Friday, 31 July 2009

Day 18 - Scotland West Coast - Kilmartin - Ancient Scotland, 5000BC

Past Inveraray, then half way down the Mull of Kintyre (where, Alistair from Thistle House tells me, Paul McCartney has a farm). At Lochgilphead (click to see on my Google Map) I turned right, as the journey all the way down the Mull is a full day’s drive.

But there’s a good reason to head west across from Loch Fyne to the open Atlantic ocean – you follow the Crinan canal, which was dug out two hundred years ago. The canal cuts out the sea trips around the lanky Mull peninsula, which not only meant a saving of a day or two of sailing, but also spared sailors of the more fearsome waters around the point of Mull.

Crinan canal cuts through the Mull of Kintyre

These days, it’s used mostly by leisure yachts, which use the narrow canal and its 15 locks to travel the nine miles across the mainland. If you’re into sailing, check out Scottish Canals for more looks fun.

Pop into the small coastal harbour village of Crinan, where the yachts wait to use the canal. It’s a pretty area as well (although sunlight makes a huge difference – it’s been raining for a while now, and I’m starting to get some good weather).

The harbour at Crinan. Click for a full screen version.

But my main reason for travelling to this area is the huge number of bronze- and iron-age settlements by the distant ancestors of the Scottish people. There are more than 350 sites within a 6 mile radius of the town of Kilmartin (click to see on my Google Map).

There are standing stones, forts, stone engravings and other archaeological attractions which tell of a large, vibrant, war-faring community from the period 5000BC to 800AD. To compare, the wheel was only developed in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 4000BC, and the first pyramid in Egypt was built around 2650BC. The beginning of organised society near Kilmartin precedes these by a thousand years. And the fact that there are so many sites, and that they are so old, is extra special.

The view out of my window at Dunchraigaig B&B looks onto the Ballymeanoch Stones, one of 350 ancient sites in the Kilmartin area, some dating back to 5000BC.

I’m no history nut, but it is interesting, and as with all ancient sites, there’s an unidentifiable, yet undeniable, aura of primordial time. I think it’s somehow reassuring that in our age, when most things have been identified, sliced open, examined, explained and published to everyone on the Internet, there are still places that remain a mystery to modern experts. Because much of Kilmartin’s sites are still baffling us.

Why are there carvings in the rocks? Were they for religious, astronomical or social reasons? Or were they simply for fun? And the standing stones? What to make of them? Stonehenge is still a mystery, and so are these sites.

I stayed at Dunchraigaig B&B , which is located in the middle of all the sites. Lyn and Cameron's B&B is right next to the site of the same name, and my room looked over the standing stones of Ballymeanoch. Lyn is an unofficial expert on the area, and her years of school teaching gives her a well-researched insight into the various spots.

For me, the most impressive was Dunadd Fort, which was the centre of the original Scottish Kindgom of Dalriada, around 500AD. It’s quite a lot younger than the original sites back in 5000BC, but it gives an indication of how long humans have lived and moved through the area. And quite clearly, the Dalriada chieftans knew how much the preceding tribes respected the territory, and perhaps chose this territory because of it. More remains of weapons have been found around Dunadd than any other site around the world during this period of time...

Dunadd Fort, the seat of the kingdom of Dalriad, the ancient ancestors of the Scottish. Click on the image for a full screen version.

The “fort” itself is not traditionally medieval (indeed, it pre-dates medieval times). Instead, it is a huge mound of rocks, about twenty metres high, which has been matted over now by soil and grass, although some rocks stick through, and are smoothed by centuries of footsteps. And most impressive of all is its location. It’s bang in the middle of a huge plain, between the hilly regions of Crinan and Kilmartin. You can see for miles, all the way around – 360 degrees.

I was alone on the evening I was there. I sat on the earth-throne of ancient Scottish chiefs, as the summer sun went down, and imagined what had gone before. A mound of earth, that’s all - but as powerful and impressive as the ornate seats of power at Buckingham Palace, the White House, Versailles and others...for me, perhaps more so.

Lyn also recommends the following things to do in the area.

1) A boat trip to Corryvreckan with Gemini Cruises.

2) The small Carnasserie Castle, just outside Kilmartin, built in 1572. You can walk to the top for nice views over the glen.

3) Visit Kilmartin House Museum , for a comprehensive insight into the ancient sites.

4) Go for lunch or dinner in the small fishing village of Tayvallich. I had a good baked cob with veggies at the Inn of the same name.

5) Or enjoy a cuppa at the Crinan Hotel , which has nice views over the western seaboard.

Carnasserie Castle, near Kilmartin.

The view from the top of Carnasserie Castle. Click for a full screen version.

A Celtic Cross near Tayvallich commemorating those who have died in the world wars.

