Thursday, 20 August 2009

Some great people along the way...

I met some very professional managers and owners of accommodation. The ones I remember, though, were not perfectionists...they were more interested in making sure I had a good time, and that I left with a sense of place - they wanted me to know why their little spot on the planet was so special to them. Many of my favourite hosts had been born or had grown up in their area, and the landscape was fused to their bones. I realise now that I remember the people as much as I do the postcard views...

1. Trevor Lowther at Lowther House in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Trevor is a walking, talking encyclopaedia. I have no way of proving this, but I am sure he knows everything about the Lake District, and in particular the coastal area near Whitehaven. But while he knows plenty, he is also fanatically zealous. He is only too happy to show people around, giving them an entertaining and informative tour.

2. Paul and Alyson Rhind and their three kids (Adam, Fraser and Aylee) at Newstead Housein Silecroft, in the Lake District in England. The Rhinds were friendly and frank, and I felt pretty homesick when I left, because they reminded me of my family - a bit crazy (like all families!)

3. Christian Drew at Corriegour Lodge, Spean Bridge, Scotland. This fantastic lady was the friendliest person I met. She is born and bred in the Highlands, and tartan-coloured blood flows in her veins. She gave me many reasons to one day marry a Scottish woman.

4. Annie Cooper at Boscombe House in Llandudno, Wales. Annie fed me up, did my laundry, showed me around the pretty town of Llandudno, and made me feel like I was her son. On a long trip alone, that's a pretty good thing!

5. Tom and Mary Watson at South Whittlieburn Farm near Largs, Scotland. At first I couldn't understand a word of what Tom and Mary were saying, but it didn't matter, because it sounded wonderful. And more than anyone I stayed with, they were proud to live on the land of their birth.

There were obviously plenty of other hosts who made me feel welcome. And in amongst all the other people I met, I only had one slightly offish experience, and that was being sworn at by a drunk in Edinburgh...for the rest, everyone was decent and kind. Most friendly people? I'd have to say the Welsh...if you want to get friendly with a Welshman, either buy him an ale or start talking rugby.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Top 5 most beautiful surroundings for accommodation

Some accommodation establishments are very lucky. They don't need to do very much to wow their guests...the scenery does it for them.

1. MacDonald Hotel in Kinlochleven, just south of Fort William in Scotland. This area is otherworldly. A long, thin loch with inky-black water, guarded on either side by the brooding Ben Nevis mountain range. The town is at the end of a road, and you really do feel like you're in Lord of the Rings.

2. The Cottage Hotel in Hope Cove, England. Unknown to many local tourists, Hope Cove is what I've always imagined a seaside fishing village in Britain to be. Small, remote, away from the main roads, craggy coast, stormy sea, windy...it's a must-do.

3. Worm's Head Hotel on Rhossili Peninsula, Wales. This hotel looks out over miles of beach, and the Worm's Head island just offshore. It's an untouched area, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

4. Thistle House in St Catherine's, near Inveraray in Scotland. Wake up to a view with Inveraray Castle reflecting on the mirror surface of the loch. 'Nuff said.

5. Castle Cottage, in Harlech, Wales. To the right is Mount Snowdon, in front is a loooong and wild beach, and to the left is the regal Harlech Castle (a World Heritage Site). Sit in Castle Cottage's bar and stare at all of this, then tell me there isn't a divinity of some sort.

It's very tough to leave the following out...Eddrachilles Hotel (Scourie, Scotland), Corriegour Lodge (Spean Bridge, Scotland), Torridon Inn (Torridon, Scotland), Dunchraigaig Guest House(Kilmartin, Scotland), The Ship Inn (Mousehole, Cornwall) and Cornerways (St Ives, Cornwall) and on the white cliffs of Dover, Varne Ridge.

Top 5 best value accommodation on my trip around the coast of Britain

"Value" is a relative term. You can have the best view from your room, but if the service ain't good...well, it just doesn't work as a package. And because travellers value different things at different values (if you follow me!), it's awful difficult to provide a bullet-proof list...So the following places were great value to me...

Factors I considered were price (obviously), scenery, service, cleanliness, decor, food, friendliness...and the undefinable X-factor, which can be little things like a manager's hearty laugh, or a glass of sherry next to your bed, or home made jams at breakfast, or a phone call after you've left, saying "thanks for coming, it was great to have you to stay"...

1. Eddrachilles Hotel, in Scourie, northwest Scotland. Beautiful location in the lochs and mountains, spick-and-span rooms, and excellent food. All for £60 a person a night (high-season), including room, breakfast and a fine three course dinner.

2. Cottage Hotel, Hope Cove, England. The hotel sits on the hill that overlooks the harbour and bay, and okay, the simple hotel food ain't gourmet, but it suits the setting...somehow it would seem wrong to eat haute cuisine in a village that survives on a daily catch. £60 a person a night (high-season), including room, breakfast and three-course dinner.

3. Lowther House, Whitehaven, England. For £40 a night, you'll get the smartest accommodation on the coast of Britain and the best breakfast (seriously). I can imagine heads of state staying here, and being quite comfortable...the rooms are huge, and the bathrooms are too. And it was the cleanest I experienced.

4. Cornerways, St Ives, England. For between £25 and £40 a person a night, you get slick accommodation in the middle of the labyrinthe of St Ive's cobbled streets and a very good breakfast. Trust me, this is cheap for St Ives...

