A Travellerspoint blog

John O'Groats to Beauly

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On Wednesday we started the John O’Groats to Ullapool drive; a 170 mile drive around the top end of Scotland – we travelled the North & West Highland Tourist Route which follows the coast. This was a very scenic route but the Scottish weather ensured that most photos were misty or raining. The drive was at times difficult as much of the route was single lane with ‘passing places’. These passing places were a courtesy situation that relied on you seeing an oncoming car and stopping in a ‘passing place’ (widened section of road – like a python that had eaten a chicken – which were spaced about 200-300m apart), you flashed your lights to indicate that you would stop to allow the other car through.

So leaving John O’Groats we stopped first a few miles down the road at Drunnet Head (the actual most northerly point of mainland UK). It gets very windy here as they need to lash the information kiosk to the ground. While the scenery was at times spectacular the drive was long and tiring in the wet. Things were looking up as we reached Ullapool as the drizzle cleared and we had a nice afternoon walking around the pretty seaside village – we even had an opportunity to watch the precision by which the ferry line quickly disembarked motorcyclists, cars, trucks, semi-trailer, bicyclists and passengers from the Isle of Lewis before embarking the same and departing all within 40 minutes.

The Ullapool Youth Hostel was clean and very busy with all of the 57 beds filled. The self catering kitchen was very busy as were the bathrooms. It’s amazing to see the cross-section of people who stay at the hostels – a few people like Liz and I, many cyclists who stay for the night and then continue their trip the next day, families (especially from the Europe) who were spending their summer holidays touring around Scotland and lastly the minority group of young backpackers.

Thursday awoke feeling very doughy (lots of moving around with strange beds and pillows = poor night’s sleep) however we were on the road again for the shorter drive to Ratagan, but before we left Ullapool we decided to do a walk up Ullapool Hill only a 4km round trip. The distance wasn’t a problem but the climb was a struggle for me but Liz powered on to the top. I struggled on the way up from lack of fitness and on the way down from dicky knees, but we made it all the way down.

The drive to Ratagan was only about 90 miles via the coastal scenic route but along the way we had a few stops. Firstly at Corrieshallock Gorge which we thought might be a fair walk from the road but turned out to be downhill and only 350m. This gorge is amazing and, for Liz, a little scary. The gorge is spanned by a suspension bridge only about 20m across but suspended 45m above the gorge cascade below. The bridge swayed a fair bit as you crossed as well as having a six person limit – I probably didn’t help Liz’s fear of height by making the bridge sway more as we crossed over it. Checkout the photo below taken from an observation point further down the gorge – look for the people crossing the bridge near the top of the picture.

After this short walk it was back into the car and a hour and a half drive to Eilean Donan Castle (as seen in the movie Highlander and more recently Maid of Honour with Patrick Dempsey). This turned out to be a little under-whelming but perhaps that is because of the high quality castles we’ve visited over the past 3 weeks or perhaps we’re castled out! The tide was also out so it looked a little stark and desolate – the tides vary in the metre so when it is out the castle is really stranded.

Anyway we eventually made it to Ratagan YHA which was a little isolated but was right on the edge of a Loch. It was a little smaller than Ullapool, about 40 beds, but at least the bathroom and shower was next door. So it’s nearly 9.30pm and the sun has disappeared behind so substantial mountains to our rear but it is still very light but I’m stuffed and going to bed anyway. Tomorrow we’re off to the Isle of Skye for a drive around and look-see.

Friday – so stuffed slept the night through, ignored the alarm and call of nature to eventually rise at 8.00am. Today we were driving around the Isle of Skye off the North West of Scotland before returning to Ratagan. The day was lousy, it reminded me of the rain god from the Douglas Adams book (always raining just varying in type).

Liz has a passion for otters so today she wanted to visit an otter sanctuary on the Isle of Skye. This part of our day felt like it might have been our last moments on earth. Again on very narrow roads that were winding and had hidden crests and dips added to the fact that there was a 900ft drop on one side. Did I say it was wet, no very wet! And only seven miles of road but the worst part was that it was a dead end so we had to come back on it. Luckily we could laugh about it, hysterically yes but still laughing.