My room at Dunchraigaig B&B near Kilmartin.

Day 17 - Scotland West Coast - St Catherines - Flower of Scotland

My stay on the shore of Loch Fyne (click to see on my Google Map) at Thistle House made me feel like I was in the actual Highlands. Around these parts, it's the real thing. The mountains, the dark, inky water of the lochs, the ever-changing light of the sky. It is turning out to be prettier than I expected. For a wilderness lover like me, it is great. And the locals tell me that the scenery is going to get even better up around Fort William, which is still further north.

So now that I'm entering the scenic hearland of Scotland, I thought I'd promote the national pride. There is no official national anthem of Scotland, but Flower of Scotland is the most loved and most sung. Here's a YouTube video with singing and lyrics. Great song, and despite the fact that Scotland dont' have a dominant rugby side (but are always Braveheart-courageous), Flower of Scotland matches La Marseillaise of France for goosebumps (for me at least).

Whenever Scotland play England in any sport, there is an added intensity which has lasted hundreds of years, perhaps since 1746, when the last of the Scottish clans were defeated by the English at the battle of Culloden. It was a particularly brutal affair, and for a few days afterwards, the English executed the remaining wounded Scots, and raped their women, according to reports of the time.

I've also included the national flower and emblem of Scotland below.

Lyrics and singing to Flower of Scotland

Scottish rugby team singing Flower of Scotland at a test match against England.

The national emblem of Scotland...the thistle flower.

Scotland's rugby emblem

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Day 17 – Scotland West Coast – St Catherines – No rushing please, we have whisky to drink and battles to plan

The way from Largs to St Catherines is not obvious (click to see on my Google Map). You can either go north and east, past Glasgow, up through the Loch Lomond National Park (where the A82 radio hugs the famous loch). Or you can catch a ferry across the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula. You’ll pay about £13 to get across...look out for the road signs that direct you to the ferries. I took the ferry (which takes about 20 minutes), and once on the Cowal Peninsula, I headed west and then south to Tighnabruaich (click to see on Google Map). There is a great view point just north of this tiny town, looking over the Isle of Bute. It’s well signposted.

This area just feels good. The roads are emptier than down south, the sky is bigger, the distances longer – partly because of the lochs and firths. These long, narrow fingers of water(some longer than 100 miles, yet only a few miles wide) splice the landscape, so you can look across the water at a town not two miles away, but you will need to drive 10 miles to get there, driving all the way north, around the top of the loch, then south again.

It’s what some locals call “west-Scottish” time, and is a result of the landscape – the glacier-gorged geology imposes itself on the people. London has a neatly ordered road system, and is flat and compliant to human transportation demands. In west Scotland, humans are compliant to the landscape, and time follows the lands, not the clock.

There is an endearing aversion to urgency around here. Things will happen when they do, and not because someone makes them happen. It’s an observably slower pace of life. At first, it might be off-putting to “tick-the-box” city folk, but soon you realise that half the fun of a road trip through Scotland is that you do run late, or stop for no reason to look at the cows.

Loch Fyne...appropriate name. Thistle House is on the left hand side of the loch, and on the right is Inveraray Castle. I took this photo at the castle's fort on top of the hill, which you can walk up, for fantastic views. Click on image for full screen version.

And the great thing about travelling around Scotland for the first time, is that you can never make up your mind as to which route you should follow. There’s always a prettier loch over there, or a higher mountain back here. So you do end up driving all over the place, and neatly scheduled itineraries soon get crumpled up and thrown in the back of the car.

I went way south on the Cowal Peninsula, and then back north up Loch Fyne to St Catherine’s, which exists on the map, but not really in reality. You will miss it if you drive faster than 10 miles an hour. It looks west over the loch, with great views of Inveraray town and castle. You are a 15 mile drive around the head of the loch from Inveraray, but only 2 miles as the crow flies across the water.

My accommodation in St Catherines was at Thistle House Guest House, a mini-manor house, 3-storeys high, 100 years old - overlooking Loch Fyne, a particularly narrow stretch of water, that eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Thistle House looks older than 100 years, given its dark stone exterior and castle-like position and architecture. (By the way, the Thistle flower is Scotland's national flower, and is the emblem of many of its sports teams.)

Thistle House Guest House on Loch Fyne, which looks over the loch to Inveraray Castle.

Room at Thistle House, the window view is over the loch.

I joined owners Alistair and Jenifer Patterson for haggis-stuffed chicken in the evening. My first ever taste of haggis (sheep offal and oatmeal) was much better than I expected. We talked about how they came to St Catherines from Edinburgh after jobs in accounting and public health care. Before that they were in Saudi Arabia, living in a western world compound in the desert. There can’t be too many better examples of diametrically opposed lifestyles than St Catherines vs Saudi Arabia.