5. Varne Ridge Holiday Park, Dover, England. This isn't a hotel, nor a guest house...it's got a couple of mobile homes which are very comfortable, and kitted out with everything you need for a self-catering holiday. Including flatscreen TV with all the channels - not that you'll watch them, because you'll probably be staring out across the English Channel. On average, you'll pay about £15 a person a night for a family of four...and these rates come down the longer you stay.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The end and the beginning...and everything in between

I started my trip around the coast of Britain in Brighton on the 12th July, and have ended it here on the 14th August...

I've loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that will stay with me forever:

Drinking illicit whisky with Johnny Clotworthy at Loch Ewe Distillery.
Kayaking at sunrise with Chris Wilson on Loch Torridon.
Eating fish and chips in the rain on St Ives harbour in Cornwall.
Walking through the Eden Project nearby to Penzance.
Chatting on the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge with Julieann Galloway, who had just swum the English Channel.
Watching the bagpipers and the fireworks under a glittering sky at the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Seeing the sharks being fed at The Deep in Hull.
Sitting alongside the ghosts of ancient Scottish kings on Dunadd Fort near Kilmartin.

The list goes on and on...I've compiled a couple of Top 5 selections, which I'll keep posting during the week...


Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover to London - My journey ends on an inspiring note...

I spent the last night of my journey on top of the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge Holiday Park. It's a small site with two bungalows and couple of caravan homes. It's got unrivalled views of the coast, across the channel to France. On a clear day you can see the cliffs on the continent, and at night you'll almost always see the lights.

I've been on the road now for 33 days, and have spent every night in a new town. So by the time I got to Varne Ridge, between Dover and Folkestone, I was ready for a break. And it couldn't have been a better spot to unwind and reflect on the last month of travel.


The view from Varne Ridge Holiday Park...across the channel to France. One of the finest views of my trip...click for a full screen version.

I got talking to owner and manager David Frantzeskou, and we spoke randomly and easily about the effect the ocean has on one's life. David moved with his wife Evelyn from London, leaving his job in an architectural firm. They saw the views, and bought a little house straight away. Game over.

Then they bumped into a little old lady who owned the caravan park next door, and she sold it to them...

The reason I'm telling you all this, is because David's holiday park is now the base for almost all the channel swimmers who swim the 20-odd miles across to France (and sometimes back again, and sometimes again across to France! More on this later).

Varne Ridge has become the "unofficial" official place for channel swimmers to wait for the right tide and time to make their crossing. On the walls as you drive in are the names of all the successful swimmers who've swum the distance, along with their national flag. And on the day, your national flag is raised when you come back to Varne Ridge...


David Frantzeskou at Varne Ridge Holiday Park, where most channel swimmers stay before and after they make the 21 mile crossing...every successful swimmer gets their name up on the wall.

David introduced me to Julieann Galloway, who at the wise old age of 23 had just swum the channel. She mentioned it like I mention brushing my teeth. Like "oh, I've just brushed my teeth" or "oh, I've just swum the channel". She's a Texan who's studying her PhD in Dublin, and thought she'd pop down to Dover to have a dash. For sure, she's trained in Dublin harbour right through winter, acclimatising to the cold water - but she had never swum in the ocean before 2007! And yes, she is an Olympic triallist for the 200 metres, but hey, she drove down from Dublin by herself with her dog Gibson, and now she's driving back to get on with her life. No friends, no family...just herself, her dog and 21 miles of powerful ocean currents. Talk about willpower.

Her pilot (that's the guy with the boat who follows you across, and feeds you as you go along) gave her the call at 8pm, telling her that the tide will be right at 2:40am the next morning. So it's pitch black, and Julieann says the first hour was the hardest. "I knew that once the sun comes up, I'd be fine" she said. "But swimming in the dark like that, by yourself, with another ten hours of swimming ahead...that was tough."

Her time of 9 hours 51 minutes is very respectable. Most people do it in 12 to 14 hours...including the men. The first person to do it was Captain Webb in 1875, who swam it in 21 hours 45 minutes. The record belongs to Chad Hundeby, who swam it in 1994 in 7 hours and 17 minutes...

Then there's Philip Rush, a New Zealander, who in 1987 wasn't happy swimming across the channel once, so he swam it twice, then turned around and thought he'd swim it again. He swam from England to France (7 hours 55 min), back to England (8 hours 15 min), and then back again to France (12 hours 11 minutes). His total time was 28 hours and 21 minutes...non-stop.

Think about this...up to 2009, 3000 people have climbed Everest, but only 734 have swum the channel. For sheer physical triumph, I guess the Tour de France might match swimming the channel three times. Well, for me, swimming it just once would be a superhuman achievement. Well done Julieann!!!



Channel swummer Julieann with her "pilot" who followed her in his boat, making sure she didnt' get eaten by any sharks...and no, she didn't swim naked, but she is definitely a "real" swimmer.

The next morning, after another good chat with David about the swimmers, the channel and life in general, a young girl drives out of Varne Ridge. "She's 18," says David, "and she's going to swim the channel today or tomorrow. They're programmed like robots, they're just so incredibly focused."

What were you doing when you were 18? Not sure about you, but I was falling out of pubs, chasing girls and trying to figure out what to do with my life (still am, I guess!). I certainly wasn't about to swim the English channel. People like Julieann deserve all the success they achieve...

Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover - The "key to England"...

Ask someone what comes into their heads when you say "British coast", and chances are they'll mention the white cliffs of Dover. (I think I would!?) For centuries, the cliffs were the first thing international travellers saw, arriving on passenger ships from the continent.

Today it is still a major port, with ferries leaving every few minutes to make the 21 mile crossing to France. And the best place to see them coming and going is Dover Castle, perched on the hill above town. It is a superb spot. The castle is imperious, with 270-degree views of the coast. It's been a very important military stronghold since its beginnings nine centuries ago. Indeed, it's always been known among army men as the "key to England".


