Five Days Across Scotland With Haggis Tours.

After a short two nights in Edinburgh to help Jess adjust after flying from Australia, we gathered our belongs early on Monday morning and headed to the Haggis Bus Tours office on the Royal Mile, ready to begin our 5 day/4 night tour of Scotland.

Unfortunately Jess’ baggage, which had disappeared somewhere between Heathrow and Edinburgh still hadn’t turned up and the delivery company was being painful but it did eventually reach us on the third night.

I had been on a three day Haggis tour in 1999 on my first trip to Europe and I was interested to see what had changed. I remembered it being one of the highlights of my two month stay and was sure this would be another great experience – although I did wonder if I’d be the oldest person on the bus. Turned out that there was one guy older than me – Patrick – who was 45, but the age spread between 19 and 45 was pretty good.

There were 29 people on the bus and slightly more women than men. Our driver was a perky, blue-eyed young man named Callum who had a dry sense of humour and a decent knowledge of the places we visited. He encouraged us all, as we left Edinburgh, to move around the bus and chat to new people so by the first stop we all know at least six new names and were comfortable talking  to each other.

I won’t write about everything we saw but I’ll cover my highlights (in no particular order).

Highlight 1: The Scenery.

The mountains of Scotland are very reminiscent of the Lake District in many way but there is an extra wildness to them (possibly due to the far lower numbers of people and sheep) and the autumn colours we experienced were perfect.

I love everything about it and it’s made me want to do the West Highland Way one day – or maybe even the much less popular East Highland Way. The weather is always a huge factor in any outdoor pursuits in Scotland and midges are more problematic too but I would love to see more of the wilder parts of the countryside.

Highlight 2: The Selkies.

Our first stop on day 1 was at the Selkies, a huge and fairly newish sculpture near Edinburgh that looks like two angry chess pieces. Marvellous!

Highlight 3. The Company.

While our bus group did somewhat separate into the ‘all night partiers’ and ‘the rest of us’, everyone got on and was good fun.

Isabel from Switzerland, Alice and Tim from Sydney (on their pre-wedding trip to Octoberfest) and Patrick from London were probably the people I spoke to most and were all particularly lovely. There was another (and more professional) travel blogger on the bus but she had to leave early. Her blog is http://www.broganabroad.com if you like reading travel blogs!

Highlight 4. The Ceilidh.

On our first night we stayed in Oban in a hostel that had been a church. We spent the evening at a local bar having a Ceilidh (traditional Scottish dance) with a band that had a bag piper. We dance many dances and nearly everyone got up at least a few times.

To finish, a few photos with captions rom throughout the week.

Fungi! One of the benefits of autumn travel.

Jess and Isobel.

On the banks of Loch Ness.

Same age as me!

The morning after.

Ended up being a bit of a weird flavour.

Delicious stoats!

View of the Jacobite railway line.

View from the Jacobite train. The colours!

Luke and I Hike Up Skiddaw, Cumbria

Two days before we left Keswick I had an attack of the sads and felt like I hadn’t done enough while I’d been there. I know Luke isn’t obsessed with walking like I am and while he was with me I didn’t want to torture him with huge days of walking. I ended up feeling a bit resentful, which was obviously unfair but I knew I wouldn’t be back for years and there was so much left to do! It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I’d bought a Wainwright map and realised I’d only bagged seven peaks.

Not that it’s all about ticking things off, but the days I had climbed high I’d been rewarded with amazing views and feelings of accomplishment and I was jonesing for more.

Luke very kindly and generously agreed that our last day, if the weather was decent, would be spent attacking Skiddaw, the fourth highest peak in Cumbria and the closest major mountain to Keswick.

I was both pleased and daunted so I planned a route that was longer but not so steep, as I’d tried to attempt the climb on my last visit but was scared off by the loose gravel.

We took a taxi to the Latrigg car park then headed around between Lonscale Fell and Blencathra and walked along the valley to Skiddaw House YHA.

This way is mostly flat and mostly dry until the walk up behind Skiddaw House which then is a fairly steady, grassy gradient to the saddle between Skiddaw Little Man and Skiddaw.

