Once again I am out enjoying the excitement of the open road with new and unexpected things around every corner. It has been a long time coming. Being out in the fresh air all day and walking with family and friends, sharing jokes and memories. These simple things have been my cure for the lock down blues.
I stood watching a moorhen with five tiny chicks pottering around a small inlet into a pond and wanted to weep with the joy of the moment. Nearby a Canada goose sat still and calm on a nest watched over by their alert mate. These and other experiences have re-wired my brain and woken up my senses, both dulled by lock down repeats.
We didn’t go far for our first few nights away once we were allowed. Burrs Country Park Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Greater Manchester is well placed to allow us to meet up with some people we’ve missed. A 30 minute walk into Bury and we were soon sitting outside Katsouris wonderful cafe eating tasty Greek food and catching up with an old friend from Salford as if the last 12 months hadn’t even happened. Later, our son and daughter-in-law drove up to Burrs Country Park and we walked through the countryside with them and enjoyed coffee and cake from the cafe as if everything was normal. Inside my heart was singing.
With a day to ourselves we cycled along the number six National Cycle Route to Salford and Clifton Country Park. The sun kept on shining and this surprisingly green and rural route turned up a reed warbler nibbling seed heads on the banks of the old canal, roe deer hiding in tall reeds, their erect pointed ears giving them away and a friendly cafe in Radcliffe that served us a delicious white chocolate and cranberry iced bun under a blue sky.
Moving on to Crowden we packed sandwiches and a flask and walked some of the Pennine Way. The weather was perfect and it was this and two other walkers who were the talk of the trail. We had wondered if anyone was walking this Long Distance Footpath at the moment and along came a young couple with a tiny baby who were spending their joint parenting leave backpacking the whole route. We admired their energy and wished them well.
After a week being back in the big wide world we had our first pint of draft beer in a sunny pub garden in Castleton. My drinking partner proclaimed that his pint of Chieftain IPA from Ireland was the best he’d ever had but that might be more to do with the months without a proper beer!
As we all emerge from Lock Down Three, we will be keen to focus on looking forward to the new world and the ‘new normal’ as it is called. I am the sort of person that looks to the future, rather than the past and I certainly don’t want to think back to the dark days between January and March this year. I have come through all the lock downs and tiers physically healthy but mentally mangled. Lock downs never got any easier and I found Lock Down Three particularly tough and lonely.
Readers might live in a friendly street where your neighbours smiled across the road as they clapped on a Thursday night in Lock Down One and continue to check in regularly via a Street WhatsApp Group. I imagine this is the sort of street that, in Before Coronavirus days, held a communal street party. I don’t know where these streets are but in all the places I have lived [just seven streets in five places so a limited sample] I have never experienced anywhere like this and mostly hear about them in the media and soap operas. Do they really exist in the real world?
Thursday nights at 20.00 during Lock Down One were quiet here on our Morecambe road. No one shamed us into going into our front garden to clap for the NHS. We were therefore taken by surprise when a Zoom call with two friends in a wealthy part of Greater Manchester had to be cut short so that they could join in the clapping. They risked being socially shunned by the neighbourhood if they didn’t show their faces!
Wherever we have lived we have always got to know our neighbours but we had only lived in our Morecambe home for four months when we were confined to its four walls. We had met some people at tai chi classes and were on chatting terms with the residents either side of our house but there was still some way to go to feeling a part of the community. Although the sunny weather during Lock Down One meant we did meet a couple more neighbours from across the street while we were out in the front garden I certainly wouldn’t say that it was a chance to settle into a community. Most people around us are retired and the majority of our neighbours are single households so we are surrounded by a generation who are terrified of catching Covid-19 and who kept themselves to themselves. Any chances to get to know them were fleeting and superficial. The only positive in the first lock down was spending time with our immediate next door neighbour. We saw him pretty much everyday and with all the time in the world we enjoyed long chats over the fence.
Lock Down Three has been a totally different scenario. Even our chatty neighbour was curled up on his sofa in the dark winter months of January and February and we have hardly seen anyone. Thank goodness in January our tai chi teacher eventually got to grips with Zoom and for the last three months our weeks have revolved around his entertaining Wednesday classes.
When we moved to Morecambe we thought we would meet people in our new town by joining some clubs or groups, attending some events and seeking out like-minded folk. The steps we had made towards this before Lock Down One kicked in were small. It isn’t that I want to be part of a community WhatsApp group but Covid-19 has certainly made settling into a new town more difficult.