Dover Castle to the left, Roman lighthouse and St Mary's Chapel in the centre, and Dover harbour to the right...click for a full screen version.


Dover Castle...

The iron age folk used it as a fort, and then the Romans built a huge lighthouse, which still stands today next to St Mary's chapel on the castle grounds. And the castle has been garrisoned continuously from 1066, when William the Conqueror built the first version of the castle, to 1958. Only the Tower of London and Windsor Castle can claim likewise.

It's a worthwhile visit. There are three things you shouldn't miss. First, Dover Castle itself. It's very well preserved...perhaps more so than any other castle I've seen on my trip. Make sure you walk to the top of the Great Tower in the centre, for fine views.

Second, St Mary's chapel next to the Roman lighthouse...the chapel is one of the oldest in the land. It's also got the best view across the channel.

And third, do the Secret Tunnel tour...

When Napoleon and the Brits locked horns in the late 1700s, the army built a vast network of tunnels underneath the castle, to house up to 2000 soldiers. No threat really materialised, but the engineers of the time could never have known how important their work was to become.

During World War II, the tunnels served as the bomb-proof command centre for Operation Dynamo. In May 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were cornered by the advancing Germans on the northern beaches of Dunkirk in France. The Britisn army's survival was at stake. The navy was tasked with getting them off the continent and back home, so they could fight another day.





From the tunnels the senior naval staff commandeered close to 700 ships, and in nine days more than 300 000 troops were rescued. The ships comprised naval vessels, fishing boats and any number of volunteer leisure boats. It came to be known as the "miracle of Dunkirk," because initially it was thought that only 90 000 troops could be rescued.

The Tunnel Tour will let you see what it was like for those naval officers, as well as the doctors and nurses that worked in the underground make-shift hospital.


Trying to look like Churchill...the Prime Minister came to Dover Castle to monitor the Battle of Britain...

Soon afterwards, the castle's tunnels were used again to monitor the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940). Winston Churchill watched the Spitfires and Hurricanes dogfight with the Luftwaffe's planes, knowing that the war's outcome depended more on this battle than perhaps any other. For it was Hitler's intent to invade Britain across the channel, landing 60 000 German soldiers on the 21st September 1940 between Dover and Brighton. The Nazi leader knew that air supremacy was crucial to the success of his naval operation, so he sent hundreds of planes across the channel to destroy the British air bases.

Three thousand British pilots in 20 squadrons were waiting for them, and the battle reached its climax on the 15th September 1940, when 85 German aircraft were destroyed or seriously damaged, and only 26 Royal Airforce planes were shot down. It was one of the turning points in the war, and led Churchill to praise his pilots with perhaps an incomparable commendation: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Almost 600 Allied pilots died during the Battle of Britain, and more than 800 died later in the war.

And that's why the most memorable thing you can do is visit the Battle of Britain Memorial on the coastal road between Dover and Folkestone. On top of the cliffs is a statue of a young pilot, sitting, waiting...pensive and silent, alone. He's looking out to sea, across to France...watching for German planes, ready for the call to jump into his Spitfire or Hurricane. It's a powerful experience...and brings home the sacrifice that each pilot had to make during those few weeks in 1940.

The names of all the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain are engraved on a wall behind the statue, and nearby is "Bob", a statue of one of the squadron dogs, who's also looking attentively out to sea, waiting for his pilots to come back safely.

Dover Castle is a great visit, but the Battle of Britain Memorial is more impressive, despite it's simple design and slightly run-down state. (It's maintained by volunteer money, so make sure you donate when you're there!)

The Battle of Britain Memorial between Dover and Folkestone...


"Bob", the squadron dog...waiting for his pilots to come back from their battles above the channel.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Day 32 - England East Coast - West Mersea - "Sitting on the dock of the bay, wastin' time..."

Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come
Watching the ships roll in
And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time


Otis Redding's famous song "Dock of the Bay" could have been inspired by Mersea. This island is only 70 miles from London, but it might as well be a 1000 miles. If you're looking to get away from the capital, it's a good bet. At 6pm you'll leave your desk job, sober and serious, in suit and tie, fretting over your mortgage, and by 8pm you'll end up amongst osyster farms, boozed fishermen, delapidated fishing boats and a superb sunset- all of which can be seen while sipping an ice-cold beer on the lookout deck at The Victory. And after two beers (or G&Ts), you'll want to move to Mersea to join the fishing fleet.

Although the island sits just offshore from the mainland (connected by a half-mile causeway), in a river estuary, there is a sense of separation that extends beyond the tenuous geographical isolation; the "island way" lifestyle is reassuringly disparate from that in the nearby cities and towns. It might have something to do with the pungent smell of the sandbanks when the tide goes out, or the harbour men who seem to have spent more time on the bottle than on the boat. But it's great, because it's real. After travelling through some brash and ballistic theme-park resort towns on the east coast (as fun as they are - if you're in the mood), Mersea is a dreamy reminder of how fishing villages should be.

And once again, I find people who've moved away from the madness of the cities to the "backwaters". Peter and Gill Tydie at The Victory ditched their corporate jobs in advertising and sales, and spent a "gap" year sailing the canals of France. They figured there was an alternative to an "8 to 6" day in the office, and after a spell at a pub in Hertfordshire, they bought the Victory on the shorefront in West Mersea. I have met plenty of people on my trip who have done very similar things...(are we city folk missing something here?)


The beach at Mersea...click for a full screen version. (Sorry about my shadow!)

