The Tour pt 9 - Grey, grey, grey!

Good morning! Well at least it was. The sun was out as I got up for an early morning stroll to the er, toilet block. Later, as we sat having a cuppa the cloud arrived and we’ve just had a hail storm. The hail stones have now paused and we are waiting to see what’s next. I never thought the heating in the van would get used quite so much on this trip. Oh well.

Ok, location? We are about six miles to the east of Inverness, by Cullodoen Moor and about a mile and a half away from the site of the last ever battle to be fought on British soil - in 1746. History buffs will also know that this is where dear old Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite mates got their backsides well and truly kicked and Charlie scuttled off to the Isle of Skye wearing a frock. I know it’s true ‘cause I read it in a guide book. History was a never one of my favourite subjects - along with English, although reading this you can probably tell that already!

Right, diary time. After the rain of last Thursday, Friday was at least dry if still bitingly cold and windy. In the morning we went in to Oban to have a look at McCaigs tower perched on a hill overlooking Oban and providing some good views of the area. A stroll around town followed with the usual tea break - a proper tea pot once again, and then shopping and topping up with diesel. In the afternoon I had planned to give both Patsy and the car a wash but it was too cold and windy and CBA (Can’t Be Arsed) had set in. The well stocked site shop provided the evenings liquid refreshment in the form of a couple of ales from the local Oban brewery which were very well received.

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Saturday, and the 120 or so mile drive up to Inverness. The weather was good - the sun was even out and we stopped half way up Loch Ness for a cuppa and sarnies. Across the road was a small monument to one John Cobb who attempted the world water speed record on Loch Ness in 1952. he He died in the attempt as his jet powered craft broke up but not before reaching 206 miles per hour.

Trev’s SatNav app guided us accurately off the main road and through Inverness and on to Culloden Moor. It then proceeded to deposit us in a narrow cul-de-sac before the actual caravan site. We really should have known better and used our common sense. One of the residents who very kindly came out to move his car for us said it happens all the time. How comforting!

The site itself was fine, with all the usual Caravan Club facilities but it’s certainly not the best kept one we’ve been too, however the more extremes of weather up here may have a part to play in it’s maintenance. TV reception was pretty good, mobile reception was almost negligible - just enough to make a call but no good for internet. Having got the van set up we headed out in search of a pub with WiFi or a least a decent phone reception. We didn’t find either but the beer was nice!

Sunday, and we were in, the weather forecaster had promised us gleefully the night before, for a really foul day.  It was at least dry however as we headed out and north to John O’ Groats.

A couple of old oil rig gantry's were perched in the Cromarty Firth  and the north sea beyond looked grim and foreboding. The rain was trying to put in an appearance as travelled further and the wind was whipping up too. We passed the massive black wooden ageing sheds belonging to the Dalmore distillery. Further up, signs were inviting visitors to the Glenmorangie distillery. We drove past,a  little reluctantly.

The landscape flattened out as we approached John O’Groats and, with the absence of any trees and the blustering wind and cold it looked pretty bleak. There’s not much in J o G itself - a large car park surrounded by shops and cafes all hoping to part you from your money. Even the toilets had turnstiles. The famous sign, marking the distance to London, Sydney, etc was absent. A note pinned to a nearby hut informed all comers that the sign was ‘not in use’ as there would be no official photographer on site. It was also pointed out that the sign is, and always has been, a private enterprise and photo’s can only be taken with the permission of the official photographer. A price list followed, starting at a tenner a photo. Hmm. Fortunately, another sign, erected by the cafe by the small ferry terminal gives the opportunity for free photos and prove we were actually here. We did put our hands in our pockets however, and not just because it was cold. A fridge magnet was added to the ever growing collection and J o G will also go down in my memory as the place for the worst cuppa of the trip. No tea pot here, just a plastic cup and a miserable looking tea bag floating on top.

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John O’Groats may be the furthest point from Lands End - 874 or 876 miles depending on which guide book or hoarding you read but the most northerly point of mainland Britain is Dunnet Head and although it’s but a few miles away, the drive to it does make it rather special. The landscape becomes even more stark as the single track road winds it’s way slowly up hill. When you reach the head itself there is just a small car park and a stone with a plaque to tell you where you are. Right at the edge a lighthouse is perched looking over the dark raging waters of the Pentland Firth 80 metres below. Despite, or perhaps because of the now howling wind and rain it felt so much more ‘rea'l’ than John O’Groats. We had passed a couple of very fit looking cyclists on the way up, and as we returned to the car they arrived and were taking photo’s of each other by the sign. As a good tourist I offered to take one of them together although I should point out that the fact that one looked VERY good in his black lycra had absolutely no bearing on the offer whatsoever. At all. Honest!