As we climbed higher it seemed that the whole of the northern fells were visible and I think I could see as far as Scotland!

We reached the saddle and at this point the wind, which had been picking up gradually, became a freezing arctic gale. We each put on a jumper and what few layers we had, astonished at the ferocity of it. Still, the view was excellent. It felt almost like we were standing over Keswick. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

We walked up to the cairns, quickly admired the view and then decided to head down via the steep path to Latrigg car park. We both felt very accomplished for making it to the top, even though it had been a pretty easy walk. Little did we realise that the worst was to come!

We started down and at first the track was a wide bridleway but it narrowed and became steep loose gravel. I genuinely cannot comprehend how people run this track, even though I saw people doing it. I don’t understand how people can manage it either going up or down.

We crept down the path at at snail’s pace and it took us almost as long to travel the one kilometre down as it took us to travel the five or so kilometres up. We had to stop to rest several times because of pain in our knees – and I never get pain in my knees. I was very, very glad I’d bought replacement hiking poles and that Luke had one as well.

The soles of my feet stung from sliding in my shoes and at one point we found a grassy stretch and attempted to slide down it using my plastic-coated map as a toboggan but it didn’t really work. We did have a laugh though!

The attempted toboggan slope.

Luke says ‘why not?’

Despite the pain it was certainly an achievement. As Luke said afterwards: I’ve done something I thought I couldn’t do so now I can be more confident with other things. He was right!

My weeks of walking in the Lakes have shown me that I have no problems with camping alone in the wild (if you can consider anywhere in England ‘wild’), that I can walk a fair way carrying all my gear, that I actually enjoy scrambling over rock faces (as long as they’re not too steep) and that I enjoy my own company for days on end. These are all good things of know!

When I get home I will start planning some Tasmanian walks and finally do the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria. Maybe one day I could even aim for something really huge!

Have you ever conquered a physical challenge? Have you done something you thought was not possible? I’d love to hear about other’s achievements!

High Rigg and Buttermere – Two Walks Near Keswick.

We arrived in Keswick pretty late in the day after a taxi, two trains and a bus from Cheltenham.

We stopped in at our BnB (The Cartwheel in Blencathra Street) to unload and briefly relax before heading out on a very short walk to Castle Hill.

Despite the fact that it was only about a kilometre away I missed the right lane but we made it eventually to the little dark forest that crowned a small rise near Derwentwater.

As I expected, my lack of long walks or serious hills showed and I was a bit puffed by the time we made it to the top. The nice thing about this time of year is that the school holidays are over so we saw only a few people on the way up and had the top to ourselves.

We took a few photos but it was getting dark so we took a walk down through town to the camping and caravan club where I camped in May and June. I pointed out all the significant spots and hills I’d climbed while Luke humoured me by making noises to indicate he was listening.

When we got to the lake it was getting quite dark and it looked quite moody and gloomy – very different to earlier balmy days. Also the black and white makes it look even more eerie ;-).

We stopped at The Bank Tavern for a drink and shared a chicken kiev. While we haven’t been sharing dinner as often as we should we’re trying to remember to do it now.

We then went to The Dog And Gun, which was packed with dogs – five just in the alcove we were sitting in. We had a piece of apple pie drowning in custard, which made Luke happy, then walked back to the Cartwheel for an early night.

While on the bus that day I’d wrenched my neck and lying in a soft bed seemed to make it worse – by morning I was struggling to move it at all or sit comfortably. I took some nurofen with breakfast, which seems to help but I’m hoping it comes better soon.

The following day I decided that I wanted to walk High Rigg, a hill near Castlerigg Stone Circle and very close to the walk Pete and Deb and I did in June.

We caught the bus as close as we could then walked up the hill and along the ridge. Luke did not enjoy the walk up, but it was pretty! And reasonably dry, too.

As I’d read, there were excellent panoramic views from the top and we followed the ridge for about a kilometre then down the southern end. There was no path marked on my OS map but it was pretty clear where to go.

We only saw one other couple along the way and it was marvellously quiet. The rain that had happened through the night had cleared and only the top of Skiddaw and Blencathra were covered in cloud. We even got a bit of sun on our way down.