Upstairs in the two-storeyed Victory are three decently comfortable rooms, and below is a very good contemporary restaurant (have the tuna steak salad), bar and separate sports pub. Sleep with the porch door open - the rooms look onto the many yachts and fishing boats in the harbour.

There's a good sense of humour in the service too: Peter and Gill are always up for a good chat, and the waiters and waitresses even more so. And the motto of The Victory ("a great place to sink a few") ties in nicely with the menu's battleship theme (starters are "take aim", mains are the "big guns" and desserts are "extra ammo".)

An aside...The HMS Victory was Lord Nelson's flagship which gave the French a wallop at Trafalgar - and is the oldest naval ship still in commission! It sits in a drydock in Plymouth as a museum ship...(looks like a worthwhile visit).

Mersea is famous for oysters, and The Company Shed is the most famous place on the island to eat oysters. Proudly non-chalant and low-brow in its atmosphere, this is the place to come for a fish-feast. But because the Shed is so wonderfully focused on fresh sea-food, you'll have to bring your own bread and drinks!

And coming up soon on the 22nd August is West Mersea's sailing regatta, which has been running every year since 1838...check out more info here.


Some more videos of Edinburgh Tattoo 2009...

Okay, here are some more videos of the 2009 Edinburgh Tattoo! Some are up to 10 minutes long, and you'll need a decent broadband connection to view them. But they're definitely worth a look! My favourite is Swiss Top Secret Drum Corp...it's brilliant. And The Last Post with The Lone Piper is also very atmospheric. And of course the fireworks are probably one of the main reasons people go to the Tattoo.

If you are going to Edinburgh next year in August, do yourself a favour and go to the Tattoo.


Swiss Top Secret Drum Corp


RAF Massed Bands


Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and Royal Regiment Band of Scotland


Fireworks display, including "God save the Queen" and "Auld Lang Syne"


"Abide with me", The Last Post and The Lone Piper


"Amazing Grace"


Highland Spring Dancers


"Going Home"


She Hou Cultural Act Xi'an from China


Burns Vocal Vignette


Traditional Bag Pipers!!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Day 31 - England East Coast - Great Yarmouth to West Mersea - The Vanishing Coast at Dunwich

There's less and less to see on the east coast of England. That's because - well - the coast is actually vanishing...

Take Dunwich, between Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe, for instance. It's the most spectacular case of disappearing coastline. When the Romans pitched their tents on Dunwich's natural harbour, the coastline was almost 2 kilometres east of where it is today. (On the map below, that would be about two centimetres - on the map scale - to the right of its current location.) And imagine a twisty estuary, with a big harbour. Because there was one (even though there isn't a trace of a harbour today!), and it gave Dunwich a lot of strategic power. It was one of the few natural harbours along this coast with deep anchorage.


View Edge of Britain in a larger map

During medieval times, the town's population of 4 000 was only half that of London's. (Today it's population is only a few hundred). But the coastline was disappearing even then. In the 1000 years from the Roman arrival to the arrival of William the Conquerer in 1086, the coast had already retreated by almost one kilometre.

But no-one was complaining, because the harbour was still one of the best in the region. Dunwich continued to thrive. It was one of the ten biggest towns in Britain, and had eight churches, three chapels and two hospitals, plus close to one thousand houses.


All Saints Church in Dunwich in 1904

And the same church in 1919...

The north sea, though, kept bringing more and more shingle on its tides, twice a day. And when a storm raged for three days in 1286, a large chunk of the town was swept into the sea. Equally catastrophic for Dunwich, the harbour was partially closed by huge banks of shingle stone. Another storm in 1328 sealed it off completely. Dunwich's commercial and political power collapsed along with it's coastline - without a harbour, it was useless to traders and shipmen.

Today, all the old houses and churches have been captured by the sea, except for the last remaining ruin of All Saint's Church, whose final capitulation is inevitable.

The whole story of Dunwich is very well told in the museum of the town. Below is a snippet of a DVD entitled "Whatever Happened to Dunwich", produced by John Cary, and copyright of Dunwich Reading Room and Museum. The DVD is sold for £4.95, and can be bought at the museum or from John Cary Studios.



Right next to the museum is The Ship, a pub and inn that serves very good food. It's not the usual burger and chips - you'll get a freshly-made, diverse menu.

About ten minutes from Dunwich is Minsmere Nature Reserve, one of the leading birding spots in Britain. You can see more than 300 species of birds - check out the seasonal highlights.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Day 30 - England East Coast - Cleethorpes & Skegness - Theme park theatrics...

Compared to a lot of other scenery I've been fortunate to see in Britain, the Lincolnshire coast is not very eventful. It's mostly flat, with few big drawcards...

One of the "nicest" little towns is probably Cleethorpes, which is small, simple, clean and - yes - "nice" (it really is the best way to describe it). I stayed there with Tudor Terrace Guest House, and had a good dinner at Signtaure Restaurant down the road. Kids will enjoy the coastal light steam railway nearby...it's a miniature train that goes up and down the coast. The Discovery Centre on the sea front has extensive views of the Humber Estuary.

Check out the Lincolnshire tourism website for more things to do in the area.

Go further south to the theme parks at Skegness. Do so entirely at your own risk, because your kids will chain you to the roundabout and throw away the key. It's a galactical law that all kids love theme parks, and if Skegness were a planet, kids would be in charge. Be prepared for anything and everything...Skegness is raw. I wouldn't recommend it for Vuitton-brandishing Londoners - for the rest of normal humanity, it could be the most fun we've had for a long time.

I have never seen so many happy people in one place.




















Monday, 10 August 2009

Day 29 - English East Coast - Yorkshire - Bridlington and Hull - Finding the gems...

