31 March 2011

The Great Glen and a Prickly Scramble

Today the plan was to drive from Inverness to Dunoon along the Great Glen

Filling up at West End Garage on the A831 - the road to Glen Affric
Like the old days - no computers or flashy stuff - the lady came out to confirm how much I had put in and then we had a nice chat for a wee while and I handed over the necessary cash.

I have been looking forward to visiting the proper Caledonian Forest for years and years - and the best (that is road accessible at least) is in Glen Affric.  I was not disappointed - it is a single track road and it must be awful in the summer but I had it all to myself for an hour or two - the birches just coming into leaf, the pines looking magnificent and in the distance the gentle clanking of a JCB and Bobcat 'dozer remaking the main walking trail in time for spring opening.

Glen Affric - looking promising

and I was not disappointed

Very nice pine trees

more very nice pine trees

The Commando Memorial - near Fort William

Far too many recent tributes

A solitary and solemn visit - freezing temperatures, freezing wind and freezing rain.   The original commando units were trained in the hills, lochs and mountains around Fort William.  This memorial is in a stunning location - do stop and pay your respects.

Pole position on the A82 (Glen Coe)
The A82 is a very nice road - but too straight and too much traffic - slower but much more fun is the B8074 from Bridge of Orchy to Dalmally (StreetView it and see why)

The sun came out just as I parked up for my attempt at...

N56W05 - All the Zeros
A rather challenging confluence - I have been orienteering 36 years and the forest was the thickest I have encountered - some of it must be naturally seeded as nobody would plant trees that close and certainly not on a slope that steep.  The confluence had not been visited in 5 years - and then David Coombes on 29th March and me on 31st!

With the sun shining

Bent fence and what's that on the tree?

Oops - someone didn't make the corner
The Old Road & Bridge
Over the Glen Kin Burn
 and finally to the impressive...

Royal Marine Hotel in Dunoon
 more of which later but first - I'm very very hungry...

Aberdeen Angus Beef Sausages in Ghillies Café Bar

30 March 2011

...The cathedral was shut in Kirkwall...

St Magnus Cathedral is meant to be something special and it is meant to be open - but it was shut - for a private function - and they would not even let me peek round the door - and even though the function had not started.  Not enough time before my ferry to go visit somewhere else - so I got a hair cut (£8) and spent the time until "alcohol sale permitted" talking with the shop owner about Polish Vodka (they shift a lot in Kirkwall - hotel staff and port workers mostly) and which Whisky to buy Cousins Chris and Kirsty (the local distilleries also being closed visitors)

In the end we settled on a £60 bottle from the Scapa Distillery - malted but un-peated (interesting) and distilled by concerned Highland Park employees while Scapa was officially shut down - just to exercise the equipment and maintain the otherwise mothballed plant in working order.  Happily Scapa is back in production and you buy the 16 year old now.

Dounreay - the visitor centre was open but I did not fancy popping in

The main road to Forsinard

What is this strange device?

Ahh - all is explained

The flow Country
Forsinard is in the middle of the Flow Country - I first heard about this when it was at centre of controversy over 'Tax Breaks For The Wealthy".  The government were encouraging destruction through draining and then planting of Europe's largest expanse of blanket bog.  One name I particularly remember was that 'Mr Nice' - Sir Terry Wogan.  Luckily that is all over now - and much of the area is under the protection of the RSPB as a bird reserve.  Leaflets explained all about the "star species"

But, as suspected - on this last day before spring there were NO BIRDS AT ALL!  Just like yesterday.  I was there for an hour and a half - and just one little chaffinch - but that was in someone's garden.   The visitor centre was very firmly shut - but there were maps of the bog walk.  "Paved with slabs of Caithness Stone - you won't even get your feet wet".  This may have been the case last year when the stones were laid - but the density of stone being about 2600kg/m^3 and sphagnum bog at close to 1000 meant that to complete the walk meant getting really quite wet indeed... Things sink in bogs - dense and heavy things sink particularly quickly.

Forsinard Station - on the Far North Line
Leaving Forsinard - a drive along a traffic free and really very rewarding bit of road - and the RAF Tornado being very low and silly over Loch An Ruathair was very fun!

Below is the site of Scotland's last major gold rush...

Baile an Or - 2011

Baile an Or -1869

After a cold and damp visit to 58N 4W and a tour round some very special mountain roads to a Clootie Well

It was twilight, cold and dead calm.  From the lonely car park it just looked like a normal patch of Scots forest - but as I turned the corner...

Every trunk and every branch hung with ribbons, rags and clothes.  In the leaden silence it all became a bit too spooky - well worship was outlawed a thousand years ago - but I have seen it in Mongolia, Cyprus, Kyrgyzstan and close to home on Clent Hills.  Here the natural spring water exits near the top of the hill - perhaps why it was chosen as a "special place"
The water comes out at the top of the knoll - It must be an artesian well - impressive though

And then to Inverness:

The very nice Winston Guest House in Inverness

The not so nice parking meter - that charges from "tell me do you feel lucky punk" am to 6pm

Inverness has boomed since I was last there - the locals tell me that "scum" have been relocated up from Glasgow/Cumbernauld and that the local economy has overheated and there will be trouble.  I got this message all over - from Gairloch, Kinlockbevie, Thurso and Inverness.

