Part 4 of a legendary journey around the not-so-small island we live on...
Read Part One of our road trip tale here, in which we plan a road trip to Devon, but only if we can go to Scotland first....
Read Part Two of our road trip tale here, in which we discover what makes Hadrian's Wall so unique among walls....
Read Part Three of our road trip tale here, in which we come face to face with Nessie (sort of)....
In Scotland I had expected it to rain profusely, and aside from the sodden journey up to the Highlands, it hadn't. The lady who ran Foyers House Hotel had joked 'oh, don't worry, it NEVER rains in the Highlands', and I, being slow and stupid, had thought she wasn't being heavily sarcastic. Well, if no-one had pointed it out to me, I would have left Scotland believing it to be true. The sun even came out! More than once! It was glorious. But that's all over now, I thought, because we'll be in Wales soon, and then it will p*ss down continuously until we leave. Because: Wales.
We had decided to make an overnight stop between Scotland and Wales - in the Lake District, because Erica had never been there. Well, I'm sorry to tell you this Erica, but you've still never been there. We stayed in Grange-Over-Sands for approximately 14 hours and it turns out that despite being only 7 miles from Windermere, historically it's in Lancashire. By the time we arrived at our exceedingly posh hotel, complete with shaped hedges and a lawn covered in rich people having tea out of china cups, the weather was doing a very odd thing. It was positively balmy - not like September in the north of England at ALL, and the light was casting a lovely orange glow over everything. It was like being in the Caribbean! Sort of. We decided to go and find the 'sands' that Grange-Over-Sands is presumably quite famous for. But first: some gadding about on the lawn, pretending to be Alice in Wonderland:
Here is what I have learned about Grange-Over-Sands: there is very little sand (that is safe to walk on). On skipping down the hill to the sea front in order to promenade along it just like I am convinced the Victorians did once, we discovered an expanse of boggy, grassy marshland that eventually gave way to goopy looking mud that seemed to extend on forever, or at least until Morecambe, which was faintly visible on the other side of the huge bay. It looked like the kind of place where one foot wrong causes you to sink into the gloop, never to be seen again. It turns out this is not too far from the truth, and you can actually walk all the way across the bay to Morecambe, although you have to take a guide with you. There is quicksand out there and without an expert, you will drown in it. Or get washed away by an unpredictable tide. But once you get over there safely, you can pose with a statue of Eric Morecambe, which I have done once before, and I can tell you that it is a very joyful experience.
But back to our side of the bay. The view from where we stood, with a mellow orange sunset cast over it, was beautiful. Off to the left we could see gently rolling green hills, dotted with tiny white puffs that we knew to be sheep. Some 'baaaa'ing reached us on a light breeze. We stood and surveyed all that was in front of us and thought 'well, this is quite good, isn't it?' There was something quintessentially English about it, and apart from a lone runner and a couple of dog walkers, there was no-one else to have to share this view with. For a few minutes, this part of the world felt like ours and ours alone.
I have since learned that Grange Over Sands WAS a popular Victorian sea side resort. It even had piers. Plural! By the Edwardian era, it was known as 'the Torquay of the north'. Also, in 2015 some people did nearly drown in quicksand here, so we can safely say that the sands are treacherous. The Victorians may never have discovered this because they, as a collective, were about as ambitious as a cardigan. Having said this, from the 13th century until the 1850's, the major route between Lancaster and Cumbria was across the sands. Now thankfully, there's a train.
How can you leave somewhere so peaceful and tranquil? It was with some sadness that we dragged ourselves back to the car the next morning, and pootled off onto the M6, where we pointed ourselves in the direction of Wales. We entered north Wales near Wrexham (or Wrecsam if you're Welsh and like things spelled ever so slightly differently) which always strikes me as a particular bleak part of the universe, then carved a path straight down the middle of Wales towards Pembrokeshire in the south west. I have never driven right down the middle of this charming little Principality before. I wasn't aware that you COULD do this - I always assumed the area was too rife with ravines and dragons for anything as mundane as a road to be present. We zipped along, across a great expanse of rippling green, passing through tiny villages with increasingly tongue-tying names devoid of vowels. Surprisingly, it wasn't raining. But it was only a matter of time.