One of the interesting things about my trip (so far) is that I had no idea what to expect before I started. I'd never travelled to the coast of Britain. For sure, I knew something about the areas I was going to travel to. But names were just names, and I didn't associate "good" or "bad" with any of them. And because I'd booked into towns quite randomly, without knowing too much about them, I've been exposed to a wide range of travel experiences.

I've seen some places which at first don't look very enticing, and then - on digging a bit deeper - I've found one or two things which redeem the area.

Bridlington is one of these places. In it's Georgian heydey, it was one of the most visited towns on the coast of Britain...thanks in part to its sophisticated cultural scene. However, it's not a naturally pretty spot. Bridlington wouldn't rank too highly on my list of "The Most Beautiful Places on the British Coast That I've Seen". (I'm going to compile one at the end of my trip.) The beach is brown, and the sea not as colourful as other spots I've seen. The town's buildings are not as quiant and lovingly cared-for, and the geography of the area doesn't lend itself to panoramic, elevated views.

So when air-travel in the 50s kicked in, the wealthier folk who usually flocked to Bridlington ended up travelling further afield to Europe...and the town lost its lustre.

Bridlington in its prime...

There is one thing though, which might make Bridlington famous for you. The Spa (not a health spa) is a small music venue that has hosted every single rock band since the 1950s. And it continues to do so, with Oasis, Travis, Kasabian, White Stripes, Placebo and Beautiful South all playing recently.

In the old days, only the Beatles never played at The Spa. Otherwise, all the other big names did...The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cliff Richard (big name?!?)...they all did. And thanks to this musical history, modern acts use Bridlington Spa as the venue for their one "intimate" performance. This August, Oasis is playing at Wembley to 40 000 people, and the week after they are coming to Bridlington to play to 3 500 people...the only small venue to be used by them on their tour.

With all due respect to Bridlington, you'd never expect to find a music - and theatre - venue of this high quality. It's the best thing about the town - so check out the Spa's website for upcoming music and theatre shows.


The view from Rags Hotel & Restaurant, where I stayed in Bridlington. Rags is right on the harbour.

Just north of Bridlington at Flamborough is a lighthouse tour...it's a stock-standard offering, however it is fun if you've got a rainy afternoon to spare. And it's educational for kids (and adults!) interested in maritime matters. For me, the technology is fascinating. The lens weighs 3,5 tons, yet is powered by two small electric motors; because the lens rests on half a ton of frictionless mercury, it can swivel around with the minimum of force. And because there are 500 different prisms in the lens, only a 1000 watt bulb is required to emit a light beam that extends about 45 kilometres out to sea (essentially to the horizon).


The Flamborough Lighthouse near Bridlington...

Futher south in Hull, The Deep is the biggest - and best - tourism attraction in the region. It's an award-winning aquarium which is not only fun and informative, but also scientifically respected (The Deep's marine biologists have been invited by the Cousteau Organisation to study marine life in the Red Sea.)

The highlight of The Deep would probably be the 10 metre-deep shark tank, in which divers periodically feed the 50 rays, sharks and other big fish (check out the video below). But there's so much else to see that it'd be hard to choose. After seeing some pretty shoddy aquariums on my trip (eg. dirty tanks, lack of educational info), The Deep is a bright blue star. It's a super slick experience, and one I'd trust to educate my niece properly about marine conservation. You could easily spend a whole morning here - just try and avoid the crowds, because it can get very congested.



The Shark Tank at The Deep in Hull....


And divers feeding the sharks...

Day 29 - English East Coast - Northumberland & Yorkshire - The unexpected coast...

This part of the British coast is not well-known. While the Scottish west coast, Cornwall and the South Coast are more popular, the Northumberland and North Yorkshire Coast is strangely not. That's because it has a reputation for being wild, windy, and bleak. But there are some gems along the way...

There are three castles that should be visited, if you're a castle fan: Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian Coast, the dramatic Dunstanburgh surrounded by cliffs, and the polyagonal Warkworth Castle further south.

For pretty towns, it's hard to beat Whitby (lorded over by the imposing ruins of Whitby Abbey), the tiny fishing village of Staithes (situated along a narrow inlet) and finally Scarborough (the original and most famous Georgian sea-side resort).

Whatever you do, please check out Holy Island (also called Lindisfarne). It's just south of the Scottish border near Berwick-upon-Tweed, and is home to a Tudor fortress which once housed the Lindisfarne Gospels, considered at the time to be the most beautiful book in the world (!). (The original book is now in the British Library).

Day 27 & 28 - Scotland East Coast - Edinburgh - Things to do over a weekend...

Edinburgh deserves its reputation as one of Europe's best cities to visit. It's small enough to walk around and see the best bits. It's hilly topography- and the castle's position high up in the centre of town - makes Scotland's capital one of the more beautiful cities in Britain. And it's vibrant combination of medieval history and contemporary culture ensures that there is something for everyone.

Most of the city is a World Heritage Site, thanks to it's colourful and pertinent history, as well as it's ancient and modern architecture. And it is also home to the queen's Scotland residence - Holyroodhouse.

For a complete list of what to do, check out the official website.

Here are a couple of must-do's.

- Visit the castle, and make sure you do the tours, which are free and last about 15 minutes. You'll get an entertaining and fascinating insight into Scotland, the Scots, Edinburgh...and how Edinburgh Castle has often been central to them. The castle is more than just an impressive building. It houses the "Honours of Scotland" - the ancient crown and spectre of the Scottish kingdom. And the castle is home to St Margaret's Chapel, built in 1130, and the oldest building in the region.