We know we are lucky to have each other, lock downs have been very lonely for single people. But life has been so different for everyone. For the most part, and for the first time in our lives, geography has determined our social life. Most, but not all of our good friends are in the north west of England but as lock downs and tiers came and went we were constantly cancelling plans. In Lock Down Three we couldn’t even see two long-standing and close friends who live locally. In normal times we would meet as a foursome for a walk but the rules only allowed two people, not two households, to even take a stroll in the open air.
Lock Downs have been lonely experiences for me and they must have been miserable for others. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post I always look forward, rather than back. This can be positive and also a cause of anxiety. Even as we take the small steps to a restriction-free life, in a corner of my mind is a dread that another lock down will come out of the blue! And so, I am seizing the day and can’t wait to be back on the road again on Monday 12 April.
As Lock Down Three restrictions eased on Monday 29 March 2021, our priorities were to meet our son and daughter-in-law and visit the Lake District. I was impatient to see them but made myself wait until Tuesday 30th and a better weather forecast for the four of us to meet up and hike up some of the 214 Wainwrights. The day’s three Wainwrights were ones we had climbed before but both our son and daughter-in-law have taken up Wainwright Bagging and the walk included two new fells for them to tick off. I didn’t care where we were, I was just so happy to be with them both again. I was grateful that they were prepared to spend their first day back in the hills waiting for me as I huffed and puffed up the slopes and gingerly straggled behind on the steep rocky descents. We walked up Heron Pike, Great Rigg and Fairfield, chasing the low cloud that magically rose before us as we ascended, making it a glorious and unforgettable walk. There was a lot to catch up on and we talked about all manner of nonsense, about hydrogen cars, shared friends, Line of Duty [of course], plans for the rest of the year and recommended books and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole day!
Being able to meet our son and daughter-in-law and take a walk with them, catching up, laughing at familiar jokes, sharing memories and making new ones, sitting by a tarn having a picnic lunch together and trying to name the surrounding mountains are all things we used to take for granted. It has been a long three months since we have been able to do these simple things. For three dark months it has been just the two of us walking locally and so I was keen to make the most of the next step forward from Lock Down Three and start to feel as if I was living again.
Not content with one day of walking in company, the next we met two long-standing friends. My aching legs, after the steep descent from Fairfield, were happy to have an easier walk around the gorgeous Silverdale coast and through Eaves Wood. I was pleased to find that my ability to chatter hadn’t been lost in lock down and I barely drew breath for the whole four hours. The day wasn’t without incident and will, no doubt, become part of our collective memory, ‘Do you remember when we all nearly drowned?’ It was a high spring tide and we sat in the sunshine having our picnic lunch, looking across the sea from a low rock in The Cove near Silverdale. We were chatting as we looked over the expanse of Morecambe Bay to Grange over Sands and remarked on the speed of the incoming tide. Looking around we suddenly realised that our route back to the shore was cut off by water! While those with longer legs could traverse the cliff to return to dry land, I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers and laughing had my first paddle of the year through knee-high water! It was such a warm and sunny day my feet dried naturally as we finished our lunch sprawled out on the pebbly shore.
The sun kept shining and the Lake District fells and more Wainwright Fells were calling. The next day we drove back up the M6 and set off walking by ourselves over Hartsop Dodd and Gray Crag. After two sociable days I felt energised and on much better form that I had been for three months. It felt good to be walking with just my partner in life and hiking. It stayed dry but we had to shelter from the bitingly cold wind when we stopped for lunch and we were wearing many more layers than we had the day before. Back at the Blue Bus we enjoyed a mug of tea and a slice of cake before driving home.
Our final walk of the week was along Morecambe’s stunning promenade to Heysham with two inland Lancashire friends who had been missing the sea. The sun shone once again and the nattering never stopped. A particular delight on our walk was Glebe Garden, next to St Peter’s Church. The garden was packed with colour and buzzing with insects and butterflies in the sunshine.
We have more walking with friends days planned over the coming week during our countdown to returning to camping. I have taken a few big steps out of the mind-numbing Lock Down Three rut I was in and it is starting to feel a bit like normal!
We hadn’t lived in Morecambe many days before we noticed the horses. There are always horses around town, in the fields, occasionally cutting the grass on the play area and often on the roads. Just five minutes walk from our home are stables with horses and ponies of all shapes and sizes. I treat the large horses with the respect they deserve but I like to stop and pet the little ones when they are outdoors. Horses have become so much of our Morecambe scene that we hardly give a second glance these days when we notice a horse grazing by the roadside or see someone with a pony and sulky, a lightweight two-wheeled single-seat cart, go galloping by but just occasionally Morecambe’s horses gift me with a story worth telling.
