Our route from Skye took us around lochs and over hills. The most dramatic section was the road over a high pass to Applecross. The road was single lane with passing bays for use when you meet oncoming traffic. We have become used to these but the Applecross road was also very steep, very windy, and mostly had no edging between us and the drop. The views were dramatic and wild. A great drive!
We spent a lovely night on a farm near the west shore of Loch Broom, opposite Ullapool, where the owners introduced us to a large lamb that was firmly convinced the farm collie was its mother. We continued north in mostly cloudy weather, again often on single lane roads – more lochs, high tarns, bare hills and glorious views. Our progress was slowed by the sheep that wander on the roads, oblivious to any vehicles. In Talmine, an out-of-the-way stopover one night, they were joined by cattle that freely roamed the village. As a visitor, it was all utterly entrancing.
The countryside flattened out as we approached the east, and after the previous week it felt something of an anticlimax. There was little to hold us there, but we did call in at Dunnet Head and John o' Groats to have wind blown photos taken, like every other tourist.
We drove into Scotland and took the beautiful Glen Coe road north with its high imposing hills closing down to the valley floor. A (very) slight knowledge of the history of the area added to drama of the scene. Loch followed loch as we headed to Oban to catch the ferry to Mull.
The highlight of our visit to the island was a boat trip out to another island – Staffa. We went to see the intriguing vertical basalt columns that form the tiny island and the deep sea cave (Fingal's Cave) which is supposed to have inspired Mendelssohn's Hebrides overture. The highlight for me though was the hundreds of puffins that wheeled around, landing only a couple of metres from us. They are quite small and fall prey to large gulls so the presence of people close by provides protection.
We also had an interesting if rather brief visit to Iona. The church is lovely and quite evocative. It was not hard to imagine life there in the 6th century and it remains a very peaceful and contemplative place in a beautiful setting.
Going through Castle Duart on Mull gave us something to compare with a later visit to the the Skye Museum of Island Life. The museum is a series of preserved buildings that made up a typical croft, and the crofters house itself was lived in until the late 1950s. While I would not say that the laird lived in great comfort in his castle, it certainly felt luxurious in comparison. One of my great grandparents came from the Shetlands and her life there must certainly have involved eking out an existence on such a croft – all hard work and freezing cold.
Our fine weather finally broke and we enjoyed a blustery walk to the Neist Lighthouse on a mostly rainy day on Skye. The buildings are far from beautiful but the vertical cliffs are very dramatic and it was worth braving the elements to wander around the cape.
The Lake District gave us cool but mostly fine weather in which to enjoy the scenery. New Zealanders are probably a bit hard to impress when it comes to mountains and water as we do the combination so well at home, but the drive from Keswick past the Ashness Bridge, through Borrowdale and over the Honister Pass to Buttermere was really stunning. After three weeks in England it was lovely to be enclosed by big hills again. The English countryside is often pretty but usually in a very gentle way, and for me anyway its appeal lies more in the mix of countryside with manmade features – stone walls, farm buildings, beautiful villages and small towns.
Later the same day we headed to Windermere but one look at the crowds sent us scurrying for the ferry to cross back to the quieter side. Even in the Lake District we are always conscious that this is a heavily populated country. With so many people around, parking is always a problem in the towns, so in most places we have visited pay and display parking areas are provided outside the centre and we walk in. This works well but we were a little startled to find that parking areas in the countryside (for fell walkers etc) are also sometimes pay and display.
We have been staying in B&Bs and finding them on the whole pretty good. You do tend to get what you pay for of course – the more expensive places are certainly more comfortable. Some of the breakfast rooms are a little daunting though – 4 or 5 tables in a fairly small space, people speaking in hushed voices if they speak at all, and the same heavy and dull cooked meal served over and over again. Sometimes there is very welcome fruit but never decent coffee. However we certainly don't go hungry!
We had a mixed visit to Yorkshire. Many of the towns and villages were decorated for the Tour de France which had its first two days of racing in the area. There was bunting everywhere, usually cut out in the shape of cycling shirts, old bikes had been painted yellow (the race colour) and were parked or hung up in odd places, yellow flowers often predominated in window boxes, and many shops had chosen a yellow theme for their window displays. It was all very colourful and cheerful. Cycling enthusiasts were all over the hills, trying out the route for themselves so driving the narrow, winding roads was even slower than usual. The only downside really was at the weekend when the race got underway as hundreds of roads were completely closed – not just those that were on the race route, but many of the access roads too. We had planned to cross the Yorkshire dales on Saturday but the entire area was blocked off and we had to take a more northerly path.
We did manage to visit Haworth and the Bronte country again though. It was easy to picture that strange family living there rather claustrophobically in the parsonage and gloomy churchyard, and to imagine Cathy and Heathcliff up on those dramatic but bleak hills. Heading over the moors to Whitby we took the side road to Goathland – Aidensfield in the Heartbeat TV series. The Aidensfield arms was easily recognisable, and the Ford Anglia used as the original police car was also parked nearby. The village seems largely unchanged by the series, apart from the addition of a few tourists and a shop selling Heartbeat memorabilia.
Cathedrals – York was unmissable and magnificent of course, but on our way to Yorkshire we called into Coventry as 30 years ago we had been so impressed by the whole cathedral complex there. It really is wonderful. The new cathedral has been loosely attached to the ruins of the old bombed out one and done really well. The reconciliation theme is firmly and unashamedly hammered home everywhere. Inside the new cathedral the modern glass is absolutely stunning and the wall facing the old building has been created in plain glass with etched figures cut into it, giving a complete and clear view through to the ruins. Graham Sutherland's huge seated Christ tapestry at first seems startling but then somehow right for the space.
