Friday 20 March 2009

Kerrera - day 2

To Ardantrive Bay and beyond

We decide to walk a different route to the Kerrera ferry. It's a strenuous climb up to Pulpit Hill viewpoint looking across the bay to the tower. A proper ferry chugs in below. After negotiating various cul-de-sacs we find the right road, then break off for the footpath that carries us over the plateau. A classic, brown, boggy landscape feeds us towards the jetty and the grassy ramp that descends to the roadside. The ferryman is already there and he takes us, a ponytailed cyclist and one other couple across. Sunny but hazier today.

We head to the other end of the island, on a single track; no loop this time. Instantly, I confidently take us along the wrong path; a scuffy grass track, uphill. Coming out at a small, nestling pool, fences block our progress. A few curses later, some angry backtracking and we hop over the fence and whizz down the hill to a wide, flat bay. T occupies herself with taking pictures and I watch the sea barely move, softly undulating the seaweed. Just the sound of water and birds.

A heavily rutted track, filled with water, leads us along the shore to a white cottage, set aslant; I assume to avoid the brunt of the wind. Highland cattle wait on the beach. They're such docile creatures, built to stand still, as though the least amount of movement is simply exhausting. In the distance, just off the coast, is a fish farm with hundreds of gulls circling around it making the most colossal racket.

The track curls inland, hooded by a cliff, not seeing much sun. This flat area, distinctly visible from the mainland has a large area of reed beds, across which the masts of boats in the yard at Ardantrive Bay can be seen. Reaching a sweet small-holding we pass three pigs deep in mud, chickens, a duck snootily ignoring it's paddling pool, sitting in a puddle. Guinea fowl and a peacock balance on a wall. A goat with kids that have the tiniest horns.

At the boatyard, lots of boats are on land, balanced on stilts. Titania IV from Southampton, I notice. The noise of industry all about us. After following a buzzard from telegraph pole to telegraph pole we hack up the hill to the monument and take lunch. The wind picks up and it becomes a bit chilly laying on a rock with my boots off.

We return the way we came beneath the telegraph poles glinting in the sun, a bright blue water pipe snaking beneath them. A heraldic looking bird of prey sits on a wire and not for the first time we wish Piran was here to tell us what it is. Once back at the first bay, Oitir Mhor, I realise where we went wrong all those hours ago. Cutting up a smooth run between two hills, we come out and look across rich lands. Bare-armed trees and green pasture. The sky is a golden haze. Layers and layers of mountains are dropped in like stage sets. A multitude of shapes: blunt, square, pointed, pitted in varying degrees of silhouette.

There's still time to push it a little further and follow a dead end track down to Slatanach Bay. A chained dog guards the farm, barking a tight-gripped bark. A platformed track zigzags down to the beach that's not as sandy as the map suggests. Geese honk on the water, another stream cascades onto the beach by a ruined cottage.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Kerrera - day 1

Kerrera ferry
Golden sunshine as we walk the coastal road in the opposite direction from yesterday towards Gallanach Road jetty. A low, mossy, old wall separates the road from Kerrera Sound; to our left rearing cliffs of stone, grass and tree. Stunningly beautiful in the sun. Past sail boats anchored off the shore, weather-beaten cottages.

At the jetty you revolve a board from white to black to attract the ferry. We watch it glide over, then ram itself onto the concrete ramp. Dog and car off, we get on, and the ferry moves back across the still water. Docking the other side, we pause, wondering when we pay, until the lady who's been over to buy a mop and nothing else explains that we pay on our way back. The eight of us gaggle off like geese to a boulder strewn shoreline, trees against crag, rusting discarded equipment, and an incline to a red phone box and a blue hut. The group thins out as we're left behind, slowly following the dusty track to the western tip of the island. The track is only visible a little at a time, forever curling, dipping or climbing. Wonders surround us. Pebbly bays, rotting boats, steep hills, thin waterfalls, kestrels and buzzards, peacock butterflies flit and pause, oystercatchers squeak. In one bay the squawking becomes very loud. We're puzzled until we pass a lady who has four parrots in a pen and other caged birds spilling from doorways.