Firstly some background. Morecambe is home to one of the UK’s largest settled Irish Traveller Communities and they own many of the horses. This community are British with Irish ancestry and are distinct to Roma and Gypsy communities. Together they are referred to as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller [GRT] community and judgement of and prejudice against this group of people is widespread. The recent shameful story about Pontins holding a list of names to exclude travellers staying at their holiday parks is an example of how endemic prejudice of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community is.
I don’t know much about horses but from what I can see many of the horses in Morecambe are neither sleek race horses or large and strong shire horses; they mostly seem to be Gypsy Vanner or Irish Cobb horses. These originated in Ireland and were bred by Irish Travellers as robust and reliable horses with a good temperament suitable for pulling wagons. When ridden it is generally bareback.
The Cumbrian market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland is less than an hour’s drive from Morecambe and it is here that the annual Appleby Horse Fair is held, generally in early June each year. Living in Lancashire, you generally know when this big event is coming up as you spot members of the GRT community on the road making their way there. Said to be the largest gathering of its kind in Europe, around 10,000 people meet at Appleby-in-Westmorland to trade horses, wear their best clothes and see friends. They are joined by around 30,000 visitors keen to witness the traditions and culture. Horses are prepared for trading by being bathed in the River Eden and groomed. The fair also has stalls selling clothing and horse-related goods. The flashing lane runs through the fair and is the perfect spot for spectators to watch the horses being put through their paces as the horses are ‘flashed’ or shown off by sellers to potential buyers.
We recently had a slightly too close an encounter with just one of Morecambe’s horses. We were walking towards the canal on one of our lock down days out. It was a cold day and as we strode out along a quiet lane we saw three guys ahead. They were wrapped up against the frost and standing with their arms folded, watching a fourth man riding a horse bare back and with no riding hat. The man and horse galloped towards us and we moved onto the grass verge to give what was clearly a lively horse plenty of space as it went by. Carrying on, the demeanor of the three spectators made us aware that the horse and rider had turned around and were returning behind us. The three were shouting encouragingly and I wondered if this was a practice for the flashing lane at Appleby Horse Fair or Morecambe’s own version. Again, not wishing to spook the horse, we calmly moved to the side of the lane. The man and horse passed within a horse hair’s breadth and this time it was clear to even two people who have never ridden more than a seaside donkey that the rider was not completely in control. Just clearing us, the horse bucked and succeeded in throwing the rider onto the road. Not a man to give in, the rider clung onto the reins and we could only watch, horrified as he was dragged along the tarmac. Amazingly, he hung on and eventually calmed the horse enough so that the shaken and battered rider could leap back on, no mean feat with no stirrups. ‘Is it the rider or the horse?’ we asked as we walked by the three onlookers. ‘We’re trying to decide,’ one of them replied smiling in a knowing way, ‘But we think its a bit of both!’
The town of Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland is a perfect place for a few days away. It has an open and pleasant Caravan and Motorhome Club site that is just ten minutes walk from the centre of the small town and even nearer to the sea. This great location makes it a popular campsite to stay at and it had been on our wish list for some time. We eventually got to stay here between 2020 lock downs and found some great walks from the site.
The seafront to the harbour
This is a level short walk of around two miles that is perfect for the evening you arrive. Following the promenade around the bay, the path crosses a bridge and continues with the beach and the sea to one side and the houses of Stonehaven to the other. The path becomes a boardwalk as you get nearer to the old town and the harbour. Take your time looking at the different interesting metal sculptures along the boardwalk. These quirky sculptures of a lighthouse, boats and an aeroplane have fish crewing the boats and a seahorse looking out from the parapet of the lighthouse. Finally you will reach the picturesque harbour which is a lovely place to potter around, maybe stopping for a drink in a pub or cafe or just looking at the boats.
Dunnottar Castle & woodland
This is a stunning 5.5 mile [around 9 km] walk with plenty of places where you will want to linger.
From the campsite walk along the seafront to the old harbour [see above] and pick up the signed path behind the houses that climbs steeply above the town. At the top you will want to stop, admire the view and take photographs of the view over the harbour and the town. Continue along the well-used undulating path along the cliffs. The impressive war memorial built in 1923 to remember all those who lost their lives in the First World War is your next point of interest. It is worth leaving the main path and walking up to the memorial for more panoramic views.