But perhaps my favourite part was the Scottish National War Memorial. The name of every single Scot who died in the world wars (as well as smaller, yet no less significant wars, such as the Anglo Boer war in South Africa) is documented in large registry books...more than 200 000 names are listed, and include date of birth, death and cause of death. And for those who died unknown, there is an adjoining memorial...

- Walk up Arthur's Seat. This 250 metre-high hill is in the middle of the city, and gives great views across the city. Romantics will believe that the name derives from King Arthur, but skeptics will probably agree that it comes from "Archers' Seat", alluding to it's strong defensive position. Both Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh Castle are built on extinct remnants of ancient volcanoes. Take a picnic with you, and enjoy the sunset...

- Explore the haunted past. As Edinburgh expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, buildings were built upon other buildings, and eventually a network of subterranean passages were formed. Initially they were used as storerooms, but during economic depressions they were used as homes by the poor migrants arriving in the city. During the black plague in the late 1600s, it is believed that the majority of the ill lived in the area around Mary King's Close, a street in the "Old Town". The medieval authorities took the decision to board up the area, trapping the sickly and letting them die within the compound. Plenty of paranormal and haunted tales have been recorded...so scare the living daylights out of your kids and do the Real Mary King's Close tour.

Below are photos from the Tattoo, when the castle is lit up with various efffects...





Scotland Coast - Some panoramics...

Here are some more panoramics from my trip along the Scottish coast...click on each image for full screen version.


Field near Thurso, north Scotland coast...


Derelict farm house on hill near Durness on the north Scotland coast.


Elgin Cathedral in Elgin, east of Inverness.


Dunnotar Castle near Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Day 27 & 28 - Scotland East Coast - Edinburgh - The famous Tattoo

Every year in August, Edinburgh turns into the world's festival city. The International Festival is all about the old classics: operas, orchestras, ballet and dance. The opening concert, for instance, is Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, and lasts more than three hours.

The Fringe Festival is the modern version, including comedy, modern dance, cabaret and contemporary musicals. Shows range from "Porn - The Musical" to the dance show "Love Machines", and from "Soweto Gospel Choir" to the theatre show "My Darling Clemmie", which is the theatre story of Clementine Churchill, Winston's wife.

The Fringe is - according to some stats - the biggest tourist attraction in the UK, although I don't know how they work that out. But it is huge, with hundreds of shows over the whole month of August. The traditional International Festival runs from 14th August to 5th September. Across both festivals, I doubt that anyone from anywhere won't be able to find something to enjoy.

The most spectacular individual event in August, though, is probably the Military Tattoo (which forms part of the International Festival). This music and light show is set against the backdrop of the 12th century castle in the middle of Edinburgh. Various military bands from around the world play a two-hour show every night for three weeks, regardless of the weather.

Although it obviously has a militaristic theme, it's more a tribute and memorial to those in the armed forces. Hundreds of bagpipers start and end the show, while in between, bands from other nations - as diverse as Tonga, China and Switzerland - show off their impression of military music. Each act has its own special lighting effects on the castle, and the fireworks display at the end is probably half the reason why people watch the Tattoo.

The really short videos below are off the official Edinburgh Tattoo website, and intended to give you a taste. However, I've recorded almost the whole show from the weekend, so the file sizes are really large...and I'll upload them once I find a really quick Internet Connection. !

And in case you're wondering (like I was), why it's called "Tattoo", it comes from the 17th century, when drummers would march through town, signalling to their fellow soldiers - who were enjoying their ales in the pubs - to head back to barracks. The inn-keepers would then shout out: "Doe den tap toe" (Turning off the taps).

Even if you're no fan of military themed shows...take a look at the videos, and see what you think.


















Friday, 7 August 2009

Day 26 - Scotland East Coast - Stonehaven - Dunnotar Castle rescued by Braveheart! And other dramatic things like the invention of pneumatic tyre.

Travel is all about random experiences, spontaneous and serendipitous. It's probably why people travel - to get away from the expected and controlled, and stumble across things that we never thought we would. Maybe it's got something to do with our ancient past as nomadic hunters and gatherers...

So Stonehaven, for me, was one of these. It's a seemingly straightforward, pretty coastal town on the east coast of Scotland. A small beach, sleepy main street, laid-back locals, some innocuously pleasant scenery. You drive into it, and say to yourself: "Nice", rather than "Cool!". But it's got a couple of more-than-nice surprises.

First up, Dunnotar Castle, about two miles to the south of the town's centre. Perched on a cliffed-promontory about 50 metres into the North Sea, the ruins are joined to the mainland by a low-flung stone causeway. There hasn't always been a castle on top, but it's been an important site of defence since 681 AD. And since then, it's had a history worthy of an action-packed film.


Dunnotar Castle, scene of Braveheart's "incineration" of the English in 1297, and now a somewhat more pleasant scene...click on the image for a full screen version.

Given its formidable natural setting, it would be very difficult to attack the castle. Well, except for William Wallace, the highland warrior leader who was celebrated in the film Braveheart by Mel Gibson. In 1297, he captured the castle from the English, whom we know - from the film - he hated intensely. And he did indeed, because once Willy's men had rounded up the English in the castle's church, he incinerated them by burning down the wooden enclosure in which he had imprisoned them. (By the way, Mel Gibson ended up shooting some of the scenes of the movie Hamlet at Dunnotar in 1990.)

In 1651, Oliver Cromwell's republican forces laid seige to the castle, to try and steal the Scottish Crown Jewels, but a priest's wife smuggled them out, and for some time they were hid in a small church to the south of Stonehaven.