The path ended right at a 555 bus stop, which was super handy, so we caught the bus back to Keswick then the 77A to Buttermere to eat our lunch then go for a wander along the lake. While it was perhaps not quite as fine a day as last time I was here, the lack of crowds made up for it.

We found a lovely patch of fly agaric too!

At the southern end we spent a few minutes watching dog try to pick up a rock out of a stream – the rock was bigger than its head and we watched in amazement as it finally managed to pick the rock up and get it up to the bank.

We caught the bus back to Keswick by 5 and headed straight to the Wainwright pub where we shared a steak and ale pie, Luke agreed it was the best he’d had yet. After we’d finished eating another couple asked if they could share the table and we ended up talking to them for ages. Janice and Steve were from Newcastle and on their yearly holiday to the lakes. They had their immaculately white west highland terrier with them and we talked dogs and walks and travel for a while before Luke and I decided it was getting late and headed back to the Cartwheel.

A lovely day out!

Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

It seems that the older we get, the more our holidays revolve around food – much to our waistlines’ detriment! After two fantastic Michelin-listed restaurants in Alsace we decided to use one of our days in Cheltenham to book lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, a two starred restaurant since 2008. The head chef is David Everitt-Matthias, who has released several cookbooks, although I hadn’t heard of him or the books until we looked up the restaurant.

We walked across town from our glamorous Holiday Inn accommodation and I changed out of my grotty trainers into my heels just around the corner from the restaurant. I’d bought a new handbag to hide them in and Luke had had a haircut and shave that morning – we were looking our best! I only wish I’d asked them to take a photo of us out of our normal jeans and T-shirt ensembles.

As is my habit, I misread the time and we arrived half an hour early, so we had a drink in the pub just down the road and relaxed before arriving at the restaurant right on 12:30.

The restaurant is quite understated but very comfortable.

Double-covered tables, good spacing and comfortable chairs. The staff were very welcoming and I was very happy to be seated near a bright window so I could be one of those awful people who take photos of every course.

The menu had several options but we chose three courses from the £35 set menu.

Before we had ordered we were brought a small plate of savory bites that looked like truffles and biscuits.

We have our order taken and then were presented with a warm celery amuse-bouche.

Delicious! I have never had a celery soup and would never think to order one but this was creamy and refreshing. It also had a pretty mix of spices floating on top, including rose petals, I think.

We both decided to start with the breast of wood pigeon (warning – may contain lead shot).

Neither of us had tried pigeon before and both thought it was delicious. The whole flavour effect reminded me of an autumn forest (if I can dare to be so pretentious about it). Nutty granola, sweet blackberry and mango, green flavour of saxifrage and earthy pigeon with a hint of Christmas in the vegetables and chutney. Possibly my favourite course as it was so evocative! We shared a half bottle of a fairly heavy red that was exceptionally plummy and matched well.

Next up, I chose the Cornish ray (like sole) and Luke chose the beef blade. I had quite a bit of food envy as his dish looked incredible and tasted great. Mine was less powerful but the mushroom flavours were lovely and very well matched by the wine. I’d asked the waitress to choose a wine pairing and it was a Brescou viognier that reminded me strongly of the very unusual white we’d had with our mushroom dish at l’Agneau.

With the savory courses we had a choice of bread. Luke once again made a great choice with a brioche, while I chose a white roll that had an outer consistency of rock and shattered everywhere as I hacked into it. When I was given a second choice I went for the onion brioche. It was the lightest, crispiest bread roll I’ve ever had!

I didn’t need to eat two bread rolls with three courses but I did anyway.

Dessert!

We both chose the lemon verbena and strawberry sorbet. I grow lemon verbena in my garden and have clearly not been using it to its full potential.

Gorgeous! The strawberry sorbet was the prime flavour but the verbena was a delightful citrus note. The combination of textures was a pleasure to experience.