The mist hung on the dusky sky, while Alistair and I sat on the giant sofas next to the fire-place in the lounge, drinking single malt whisky from Auchentoshan Distillery near Glasgow. Thistle House feels like a castle, and for a very brief moment my imagination ran rampant, and I could have been Chief of Clan Ramsay (my blood is half Scottish, and Ramsay is a clan, although we got kicked out of Scotland a long time ago!), conjuring battle strategies with Alistair Patterson, who - now that I think about it - looks very much like a clan chief (not sure why, he just does - maybe it was the whisky!?).

The tartan of the Ramsay clan...the rooms at Thistle House are named after some Scottish clans, left to right below: Campbell, McPherson, Stewart, McNaughton, Lamont, McLachlan and Ferguson.

If you think you've got some Scottish blood in you, check out this website.

Athough it is right on the A815 coastal road, Thistle House is in a sparsely inhabited area, so after 8pm, there are no cars. The rooms look out over the loch, bedrooms are superbly decorated yet not ornate, and the food is first-rate.

Besides walking and mountain biking, Alistair and Jenifer recommended the following to me:

1) Quad Biking with Quadmania.

2) Boat cruises on Loch Lomond or on Loch Fyne.

3) Inveraray Castle, home to the Campbell Clan since the 15th century.

4) Inveraray Jail, an entertaining tourist attraction, in the original old jail, where more than 6 000 people were tried, and then punished. Actors play out the roles of the courtroom participants. You can also get locked up while you’re at it, and also see how prisoners were punished for their crimes. For instance, a petty thief was rehabilitated with thumbscrews, branding with a hot poker or having his ear nailed to a post. That's a new way to get an earring!

5) Brewery tour of the local micro-brewery called Fyne Ales.

6) Take part in an organised whisky tour of up to 16 isles and towns, with The Whisky Coast.

Inveraray pine forest

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Day 16 - Scotland West Coast - Largs - Things to do and see

Around Largs (click on name to see on my Google Map), check out the following:

Kelburn Castle and Country Centre has a bizzare graffiti'd castle, which somehow looks good! As well as horse riding, and a "secret forest", with different exotic species of plants, and a Chinese Pagoda, maze and Gingerbread House.

For walkers, the Ayreshire Coastal Path starts in Skelmorie north of Largs, and ends up in Glenapp. It taks about 50 hours to walk.

The small Cumbrae islands just offshore from Largs can be visited with Cumbrae Voyages, which offer wildlife boat trips from the mainland. You can potentially see dolphins and wales.

The beautiful Isle of Arran, which sits further offshore from Largs, is a relatively unknown attraction, with walking, golf courses and mountain biking. Check out the tourism website. While you're on Arran, and you've got the cash to spare, fly over the area with Arran Helicopter Tours.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Day 16 - Scotland West Coast - Largs - Vikings, Scottish accents and Robert Burns recording

Largs (click on name to see on my Google Map) is a mid-sized town (it will take you five minutes to drive from one end to the other - stopping at red lights), on the edge of the Firth of Clyde (a Firth is what the Scots call a large inlet of sea water that was carved out by glaciers in the last ice age), which links Glasgow to the Atlantic. The town itself isn't much to get excited about. There's a sea promenade, some unsuited mini-theme park attractions, and a few restaurants.

Ice cream booth in Largs, with seagulls.

Ladies of Largs...

"Can you take our picture?" - the girls of Largs

But eventhough Largs is still in the lowlands, you do get a sense of Scotland's famed highlands, looking west and north. Across the Firth, the hills rise quickly into semi-mountainous lands - the beginning of the territories of clans? Despite summer, clouds were grey and heavy. To me, the weather wasn't out of place. I've always thought of Scotland as wild and stormy, my imagination formed from movies like Braveheart, Highlander and various TV documentaries on clan wars and Viking invasions.

And Largs does have one must-do attraction, if you are interested in the country's sword-bearing past. The Vikingar experience, just back from the sea front, is a retelling of how the Vikings were instrumental in the development of Scotland. For instance, in 1263, Largs was the site of the last official invasion of Scotland by the Norse raiders from Scandinavia. The Vikingar centre is like a museum that's come to life, where costumed story tellers explain the influence that these invaders had on the region.

Largs was also the place of my first encounter with "real" (?) Scottish folk, the compatriots of my great grandfather who grew up in Elgin on the north coast.

I stayed at South Whittlieburn Farm, a few kilometres into the Brisbane valley away from town. I may as well been on a different planet. Verdant hills, spotted with sheep, pockets of oak trees, and a farmhouse with the front door wide open to guests. (Above the gate to the property is written "Ceud Mile Failte"...which is Scottish Gaelic for "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes".