As is always the case on our road trips, around 1pm we started realising that we were going to have to stop for lunch. This can be a minefield on a road trip. Especially on a heavy driving day. Do you risk stopping and losing an hour of precious journeying time purely to fill up on something that ISN'T Haribo? We were unsure whether or not to simply carry on. Then we saw this sign:-
I mean, really, the sign speaks for itself. But I will tell you that on one side of the road was a creaky looking pub and on the other, a church, a graveyard and a selection of ancient trees, any of which could have been the 2,300 year old one. It was so hard to know which delight to pick from the list first but in the end we went to the Bloody Good Pub, where we got a reasonably priced, perfectly good meal, then when our stomachs were full, we enquired about the murder grave. The pub landlord told us that it was in the graveyard but that it had suffered some damage over the years and was virtually unreadable. He gave us a complicated set of instructions for how to distinguish it from other, less murderous graves, and we nodded competently, exited the pub and promptly forgot everything he'd told us. The upshot of this was that we were both too embarrassed to go back and ask him to *show* us the murder grave, so we stood about looking confused for some moments, then I took photos of every single gravestone just to be on the safe side, and we got back in the car again. It was one of the most interesting lunch stops I've ever experienced whilst on a road trip and I am very pleased indeed that it occurred in the middle of rural Wales, although as to the specifics of the murder and it's relation to this grave, I still have no idea.
We arrived at Lamphey in the late afternoon, and found ourselves checking into a very handsome Georgion farmhouse which was now a B&B. We had come to Pembrokeshire because Erica had expressed a wish to take a look at the town where Dylan Thomas lived, but it was too late in the day to go there now. Realising that we were minutes from my favourite stretch of coastline in the entire world, I shepherded Erica back into the car and embarked upon the 20 minute drive to Manorbier, a place so rural and cut off from virtually everywhere else that to get to it, you must drive along increasingly narrow country roads and through tree tunnels until you become sure you cannot be on the right road, or on a road at all in fact, and any minute now you will end up in a field full of cows. But eventually we emerged into the tiniest of tiny seaside villages, complete with castle. I drove up onto the nearby headland where there is a car park, and we decanted ourselves onto Manobier's narrow, sheltered beach with cries of delight. The Pembrokeshire Coast with it's sheer cliff faces and rock stacks that jut out dramatically into the Bristol Channel is a thing of wonder. It's full of hidden bays dotted along it's length. Many are accessibly only via a rocky path, and this was the case now. We scrambled down onto the sand and darted between tidal streams, seaweed banks and rock pools to access the expanse of uninterrupted sand exposed by the ebbing tide. I cannot describe to you in words what it felt like to be stood here. Now, more than at any other time on this trip, I felt like I was standing on the edge of the world.
We spent a long time on the beach, gazing out to sea. The sun cast a warm yellow glow over the waves and I felt very lucky to be here. I'm not sure I'd know how to put the feeling into words, but I liked it very much. And when we finally tore ourselves away to climb back up the rocks to the car, Erica said 'thank you for bringing me here' and I knew that she had liked it very much too.
We were stopping for two nights in Wales, so that we could spend a full day exploring the hometown of Dylan Thomas, an author neither of us knew much about. I was very much looking forward to becoming an expert on this literary figure in a very short time. Then we would finally be off to Barometer World, where, with any luck, the owners would be there to let us in.
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016, except for 'Idiot Runs Across Posh Lawn' and 'walking artily towards camera on beach' taken by Erica Slater, Copyright 2016.
Part 3 of a most ambitious road trip adventure...
Read Part 1 here, in which we plan a road trip to Barometer World in Devon and then decide to go via Scotland
Read Part 2 here, in which we encounter a village in the north east of England with more than one name...
