Monday, June 05, 2006

Sydney to Isle of Skye

The flights from Sydney to Manchester were long and uneventful. I arrived on time, progressed through immigration and customs without a problem and waited for my partner to arrive from Chicago. We picked up our car, a brand new Vauxhall (Holden) Astra and headed up the M6 towards Windermere. Jetlag and motorways don’t mix too well so it was good to finally get off onto the less hectic country roads. Spring was definitely in the air. The fields were green as green and covered in wild daffodils, the trees were coming into leaf and black faced ewes with their newborn lambs, many twins, were everywhere. We reached our destination in record time despite a few wrong turns and headed for lunch. Good old greasy fish and chips at a chippie.
Then we found the Rockside Guesthouse where we had arranged an early check in and headed up numerous flights of narrow stairs into our attic room (quiet and away from the road) for some sleep. That evening we headed for the pub across the road and consumed a few beers before going back to bed. 9pm was too late for them to serve food.
Of course we woke up at 3am bright and cheerful but were soon put back to sleep by BBC early morning television. There is just so much you want to learn about the blue tit warbler’s mating habits. After a traditional English breakfast we started our Lake Country tour by driving around Coniston Water, scene of Donald Campbell’s demise, in misty rain on some pretty narrow roads that were to be a preview of what was to come in Scotland. Actually, as it turned out, these were freeways in comparison.

We ended up in Levens Hall’s famous gardens which features a topiary garden laid out in 1694. This was a pleasant interlude in clearing skies which got rid of the cobwebs and got us prepared for what was later called a scorcher of a day. 28C!
Back around the shores of Lake Windermere, we arrived in Bowness for lunch. We had been recommended Hole Int’ Wall, a pub built in 1612 and frequented previously by such luminaries as William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens. We had a few pints and a sandwich in the beer garden. By now the sun was streaming down and the Poms were threatening to take their shirts off and show us acres of white skin so we headed to the lake for the traditional holiday lake/river cruise.
We judge these on the basis of the Rhine Cruise being ten points and the Memphis Mississippi River Cruise being zero points. This one scored a five. Pleasant enough but spoiled by Japanese tourists taking pictures of each other taking pictures. After another catch up sleep we went back to Bowness for dinner at another recommendation. This was the Porthole, an Italian restaurant which turned out to be one of the better meals of the trip. We forewent our entree in order to buy a 1st growth St. Emilion to go with our excellent pepper steak (with a sauce to die for). Then we succumbed to dessert.
Then came the bill!
I will not harp on about the prices in the UK, especially when converted back into Australian dollars ($A1 = GBP 0.40) but we were caught a little by surprise. Just a few examples in case you are intending to travel there. Petrol cost $A 2.50L (that’s $US7.50 gal), a pint of beer was $A6-$A7, a pub lunch with a beer was a minimum of $A25 each and a double room with en suite in a STB rated four star B&B averaged $150 a night. I should also mention here that despite the fact that British cooking and, in particular pub food, gets a bit of a bashing, we were more than happy with the variety, freshness and presentation offered, even in the smallest country village. British stodge still exists for the traditionalist but we were never forced to succumb.

Next morning and another sunny day, we drove over the spectacular Kirkstone Pass. Its barrenness and moonscape is in complete contrast to the Lake Country we left behind. However after some easy country driving and great scenery, we were soon back onto the M6 and into Scotland.
Again we hit the country roads and arrived at the medieval Caelaverock Castle built in 1270. It is an archetypical fairy-tale castle with a moat surrounding its red stone towers. Despite being the victim of many sieges, border clashes and its eventual demise in 1640, the structure is still in amazing condition. Almost alone, we were able to climb stairs and enter some rooms with their huge fireplaces and soak up the atmosphere.