As soon as owners Tom and Mary Watson start talking, you realise they are quite clearly Scottish. They are the first people I have met on my trip who are culturally tied to the land on which they grew up. Tom grew up in Selkirk. Mary grew up in Garbhaltt on the Cowal peninsula near St Catherines (where I am staying tomorrow night). Her family came from Tighnabruaich, further south on the peninsula (don't ask me how to pronounce that...). For me, the couple epitomise what I've dreamt up in my head about what Scottish folk are all about - especially the accent, which is beautiful to listen to.

Mary told me how I should visit Castle Lachlan on my way north to St first I didn't know what she was talking about, describing it like this:

"You should visit MacLachlan of MacLachlan, Castle Lachlan in Strath Lachlan", all in a strong Scottish accent...fantastic.

And I've recorded Tom reading a Robert Burns poem, the famous Scottish poet. Give it a listen, and then play it again. It's only an audio recording (no video).

The audio recording of Robert Burns' Red, Red Rose, read by Tom Watson.

Tom Watson, of South Whittlieburn Farm, on which he farms Scottish black-faced ewes, crossed with blue-faced Leicester rams.

Day 16 - Scotland West Coast - Largs - Entry to the highlands

From Wigtown, I headed to Largs on the west coast (click on names to see on my Google Map), which is really the beginning of the highlands area. North of Largs, the lochs loom large.

On the way, from south to north along the A77 road, there is Turnberry Golf Course, the site of the recent 2009 British Open Golf Tournament - check out the golf course's live webcam. Culzean Castle near Maybole, the Burns National Heritage Centre in Ayr, and then a few kilometres after, another famous golf course - Troon, the site of previous Open Championships.

Day 15 - Scotland South West Coast - Wigtown - The abode of the authors...

In Wigtown (click on name to see on my Google Map), I stayed with Andrew and Debbie Firth of Hillcrest House, a five minute walk from all the bookshops. They bought the regal 1875 Victorian building in 2003, after stumbling upon it while searching for potential properties further north. The couple never planned to live in Wigtown, but for them, and for the town, it ended up a good thing.

Hillcrest House is now well-known locally as one of the better guest houses, where large bedrooms, high sash windows and a capacious lounge and dining room mean that no matter how many guests are around, you always feel like you’re alone in your own home.

My room at Hillcrest House...the view looks over the Solway Firth and the Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve, the largest private reserve in Britain.

For the town, Hillcrest supplies a down-to-earth, slightly bohemian atmosphere – the kind that authors with the same qualities would enjoy. And indeed they do. When the Wigtown Book Festival takes place in autumn, Hillcrest is the preferred guest house for well-known English authors like Willie Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat), who spent a lot of time on the stairwell at Hillcrest chatting to Debbie's cats! "She was just lovely," says Debbie.

Debbie cooks all the meals, using only local produce. Pork from nearby Sunnyside Farm, potatoes, beetroot and other veggies from her back garden, lamb from the saltmarshes and so forth. Meals are Scottish, tasty, wholesome – let Debbie cook you “chicken stuffed with Haggis in a whisky cream sauce”. This sort of dish is the type that won Hillcrest the title of Scotland’s Real Food Award in 2009, an independent competition which is judged partly on the locality of the ingredients.

The Firths like a good chat, and are happy to discuss anything and everything that’s going on in the area...

1) Visit the gardens in southern Scotland. Because of the warm Gulf Stream sea current which eddies in the Irish Sea, the area hosts many gardens which are able to grow exotic – and southern hemisphere – plants. Here are just two of 19 in the area:

Logan Botanic Garden, near the Mull of Galloway – , claimed to be Scotland’s most exotic garden, with groves of eucalypts and a brilliant flower garden that is in bloom all year round.

Dunskey Gardens & Maze, near Portpatrick, comprising a huge greenhouse, as well as a maze in which to get lost.

Go to the Dumfries and Galloway tourism website to see all the others.

2) On the way to Wigtown from England, stop off near Kirkcudbright at the Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park , where about 100 different species – some rare and endangered - are kept. The park is part of the European Endangered Species Programme, meaning breeding is co-ordinated according to strict guidelines.

3) Go to Monreith, to see the area which inspired naturalist Gavin Maxwell to write Ring of Bright Water (which describes how he brought an otter back to Scotland from Iraq in 1960)...and pop in to see the otters at Monreith Animal World nearby.

4) Check out the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, at the southernmost point of Scotland. During summer you can climb to the top for great views, or spend a night in the lighthouse’s cottage .