We decided to have a fortified wine with our dessert. I chose the champagne ratafia because the characters in Georgette Heyer books are always drinking it and I’ve never tried it. Luke chose the Pedro Ximenez and once again he made the best choice because it was quite the richest liquor I’ve ever tasted – and we’ve tried quite a few. My ratafia was also lovely with burnt toffee and raisin flavours.

I’d had quite enough by that stage but Luke had a coffee to finish and it came with petit fours.

We left a bit after 3 and I was full to bursting. Even though fancy restaurants do serve small quantities, there are lots of little extras that fill you up. The bill came to £132.60, which is about $260 AUD. It was almost twice as much as our lunches in Alsace and about $200 more than we’d spend on a pub lunch but well worth it for the experience.

A Day In The Cotswolds

Luke signed us up for a ‘Secret Cottage’ tour of the Cotswolds and so we arrived at Oxford station ready to catch a train to meet our group, only to find that, for the second time in a week, someone had been hit by a train and thrown the network into disarray. After hanging about for a bit a delayed train was rerouted and we jumped on and actually got to the meeting point a bit early.

We were met by two black vans and two drivers – ours was a local man named Jeremy who turned out to be an almost inexhaustible font of knowledge with a perfect BBC accent. He was the first (and probably the last) person I will ever hear using ‘one’ as an entirely unselfconscious personal pronoun.

Along with two girls from California who had arrived by the same train, we jumped in and were driven to a tiny village called Chastleton. There we admired a Jacobean manor which, up until quite recently, housed a lady who own 21 cats. Apparently the smell was quite something.

We also had a look in the church next door before heading around the corner to the ‘secret cottage’. The family who organise the tours live in the cottage and provide morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea throughout the day. Before eating we had a tour of the cottage.

Those mushroom shaped objects are ‘straddle stones’ used to elevate storage sheds so mice and rats couldn’t climb up.

It was originally three living spaces with families of up to 15 in each two room space. One room downstairs and one upstairs, reachable by a ladder. In winter the family pig and chickens would live inside too. These days it’s much nicer, with just four people living in the cottage rather than 45!

Morning tea was a delicious selection of biscuits and cakes.

On each excursion out we visited different villages in the Cotswolds and admired many thatched cottages and learned a great deal from Jeremy about the area’s history, geography, language, animals and social goings-on. For example, did you know that Patrick Stewart lives in the Cotswolds and writes many peeved letters to his local council about the shooting range near his property?

We visited Upper and Lower Slaughter – two gorgeous villages with rather dramatic names. However ‘slaugh’ meant ‘marsh’ in an old language, which makes it all less sinister. One of the villages is one of Britain’s ‘doubly thankful’ villages. This means that not one person was killed in either world war. Jeremy explained that the wars had quite devastating effects on some villages as all the young men would want to join the same regiment and so, if that regiment was in serious action, they could lose a generation in one blow.

We learned that while thatched roofs may be beautiful, they are also expensive. They cost about forty thousand pounds to restore (for a medium sized cottage) and a thatch last about 50 years. Some thatchers make signature animals along the roof line – often birds but sometimes cats, dogs and foxes.

Lunch!

The name ‘Cotswolds’ come from ‘cot’ meaning a fenced or enclosed space (from all the sheep pens) and ‘wold’ meaning ‘hills’.

A newly thatched cottage.

We saw a village named Great Tew that had been abandoned last century then revitalised when an heir to the estate had been found. It was a beautiful village filled with gorgeous buildings.

And a very cute pub!

Jeremy had worked as a geologist and as we walked through the village he found a brachiopod fossil!

It doesn’t look like much here but I could tell it was a shell, I promise!

He also had a little wallet of things he’d found while walking around the area, including a Roman coin. It’s the tiny blackened one.

Afternoon tea!

It was a lovely day. Not cheap, at £95, but it didn’t feel at all rushed and we had a very nice group of people to chat to, in fact four others from our group caught the same train back towards Oxford so we chatted the whole way. Lovely!

Blenheim Palace

I wanted to visit at least one grand house while in England and they don’t come much grander than Blenheim. Built in the 17th century by the Marlborough family, it is a vast building with extensive gardens and over 9000 acres of grounds. It is the only non-royal or non-episcopal palace in England and a UNESCO-listed building.