The cliffs are stunning along this stretch of coast and you will soon have Dunnottar Castle in sight. This spectacularly-sited ruin has cliffs on three sides and is reached by a series of steps. There is an entrance charge for the castle, should you wish to visit. Alternatively, it is worth making the effort to walk down the steps to the pretty bay below the castle and watch the surf or have a picnic.
From Dunnottar Castle the walk crosses the road and passes a large wooden hut with a number above the door and an old radio station. The hut remains from the Second World War admiralty radio station. After the war the radio station was used to monitor radio calls from ships and in the 1950s the polygonal concrete building, reminiscent of an airport control tower, was built. By the 1970s much of the radio station’s work revolved around the oil drilling platforms, handling radio link calls. On the 6 July 1988 the staff at Stonehaven picked up the distress call from the Piper Alpha oil platform following an explosion. 226 people were on the platform at the time and 165 of these died in the disaster, plus two men from the Sandhaven, a supply vessel involved in the rescue. As satellite and mobile technology improved, the radio station was no longer needed and it was closed in 2000.
Reaching the A957, we turned left to the car park and walked into Dunnottar Woods but you might find a different path into the woodland. However, you get there take your time wandering through the trees and following the stream and you could find some wooden sculptures, a cluster of fairy doors and in the autumn some real mushrooms.
You emerge from the woodland back into Stonehaven. Follow your nose and you will be back at the seafront and a choice of ice-cream shops.
Chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan
If you turn left out of the campsite there is a pleasant walk of not more than 1.5 miles. You soon leave Stonehaven and are beyond the houses. The narrow path quickly climbs from shore level through the bushes and grass to the top of the cliffs. If you follow this narrow and sometimes overgrown path you will eventually cross a bridge and reach the ruined chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan surrounded by an old graveyard.
The chapel has an enviable position overlooking the sea and beyond its walls is the golf course. Cowie Castle once sat on the clifftop nearby but little can be seen of it.
After exploring the chapel and reading some of the fascinating gravestones, you can return back to the campsite the same way or stay high on the path above the cliffs and emerge onto the main road that runs above the campsite. Follow the road downhill until just before the campsite and turn onto the steep path that takes you to Amy Row, a pretty road back to the campsite.
In normal BC [Before Coronavirus] times we would make regular trips to Leek in Staffordshire, partly to visit family but also to stock up on the culinary delight that is as essential to anyone brought up in north Staffordshire as fresh air. This is, of course, the Staffordshire oatcake.
In Leek there is still a small shop that is mostly oatcakes. These oatcakes are soft but substantial, they are full of the taste of oats and are perfect rolled around some melted cheese for a warming lunch. Oatcakes freeze well and we will always come back from a trip to Leek with enough oatcakes to fill our small freezer. You can occasionally buy something called Staffordshire oatcakes in the supermarket but these lacey and flimsy things are just a hopeless substitute for the real thing.
Of course, in these days of Lock Down Three, a trip to Leek for oatcakes in no way counts as an essential trip, whatever my stomach might think! My dad kindly suggested posting me some but that seemed an extravagance for such an inexpensive but bulky and weighty item. The only option was to bring Staffordshire to Lancashire and make our own.
I did make Staffordshire oatcakes many years ago and we both remembered something tasty but thick and chewy. This time I used our heavy cast iron frying pan that fries pretty much everything beautifully and worked hard to get a batter that was just the right consistency to spread around the pan.
Ingredients for 5 or 6 oatcakes (depending on how thin you get them)
150g oats – whizzed in a nut grinder or food processor for a short while until they are finer
150g flour – use either white or white and wholemeal mixed
7g dried yeast
1 teaspoon sugar and salt to taste
300ml milk (I used soya milk)
300 ml water (boiled and cooled)
Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Add the cold milk to warm water, you want a temperature that it isn’t too hot to put your fingers in. Whisk the milk and water into the dry ingredients. The batter should be fairly runny. Cover the bowl and leave this in a warm place to bubble up for about an hour.
After an hour or so the batter will be frothy and before cooking you should give it a stir. I added a little more water at this point so that it was a thick pouring consistency (like thin porridge). In a good thick-bottomed frying pan, melt a knob of butter or margarine and swirl this around to cover the pan. I use a soup ladle to measure out the oatcake batter and about two ladles worked well for one oatcake. Ladle the mixture into the frying pan and, if it doesn’t spread out itself, carefully spread it around the pan with a knife [I use a long baking palette knife] so that your oatcake isn’t too thick. You will notice the mixture that is in contact with the pan will cook quickly but you have time to move the runny / uncooked mixture sitting on the top to the edges. After two to three minutes, turn the oatcake over to cook the other side (you can check it is cooked by peeking).