So we made it to the car park, donned the wet weather gear, fought off the midges and followed the sign “otter hide 1km” eventually reaching a small building overlooking the Loch Aish between Kyle and Kyleakin. The only problem was that 2 families had taken up all the spaces and binoculars and showed no sign of moving on, so after 30 minutes we decided to head back to the car and drive that cursed road. I must say we did see a few common seas but no otters had been sighted in a couple of days so Liz’s otter quest will continue (she can’t even visit them in the zoos as those otters come from Asia???).

As the day was so poor we decided to forgo the trekking and have a leisurely drive around the Isle visiting Broadford, Portree, Staffin, Duntulm, and my favourite Uig. Had a lunch break in a Portree cafe, like every other tourist – the place was packed regardless of the weather. We also saw our first car accident a little sedan roll over – wet road, tight corner and speed will do it every time. It’s amazing we haven’t seen more considering the narrow roads and crazy speeding drivers we’ve seen.

Anyway tomorrow we journey to the home of the monster – Loch Ness (unfortunately I’ve heard that like everybody else he/she’s gone on summer holidays!).

Saturday – Ratagan to Beauly
Just a little hop today as the rigours of all the travel catch up with us. Only about 60 miles to drive but we still had a couple of stops to make. The weather was poor in the morning – nothing like packing the car in the rain however by 1.00pm the rain had stopped and the sun occasionally showed through –temperature was 12oC at 9.00am but had made 16oC by mid-afternoon.

Our first stop today was Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness which was a castle ruins. The experience involved a video presentation outlining the history of the castle from AD 560 up until it was destroyed and abandoned so the Jacobites didn’t get it. The MacDonald clan seemed to keep attacking it frequently as they attacked from the Isles to the north. The facilities and presentation of the ruins was definitely aimed at the tourist market – the walk through the gift shop was necessary to get to the exit.

Next we visited the Loch Ness exhibition shop looking for some souvenirs’ but we couldn’t be bothered actually walking through the exhibition – too tired. So picked up a t-shirt and ceramic Nessie and checked out the huge displays of everything Nessie before heading the 10miles to our overnight stay – The Caledonian Hotel (cheap but tidy room) in Beauly, just west of Inverness.

We are now into the part of our trip for which we haven’t booked accommodation, it’s near impossible to get a private room in a hostel or any reasonably priced self catered accommodation. Consequently we will sometimes have to spend a little more for hotel/motel type accommodation just to have somewhere to stop for the night. The European summer is holiday time for everyone, so many families, couples and groups are moving everywhere – also lots of motor-homes about many on the single lane roads which sometimes make things interesting.

Posted by lizanddave 07:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Glenkindie to John O’Groats

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After a goodnight sleep at The Smiddy B&B we hit the road for our next stop –Carbsidale Castle a youth hostel near Culrain. Along the way we visited yet another castle Brodie Castle near Forres. We had a guided tour by a lovely lady named Bonita who loved to talk about the castle, its history and inhabitants. Consequently instead of an hour tour it was 1 ½ hours – but interesting anyway.

We continued to trip northward passing thorough Inverness and many other small villages until we reached Carbsidale Castle – yes a real castle being used as a Youth Hostel (donated by a previous owner to the care of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association). While the building and grounds were very run down; it was still a castle with a small number of statues and paintings. It could host about 150 people at a time in various room types and had modernish bathrooms and toilets scattered all over the place. My main issue is that it was a long walk from our room to the self-catering kitchen – oh the dramas of living in a castle.
Carbsidale_Castle.jpg Lounging_L.._Castle.jpg

Unfortunately we could only get 1 night there, even booking all in advance, as it’s extremely popular over the summer. After a stuffy night’s sleep (windows wouldn’t open and door well sealed to keep out draughts) we had a quick breakfast and then hit the hiking trail. We did the way-marked trail near the castle which was rated moderate and took about 1 and a half hour and covered about 4 km.

After this it was time to head for our next overnight destination – John O’Groats. This is not a mate’s place but one of the mostly northerly towns on mainland UK. The drive was only about 100 miles and took us up along the eastern coast which was very picturesque. After a stop at Wick for lunch, fuel and supplies (self catering accommodation at the John O’Groats SYH) we drove the last 15 miles in drizzly rain. As the hostel didn’t open until 5.00pm we proceeded to the harbour and hesitantly purchased a day tour to the Oakney Islands for the next day. It was cold, wet and windy and we really weren’t that keen on a boat ride in those conditions.

The hostel was good except no laundry, wi-fi and the male toilets and showers were downstairs from our room (the females was right next door).