Certainly driving in off the by-pass it felt more like Urban Berkshire than Scottish Highlands.  The restaurant quarter reminded me of the worst of Broad Street Birmingham - so I ate at McDonalds - cheap and quick fuel.

Parking was a nightmare "one way street!", "no stopping", "park here (full)", "short stay parking (full)", "No overnight parking (still full)" - at last I found a space in a pay-and-display  - the meter would not take my money - as it was after 18:00 but there were no signs at all telling me when the parking charge started the next day -  you can pay for 24hrs BUT NOT AFTER SIX IN THE EVENING!!!!

Mentioning my ticketless state to the helpful hotel owner... "charging is from 7:00 but the wardens dare not show their faces before 9:00 - so be away by then" - I suspect that this is due to pressure from the very many hotels in the vicinity of that particular car park...

29 March 2011

A day trip to Rolf's Island

The Rousay (Rolf's Island) Ferry - arriving in Tingwall
It's a cute wee ferry - the lady in the ticket office* convinced me to take my car over for the day - good advice - I had hoped to walk to and from the various tombs highlighted by my cousin - it would have been a very stiff challenge

*The office had a fantastic vintage maritime VHF radio - but sadly the bosses had recently decommissioned it in favour of mobile phones - a bit of a risk I think.

The ferry was late leaving - waiting for the heating oil truck - now I know why they had me park so close to the rail...

Folks on the ferry very chatty - though very few true Orcadians - the manager was from Bristol.

This family were taking advantage of the school hols to visit friends on the island - we would meet several times (its a small island with one road and I was driving clockwise and they anti-clockwise - multiple laps to entertain the kids)

The ferry spends the day shuttling back and forth between several islands - but always in sight.  I did chambered and stall tombs, watched seals playing in the sea, ate two packets of Bourbons and visited a bird sanctuary with no birds (a theme that recurred the next day).  There were lots of birds outside the sanctuary - gulls and oyster catches and hooded crows and fulmars and more of the usual garden variety - but in the RSPB reserve - a single crow on sentry duty - who soon lost interest and flapped off toward the harbour.  Definitely not as billed (http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/t/trumland/star_species.aspx)

From (almost) the top of the island - views of the entire northern part of the archipelago - and a full 3G signal - why can't we get the same in our office in Birmingham? - I tried phoning John Brass - who is complaining about Vodafone on our behalf - but I only got his answer-phone - "there is almost no signal in our office..."

The last but-one ferry of the day - better get a move on...

I was sitting with this dog in the ferry waiting room - when off it dashed - turns out his owner is the ferry captain and the dog goes down to the harbour to meet every arrival.  The island seems to be a nice place to live with a real community spirit

In the distance Curween Hill
There must be a connection between my two favourite tombs - Almost identical construction and in very similar locations on two arms of high ground with fertile farmland in between.  I met the current farmer* - just got into the dairying and bottling business with contracts to supply in to Kirkwall (most cattle farming in Orkney is beef) - hard work but profitable given that the next nearest dairy is a very long way south - I mentioned my time working in our Leominster dairy and we talked for so long it got dark - the flare and lights from the oil terminal clearly visible to the south - and I still had to visit my last tomb of the trip.

 *Beaten up Landrover, blue boilersuit and huge "farmer's hands".

About to descend into Wideford Hill Chambered Tomb - very deep, very dark and very spooky

The price you pay for crawling around in tombs - new pair of Ron Hill's required

and finally  59.000000N3.000000W

28 March 2011

Lara Croft...

The Gorgeous Pentalina
 A short ferry ride from Gill's Bay to St Margarets Hope - lots of history and lots to see - and a full 3G signal the whole way!

Churchill's Barrier (No more sneaky U-boat attacks) - cross at your own risk though
Outside - its a WW2 prison camp hut

but inside
and from the other end
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Chapel

Looking West - 3180 BC

Skara Brae - they have a reconstructed house that you can go into - and the internal arrangement/furniture/division is just like in the traditional Mongolian Ger.  My abiding memory is the intensely cold westerly wind, bearing the strong sent of "lemon pine disinfectant" - all was explained when the warden approached me wearing surgical gloves - in response to my raised eyebrow I was reassured that the (modern) toilets were being cleaned and that intimate or body cavity searches were not part of the Brae experience.

Looking the East - dour, bleak and isolated - Skaill House
Ring of Brogdar - windy, cold and bleak
Standing Stones of Stenness guarded by three stoic rams (by now the wind is so strong walking is difficult)
Orkney folk seem to go in for permanent monuments - perhaps it's the lack of trees and the surfeit of stones just under the thin soil - there is even a Kitchener Memorial. Today I have 'done' 7 sites - ranging from 3000 BC to 1944AD and finally...

...Tomb Raider?  I am in Orkney - working my way through the list of Neolithic Highlights provided by Cousin Chris.

Just as the sun was setting I crawled into the last for the day: Cuween Hill Chambered Tomb from about 5000 years ago - and still in very good nick.  The access is a crawl and a squeeze through a long narrow passage and the side chambers even tighter and pitch black - It then dawned on me "this is about the point in where I step the balanced stone and the way out is sealed by toppling slabs of rock.  I admit I was spooked - the tomb is isolated and no one knew I was there - instant end of tourism for the day and head for the hotel (and bar)