Once both sides are cooked, place the oatcake to one side and cook the next until all your batter is used up.
We like to enjoy our oatcakes with cheese. If you are going to eat your oatcakes as soon as you have cooked them [and who can blame you] simply put your favourite cheese [grated or sliced] along the centre third of each oatcake, roll it up and keep them warm in the oven until you have cooked them all.
If you are working with cold oatcakes, then you can warm them in the oven or under the grill. Add the cheese as above and for the oven roll them up, place on a baking sheet and warm for about 20 minutes until the cheese has melted. Under the grill, leave the oatcakes open and grill them for about five minutes and then roll up and eat. A dollop of your favourite brown or tomato sauce on the side compliments this simple dish and you can spice it up by adding tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, gherkins or pickle [or all of these and more] to the cheese.
Some people eat oatcakes with a full English cooked breakfast and others eat them with sweet fillings but this latter combo has never been tried in our house or in any of our families houses!
I am barely conscious before my first cup of tea at the best of times but on a recent camping trip to the Lake District I had to wake up pretty fast. Anthony was still slumbering while I brewed our cuppa. Deciding to warm up some breakfast rolls I pulled out the pots and pans that live inside our campervan’s oven and lit the gas to warm it up. I’m sure we’re not alone with this dual use of our campervan oven, it is both storage space and cooking apparatus.
Sitting enjoying my brew a few minutes later my comatose brain registered a burning smell. Getting up and opening the oven I was horrified to see actual flames! As I turned off the oven and the gas, I realised I must have left the cloth we use to silence appliance-related rattles inside the oven when I had lit it. With flames still curling around the cloth I had to take action and fortunately adrenalin kicked in, over-riding the need for caffeine.
We have a fire extinguisher in our ‘van, but I realised that squirting this into the oven, although effective, would also be messy. We also carry an old but serviceable fire blanket that was discarded by a previous employer as being out of date. Guessing this would be more effective for the small fire I had before me I tried to grab the fire blanket from its hook between the kitchen unit and the van’s back door. Annoyingly it was stuck and I had to grab the ‘van keys and open the back door to free it, a commotion that abruptly woke my sleeping partner [interestingly the burning smell hadn’t woken him]. Trying to stay calm, I pulled the blanket out of its packing, not something I had ever done before, and stuffed it inside the oven, smothering the flames.
After waiting a minute or two and with no sign of further flames, I used the fire blanket to carefully remove the still smouldering cloth and I rolled it up into the fire blanket. We put the bundle outside on our gravel pitch, well enough away from ours or anyone else’s ‘van. Recovering from the shock with another mug of tea, we discussed where else we could store the fire blanket so that it is more easily accessible should there ever be a next time.
The simple fire blanket stopped a stupid mistake becoming a disaster, although our Blue Bus reeked of the burning fires of hell for a few days.
If you are wondering, you may have read a shorter version of this escapade in a recent MMM.
For over a decade, visiting the incredible Manchester Christmas Market has been an autumnal household tradition. Before we lived in Greater Manchester we would take the train into Manchester for a special day out. Once we lived in Salford, we would walk across the Irwell and potter around the market a number of times, usually starting with the opening day. The Christmas Market was always my number one choice to meet friends and soak up some festive atmosphere.
A mug of gluhwein isn’t cheap, so we will save some money this year but I will miss standing in the cold, people milling around me, my gloved hands wrapped around a mug of steaming hot gluhwein. The warming spicy wine is something that tastes best drunk outside surrounded by Christmas, it just doesn’t taste the same drunk at home. Part of the fun of drinking my gluhwein is having Rudolph, the festive singing reindeer, belting out Christmas songs above my head and Manchester’s Gothic town hall looking magnificent across the square.
On a weekday morning I would be one of the first visitors to the Christmas Market, taking the chance to browse the stalls and maybe even buy something. But mostly Manchester’s Christmas Market is about the food and drink. For a mid-morning snack I might buy a bag of warm, spicy nuts to nibble before finding a seat and treating myself to an alcoholic hot chocolate from the French stall on charming King Street. It is the next best thing to being in Paris.