We arrived at Loch Ness late in the day, after a drive of 7 hours from Northumberland, the theme of which was 'gloom'. We had approached a very grey, sullen looking Glasgow and bypassed that only to proceed into the damp and misty highlands - mountain tops hidden by a bank of low cloud. We had lunch at Loch Lomond, which was the first time I really realised that a Loch is a lake. I got wet standing out on a pier trying to take photographs of the majesty of a large body of water that is currently being rained on. Then we piled back into the car and, gently steaming, pushed on towards Inverness. Eventually we turned off onto a tiny road that brought us out right next to the mysterious Loch Ness, and found our hotel for the next few days - Foyers House Hotel. Family run, this hotel provided us with a large and comfortable room, extra fleecy throws for our beds and electric blankets. We also had a magnificent view of the Loch from our window, which is just as the hotel web site promised us. When I started writing the Tripadvisor review for the hotel in my head (I do this during my stay in any new place, I cannot help it. I wonder if other people do this too?), it was very favourable indeed.
The hotel has a bar that boasts over 100 different brands of Scotch Whisky. This would have been fantastic if I liked Scotch but unfortunately, all previous experiences with it have taught me that it tastes like a bonfire. I asked about local gins, which seemed ungrateful given the huge chalkboard packed full of whisky's, each one with a flavour palette laid out next to it. They had Gordon's only, which upset me. I disapprove of Gordon's because it tastes generic and has an ugly bottle. I ordered a vodka and Coke which was delivered to me with the sort of look that is followed by the muttering of 'southern pansy' under one's breath. Later on, when choosing a Scotch to try, I was instructed that acceptable ways to drink the stuff are neat, or with a few drops of water, to bring out the flavour. I was further informed that if I asked for it with Coke, I would be thrown from the building. I nodded meekly and opted for something that claimed to taste like chocolate, banana and pear. I dripped the recommended amount of water into the glass and took a sip. It tasted like burning. Not burning with a hint of pear drops, just pure burning.
Well, I can say I tried.
The next morning we got into the Stagbeetle and drove round the entire Loch. We stopped on the north shore to visit the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit , where I learned some rather good trivia. Loch Ness is the largest body of water by volume in the UK and at it's deepest point, it would submerge The Shard. Which is good, because The Shard is ugly and needs submerging. It also contains enough water to cover every person on Earth 3 times. With this much water, it's little wonder that people have such a hard time finding that elusive beast known as The Loch Ness Monster. We walked through an exhibition dedicated to the legend of Nessie, what she might be and where she might be. Unfortunately, the exhibition poo-pooed most known photographs of the monster by pointing out that due to camera trickery or the quality of camera lenses available in 1930, it's likely most of the photos showed a duck back-lit to look like a plesiosaur, or a whale-shaped bit of wood. It was all very disappointing. We were hoping to pick up clues about how to find Nessie but we left feeling as much in the dark as when we arrived. Luckily, there was an amazing gift shop in which to drown my sorrows - nothing pleases me more than souvenirs. I spent roughly all my rent money on socks, postcards, marmalade and badges that read 'I found Nessie' which is a blatant lie but I intend to take this version of events and run with it.
Before lunch, we paid a visit to Urquhart Castle, where I was hoping to take some shots akin to the ones on the walls of the hotel - wonderful landscapes showing hills, trees, shadowy water and a lone castle jutting out from the land and standing veiled in the shadows of a majestic sunset. Unfortunately it cost a tenner to get anywhere near the castle and when I did, it was 11am, gloomy and the place was crawling in tourists. I got in a huff. Things are ruined by tourists. I, a tourist, stamped about for a bit, then we had the world's most disappointing and expensive lunch and left to pursue some peace and quiet.
The afternoon was better. Once we got back to the south shore, away from all the touristy nonsense that seems to exist along the south's north counterpart, things seemed to calm down and appear more tranquil. We drove away from Loch Ness to visit some of the smaller and lesser known Lochs behind it, and trudged up a hill to gaze out at the landscape. Feeling calm, we vowed to come back at 6am the next day to watch the sunrise.*
We discovered a World War One memorial standing alone, high above the road on a rock. We drove through woods dappled in late afternoon sunlight and glimpsed a type of squirrel with a stripy tail that I have not been able to find any record of (a mystery Loch Ness squirrel?). Just before sunset, we arrived at the village of Dores, home to the Loch's only beach. This is where we discovered the Nessie Hunter.