It's open all year round, and - surprise! - it doesn't cost anything to visit. It's the first time on my trip that I've been able to visit a site of such historical importance, and not have to pay. And for me, at least, it's the most dramatic I've seen. So you must visit it.

We go now from the sublimbe to the mildly boring (at least in terms of any more potential Mel Gibson action flicks!). Stonehaven was the birthplace of Robert William Thomson, the inventor of the pneumatic tyre (and fountain pen!). So if it wasn't for Stonehaven, we'd all still be using horses to get around, and carving words into stone. Even a dramatic castle can't compete with RW Thomson.

Then, make a note of Carron Restaurant. It's an art-deco restaurant, situated on the town's little river, and is owned and run by the Cleavers. Robert is the chef and wife Jackie is the manager. They served me plenty of smoked salmon, even though it wasn't on the menu, and the mains of seatrout was fresh. They were friendly too, and just pleased to serve me a good meal. If you've got kids, and the restaurant is a bit quiet, Robert will take your kids into the kitchen, and let them put their own toppings onto their pizzas!

In fact, everyone I bumped into in Stonehaven was friendly. Especially Liz Molloy at The Beach View B&B, where I stayed. When I arrived earlier than expected, she was playing at Edzell Golf Course (which, interestingly, has a "bunker" on the 1st hole which was created by a German bomb, dropped during Second World War - and now called "Hitler's Bunker"!) She rushed back to set me up in the main room that looks over Stonehaven's beach. I slept with the window open all night, and the seawater flowed into my ears all night - audibly that is.


The sea-view room at The Beach View...

The Beach View only has two rooms, so you feel like it's your own holiday home. Liz is laid-back but attentive, and there are nice touches like binoculars in the rooms to see the birdlife - and occasionaly dolphins! - on the beach right in front of her property.

And then there's Jenna at the tourism information centre on Allardice street. She's generally fantastic. After talking to her, you'll feel like she's reason enough to visit Stonehaven.

A few other things that will keep you in Stonehaven for more than two nights:

- The Stonehaven Golf course runs along the coast, and is accordingly very scenic
- Visiting Cowie Shore to the north of town...only because it was there that the world's-oldest fossil of any air-breathing creature was found! (For the record, it's called Pneumodesmus Newmani.)
- Just south of town is a War Memorial, which is partly unfinished and ruined - intentionally so - to represent the unfinished and ruined lives of those men of Stonehaven killed during the world wars.

Cameron Clan Gathering in Achnacarry - some more videos

As promised, here are some more music vidoes from the Cameron Clan Gathering in Achnacarry, which I attended last week while staying near Spean Bridge at Corriegour Lodge Hotel. It was a real privilege to attend the gathering - not least because of the Gaelic music.

The Gaelic spoken in the Scottish highlands is grouped with the Irish and Manx Gaelic, and these are descended from Old Irish. They are also different to Welsh and Cornish. Some folk call it Scottish, which is different from the Scots Language, called Lallan, which is spoken in the lowlands, and is derived from Old English. Unfortunately, only about 1% of Scotland's residents speak it, and unlike Welsh, which is taught in schools, Scottish Gaelic isn't. So any celebration of it's use (whether music or just spoken) is something special.







Thursday, 6 August 2009

Day 25 - Scotland East Coast - From Thurso to Inverness - Dunrobin Castle - Hundreds of dead African animals, and some fantastic live ones

The weather continues to hold. And I got sunburnt today (the weather gods' revenge on my previous complaints), while watching a falconry display at Dunrobin Castle, between Thurso and Inverness. The 13th century castle has been amended and extended, so that today it is more of a very large, grand and ornate manor house.But the spirit of the castle still persists, given it's imposing height and architecture, position on a steep hill, and fantastic gardens. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Do yourself a favour, and go see it.

But the undoubted highlight is the display of falconer Andy Hughes and his birds of prey on the lower lawns of the castle. He gives a superb exhibition with his hawk, falcon and barn owl. Displayed in succession, each bird's characteristics and behaviour comes to the fore. Andy moves between the audience, and the birds fly low over their heads, and sometimes - in the owl's case - land on someone's head.

But the birds are wild. They simply allow Andy to feed them on an ask-and-reward system. So each time they fly back to Andy's hand, he gives them a piece of raw chicken. However, if he stopped feeding them, they'd happily fly off and find their own food.

You get to see the birds right up close, and Andy's knowledge is extensive, and he puts on a great show as well. You will be thoroughly entertained and educated. A must-do. Please don't miss it, so find out more at the Dunrobin Castle website. Also in his ranks, but not displayed to our audience today, are other birds such as the golden eagle, which can be viewed in the garden as well on their open-air perches.

Also at Dunrobin Castle is the museum of the Earl of Sutherland's hunting exploits in the 19th century in Africa. Be prepared for some disturbing viewing. There are hundreds of stuffed heads of once proud and beautiful African animals...from giraffe, to elephants, to buffalo, to the smallest animal and the largest. It's not for everyone, but it is a shocking reminder of how precious the remaining populations of wild animals are.

I then moved on to Inverness, and couldn't find any accommodation (it was the first night I hadn't planned in advance). During peak holiday season, make sure you don't make the same mistake. I eventually looked up on LastMinute.com, and found a spot overlooking Loch Ness, about 20 minutes inland from Inverness. Craigdarroch has great views of the loch - rooms are very spacious and comfortable. The food needs some attentions (my Thai Curry was rice and sauce - for £13!), but it may have been a one-off mishap. But it's a very relaxed atmosphere for such a grand building and location, and the South African owners keep a convivial bar where guests can carouse until the late hours.