5) Go on a dairy farm tour at Cream o’ Galloway, but more importantly, try out their ten different flavours of organic ice-cream.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Day 15 - Scotland South West Coast - Wigtown - Half a million books, two ospreys, one whisky distillery

Wigtown is one of those places that I hoped to discover on my trip around the coast of Britain. It has a funny name (everyone wears wigs in town...only joking), it is off the main tourist track, it isn't particularly pretty (although it's in a pretty area) and at first sight, it looks kind of boring. But (a big BUT), it is full of surprises.

The first surprise is what's inside the tiny stores on the main road. Like Scotland is to whisky lovers, so Wigtown is to book lovers. Crammed into 14 book stores are 500 000 second hand books, according to Shaun Bythell of The Book Shop, the largest smallest bookshop in town (if you know what I mean!)

And the books are not the ones that no-one wants. There are a lot of valuable and much-desired out-of-print books that academics, specialists and fanatics want.

In 1997, Wigtown beat five other towns in a governmental national competition to become Scotland's official booktown, in an effort to regenerate the town's economy. Now, at the annual book festival, the town attracts up to 10 000 book lovers over a ten day period, and hosts more than 150 events. This year, the festival takes place from 25th September to 4th October.

Emma Murray works at The Book Shop in Wigtown, and on a good day, she knows exactly where each of the 100 000 books are...most of the time.

The largest, smallest second hand bookshop in Scotland...

It is a place in which to get lost for days on end...I ended up buying five or six books. simply by browsing and discovering relevant titles of travel and nature. There are also complete collections of poets, and arcane things like The Photo Atlas of the Human Body. That’s the advantage of browsing through actual book come across titles that ordinarily you wouldn’t find on Internet book sites. And Wigtown is like for used books, but in physical form.

The second surprise is Wigtown’s emergence as a place for nesting Ospreys. These rare fish eagles” became extinct from the area 150 years ago, thanks to fishermen who thought that the birds were reducing fish stocks. So when they returned of their own accord a few years ago, coming from northern areas of Scotland, everyone celebrated. In fact, whenever something special happens, like a chick is born, or they return from their migration to Africa, the town hall’s bells are rung.

And the rangers, who look after the Wigtownshire Nature Reserve (the largest local reserve in Britain), have installed remote-controlled cameras, to monitor the birds (which are in an unknown location). The live images are screened in the Osprey Room on the top floor of the town hall, and is open to visitors for free.

An image of an Osprey (with fish) from the remote-controlled video camera near Wigtown...

Ospreys are especially important, because they are their own species, separate from all other birds. And they are impressive to observe...when catching fish by swooping low over the water, they sometimes briefly submerge themselves as they grab the fish and then power off again with their wings. Find out more on Wigtown’s Osprey website.

The third surprise, especially if you’re a whisky fan, is the location of the little-known Bladnoch Distillery, just a mile or so from Wigtown. It’s the country’s southernmost distillery, just a few latitudes up from the southernmost point of Scotland at the nearby Mull of Galloway. The 1818 operation is proudly old-fashioned in its use of traditional distilling techniques, and visitors can sign up for Whisky School, a 3-day experience in which you learn how to make ‘the water of life’, or uisge beatha, as the Celts call it.

Day 15 - Scotland South West Coast - Two must-do's on way to Wigtown

I hightailed it from Whitehaven to Wigtown (pronounced “Wigton”, and click on names to see on my Google Map), on the southern coast of Scotland on the Solway Firth, a huge sea inlet that cuts into the coast like a pick axe.

The reality of travelling around the coast of mainland Britain in 33 days is that I just can’t cover everything I want to. The bays, inlets, narrow roads, and numerous villages mean I can’t drive as far and as quickly as I’d like to. But no matter! What I see is more than good enough for me – when I am transixed by the scenery, or randomly encounter friendly locals, I am remined how special a trip like this is.

So I missed a couple of nice spots on my drive to Wigtown. Here are two that you shouldn't.

- Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries. Acknowledged as one of the finest in Britain, with a moat still in use.

Caerlaverock Castle, pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

- The town of Dumfries, home to Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. He lived for most of his life in the town. Although he died when he was only 37, he was a symbol of Scotland’s cultural independence.

He is held in such esteem that Burns Night (25 January, his birthday) is more widely observed as the “Scottish” day, than the official National Day on 30 November. The Scottish get together for a long dinner, and eat traditional food like haggis, which is a mixture of sheep heart, liver, lungs, oatmeal and spices, all boiled in the stomach intestines. (Burns wrote an ode to the dish, called Address to a Haggis.

Among many poems, he is famous for Auld Lang Syne (sung on New Year’s eve by the British), as well as My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose. The National Burns Collection website has most of his poems, including audio readings.

Visit his home in Dumfries, where he spent the last years of his life.

Day 15 - Scotland South West Coast - Quick facts...

From Whitehaven (click on name to see on my Google Map), I left England and entered Scotland. The land of tartans, clans, haggis, surnames beginning with Mc and Mac, and whisky.