In the afternoons, before the after-work rush, we will arrange to meet friends for gluhwein. After years of research I have found that the gluhwein varies across the many stalls and our favourite has become the drink from what we call the Rudolph stall. This stall always has prime position in Albert Square, provides malted milk biscuits to soak up your gluhwein and has the singing reindeer head above the counter. Their gluhwein isn’t too sweet and sickly, it tastes of alcohol and provides the much-anticipated inner glow. While I am happy with straight gluhwein, my partner likes to add rum to his gluhwein for that extra kick!
Before all the building work began we would often meet friends in the Alpine hut complex on Brazennose Street, for some reason always a quiet corner of the market even in the evenings. The crowds flock to Albert Square for the lights and conviviality and by contrast, Brazennose Street always had seats and even shelter, useful if rain was threatening. It was also quiet enough to facilitate talking without shouting. Unfortunately, this cosy spot served gluhwein so sweet it was like sipping hot Vimto, rather than anything alcoholic. This always fooled my brain into thinking it was harmless and I would find myself getting up for more refills than I should!
As the evening progressed all that gluhwein would make me hungry and I would head for the Bavarian käsespätzle stall in Albert Square. The glum owner was never happy to be in Manchester; while we waited for a new batch of käsespätzle to be cooked he would often complain about the high cost of his stall, the poor facilities and how much he missed home. He returned year after year so the trip must have made financial sense and eating a plateful of his delicious German version of macaroni cheese transported me right back to Germany where this dish is often the only vegetarian option on a menu.
It has been decided to cancel the Christmas Market in Manchester this year due to coronavirus. Certainly social distancing is all but impossible on a busy evening on the market. It is just another part of my life and year that has been taken away and I will really miss it. I will just have to keep watching and re-watching the beautiful Lego version in the video below.
In 1985 we were both young, married and still child-free but didn’t own a campervan. We did have a small tent and in that spring we carried it across Scotland from coast to coast on what was then called The Great Outdoors Ultimate Challenge, run by The Great Outdoors magazine and sponsored by Ultimate, who made lightweight tents. Just being able to be a part of this hiking expedition was tough, never mind the days of backpacking across remote Scottish glens and mountains. Our application for the Ultimate Challenge had to demonstrate our ability to backpack day after day, map read and survive in Scotland’s rugged terrain and in those days only 250 lucky participants were chosen. Once through the selection we had to submit a plan [by post] of our self-supported route for comments,. Although everyone finishes their challenge in Montrose, the west coast starting points vary and each route is unique.
The Great Outdoors established a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast hike in 1980 and it is still going strong, although for obvious reasons 2020 didn’t happen. The walk is non-competitive, there are no prizes for reaching Montrose first and today people write blogs about their trips. The Great Outdoors Challenge writes, ‘Up to 2019, a total of 10013 crossing have been attempted with 8851 being completed – a remarkable achievement for a remarkable event.’ Mine is one of those 8,851 crossings.
An important part of our training and preparation for the challenge was eating Mars bars! In 1985 Mars had a promotion and eating enough gave us a discount on the National Express buses to and from Scotland. We left our Midlands home at 07.00 on a May morning with full rucksacks and full of excited anticipation after six months of planning. We arrived at our starting point of Oban on Scotland’s west coast in evening sunshine after an arduous journey of over twelve hours. On the coaches we were entertained by drivers, new to the route, who didn’t know the location of the bus station in the string of Yorkshire towns they stopped at! Without SatNav or online maps, they would look for road signs and even pull up and ask pedestrians the way.
Over the next memorable twelve days we carried our small Vango Mark Two tent, cooking equipment, food, clothing, camera, books and maps [my reading was Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles] from Oban across the notorious Rannoch Moor and through the Cairngorms to the east coast, sometimes in temperatures over 20C and sometimes in persistent rain. When we reached Montrose we were both grubbier, leaner and fitter.
Our recent trip to Montrose, Glen Clova and Glen Callater bought back heaps of memories of that unforgettable adventure. These memories flooded in as we parked near the Glen Clova Hotel and took the now well-made path up to Loch Brandy, a stunning example of a mountain corrie. Following the footsteps of our younger selves, we climbed up the indistinct path around the crags of the corrie to Green Hill. In 1985 we continued across these heathery bumps to Glen Esk, walking in thick low cloud and following a compass bearing between hummocks and lochans. I remember how ecstatic and relieved we were when we realised our navigation had been spot on and we reached the track at the Shieling of Saughs.