*At 6am the next morning I refused point blank to get up and go anywhere. I am 32. Sleep is more important than finding myself on a really cold hill before breakfast.
Steve Feltham left his life in Dorset behind in 1991 to move to The Highlands and become a full time Loch Ness Monster spotter, fondly recalling days spent learning about Nessie during holidays to the area as a child. He now lives in a converted mobile library on the shores of Loch Ness and waits for the monster Herself to appear. There are presumably a lot of days when all he sees are strangely backlit ducks.
Steve has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records - he's kept the longest continuous vigil for the mysterious beast, and he shows no sign of giving up. I asked him if he'd had any luck, to which he responded that there had been some mysterious sightings he couldn't explain, but nothing concrete yet. In his spare time, he makes clay Nessie models using stones from Dores Beach. Fascinated, I bought one and then wondered if I too could leave my life behind to follow something unconventional like this. It must be wonderful to live here, surrounded by so much peace and beauty. We sat on the beach for a while and gazed up the length of the Loch. 26 miles long, it faded into the distance. We had learned at the exhibition earlier that a reason people see strange things out there is because the Loch often appears distorted in size and distance - meaning that what you think you're looking at it in fact nothing like what you really see. We realised this was true - looking out at the water, we weren't sure how close or far away things appeared, and ripples caused by a bird or the wind took a long time to fade. The water looked foreboding and disturbed by unknown forces. It was easy to believe something foreboding was hiding just underneath the surface.
Shortly after that, I got excited by something dark in the water that turned out to be a leaf. Looking for Nessie isn't easy.
Returning to Foyers that night, we came across a silent graveyard, half hidden by trees and overlooking the Loch. The light was failing, but I went to have a look anyway, and thoroughly freaked myself out wandering through centuries-old crumbling gravestones. The next morning we returned to get a look at the place in the daylight. The sun was shining brightly on the Loch, and up here, in the shade of the trees, the graveyard seemed an advantageous place to be. Oh, to spend all eternity gazing over something so spectacular. If these graves could talk, I'm sure they could tell us a thing or two about what they've seen down there in the water.
Our mystery-filled two days at Loch Ness had drawn to an end and we were leaving for England without so much as a sniff of sea monster. Not even a flick of a tail or a smooth, curving, scaled mass emerging from the water. We had seen three boats, a duck, a bit of wood, and my leaf. But oh, the mystery and majesty of this part of the world - it was like being in another Universe. Neither of us wanted to leave.
Luckily, we didn't have to return to London just yet. We were off to the Lake District, where the Victorians promenaded in the sunshine of a hundred lazy summers away from the cities and factories of the North. Windermere was only 5 hours away, or 7 when you count the two hours we spent languishing behind a tractor on a single carriageway road. We were getting closer to Barometer World all the time...
Conversations About The Weather Part Two: London to Scotland. Via Hadrian's Wall and a Village With Two Names.
The second part of a most unusual road trip tale...
It was some time ago now that I decided I wanted to go to Barometer World, which is in Devon. I had read about it in a book I had got for Christmas, which is all about quirky places to visit in Britain. An exhibition of instruments used to measure air pressure and forecast the weather seemed too good to pass up. Especially as, being British, I am forever looking out of the window doubtfully, before exclaiming to my family/work colleagues/total strangers that it looks like rain, or aren't we lucky that's sunny today, or what awful weather this is, you'd never know it was summer would you? My friend Erica volunteered to come with me to Devon, and we spent months excitedly planning our trip.
And so it came to pass that at 6am on a chilly Saturday morning in September we loaded ourselves into The Stagbeetle and hit the A1(M), bound for....Scotland.
The great thing about a road trip is that you can go anywhere where there are roads. We thought why worry about going directly to Devon? We'll get there eventually. But first, let's see the rest of the British Isles and talk to everybody we meet about the weather. And this is exactly what we did.