Here are some quick facts, a few of them taken from Wikipedia:

- Scotland was an independent country until 1707, when it entered into political union with England, to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Most Scots were vehemently anti any association with the English – think of the movie Braveheart! (And some say that these sentiments are lingering...)

- The name Scotland is derived from the term Scoti, which was applied to raiders from Ireland who made sporadic attacks against Roman Britain. These people eventually established a kingdom called Del Riata in the Highlands in the 400s.

- Scotland makes up a third of the land mass of Great Britain, and its capital is Edinburgh, but the largest city is Glascow. About 5.5 million people live in the country.

- Scotland uses the British Pound, as well as its own bank notes...

- The national flag is called the Saltire, or St Andrew’s Cross, he being the patron saint of Scotland.

The national flag of Scotland...St Andrew's Cross.

Day 14 - North West England Coast - Cumbria - Things to do around Whitehaven

Trevor Lloyd of Lowther House in Whitehaven (click on name to see on my Google Map) recommends trying out some of the following...

For a good meal in Whitehaven (there aren't many of them, apparently), try Zest Harbourside for a light lunch or dinner, and for a more refined experience try the sister restaurant, called Zest Restaurant.

If you're an enthusiastic cyclist, then you either know of - or will eventually know of - the iconic Sea to Sea Bicycle Ride, a 212 km route that starts in Whitehaven and ends in Sunderland on the east coast. Riders start in the harbour at Whitehaven, after dipping their wheels in the sea water on the slipway.

Likewise, if you're an ardent walker, you'd like to know of the Coast to Coast Walk, which was dreamt up by one Alfred Wainwright in the 1970s. The 300km trek takes about 14 days to complete, and starts in nearby St Bees (just south of Whitehaven), and ends in Robin Hoods Bay on the east coast. There is a new BBC TV program about the route, and local presenter Julia Bradbury is featured walking in the footsteps of Wainwright.

Kids and adults alike will really enjoy the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway trip, a miniature steam train and carriages that travels 11km from the coastal village of Ravenglass and ends inland under the peaks of the Eskdale Valley at Dalegarth-for-Boot. It runs on a tiny gauge line (910mm), and was first used in 1875 to transport iron ore.

Check out the official Cumbrian Tourism website for more things to do...there is plenty.

The miniature Ravenglass steam railway travels through spectacular Lake District scenery from the coast 11km inland to the Eskdale Valley...

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Day 14 - North West England Coast - Cumbria - Whitehaven - Slaves, poetry, the best view in Britain...and the last invasion of the UK

At first sight, Whitehaven (click to see on my Google Map) seems like any other mid-size town along the west coast of England. But it's rich in history. For a seemingly pretty, innocuous place, Whitehaven punched far above its weight in the global stakes.

Whitehaven on the image to enlarge.

I was lucky enough to stay with Trevor Lloyd in his 1860 Victorian B&B called Lowther House. It looks out over the town, towards the harbour. Trevor was born in Whitehaven, and after living abroad, has returned.

Some locals are so passionate about their home towns, that they go way out of their path to show you the nooks and crannies...Trevor is like this. He could be the mayor, champion and protector - all in one - of Whitehaven.

As he talks, the intonations in his voice rise quickly when he points out the three-storey Georgian architecture (considered by many to be the best example in Britain), or the grid system used to plan the town's layout (one of the few in the UK), or the lock system in the harbour, which keeps the water in when the tide goes out. Or how the water for his house still comes from the brightwaters of Ennerdale Lake, and how the famous English poet William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) came to spend the summers in Whitehaven, from his childhood home in nearby Cockermouth. Wordsworth remembered the town well...

" With this coast I have been familiar from my earliest childhood, and remember being struck for the first time by the town and port of Whitehaven, and the white waves breaking against its quays and piers, as the whole came into view from the top of the high ground down which the road (it has since been altered) then descended abruptly.

My sister, when she first heard the voice of the sea from this point, and beheld the scene spread before her, burst into tears. Our family then lived at Cockermouth, and this fact was often mentioned among us as indicating the sensibility for which she was so remarkable."

Trevor kept me entertained and informed.

If you stay at Lowther House, you'll enjoy things like the first-rate Victorian bedrooms and bathrooms, and the antique Whitehaven grandfather clock (world-renowned, and one of which is also owned by Bill Clinton), or the original townplanning map of Whitehaven, which hangs on the passage wall.

Trevor will also point out softly how his great grandfather, a Captain Robert Wilson, was honoured by the Norwegian King in 1902, for rescuing the passengers of the Bengal, a Norwegian ship that had come aground near Whitehaven. The captain was awarded a gold medal and £25 as a reward (£10 000 today). Trevor's quiet pride for his town, and for his family is clear (including his son who has just become a barrister, at the exceptional age of 21).