Just before the white bunkhouse we follow the sign to Gylen castle. A brook cascades down a gentle hill; dark and frothy. Tall lozenges of green covered rock stand before us, leading the eye to the ruined tower standing above it all. The brook drops down to the beach. A great place for a picnic. Boots off and feet in the stream. The water is just about bearable, eased by the moss underfoot. A sheep investigates, cheese roll is eaten, nap is taken. We follow the grassy path up to the castle standing between two bays on a thin finger of land. The door is open and you can enter and even go up some steps to the second floor. The sign explains the castle had excellent defences but lacked a fresh water supply. It was besieged and defeated, only being inhabited for 65 years.

The main track ends and we move onto a footpath. The north side feels different to what we've seen before as the shore is exchanged for hills. We're hot, tired and thirsty as we rejoin the track and head back to the ferry, which we have just missed. We have an hour's wait; I have a snooze, T watches an oystercatcher.  

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Kerrera from Oban

sunset over Kerrera from Oban
There are two fantastic rail stations in Glasgow. After docking at Glasgow Central we walk round the corner to the compact Glasgow Queen Street. I'm struck by the stone work of the buildings and pavements, glowing in the morning sun, reminding me of Prague. People are rushing to work, we stand and watch.

Catching the 8:21 to Oban we roll for 20 minutes through some of the most depressing looking housing in Europe. Grey, dank, peeling blocks; randomly erected. Then, bursting through some trees: water and hills. We run along the Loch, past sand flats, distant trees, an imperceptible horizon. The sun breaks out. In a sinuous rising and lowering line three hours long, we pass through steep hills, look over to snow streaked mountains, skim lochs, cut through forests. The default landscape being grey rock, bent brown fern, moss and spindly trees. These basic ingredients are repeated over and over again in unique patterns.

After the usual wrong turns with the back-breaking bags we find a small door for the Jeremy Inglis hostel. Passing through a second door, we ascend some stairs to a buzzer by a pink door. A nice European girl answers, still half asleep, she hands over a key, telling us to go up another two floors, unlock a yellow door then go to room D. A bit Kafka, but with bright colours. Room D presents a quandary. There are two sets of bedding. Which is clean, which is dirty? Further questions arise. Where are the curtains? Which blind Slav painted these terrible pictures? Luckily, the first question is answered by a kindly Scottish lady who comes in to make the bed. T is not overly impressed. Our room also has a sink, mirror, chair, stool, table, heater, plug socket and electricity meter. At least a dozen windows look into our uncovered window so I hastily MacGyver an orange blanket into a make-shift curtain over the old stretchy wire.

We wander up the walled coastal road to the small, sandy bay at Dunollie. A single swan half walks, half swims in the shallows. On the way, we look across to back-lit Kerrera. The first island on the itinerary. It fills the bay at Oban, beckoning us. After a lazy stop at the Oban Chocolate Co. we plod uphill to McCaig's Tower. At the lookout we watch the sun drop almost vertically behind Kerrera. The colour drains from the sky and we head off to try and find Tesco.

Breakfast and charcoal trees

TH: There is a certain romance to sleeping on a train that even a dodgy Scot Rail breakfast cannot destroy. 

After a long wait at Euston we boarded the Caledonian Sleeper for Glasgow, and got settled into our bunks for the night. Unable to sleep, I lay awake thinking about the people and places I had left behind, and hoping that they would find the time to stay in touch with me.

A few hours later, the light steadily began to improve and the murky grey shapes forming outside began to fill with colour as a new day dawned. There was a heavy mist, and I lay for a while watching the electric cables outside dancing on a white sky background as the train gently rolled from side to side. Steadily, Scotland began to appear through the mist: a brown landscape, dotted with spindly tress that looked at though they had been drawn with charcoal. Streams could be seen running down hillsides, which rose in the background like a painted backdrop. 