From the mountains we drove the Blue Bus to the wide sweep of Montrose beach to evoke more memories. On this recent trip we were lucky and delighted to see a group of dolphins leaping out of the waves as we walked along the shoreline. Continuing along the beach I wondered what had happened to some of the people we had met on our Ultimate Challenge. The UC was a journey full of camaraderie as well as tough walking and it appears this is still an important aspect of the event. With no mobile phones in 1985 we were encouraged to ring HQ in Montrose from telephone boxes whenever we had the chance so that they knew we and others we had met were alive and well. My journal for the trip is full of the people we spoke to, the joy of sharing an amazing experience and a hint of awe for the experienced participants. On our last night in Montrose we partied in the Park Hotel until the small hours; an evening packed full of laughter and walker’s tales, all the pain of blisters, soggy wet clothing and deep weary agony forgotten.
On this year’s autumn trip, after some splendid coastal walking near Stonehaven, we left the sea for Deeside and had a fantastic day crammed with a medley of weather as we hiked up the popular Morven [871 m] on the eastern edges of the Cairngorms. October hit us with sleet, hail, sunshine and rainbows but we were blessed with a view from the summit to Lochnagar and Mount Keen. An unexpected surprise was a specially designed box in the summit shelter that holds a book and pen for walkers to write in and even postcards of the hill to purchase!
In 1985, after seven days walking we were at Blair Atholl and could stock up in the village shop. Our walk from there up the remote and attractive Glen Tilt is a privilege I will never forget. After the Falls of Tarf we planned to cross a stream but following heavy rain the gushing torrent was too fast to paddle across and too wide to jump. One of the marvelous things about backpacking, as with a campervan, is that you are carrying everything you need with you and can be flexible. After much deliberation we decided to camp overnight where we were on the grassy spot by the burn and the next day detour to Braemar. The morning dawned wild and wet and we struggled through miles of thick damp heather that hid ankle-bashing rocks to reach the six miles of tarmac to Braemar. A welcoming B&B owner whisked away our wet gear to dry it out and fortified us with much needed tea and cake and that evening we ate salad and chips [the only vegetarian option in these unenlightened times] for £1 each in the Fife Arms.
From Braemar we had another memorable day of walking along the historic Jock’s Road through Glen Callater; a route that played an important role in the rights of way walkers in Scotland have. After the good track the path became steeper and boggier at the end of the glen, taking us up to the featureless plateau before the lovely descent to Glen Doll and onto Glen Clova. Jock’s Road funnels many Ultimate Challengers from their varied starting points onto the same path as they get nearer to Montrose. My diary notes how sociable the walking was throughout that day, including meeting Bob Dawes one of five people to complete all of the first ten challenges.
We were once again in a reminiscing mood as we drove from Braemar to the car park at Auchallater. From here we travelled alongside our youthful bootsteps on the track up Glen Callater but this time turning off onto Carn nan Gabhar [834 m], a fairly easy Corbett between Glen Callater and the A93. The weather was kind to us, the autumn colours were stunning and we stayed cloud-free, although the higher mountains all had their tops in the murk. We saw red deer but most thrilling were the couple of mountain hares we spotted near the summit as we descended towards Callater Loch Lodge.
The welcome in Scotland is still a warm one, the scenery is still breathtaking and the weather still unpredictable. But many other things have changed in Scotland since 1985. In 2020 you’ll pay a bit more than the £1.20 [equivalent to about £3.60 today] it cost us to pitch our small tent at Tummel Bridge or even the £2.50 [equivalent to about £7.63] we paid at what is now called Blair Castle Caravan Park [although I notice it is only £12 for two backpackers in low season]. Thankfully, nowadays vegetarian backpackers don’t have to survive on a plateful of vegetables and you can feel fairly confident you will be able to enjoy a good vegetarian meal in most Scottish hotels and restaurants.
All the photographs I have added to this blog post are from our 1985 Ultimate Challenge. You can see we both had more hair in those days, we were still wearing walking breeches and check shirts but my cagoule did contain some Gore-Tex.
During our 2020 campervan trip we stayed at a mixture of remote wild camping spots and Caravan and Motorhome Club sites [Forfar, Stonehaven and Banchory].
An adult-only campsite on a regular bus route to Cheltenham and Gloucester is a great place for a couple wanting an urban break full of historical interest, entertainment and stunning places to eat. Briarfields is on the edge of Cheltenham and is open all year round so, like us, you can visit out of season. The site is enclosed by trees and has good-sized pitches and clean facilities. With buses from the entrance, the background road noise is a small price to pay for the convenience of being able to easily visit the historic town of Cheltenham and the city of Gloucester.