Tuesday was an early morning (alarm at 7.00am) a light breakfast (I’m not good with boats) and a trip to the ferry terminal. The ferry was packed with day trippers to the islands. We sat on the upper deck in the open (check the photo of Liz rugged up against the cool breeze) and watched out for wildlife for the 45 minute trip.

After arriving on the dock we were divided in the five coaches for our various trips – we were doing the maxi tour which was 9 hours long visiting the Italian Church, Skara Brae (5000 year old stone age village), Scarpa Flow and Churchill Barricades, the Ring of Brogar, The Standing Stones of Stenness and the towns of Stromness and Kirkwall. The weather was brilliant! Warm, sunny and very little breeze. We could see everything as it wasn’t covered in mist – a usual occurrence apparently.

Posted by lizanddave 07:05 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Edinburgh to Glenkindie

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Thursday was a walking day which meant a 30 minute walk to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (the official residence of HRH Queen Elizabeth in Scotland). This was a ‘pretty castle’ that was more lived in and less commercialised that Edinburgh Castle. We also visited the Queens Gallery which was hosting the Dutch Landscape Masters, the paintings were good but Liz and I were out-of-our depth when the audio-guide started to discuss the deep meaning and technical importance of the pieces. In the end we just walked around and looked at the pretty pictures.

We then walked the Royal Mile between Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle stopping at many of the shops to checkout souvenirs’ (they turned out to be much the same – cheap and mass produced). Although along the way we ran into a familiar sight – a Police Information Booth – and as Dr Who fans we immediately knew that it was the Tardis!

After a 45 minute uphill walk (Liz though it would be a lovely wide grassed boulevard instead of a narrow cobbled and traffic chocked street) we reached Edinburgh Castle and Liz proceeded to wait in line for 25 minutes for tickets (our Heritage Pass meant we didn’t have to pay but still needed a bar-coded ticket), she found out at the counter that Heritage Pass holders could go through Priority Ticketing which had no queues – damn!! Meanwhile I was fine, having found a place to sit and have a drink and something to eat whilst Liz stood in line. While Edinburgh Castle was an impressive structure – hill top location, steep stone walls and heavy fortifications – it also had steep cobblestone paving up to the castle proper where the Scottish Crown Jewels and more importantly the Stone of Destiny (we’d watched the James McAvoy movie about its theft and thought it was a pretty cool thing they did). Once we’d seen this and had a look through the rest of the castle it was time to move on.

Now Liz had been in my ear about wanting to collect some china cup, saucer and plate sets while she was travelling and she’d seen a Royal set at Winsor Castle and wanted it then (she was still negotiating because the cost was high – cup & saucer £35 and plate £25). So as we left we decided that she’d get a cheaper Thistle patterned set from a merchant somewhere on the Royal Mile and that she’d get the Royal set at Holyrood – so back down the Mile we went stopping at numerous shops to find the Thistle patterned set. We found it about halfway down which was good as my knees were starting to feel the abuse of many years playing football, so we walked straight back to Holyrood and purchased the Royal set – great; now it is time to walk the 30 minutes back to the Guest House and then off to the Persevere Pub for a nice early dinner and a couple of pints of cider (how civilised). By the time we finally got back to the guest house my knees were ready to give out – then I found I had left my glasses back at the pub. Liz took no pity on me (karma apparently for sitting having a wonderful relaxing time whilst she waited in line for tickets at the castle); so I then had to turn around again and walk back to the pub to collect my glasses.

Friday was a busy day as we were moving on to the Smiddy B&B in Glenkindie, Aberdeenshire (west of Aberdeen) and along the way we wanted to make a few stops. We headed north deciding on a more coastal routing so that we could cross the Firth of Tay over the Tay Bridge (not as impressive as expected). Along the way we stopped a roadside stall selling berries – Liz chose some raspberries and blackberries (the lady was concerned when Liz said she wanted to eat the raspberries straight). The look on Liz’s face was classic as the raspberries were quite tart; however it was quickly fixed by the purchase of some ice-cream to eat them with. The blackberries were very nice.

The first real stop of the day was Glamis Castle (legendary setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and a Royal residence since 1372. We seriously enjoyed the guided tour given by a young lady (late teens – early 20’s) who imparted a certain Gen Y spin to her talk. All the castles have a collection of stuffed animals – very politically incorrect in this day and age.