Trevor Lloyd of Lowther House... Whitehaven's "unofficial mayor", and its biggest fan.

Trevor does everything himself in Lowther House, eventhough he owns a successful and sizeable business in China. He restored the house, he decorated it, he welcomes the guests, he cooks for them, he drives them around town on a quick tour...he even cleans everything himself - and then walks through the house afterwards, and pretends to be a new guest to see if he's missed anything!

The rooms at Lowther House are original Victoriana, and Trevor Lloyd the owner is justifiably's a stately place, and you feel like you are back in the days of the town's glory as Britain's second largest port after London. And Trevor could well have been the mayor...

But it's his knowledge and entertaining stories of Whitehaven which make a stay at Lowther House special. Here are a couple of snippets from my time with Trevor...they are a poor rendition of his, so make sure you get Trevor to tell you himself.

- The Last Invasion of England...

Back in 1778, the town was the scene of the last invasion of the British mainland. During the American War of Independence, a Scotsman called John Paul Jones (who had started his naval career in Whitehaven), had defected to the American side. On April 17 of 1778, he and his crew of his ship The Ranger, sneaked ashore and attempted to set fire to the English merchant ships. They failed, but he and The Ranger went on to cause the Brits all sorts of trouble. For his efforts, Americans took him in as one of their own, and Paul Jones is still an American naval hero to this day, his remains interred in a bronze sarcophagus in Annapolis.

- The Dark Spirit of Whitehaven

The town was for many years the second busiest port after London. The reason? In the 1700s, Whitehaven ship merchants were importing vast amounts of tobacco from Virginia in the US. When the American War of Independence was lost by the English, the traders had to find new markets to exploit. So they turned to the Caribbean, and started importing sugar and rum. However, slaves were needed to work the fields in Jamaica and Trinidad, and so the ship merchants supplied their vessels for the transportation of slaves from West Africa.

There is an excellent visitor attraction in Whitehaven, called The Rum Story, which takes one through this period of history...the tour itself is called The Dark Spirit of reference to the rum that was imported, as well as the pernicious implications of the slave trade.

- The Best View in Britain...Wastwater Lake

Trevor took me inland to Wastwater Lake, which was voted by the British public as the prettiest view in all of the UK, on an ITV TV program in 2007. It is also the deepest lake in England, at 260 feet.

Wastwater was pouring with rain when I went there.

When Trevor took me, it was pouring with rain, and a strong wind was blowing. We rounded a corner, and were confronted quickly with a huge mountain plunging near-vertical into the inky-black lake. On our side, the landscape is more friendly, and we could drive along the edge, and look across at the huge granite screes, which were created by massive glaciers in the last ice age. It is worthy of an accolade such as the one it received from the nation.

For more ideas on what to do in the area, Trevor's website is full of suggestions...or go to the official Cumbrian Tourism website.

Day 13 - North West England Coast - Cumbria - Silecroft - Some stunning photos from John Parminter at

John Parminter is a Silecroft (click to see on my Google Map) local who spends a lot of time running on the hills in Cumbria, as well as taking some stunning photographs. Here are a few of them...for more, check out his superb website

Wastwater Lake

Wastwater Lake

Finsthwaite beech trees in autumn

Beach sunset at Bootle...

Neglected boat at Ravenglass beach

Below are some photos I snapped of the beautiful pebbles and stones on Silecroft beach..(the low tide area is soft sand).

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Day 13 - North West England Coast - Cumbria - Silecroft - Big & Beautiful

Cumbria is home to the Lake District National Park, the largest in Britain, containing 16 lakes and four peaks higher than 3000 feet (including the highest mountain in England - Scafell Peak at 978 metres), as well as the deepest lake - Wastwater, where I am going tomorrow.

Although Ravenglass, between Silecroft and Whitehaven (click to see on my Google Map), is the only coastal town in the park, the national park's beauty flows over into the rest of the coast.

I came across John Parminter's photographs in a local Cumbrian magazine, and you should check them out - they are exquisite snapshots of a much larger masterpiece.

Go to

Day 13 - North West England Coast - Cumbria - Silecroft - Aaargh, I'm home

Silecroft (click to see on my Google Map) could be a place I've been expecting. Before I started this trip, except for one trip to Lymington on the south coast, I had never visited the coast of this island. I imagined the edge of Britain to be windswept and wild, mountains and hills falling to the sea, the area sparsely inhabited by friendly, charismatic locals who speak the local dialect, and full of cows, horses, sheep and border collies.

Panorama of Silecroft for full screen image. (That shadow is me taking the pic! Still need to Photoshop it out).