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Getting away

After three weeks of finalising the planning, tidying and general finishing up, it was still desperate at the end. Frantically chucking anything and everything into boxes, just about squeezing our flat into a Transit van and the boot of a Tipo. Then two days at the other end unpacking, binning what we should have already binned, organising the bedroom and office. We now have a nice working space and it was a shame not to have a bit longer there.
Butterflies on the day of departure despite the rush to get ready. Without a minute to spare our bags were packed and off to pick up the train from Ashurst, New Forest. From Victoria to Euston on the underground and a chilly wait on a stainless steel bench for 90 minutes, repeatedly checking the departure board, awaiting the appearance of our platform number. Around 2330 it appears and we're off to platform 1 to catch the Caledonian Sleeper.
Near the end of a very long train, we meet our attendant with a clipboard who offers us a choice of three drinks for the morning. On the train, everywhere is narrowed. We squeeze down a corridor and squeeze into our cabin. Two bunks, a ladder, sink, shelf and just enough room to put our five bags down.
In bed the duvet is tucked so tightly in one side, it's clear they never want you to get it out. Throughout the night it's a battle to get yourself fully covered, the duvet never quite covers my left side.
I awake to find T staring out the window, marvelling at Scotland pouring through the glass. After a three tap knock at the door, two coffees and two breakfast boxes are delivered. Within each box, three sealed bags: a damp muffin, limp croissant, mousse like yoghurt. The muffin wasn't too bad. As I descend from the top bunk to eat it, I feel like a giant trapped in a toy train. There's no room for legs, no room for sitting, certainly no room for moving, but what a great way to travel. Go to sleep in London, wake up in Glasgow; the closest thing to teleportation.

Friday 13 March 2009


After our final farewell drinks at The Pelham Arms it feels very sad to be leaving. All these goodbyes over the last ten days, and all the warmth we've felt from our friends makes us question why we're going.

Thursday 12 March 2009

The Last Supper

Goodbye to Sally, Carmen, Isabelle, Lucy, Mandi, Nina and Sam; all of whom I've met through the shop and all of whom are fantastic individuals. You've all made my eight year stay in Lewes an absolute pleasure. 

Wednesday 11 March 2009


Thank you James Beattie for making sense of courgettes. Goodbye to you and Hannah, see you in June.

Friday 6 March 2009

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

TH: Last night I was reading Robert Macfarlane's wonderful book The Wild Places. Part way through a chapter, Macfarlane suggests that we 'draw happiness from landscapes both large and small' and that most of these places are not marked as special on any map. 'But they become special by personal acquaintance.' As I drifted off to sleep, it got me thinking about the times when I have truly connected with the landscape, and whether I could draw a mental map through my life based on these experiences.

I started thinking about the shade of a weeping willow we used to sit under at primary school. How we used to plait its dangling hair to kill time during the lunch break. Then I recalled the damp, spongy moss that once grew on the steps outside my parents French windows, and how nice it felt under bare toes. Next I was in Slovenia, plunging my aching feet into a mountain stream, and relishing the pleasure/pain of the icy water. As I drifted off, I started to think of the landscape encounters still to come.

Review at The Independent
Interview on Radio 4
Interview at The Guardian

Thursday 5 March 2009

Thursday night

DC: A long working day followed by a long working evening that's been alleviated by two things.
1. The wonderful magic of a new piece of technology, in this case the Samsung Omnia mobile phone.
2. A hilarious chat with sister Liz, regaling me with her exploits at paintball. An oily mask, chafing overalls and a direct hit on the exposed wrist do not make a happy sister, but will always amuse a brother. It all sounded a bit like this...

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Phone, dongle, boxes, mixtapes...

DC: T was much better today and joined me on my day off. I collected the new mobile phone this morning that will hopefully give us reception on the Scottish islands and enable us to work while we're away. I also plumped for a Vodafone Top Up As You Go dongle for mobile internet. It's unclear how well it'll work on the Inner Hebrides but we're not tied to a contract and it'll give us another option for not too great an outlay. Absolute pain setting it up on the Macbook. No instructions from Vodafone, had to rely on clever forum posters to get it to work. Don't get any interface to check what's happening either.

Managed to sneak out for a game of tennis with Joe over at Kingston before packing up my first two boxes; one of books (almost unliftable), one of clothes. It feels very positive throwing out some of those old rags, though I couldn't part with a few choice monstrosities.

Went through a box of old audio cassettes and rediscovered our early mixtapes. Some real beauts in there from the Big Bang of our relationship. We'll have to keep the Ghetto Blaster now to play our 12 tapes on.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Halting progress

DC: T is poorly tonight so progress grinds to a halt.
Still time to play with the blog though!

Monday 2 March 2009

Our First Post

On our 12th anniversary we begin our blog...
15 days until we board the sleeper train and our island adventure begins; just a flat to clear and a magazine to finish.