Part 1: Visiting friends and quirky landmarks
Since returning back to the UK, we enjoyed several full-on weeks of zigzagging up through England, calling in to visit all the friends and family we could in the time that we had. Benny had his annual service and habitation check and we both had dental check-ups on the way. We also had a quick flying visit to Northern Ireland to visit family, a trip that included a drive down to Carnaross to visit old friends recently relocated there from Dublin. It was a very full-on and fun if rather tiring few weeks, trying to catch up with everyone we could, knowing it could be another year before we see many of them again.
After returning to Nicky’s mum’s in Lincolnshire to reorganise and pack, we headed off in Benny again – this time north to tour a little bit of Scotland. We headed first up the east coast of England, where we passed through the Wolds, then up past the Angel of the North on the way to our first stop – Northumberlandia.
The sculpted landscape feature, in the guise of a supine nude female, was designed by the celebrated landscape architect Charles Jencks. It was constructed from millions of tons of waste extracted from a nearby coal mine, top-coated with grass and gravel paths, formed primarily as a local tourist attraction. We walked around and then over the lady, nicknamed ‘Slag Alice’ locally, standing on her forehead to take in the views and later eating our lunch on her left breast, overlooking the deeply excavated mine behind. The mine is due to close in 2018 to be replaced by extensive parkland, including 88000 trees and several kilometres of paths, so we plan to return again to see the completed site.
We had hoped to overnight on the side of the road near Bamburgh Castle, but this proved impossible due to the plethora of height restriction barriers and large, prominent signs stating that staying overnight was prohibited. We tried a few other possible spots, but being still in England we held out little hope, and were proven right. Instead we pushed on up into Scotland and stayed on the tiny harbour front in the small settlement of Burnmouth. We walked the stony, seaweed-covered beach both in the low dusk light and again in the morning, enjoying the simple, freshness and relative silence of the cool air.
After a lazy morning and slow breakfast, we made our way back through Berwick-upon Tweed and south into England again, to visit the previously bypassed Holy Island. We arrived and checked the tide tables, finding we had plenty of time available on the causeway for a thorough island visit. We drove across the wet, seaweed-bordered road to the island and parked in the large field car-park set aside for visitors, before walking into the small, quaint town of Lindisfarne to check out the sights.
We visited the ruins of the monastery and then walked out along the headland, taking in views of the hermit St. Cuthbert’s island. We climbed up the observation tower to enjoy views over the bay and the currently exposed sands, getting our bearings and watching for wildlife. The weather was grey and drizzly as we stomped around in our waterproofs, but the peaceful serenity of the quiet isle was captivating. The 16th century castle was under renovation and unavailable for us to visit, so instead we looked around the visitor centre that described life on the island and pointed out the key wildlife to look out for.
We returned in time to beat the tide and crossed the causeway back to the mainland before heading north again, through Berwick and back into Scotland, to visit a friend in nearby Chirnside. Dougie, a mad-keen cyclist greeted us as we pulled in to park at his home. We spent the day and night catching up with his and our recent cycling trips, swapping tales of where we’d been and of trips to come, over a few beers and some traditional Scottish food. It was great to catch up.
The following morning we said our goodbyes, yet again, and headed off in the direction of Peebles. We stopped off for a bite of lunch in a forest picnic parking spot with wonderful views over the rolling borders hills. We decided to bypass Peebles at first to go on to nearby Eddleston to see the ‘Great Polish map of Scotland’ in the grounds of the Mercure Barony hotel. This was another curiosity we’d been keen to see for some time; a 40m x 50m long scale map denoting the topography of Scotland cast and carved in concrete. The vertical heights of the hills and mountains were cast five times greater than the actual map scale to create a much more dramatic three dimensional picture.
On our return to town, we had a difficult moment after unwisely following our sat nav on a short cut along the river bank in Peebles. Here we met with a very tight route between riverbank bollards and a carelessly parked car. We slowly threaded through the gap, carefully checking all sides with every slight forward movement, with only two or three millimetres to spare on each side and no hope of backtracking. We just made it through without an incident, after a long sweat, and finally arrived with Nicky’s former triathlon friend Craig and his wife Kate.
After our quick hellos we were taken out for a long hillwalk south of Peebles, up over wild hills and peaty bogs to the trig point on the top of Dun Rig. We were joined on our route by their two highly energetic spaniels, Jess and Fids, who bounded around covering many more times our not-inconsiderable distance of around 12 miles. We arrived back in town dirty, weary but exhilarated from our efforts.
On our return we gave Craig and Kate, keen campervan owners themselves, a quick tour of Benny, where they suffered a little van envy. We then had a restful hour or two in their local pub as dinner cooked, pouring over maps of the west of Scotland and the Isle of Mull, us seeking knowledgeable advice on where to visit next and which peaks to climb on our way west. After a lovely dinner and several more drinks we said our goodbyes and retired to Benny for the night.
After a lazy morning we headed off north, first stopping off in Falkirk after an hour or so, to visit the impressive canal side equine sculptures known as ‘The Kelpies’. We parked outside in an empty car-park space and walked the last kilometre to the site, enjoying the approach along the canal in slightly spitting rain. We looped around the site admiring the detail of the works. With a quiet word we even managed to gain access to the canal facilities and serviced Benny in the canalboat elsan point, a helpful bonus before wild camping began.
We drove on a few miles to the Falkirk Wheel for a short look on our way out of town, before proceeding further north to the town of Dunblane. It was here that Stephen, Nicky’s primary school friend, and his wife Klara, with their children Maya and Finlay were to be our hosts. We soon settled in and relaxed into their family home, enjoying good food, wine and company as we chatted about our experiences over the past decades. Klara is Hungarian, so it wasn’t too long before Palinka made an appearance.
In the morning we all had a walk around Dunblane town centre, passing the golden post box painted to celebrate the Olympic gold medal of local boy Andy Murray. We spent some quality time in the central toy shop, to the delight of Stephen’s young kids. We visited the cathedral, with its memorial to the school massacre that happened 21 years ago, back when I was a student in Strathclyde University in Glasgow. I can still remember that dumbstruck, empty feeling of incomprehensible loss that permeated the National mood during those terrible, sad days. We later walked through the central, grassy park and skimmed stones in the cool, dark river; a lovely, slow morning stroll.
After giving the excited kids a quick tour and short ride in Benny, we headed ever onwards, our ready supply of Scotland-based friends exhausted. It was now back to just the two of us and the open road for the remainder of our Scottish tour.
Part 2 to follow.