As you may remember from my last post, I had contacted Barometer World to ask if we could come and have a look round and they had got back to me saying they might not be able to open on the requested date (the exhibition is only open by appointment). It looked as if the whole purpose of our road trip might cease to be. I needed to find a replacement weird attraction for us to visit. I brought my book of British oddities along on the trip, hoping to find something equally as excellent whilst en route. In the meantime, we had some other things to get done.
We struck out for northern Scotland, to look for Nessie. We had realised in advance that London to Loch Ness is too much for one day, so we had scheduled a stop in Northumberland on the way. After a full day of driving resolutely upwards, passing signs declaring the looming presence of THE NORTH, and then across the majesty of the North Pennines in the blazing sunshine, which reminded me strangely of the desert in New Mexico (probably would not have reminded me of said place had it been pissing down), we arrived at our destination for the night - the tiny village known variously as either Once or Twice Brewed. I had read that it used to be that if you approach from one direction, the sign reads 'Welcome to Once Brewed' and if you approach from the other way you are welcomed to Twice Brewed. Having immediately seen the appeal in a village that cannot make up it's mind how many times it has been distilled, fermented or otherwise mixed together, I had proposed that we stop there to try and get to the bottom of it.
The village consists of a backpackers hostel with camp site, as well as a hotel, also used by backpackers along Hadrian's Wall and the Pennine Way, and a sign reading 'Hadrian's Wall this way'. We arrived at the hotel (we're not much for camping) at around 6pm, at about the same time as all the hikers were piling in from a day out on the trails. The first order of business was to locate and photograph the two different signs, which involved an impressive trek up and down a rural highway for several miles, before it got dark. From this we learned that either the story is made up or someone has replaced the sign. Both read 'Welcome to Twice Brewed', indicating that at some point, extra brewing was needed in order to really make the village ready for visitors. The hotel is also called The Twice Brewed Inn, which settles it really. I did find a smaller road sign marked 'Once Brewed' but in general the area seemed to be denying it's singular brewed status altogether. The second order of business was to check in to our room and then find the bar.
The bar was full of hikers, celebrating with carbs and alcohol. I was pleased to note the presence of some local gins (Hepple Gin and The Lakes Gin) and we got down to the important business of drinking. Later on, realising that the incredibly famous Hadrian's Wall was visible from the hotel and that, in actual fact, we were right next to it, I went outside to view the thing. I must have appeared confused because a strapping hiker with an accent of unknown origin (but it was Geordie-like in nature) asked me what I was looking for. 'Hadrian's Wall' I answered. I felt a bit cheated. Clearly it wasn't in view, otherwise surely it would be obvious. Miles high and flashing with neon lights reading 'Romans Were 'Ere' or something. 'See that wall over there, the falling down one?' the hiker said, pointing. I looked. I could see several stone walls in various states of Falling Down. 'Yes...' I said, truthfully. 'That's it' he said, and I attempted to look really happy at viewing this titan of historical significance, whilst really having no idea which wall he was referring to. I still maintain that it could have been one of about fifteen walls dotting the landscape in front of us. You sort of think the Romans might have made a bit more effort.
The next morning we got in the car and followed the 'Hadrian's Wall This Way' sign in order to get a closer look at the thing. We parked in a car park on a hill, and got out, refusing to let ourselves be foxed by the presence of less important walls. Twenty minutes later and quite fed up, we got back in the car, none the wiser about which wall had been built as a marvellous feat of engineering to keep barbarians away from the Roman Empire and which walls had been built to stop sheep from escaping. Maybe some things are just not meant to be discovered.
Above our heads, the previously clear blue sky was slowly being replaced with a thin sheen of high, white cloud. This indicated an atmosphere on the change, meaning that rain would soon be upon us. If I had had a barometer with me, I am sure it would have confirmed the situation. There was nothing else for it. Flummoxed by walls and having greatly enjoyed our stay in the land of multiple brewing, we got back in the car and drove towards that towering blockade of fog sometimes known as Scotland.
To be continued....
All photographs © Christina Owen 2016