Then it was on through Dumfries to New Abbey, with its ruined Sweetheart Abbey on the outskirts, for a pub lunch. The story of the founding of Sweetheart Abbey is said to be testament to the enduring power of love. In 1273 Lady Devorgilla signed a charter establishing a new Cistercian Abbey in memory of her husband, John Balliol, who had died four years earlier.
Lady Devorgilla's love for her departed husband extended to carrying his embalmed heart around with her in an ivory box with enameled silver trimmings. After her death in 1289 she was buried in the sanctuary of the abbey church she had founded, and on her instructions the casket containing her husband's heart was buried beside her. Cheery stuff, huh?
Then followed a spectacular drive along the coast to the artists’ town of Kirkcudbright (pronounced kercoobrie; ok, if you say so!) at the mouth of the River Dee where we spent the night at a really nice B&B, Gladstone House, run by an ex divorce lawyer and his wife. They were amusing company and ran a tight ship. We ‘did’ a couple of pubs and ended up at the Selkirk Arms for a very nice dinner of venison sausage and mash.
Another bright sunny but colder morning saw us on the road to Culzean Castle passing by the famous Turnberry golf links. This castle stands on a cliff edge with panoramic views across the sea to the Isles of Arran and Kintyre. It was built in 16th Century, remodeled in the 1770’s by Robert Adam and restored in the 1970’s. It’s now in the National Trust of Scotland’s hands and is a showcase of Adam’s neo-classical style. I am not big on castle tours but this is one out of the box. Some of the rooms are breathtaking. It was a favorite getaway for General Eisenhower during WW11 and in appreciation of his role in that conflict, he was given the top floor to use at any time of his life.

Back on the road and we skirted Glasgow heading for our next stop at Arrochar. On the way, we visited the much-vaunted village of Luss on Loch Lomond. It turned out to be a Scottish Disneyland whose only redeeming feature was the old church and graveyard.
Our B&B, the Argyll View, sat at the end of Loch Long with spectacular views to the mountains that tower above the water. It was here the weather turned nasty and we thought our luck had run out. A dinner of salmon steaks in a deconsecrated church now restaurant eased the pain.
Next morning it was cold, wet and foggy. We headed north along the shores of Loch Lomond with the 975m peak of Ben Lomond covered in swirling mists. We knew we must be in the highlands. The road signs became bi-lingual with Gaelic on the top.
We climbed up onto Rannoch Moor and sped over this barren rugged landscape finally descending into Glencoe Gorge. Wet, cold and misty is the right weather to be there. Apart from its savage history, the area is famous for its awesome scenery and it did not disappoint. The 1692 massacre takes a back seat. At the NTS visitors centre it was hardly mentioned. We heard though, later, that the MacDonalds still have no time for the Campbells.
Little wonder!

Then it was on through Fort William to the ‘Road to the Isles’ and Malliag and our ferry to Skye. Ben Nevis is in the area but its snowy 1345m peak was not to be seen. Apparently it is in cloud 90% of the year. We stopped along the way at the Glenfinnan Monument which commemorates those who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and where he first raised his standard. Not far down the road is a cairn marking the spot where he left for France in 1746 with his tail between his legs. This sorry tale of folly which lead to Scottish history being changed forever is better told during our visit to Culloden a few weeks down the track.
This is a very spectacular road along Lochs Eil, Shiel and Eilt before hitting the coast and the sea lochs and the first of the white sandy beaches. We had a roast dinner lunch in a nice restaurant in the tiny village of Arisaig. What this establishment was doing here who knows. Maybe it survives solely from the summer tourist trade.
We were coming across more and more single-track roads. These are roads, some of them main roads, wide enough only for one car, which have passing places strategically located along them, every 100m or so. If you see a car coming you pull over onto one of these to let them past. If someone is tailgating you (usually a local in a white mini van or the postman) you should do the same and let them overtake. Sometimes you don’t see someone coming and you meet at the top of a hill on a blind corner. Then it’s time to decide who will back up. It is customary to give a little wave of thanks to those who stop or a toot for those that pull over. It should also be customary for newbies at this game to wear brown corduroy trousers and have a change of underwear handy. We thought these were a little intimidating but we were blissfully unaware of what Lewis and Harris had in store for us.
Mallaig is a busy fishing and ferry port as well as rail head. The setting is very beautiful with tall cliffs surrounding the harbor and the Isle of Skye in the distance about 25 minutes away by sea. We were early so put the car in the ferry queue and went for a walk around town. Lots of tourist shops, hotels and take aways.
But soon it was time to drive the car into the bowels of the ship and head upstairs for a quiet drink while contemplating the next part of our adventure.
And guess what? The weather was improving!

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