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...