Next stop was Aberdeen where Liz was hoping to visit the cemetery that contained the grave of her great, great grandmother – she had details of the plot from her mum. After looking through the cemetery for hours and contacting the local council office managing the cemetery we could not find the gravestone and are thoughts are that perhaps the family did not purchase a headstone or that because no family lived near Aberdeen over the past 90yrs it has disappeared. Liz was disappointed and now plans to revisit Aberdeen on our return south to do more research with the local historical society.

So with that behind us and the car refuelled (unleaded costs £1:19.9 per litre AUD $2.05 per litre – ouch!!) we headed for the B&B. The Smiddy is in a minute village west of Aberdeen but it is of excellent quality if a little isolated. The positive was the little Pub/Restaurant (The Glenkindie Inn) which was about a mile walk away. The B&B owner rang for a reservation (little Pub in the middle of nowhere – you’re kidding, we need reservations!) and luckily they could fit us in at 8.30pm – or we wouldn’t have had dinner. This little Pub was expensive but the food was sensational – well worth it. My entree of pan seared scallops and Liz’s onion soup gave way to baked local pork belly with truffle mash and seasonal vegetables while Liz’s 10oz Ribeye Steak was beyond belief. I had a little more than my usual ciders before we walked back to the B&B - 10.00am and still light – totally satisfied.

Saturday was a day to be spent around the Glenkindie area so we motored to Huntly about 20 miles away as it was a good walking area. It was also a distillery area so decided to hit the GlenDronach Distillery at 10.00am. We elected to do a guided tour and it turned out that we were that only people so we had an hour and a half tour given by a very knowledgeable gentleman who explained everything about the process, history and characteristic of scotch whisky. The tasting at the end was interesting to us as neither Liz nor I drink Scotch. The 12 year old single malt was fumes nearly burned the nasal passages and a taste that was fiery and left a smokey aftertaste.

We then visited the Huntly Tourist Information Centre (an actual shop as opposed to the sign and map dispenser type we had run across previously) where we discussed our plans and purchased a booklet of North Aberdeenshire walking trails. From this booklet we chose a 4 mile walk called Tap o’ Noth which visited a 3000 year old hilltop fort. The only difficulty was that it involved a 1000ft height climb – bloody steep in parts but was supposedly a 90minute adventure. We completed the uphill section in just on an hour and had an amazing view of the surrounding countryside – well worth the near meltdown on the way up – and returned to the car park just 10 minutes outside the 90 minute time. I blamed Liz as she frequently stopped to take many photos of flowers, weeds, and so on.

After a drink and breather we decided on an early dinner at Huntly. As we hadn’t had the famous Fish and Chips of the UK we decided to give The Huntly Chip Shop a go as the local tourism brochure said it ‘produces a huge range of traditional suppers all with chips”. Well compared to Aussie Bob’s it was OK but nothing to get excited about.

Posted by lizanddave 12:28 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

Byrness to Edinburgh

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After leaving York on Monday morning we journeyed eventually to Byrness (just a few miles from the border into Scotland). However as you all know we never take the easy way so this time we visited Castle Howard (used in the filming of Brideshead Revisited) and visited the coastal resort town of Scarborough. Castle Howard was like them all; big and impressive while Liz found the water in Scarborough a little nippy. I tried scampi at the beachside cafe and it proved to be OK – can’t understand what they rave about when Australian seafood is so much better but when in Rome (or in this instance, Scarborough)!

The Byrness Youth Hostel is pretty much in the middle of nowhere but a very neat and tidy place. It’s good to stay in a place that allows self-catering as it’s much cheaper. There was a young guy staying at the hostel who had been walking for 15 days – nice lad called Dave who was having a break between finishing his law degree and starting work in London.

Tuesday was an overcast day with no rain expected until the late afternoon so we took the car and looped up over the Scottish border and back down to the Kielder Waters to do a walk –absolutely magnificent dam and wooded hills with a well maintained walking track around it. We only did a part of the walk which took us just over 2 hours – we walked the dam wall and visited the Wave Chamber. Couldn’t see any otters though.
After lunch in a small pub we visited the Housestead’s Roman Fort and Hadrian’s Wall which was extremely interesting as I’m a fan of the movie “The Last Legion”. Whilst the Fort was “ruins”; it’s amazing how they can determine the uses of the various buildings when they are basically a set of foundations. Most of Hadrian’s Wall has disappeared but the small amount remaining gives an indication of the immense amount of man power required to erect the 76 mile long fortification.

