to travel to the ends of the earth to find a piece of paradise and this trip, and especially this site, has proved me right.

Monday, 10 August 2015

A quick shag before breakfast.

Steve said this was a cheeky title for a blog. I told him it was about birdwatching and he had a dirty mind...

Since I last had a glimmer of wifi we've visited Orkney and begun to make our way back down the east coast.  Orkney was lovely - we did the tourist ferry & bus tour to give us a flavour for the island and it's certainly somewhere we'd like to return to,  The tour was OK but we'd rather have spent more time at the amazing historical sites such as the neolithic site at Skara Brae, and less time in the towns.  Not that Kirkwall and Stromness weren't delightful, it's just that a combined total of 3 1/4 hours in the towns versus 1 1/2 hours at Skara Brae seemed a little lopsided to us - still, a perfect excuse to head back there one day - we have our sights on Hoy...

Italian Church - made from Nissen Huts and ingenuity

Beautifully painted inside

Skara Brae

Stone Circle
Journey home

Lovely message from the chippy!

On the wildlife front we've seen plenty of shags, a puffin minus brightly coloured beak, assorted skias and terns, harbour porpoises and more seals than you can shake a stick at (though why would anyone want to shake a stick at seals?).  Tonight we also saw a lot of dolphins up close - but more of that in tomorrow's blog...

From John O'Groats there was only one way to go - south - though we did manage a surprising amount of north during the day owing to the fact that Noss Head and its spectacular castle is incredibly hard to find - no signposts from the main road at all.  We relied on the force and found it late in the afternoon.  Wick on the whole was a wonderful surprise with 3 fabulous castle ruins to explore.

Keiss Castle

Old Wick Castle

The elusive but utterly FAB Sinclair Girnigeo castle at Noss Head
After a quick overnight at Dunbeath we spotted a hike along a gorge, a bit of interesting history and a rather wobbly bridge.

Wobbly bridge.

Prisoner's Leap.
The story goes that a prisoner, convicted of a crime, was sentenced to death but told that if he made the leap across this gorge he'd be a free man.  He made the leap and off he went.  To be honest, if my life depended on it I'd at least give it a go.

Then it was off  down the coast, pausing at the RSPB site at Loch Fleet then a sunny lovely lunch on the harbour at Helmsdale before heading to Tarbat Ness and without a doubt our best wild camp so far.  We parked up right next to the lighthouse on a perfectly still sunny evening.  I don't have all the pics yet, but after dark Steve got some lovely shots of the lighthouse in full flow and the amazing display of stars.

Tarbat Ness

The weather this morning was beautiful and we enjoyed a very hot walk along the cliffs before breakfast (hence the shags...), and then headed to Portmahomack for another long beach walk and a sunny lovely lunch.  Folks keep moaning about the weather, and it's slinging it down and blowing a hoolie as I type this, but overall it's been perfectly fine enough for us to get out and about and enjoy all the things we've wanted to do - look at all the sunshine in the photos.

Right now we're curled up with dunner bubbling away as the rain pounds down outside but the this morning was blissful and the forecast for tomorrow is good too, so why worry?

Portmahomack beach

Don't miss tomorrow's blog where I'll tell you all about the most fantastic campsite that comes complete with up close wild dolphin show.  But for now, more wine I think.  And maybe a wee dram...

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Smooove closer.

Another quick update - wifi is hard to come by and Vodafone are utterly impossible.  To be honest it's really rather lovely having to talk to each other and play card games - I'm thinking of heading to a remote island in the Shetlands and making it a permanent thing.

Durness was my chance to re-visit my student days - we had a Geology field trip there but my memories are patchy, largely due to the fact that I spent 2 weeks drinking Laphroaig and Tennants Extra. No, I don't know why either. I do recall visiting Smoo Cave and an epic BBQ in the sand dunes. Well, parts of it. We may have learned some stuff about rocks too but I wouldn't want to commit myself on that one.

Leaving Durness we headed east, spent a night in a midge infested forest before continuing to Thurso and Dunnet Bay.  On the night we arrived there was a wildlife walk advertised along the ENORMOUS dunes so off we toddled - little knowing it was the inaugural outing for the lovely Kate of Caithness Wildlife Walks.  It was a superb walk (will add links when I'm home) and Kate pointed out some great places to spot wildlife and  had loads of other local history info which we both loved. After the walk we headed back to the dunes & almost immediately spotted a Great Skua - fabulous!

The next day we walked all the way to Dunnet Head spotting more Great Skuas plus a couple of peregrines, some red throated divers and loads of seals.  It was a rather long walk but as soon as we got back to Delores we drove off to John O'Groats and devoured and enormous pile of fish and chips from the chippy on the quay.

Today we wandered out to Duncansby Head, the stacks are an extra mile or so but very well worth it.  We got slightly soggy in the morning the afternoon was superb - loads of sunny loveliness and just breezy enough to keep the midges at bay. Steve even helped us find 5 Cowrie shells on the way back.

People keep telling us that it's an awful summer but we've only had 1 really bad day in 3 1/2 weeks and anyway, the drumming of the rain on the roof of Delores helps me sleep.

This is such a fabulous adventure - we're loving every second and each day brings something new to see or learn about. Tomorrow we're off to Orkney for the day doing the full on tourist tour and I can't wait - we've already booked our fish and chips from the fab chippy on the quay for when we get back. Whatever the weather we'll love it.