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The journey back was wetter and windier as the promised foul weather continued. Back at the site we spent a rather unsettling evening in the van as she was buffeted by the heavy winds, reminding us of that night back in Freshwater early on in the trip.

Monday, and the weather had eased somewhat. We drove in to town, parked up and headed for that tourists favourite, the hop-on hop-off bus tour. Inverness is a pretty city with the River Ness running through the middle and the ubiquitous castle. The tour took us past the castle and along by the river, crossing to the opposite bank and taking us past the sports stadium. Whoever recorded the commentary clearly had a sense of humour as they said that Scotland was one of the top Rugby Union teams in the world. We looked at one another and grinned - I know of at least one particular Welsh reader of this blog who would beg to differ! Anyway, we did a complete circuit then hopped off by the river and crossed through the beautiful Ness Islands that sit in the middle and over to Whin Park for a coffee and snack. Then, as we went to wait for the bus to appear it started raining. It was at about this time that, wet and shivering I was contemplating flights to Spain from Inverness Airport that the bus arrived. We jumped back on and, predictably, it stopped raining.

Once back in the centre we strolled around for a while before we decided that we had worked up sufficient enough thirst for a pint (or two). There’s an awful lot of tap beer in Scotland but this pub offered four real ales, all from local breweries. Between us we tried all of them.  Trev commented to the barman about the Scottish accent up here in the north and the barman declared that they are the best spoken people in the UK. That may be open for discussion but it is certainly a much softer dialect - sort of BBC Scottish if you like - and resonates very easily on English ears. Well mine anyway.

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A foray into the local Co-Op was required on the way home for a few essentials, like wine, as Patsy’s cellar is now at an all time low, well empty. Having set an arbitrary limit of no more than a fiver for the wine I came out with one costing nearly seven. I can tell you though that the extra was worth it.

Tuesday, and a journey across on the train to Aberdeen, the Dallas of the UK. It took two and a half hours but the time passed surprisingly quickly. We passed the massive Chivas distillery with it’s rows of large ageing sheds. I’ve seen bottles of this stuff at duty free shops all over the world and it’s incredible to think that it all comes from just here. A little further up was the barrel storage area - and there were thousands of them. The landscape flattened out as we approached Aberdeen and reminded us of East Anglia - it really was like being back in the fens.

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Right. Aberdeen. On of the first things that springs to mind is oil. But another should be grey. Everywhere is grey. Beautiful churches, old cottages, modern shopping centres. All grey. Concrete, stone and granite. All grey. Old and new. All grey. It is the most remarkable city we’ve ever seen. Top to toe in black - just for a change of course - I actually looked more colourful. It’s said that on a sunny day the granite glistens and sparkles. It is also said that on a cloudy damp day you can’t tell when the buildings finish and the sky starts. The weather today was, mostly anyway, something in between so we didn’t see it at it’s best or worst. No excursion on this trip would be complete without some of the wet stuff and we were duly advised with a short hail storm. Initial navigation of town centre completed we stopped for a pub lunch at what was apparently Aberdeen’s oldest boozer. With burger devoured and pint supped we set course for the harbour area passing another pub that promised that it was Aberdeen’s oldest.

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The brightly coloured rig supply boats in the harbour provided some relief from the grey monopoly. Just up from the harbour was the maritime museum complete with a three storey high model of an actual rig. The museum gave a good insight in to the oil industry and was, also, free. Even better. We returned to the railway station having forgotten to pick up the all important fridge magnet. Neither the mind or feet relished the walk back to the shops so we returned empty handed.

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It was Wednesday morning when I started this blog but is now Wednesday evening although you won’t get this until Thursday morning at the earliest as we need to go in search of WiFi or a good phone signal.

This afternoon we had a date with Nessie. The cruise started just outside the city centre on the Caledonian Canal, passing through the lock at Dochgarroch, then merging with the River Ness and in to the cold black waters of Loch Ness. The three hour cruise gave plenty of opportunity for photo’s, and on a nice sunny day, up on the top deck would have been delightful. We lasted about an hour before frostbite set  in and we went downstairs for coffee and scoff. I’m afraid I have to report that Nessie stood us all up and did not put in an appearance.

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Right, that’s it for now. Friday we head south for the first time on the trip, traversing the edge of the Cairngorms before stopping near Perth for a couple nights. Then From Sunday we shall be in Edinburgh for a week and hopefully some better weather!

Until next time…..