Since I started my trip, I've been exposed to some of the above. But never all of them at once. Driving into Cumbria I knew that I could be onto something. The Lake District is world-renowned, and justifiably so. As soon as I drove into the town of Windermere (on the lake of the same name) the steep hills enveloped silvery lakes, and quite country roads wound their way along dry stone walls. But Windermere is inland, as well as touristy, and I was looking for the coast, which in Cumbria is not as well-known as the interior.

Silecroft is on the southern end of Cumbria's coast. And I liked it - a lot. This is just my opinion, so you must please visit the area for yourself to make up your own mind, but I think Silecroft is a spot that Britain should be proud of - even though, at first, it seems slightly unremarkable.

There are only a few houses alongside a main road that leads down to a beach that extends for miles in either direction. There are two pubs, and only a couple of B&Bs. Behind Silecroft is a series of mountainous hills (if you know what I mean), full of sheep and cows, and Cumberland heavy horses.

There isn't much else. The wind blows (there is a windmill power farm just offshore). The tide comes in and out. The sheep and cows eat and sleep. Fishermen amble onto the beach and catch sea bass. Locals walk their dogs on the beach. Seagulls glide on the breeze. And there are no boutique stores, no supermarkets, no fancy restaurants (only one pub), and no "return-on-investment" Londoners looking for their next property deal.

This photo is called "Cumbrian Cow in Corner Composition"

Cumbrian sheep have it pretty good...

Cumbrian grass field...

Silecroft is exactly how I imagined the British coast to be. Of course I knew that it wouldn't be all like this, but if I had to pick a place that I had preconceived the coastline to be, it would be Silecroft.

Of course, place is only half of it. The people are the other half. You could travel to Papua New Guinea and be entranced by the rainforest, only to be eaten by cannibals. In Silecroft I was lucky enough to stay with a very welcoming family - the Rhinds. (And, of course, now I believe that ALL people in Silecroft are like the Rhinds). My mom would have liked them a lot, and that's a measurement in which I can place a lot of trust.

Newstead House is a B&B about 100 metres from the beach, on the tiny main road leading from the village to the coast. It stands alone in a field of long grass, which itself is surrounded by cows and sheep. You can look out your room onto the fields, see the ocean in the distance, smell it on the breeze all night, and wake up feeling like you've been injected with pure oxygen.

Paul and Alyson Rhind and their two sons (Adam and Fraser) and daughter (Eilidh) kindly invited me to eat with them for dinner, and Paul cooked me fresh sea bass, and Alyson servied me toffee pudding for desert (forget about any toffee pudding you've ever had - Alyson's is incomparable). I could have been at home, especially when Alyson said, "I hope you don't mind our crazy family". For breakfast Paul cooked me some fried eggs with cumberland sausage (98% pork meat, 2% seasoning - ie. NO FAT).

Newstead House, Silecroft...

Someone once said that landscapes determine the people, and Silecroft, with its slow-time feel, and people who smile and greet you along the way, is proof of that. It's a wholesome scene with people who are the same.

Paul and Alyson got me started on Cumberland sausages, and suggested I go to Bewley's Butcher Shop in nearby Bootle, where Willy Bewley makes and sells his locally famous kind of Cumberland sausage. It's a small shop, easily missed, so look out for the blue and white building on the main road of the village. Further north in Wabberthwaite, there is Richard Woodall's, who is the Royal Family's official Cumberland Sausage and Ham supplier. I bet the Queen sneaks into her kitchen late at night to fry up a few sausages...they are that good.

Further proof of the genuinely friendly locals, I went for a horseride with Murthwaite Green Trekking Centre, just down the road from Newstead House. Cath Wrigley runs her horse riding centre along with local girls who you can see wouldn't swap their jobs for anything in the world. Not hard to see why. They get to guide visitors onto the beautiful beach every day, riding horses that are as friendly as the locals. I dunno, maybe I was in an especially good mood (thanks to Paul's cumberland sausages), but everyone I met in Silecroft was someone I'd like to get to know better.

Go horseriding on endless Silecroft Beach with Murthwaite Trekking Centre in Silecroft. You can be a beginner horse rider, and not worry, because the guides are friendly and fun, yet always looking after your safety, and the long beach makes the horses happy.

...and ride some more...

Some other things to do in the area:

- Check out Swinside Stones, a mini Stonehenge type circle of 55 stones.
- Visit the RAF Museum in Millom.
- If you want to ride (or even just look at) the huge and heavy Clydesdale and Shire horses - the ones that are famous for doing the really heavy labour - go to Cumbrian Heavy Horses, just up the road from Silecroft. They are spectacular animals.
And for more, go to the official Cumbrian Tourism website.

Cumbrian Heavy Horses offer horse rides on these magnificently strong animals...