Dunrobin Castle on the way from Thurso to Inverness. Click for a full screen version.


Dunrobin's museum of dead African animals, shot by the Earl of Sutherland during the 19th Century. If you're an animal lover, this might be too much for you.


Andy Hughes gives a superb "falconry" display at Dunrobin, which shouldn't be missed. He demonstrates various birds' (including the above barn owl) behaviourial characteristics, in a highly entertaining and educating display. Don't miss it!

Day 24 - Scotland North Coast - Thurso & Mey - People at the end of the island

Have you ever been somewhere remote? (I hope so!). Now think of someone who lives there. What do you think of them?

My experience is that some of the nicest people live the furthest from cities and towns. Funny how we spend our whole lives working busily to earn the right to slow down and live a simple life. Some folk get straight to the good stuff, and forego the ratrace.

Chris and Karen van Rooyen run a small B&B called Creag-na-Mara, within stone's throw (okay, probably a superhero's javelin throw) of Dunnet Head. According to the map, they live in the village of East Mey, to the east of Thurso. But that's just the map. In reality, the village doesn't exist (at least not in the way we think of a village), and their views extend over wheat fields and the north sea. To the left is Dunnet Head, and up ahead are the Orkney Islands.

Karen taught me a new word today: "Haar". It's the Scottish word for "thick, misty haze that is blown in strongly from the sea and stops you from seeing anything further than a few hundred metres away." I experienced "haar" in it's full glory when I visited Dunnet Head that evening. The wind was pumping, the sky so hazy I couldn't see the Island of Stroma (click to see on Google Map), hardly two kilometres off-shore.


Dunnet Head on the evening I visited. The above belies the howling wind and thick haze...the sun is almost blotted out. Despite being perched on the cliffs, about 100 metres above sea level, the lighthouse's windows have been broken by rocks flung up by waves and wind during storms. Click for full screen version.

Anyway, the Van Rooyens are proof that you don't need to have high-speed broadband to be happy. So for once, I couldn't upload any content to my blog, and probably better off for it. Instead, Chris and Karen got chatting to me, and we chatted some more...and then we stared out the windows, and stared some more. They've got 270 degree views of the farm fields, and in the distance, Dunnet Head.

Chris is a former traffic warden who loves laughing, and Karen used to work as a commercial property lawyer who swapped the courts for the cows of the north coast of Scotland. "We thought we could live a better life up here...more simply," said Chris.

The next morning there wasn't a sniff of "haar". So I headed back to Dunnet Head to see if it could show a softer side. Well, it did, and here's the proof below. The distant island to the right of the photo is Stroma Island, which I couldn't see the evening previously because of the haze...

Dunnet Head the following morning, when the sun was shining and the "haar" had disappeared. Click for full screen version.


The view from Creag-na-Mara B&B's lounge. To the right in the distance is Dunnet Head. Click for full screen versioin.

Cameron Clan Gathering in Achnacarry - videos

I've finally managed to find a decent Internet connection in northern Scotland! I'm staying at Craigdarroch House, which looks out over Loch Ness. I made the mistake of not booking any accommodation in advance in Inverness - during peak holiday season. Bad idea. I spent three hours knocking on B&B doors, and got into a hostel, only to find that I was going to share a dorm with six teenage Slovakian guys, who - the receptionist told me - had a knack of going crazy at 3 in the morning.

So, with plenty of Megabytes flowing here, I've uploaded one of the music videos from the Cameron Clan Gathering, which I attended when I stayed at Corriegour Lodge Hotel. Give it a listen, but it's a big file, so make sure you've got high-speed Internet access. I'll upload some more in the coming days.


Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Day 24 - Scotland North Coast - Durness to Thurso - It's a wonderful world up north (when the sun shines!)

The photography gods must have heard my complaining about the rain spoiling my chance of decent pics. Not that they'd care, but the sun's been shining down hard on northern Scotland. After leaving Eddrachilles Hotel near Scourie, I've had nothing but HOT weather. Okay, not 30 degrees hot, but certainly 25 degrees. Which is hot for these parts.

The north coast of Scotland is not given much press. I've done quite a bit of research, and the west coast gets most of the limelight. But what I've seen so far has been fantastic. Okay, the weather does help. And I'm sure every spot on earth is nicer when the sun's shining. But the northern Scottish coast is definitely worth a visit.

Here's why: It's remote. It's largely unpopulated. Distances between towns are long. Villages are very, very small (a few houses at most). And it's beautiful. The highest cliffs in Britain are along the north coast of Scotland, and there are many secluded coves which have turquoise water (when the sun shines). Although the H2O is still quite cold for swimming, the beaches could be in the Mediterranean. But it's all about the weather...So, things to put on your itinerary:

- Durness (click to see on Google map). It's got a nice atmosphere...very holidayish. And a great beach (see the panaromic pic I took).

- Dunnet Head (click to see on Google map), the northern most point on the mainland. It's everything you'd expect of a northern extremity. There are cliffs 100 metres high, wind strong enough to blow the hair out of your head and supreme views out to the islands to the north. Certainly more impressive than I expected. Don't miss it.

- The Castle of Mey, east of Thurso. It was the summer home of the late Queen Mother, and now Charlie spends his summers there. So it's open all of summer, except in August, when the prince comes up to get away from the paparrazi down south.

- Pulteney Distillery, in Wick, to the east of Mey. It's one of the most northerly distilleries, and you can bottle your own wizzos.

On the road from Scourie to Durness...typical highland mountain scenery (click to enlarge)

The beach at Durness...when the sun's shining, it looks tropical (click to enlarge).