The fine weather finally broke and we visited Windsor Castle, huge and impressive, in the damp. The state apartments are very ornate and imposing, but they also display a wonderful collection of art works, including Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents. The slaughtered babies were smudged out and replaced with animals and assorted bundles early in the 17thc on the order of the Holy Roman Emperor to mask the painting's political message. We were there on a Saturday and it was very busy but we were always able to find a space apart. Viewing Queen Mary's dolls house was different – we queued in the rain to go in and then did have to keep moving through, although we had long enough to appreciate the tiny details like the minute books, the perfect little working electric lights, and the miniature jewels. St George's chapel was another treat, with its beautiful ceiling and magnificent quire. A great visit.
We were lucky enough to be in the area north of London on a Sunday when the Shuttleworth Collection was holding a flying day. It was a very enjoyable outing despite being cold and occasionally wet. Two Yak 50s put on a magnificent aerobatic display and a Hawker Hunter jet fighter was put through its paces at high speed. A Spitfire, a C Hurricane and many others also contributed to an impressive display which was marred only when a triplane coming in to land in gusty conditions clipped a fence and ended nose down, tail up. There were a few very anxious minutes before we heard that the pilot was OK. The damaged plane was eventually hauled away and the show continued after an hour or so.
The sun came out again for Stratford and we wandered through the old streets and along the river and canal. The wonky half timbered buildings are endlessly photogenic. Heather and Robert visited Anne Hathaway's Cottage while Chris and I took in Hidcote Garden which was in full early summer bloom. I was delighted to find a couple of blue Himalayan poppies in a shady corner. At this season blue is the predominate flower colour in the garden – every possible shade, mixed mainly with white and pink. I really love blue flowers but my favourite corners were those that balanced all the blue with a little yellow or orange – so much more cheerful!
Thirty years ago we visited Salisbury Cathedral and were overwhelmed by its soaring magnificence. Obviously that has not changed but this time I was also struck by the huge expanse and austerity of the interior. Wells Cathdral seemed altogether more welcoming and manageable, with its stunning arches and columns in warm honey coloured stone.
Stones – we couldn't not go to Stonehenge though I was apprehensive about the corralling of crowds that has become necessary. In fact it was all well managed and the large number of visitors did not detract from the atmosphere of the place. We paraded solemnly around the stones in a great circle, in much the same way I imagine as worshippers 4000 years ago!
On to Bath which was wonderful. It was especially great to see intact Roman baths after visiting the ruins of so many in Turkey. The display areas and excavated rooms are impressively well done, and the serious commentary on the audios was enlivened by Bill Bryson's quirky comments.
After such serious sightseeing, strolling around some of the Cotswold villages was a welcome low-key break. Some seethe with tourists during the day, but others are still relatively quiet and relaxed. Those we visited all had their own charm, golden stone cottages beside pretty little shallow streams or churchyards with gloomy yew trees looking out over slate roofed houses.
We spent a couple of nights in Bourton-on-the-Water and while Heather and Robert decided on a quiet morning in the village Chris and I took in Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill. The building is huge and imposing rather than attractive, and the state rooms over-ornate in a very baroque style. However the gardens are beautiful. I loved the contrast of the formal garden and water garden giving way to the more distant 'wild' landscape designed by Capability Brown.
We have been enjoying sunny weather which has showed Cornwall at its picturesque best. More villages, St Michael's Mount, old mine workings… All lovely. Port Isaac, where Doc Martin is set, was surprisingly untouristy – in fact distinctly fishy! We also spent a wonderful few hours doing short stretches of the SW Coast Walk around Bedruthan Steps and Tintagel. The coastal cliffs are spectacular with sheer drops to rocks, tiny coves and a dark blue sea way below. Tintagel is associated with stories of King Arthur, and imagining a castle from the ruins requires a lot of imagination but it is very dramatically sited.
Having loved the Cornish fishing villages we were looking forward to revisiting Clovelly. Thirty years ago it was an attractive (if touristy) place, and was full of life. Now it is nothing more than an odd sort of museum – you even have to pay £6 per person to step onto its streets. We were there on a sunny Saturday and it was completely dead. Few people see any point in paying to see a former fishing village, however dinky it is, when there are plenty of free ones just down the coast. The whole village is owned by one family and I guess they are running it the way others run their stately houses.
Another place we struggled to appreciate was Ilfracombe. Worth seeing there though is Damien Hirst's statute entitled Verity. It stands 20metres high on the wharf and features a pregnant woman raising a sword in one hand and carrying scales in the other. The key feature is that one side shows her stripped of skin, with skull and sinew exposed, and the belly cut away to reveal the baby she carries in her womb. It must generate a lot of controversy.
We crossed Exmoor expecting moorland but found mostly high green fields. However we did eventually reach real moor with wild horses, and were able to take a photo of Heather in the heather. It is not yet flowering – maybe it will be by the time we leave Scotland?
Driving the narrow winding roads of SW England, taking them slowly and constantly pulling over into the hedges to allow others to pass, is certainly not for the impatient. We did encounter one road today blocked by an accident, with two sad-looking cars waiting to be towed, but generally drivers are polite and careful.