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...