We’re having trouble with the daylight and our sleep patterns – sun goes down at 10.00pm and comes up again at 4.00am. Note to us “keep the curtains closed”.

Wednesday we set out early as we had a long day planned. Firstly we drove to Alnwick to visit Alnwick Castle. This was a large and imposing fortress that is home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and has been in the Percy family for 700 years and most importantly it was used in the filming of Harry Potter 1 & 2 (learning to fly broom sticks with Madam Hooch).

We then travelled to Craster for a one and a half mile long walk to Dunstanburgh Castle a 14th century castle ruins set on the seaside with panoramic views of the surrounding coastline.

Then a quick drive north to Beal and across a causeway to Holy Island which turned out to be a lot larger than we anticipated. For once we didn’t visit the castle but walked about 2 miles to a stretch of beach supposedly inhabited by grey seals. We saw one seal just off the beach before he swam away.

At last we were on our way to the next overnight stop at the Thistle Guest House in Edinburgh. The drive into Scotland was amusing as about a mile from the border a sea mist rolled in and a mile after the border it started to rain and continued to rain all evening. The guest house room is small but does have an ensuite and TV however no central heating (Liz is feeling the cold).

Posted by lizanddave 10:24 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

Northampton to York

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Been a few days since I’ve blogged anything as we’ve been busy - it doesn’t get dark until 9.30pm we tend to be out exploring so we don’t get the chance to sit and type any entries; especially after a few ciders.

Wednesday night we changed plans leaving Hereford a day early and travelling to Weston Favell just south of Northampton. My previous blog entry outlined the trip across and what we visited.

Thursday we left Northampton of a cool, wet and windy day which turned into a dry and sunny day but pretty windy. We were on our way across to the Stour Valley Bunkhouse YHA in Brantham, Suffolk. On the way we stopped at the Woburn Abbey, the home of the Duke of Bedford, which had superb stateroom with excellent gold, silver and porcelain, paintings and furniture, it was also surrounded by a 3000 acre deer park.

We’ve set the GPS for the shortest routes which takes us away from the motorways and into some narrow back roads and lanes – takes longer but we get to see plenty of small villages and farms.

Thursday afternoon we visited Audley End House at Saffon Walden in Essex. This is a Jacobean mansion built between 1603 and 1614. We went on a guided tour of the main house which was very informative and walked through the extensive gardens. It was interesting at a number of these historic houses were hosting music festivals and/or concerts over the summer to bring in income.

The Stour Valley Bunkhouse turned out to be a very modern hostel which we shared with a young Irishman and a Dutch family of 4. A short walk away was the local pub which had excellent food and Aspall cider.

After a night’s sleep we prepared for the long drive to Loughborough (just north of Leicester) with only a stop for fuel and a stop at the Aspall Cider Brewery. At the brewery we had hoped for a tour and to buy some samples and cider glasses, but the company wasn’t open for customer visits. However, Liz went into Reception and enquired about where she might buy some glasses and they gave her 2 display glasses for free!

At Loughborough we stayed in a place called The Print House which was student accommodation and according to the receptionist heavily book for this weekend because it was Graduation Week. The accommodation was OK but the security was like Fort Knox with a key required to get into the front door, the elevator, the foyer on each floor and room door.

Loughborough was a pleasant city and had street markets on the Saturday morning which were interesting – pity it rained periodically.

Saturday was another long drive to York. Once again the GPS took us on many back roads. The day turned out to be a failure in terms of visiting historical places as the one Liz chose was closed Saturdays and one I chose I incorrectly entered into the GPS and we were 40 miles past it before we realised. We did travel through some really lovely areas including Sherwood Forrest and travelled across the huge Humber Bridge when driving between Grimsby and York.

In York we’re staying at the Old Grey Mare Pub (Liz’s brother Geoffrey was very concerned that “it wasn’t what it used to be”) which is well positioned to the York Minister and is cheap!! York is a really historic city with amazing fortifications but it also has relatively modern stuff to visit particularly the York Cold War Bunker – part of the monitoring if an atomic explosion occurred in the UK. Not a bomb shelter but an underground bunker which would have been fried if a bomb landed very close. We also visited Clifford’s Tower and Treasurers House – long day as we walked everywhere.

Posted by lizanddave 12:22 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (3)

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