You get off the bus in Cheltenham near to the brilliant white Regency buildings of The Royal Crescent. I had a copy of David Elder’s Cheltenham Heritage Walks guide book with me and we set off on some of the nine themed walks in this book.
If it is a fine day then the perfect thing to do in Cheltenham is to walk to some of its parks and gardens. A highlight of your tour will be Pittville Park, about 15 minutes walk from the town centre that gives you chance to admire the large Regency houses and green squares you will pass on the way. With a duck pond, a boating lake, a playground and cafe and on the hill the stately Pump Rooms, Pittville is an lovely park. The elegant columned Pump Rooms has a domed roof and inside there is a tap where you can still sample Cheltenham’s water.
It isn’t my favourite thing to do, unless I actually need something, but even I can recognise that Cheltenham has a great shopping centre. Whether you are like me and don’t get beyond window shopping or do the real thing it is worth keeping an eye out for some of the statues among the shops and follow Cheltenham’s story through its art. The Minotaur and The Hare [in the photo at the top] is easy to find but look carefully and you might spot some of the small pigeon statues too. These remember the role of this humble bird in Cheltenham’s history when a local farmer spotted pigeons pecking at salt deposits at the mineral spring on his land. In the Regent Arcade you will want to check the time and watch The Wishing Fish Clock on the hour or half hour. This colourful and fun tall clock with a goose, golden eggs and other animals, has a fish hanging below the clock that blows bubbles to the tune, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles.’ The Imperial Gardens near to the centre are where you will find the statue to Gustav Holst and Cheltenham also has a museum to this composer who was born in the town.
Walking further, on the edge of the town we found Sandford Park. This has none of the grandeur of Pittville Park but offers a respite from the bustle of the town and has a pretty stream running through it and more statues.
We visited The Wilson to find out more about Edward Wilson, the local polar explorer and artist who took part in two Antarctic expeditions with Scott. Wilson, Scott and Henry Robertson Bowers died in a blizzard around 29 March 1912 still 148 miles from their base camp and just eleven miles from a food stash. As well as the room to Edward Wilson the gallery has paintings, and some stunning and elegant arts and crafts furniture that I would certainly buy if I had lots of money.
Taking the bus in the opposite direction our first stop in Gloucester was the Cathedral and this is surely a must-do for anyone in the city. We took one of the tours the cathedral offers and found it was a great way to get much more out of our visit and understand the layers of history in this beautiful building. As well as Edward II’s tomb, you will gaze in awe at the medieval east window that is the size of a tennis court and enjoy the elegant cloisters that are popular film and TV locations. If these tours are running when you are there I would recommend you join in. Afterwards we climbed the steps to the Tribune Gallery to get a whole new perspective on the building.
Walking to Gloucester Docks we had coffee and croissants in an Italian cafe where the chocolate croissant came not just with a chocolate filling but also a chocolate topping. Outside a group of Vespa owners were congregating by the water and comparing their scooters. With the sun shining we could have been in Italy!
The Victorian warehouses at Gloucester Docks have been restored and this is a watery area of cafes and restaurants that is so pleasant to walk around. The National Waterways Museum is inside one of the huge warehouses on the Docks. Each floor has low ceilings and small windows and was designed to store cargoes that arrived here along the canal from Avonmouth and the River Severn. The oral history exhibits bring to life the hard work in all weathers of the workers on the barges.
The Jet Age Museum
Also accessible by bus from Briarfields, the Jet Age Museum has a mostly indoor collection of Gloster Aviation Company (GAC) planes, apparently the company changed its name from Gloucester as anyone outside England struggled to pronounce it! GAC built the Meteor, the RAFs first jet that saw service in the Second World War. GAC started life in Cheltenham and worked with Frank Whittle to build The Meteor, testing it in 1941 and flying with the RAF by 1943.
The museum is run by enthusiastic volunteers and is packed with information. You can concentrate on the planes or dig deeper into a particular aspect of aviation. Visitors can have a bit of a hands-on adventure climbing two ladders in and out of the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber, a cramped and stuffy place that isn’t for the claustrophobic. The five of us each had a crew member’s seat and our guide described what each of us would have been responsible for on a flight. Easier to get into and more comfortable was the BAE Trident, the first passenger aircraft with an automatic landing system, built by a local firm. There are smaller simulators for children too.
If you want to read more my travel article about this area that was published in MMM in November 2020 can be found in the list of MMM published articles.