We arrived a little earlier than the building opened (the grounds open at 9, the building at 10:30) so we had a look around the gift shop.

Compared to the gift shops that spawn alongside Australian attractions, English gift shops of the National Trust variety are models of elegance and good taste. They sell hand-dyed silk scarves, embroidered cushions and cashmere cardigans – all at fairly outrageous prices, of course. There’s also mugs and tea towels but even these are fairly understated.

We availed ourselves of the ‘free’ (included in the somewhat steep entry price – although if you catch the bus there rather than drive you get 30% off which isn’t bad) audio guide and set around the interior. Well, some of it. As the Duke was in residence all the upstairs tours were not available. Still, what we saw was quite grand.

There was an exhibition of modern art sensitively interspersed between the historical artifacts. Did I say sensitively? I meant hideously. Despite this I managed to find a few angles that didn’t include all the bright blue paintings and statues.

As the palace was Winston Churchill’s birthplace there was an exhibition of his work and achievements that was very informative. I particularly enjoyed seeing his paintings.

We took a walk by the lake and rose garden on one side of the palace. The roses weren’t in their best condition but the few that were still out had a beautiful perfume.

Last, a walk to the pleasure gardens, which didn’t seem to actually have any gardens. There was a large playground and a butterfly house. As is always the case, the butterfly house was uncomfortably hot but also full of gorgeous butterflies that I could’ve spent all day photographing.

We lazily caught the 50p train back to the palace rather than walk, then headed out to the village of Woodstock, that sits right by one of the gates. The village is very pretty and full of tea shops and pubs. Below is the Bear Inn, which must look absolutely magnificent in autumn.

A good day out from Oxford, Blenheim is certainly interesting if you like history and old houses and whatnot. Googling the current Lord Marlborough was also very interesting – something of a jailbird whose father did not trust him not to squander the family fortune and so left a board of trustees to oversee his management of the estate. Apparently he was known for driving too fast around the local area in a pink sports car.

Next: a tour of the Cotswolds!

Oxford: Authors, Ancient History, and Artifacts.

We caught the bus from Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes. There was a man on the bus who smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke that we had to move away from him. Still, at least he wasn’t cutting his toenails like the guy on the bus we caught to Heathrow a while back.

We arrived in Oxford around 1:30 and paid to leave our bags at the Oxford Backpackers. Four pounds per bag wasn’t a bad deal and the staff let us use the toilets too, which was nice of them.

We set off for a wander around town. Obviously I had to take a photo of this pub, almost next door to the school Ronnie Barker attended and named after one of the most famous Two Ronnies comedy sketches. We would’ve stopped in for a drink but it’s a Wetherspoons – urgh.

First stop was lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by the illustrious Inklings, who included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

It’s a smallish, dark and pokey pub that was heated to a startling temperature, but at the very back was a room that was less like a Saharan midday and had enough light to read the menu. We shared a chicken and chorizo pie that wasn’t half bad and left feeling fairly satisfied.

Next was a walk around the Natural History Museum. It looked a lot like the one in London but on a much smaller scale and was also free to enter.

There are a lot of interesting things to see. One of the exhibits that grabbed my attention were a gigantic wasp nest that was grown deliberately by some psychopath.

They had a good insect display with a few cases of live bugs including giant cockroaches. Another good section was a history of British culture with some great graphs showing immigration patterns across the centuries and one showed how different languages affected place names.

Our last stop was a Tolkien exhibition in the library that is opposite the Radcliffe Camera. Although it wasn’t large it did have a good number of original items on display and I thought the artwork was most interesting. Tolkien designed the dust jackets and illustrations for early editions – and drew all the maps of course. I had not known that he was born in South Africa, although his family moved back to England when he was three. Sadly photography wasn’t allowed so here’s a photo of the Radcliffe Camera instead.

We had a short walk through town before picking up our bags and heading to our Airbnb. As we booked this trip quite late we’d decided on just a room in an apartment. When we arrived the owners told us we’d have a continental breakfast provided every day – a nice surprise!

Next: Blenheim Palace.