After three days we had savoured enough of the gloom enveloping Loch Lomond so it was time to move on again. One of the “must see” places on our trip was the Isle of Skye but rather than decamp there immediately, we broke the journey by stopping at Morvich campsite in Kintail, about 40 minutes away from the infamous Skye Bridge which was to be our favoured route across the water.
Leaving the site we had to initially backtrack down the eastern side of the Loch in order to swing around the southern shores before heading north again along the western edge. Loch Lomond itself is over 22 miles long so it was a while before we’d cleared the water’s edge en route to Fort William on the A82 which took us through the most stunning scenery experienced so far as it snaked its way through Glencoe. From here on in, every turn revealed yet another breathtaking view as the magnificence of the Scottish Highlands unveiled itself.
James Bond fans may recall that it was on this route through Glencoe where Bond stopped briefly as he was escaping London to take “M” to be killed in his childhood home of Skyfall – although that wasn’t his intention, of course. (Apologies if you haven’t seen the film by the way)
The real star of the show here though was the scenery. The views may have certainly stirred us, but the shaking from the, still, appalling road surfaces marred the experience somewhat.
Once we’d ploughed our way off the previous night’s pitch we set off towards our next destination which was to be on the shores of Loch Lomond. Such is my Scottish geographical ignorance (or possibly just general ignorance, Scottish or otherwise) that I had never realised how close to Glasgow Loch Lomond actually is. Literally a day trip can be had for little more than 40 minutes in the car (or van) each way.
Our location for the next few days was to be the surprisingly named “Cashel, Camping in the Forest” campsite literally on the shores of the great Loch itself. I say surprisingly named in that there wasn’t much forest around but an awful lot of water very near by. I suppose that “Camping in the Loch” might have given the wrong impression.
The site itself was OK. Not stunning but OK. What didn’t help was that the washblock nearest to us was closed for refurbishment (demolition would have been kinder) necessitating a reasonable trek across the site to the one working amenities building. Certain ablutions had to be planned well in advance!
Running right alongside the campsite was the West Highland Way – Scotlands best loved long distance walking route from Milngavie in the south to Fort William in the north: 96 miles in total. Although we didn’t quite have the time (fitness, stamina or inclination) to do the whole route, we did at least walk some of it during our time at Cashel. The first day was a trip north on a route that, given that it was largely alongside the Loch, had some remarkably steep climbs along the way. Once back at the van we consulted the Map of Disappointing Truths and were surprised to find that we’d actually covered a distance of 9.6 miles and climbed (in total) over 2,000 feet! The next day was a trip south with a more leisurely 5.5 miles covered and all on one level.
Unfortunately, the weather was very dull for our time at Cashel which meant that we didn’t manage to experience the Loch and its surroundings in their full glory, but made for some moody pictures which I feel work best in black & white..
Despite local enticement to stay, Moffat could only hold us for so long and the time came to move on again. So much had been said about how wonderful the Dumfries and Galloway area is that we decided to linger a while and explore more of this region. As we had no preconceived plans we decided to head west over towards the Stranraer area and then find somewhere to stay the night. Maybe we took a different route to the guide books but after the gloriously picturesque arrival into Moffat, the exit route was decidedly bland and about as scenic as the M6 through Walsall. Nowhere looked particularly appealing so plans were amended again and the scenic monotony of Dumfries & Galloway was abandoned as once more we headed north, this time towards Ayr.
Both the Camping and Caravan Club (C&CC) and Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) have, in addition to their main Club sites, smaller, privately owned sites (Certificated Sites and Certificated Locations respectively) which have only 5 pitches and more limited facilities. These are generally cheaper than the Club sites and range from working farms to vineyards. Or in our case a back garden. We had optimistically booked by phone from an entry in the CMC handbook which offered a hardstanding pitch, electric hook-up, wash block, and chemical disposal. All important considerations. When we arrived and turned in to what felt like someone’s driveway, we were met by a bewildered older gentleman who couldn’t have looked more surprised if we’d descended from the skies in a flaming chariot. Thankfully, the lady to whom I’d spoken on the phone rushed out to set our collective minds at rest and swiftly relieve us of the £15 pitch fee. Cash only thank you. The “hardstanding” was in fact the driveway next to their house which we politely declined in favour of taking our chances by parking down the garden on the lawn. Although I was a bit worried about sinking into the grass I was relieved to see there was another couple in a caravan across the way and since neither the van nor their car had sunk axle-deep into the turf I thought we’d risk it.
The facilities were basic but clean and for £15 a night (with electric) we couldn’t really complain but it was with relief all round next morning that we eased off the pitch leaving nothing behind but four deep ruts ploughed into the couple’s lawn as we departed.
Today’s been brilliant. We awoke to mist over the mountains but with brighter skies behind. By the time we’d had breakfast, then morning coffee the weather was looking promising. Andy plotted a walking route from the site for a nice steady 3 or 4 mile walk up and around a hill (though it felt more like a mountain to me) We headed off and part way up the hill/mountain we sat for a rest. The sun was out and the skies had cleared to a beautiful blue! A local gentleman approached and chatted to us a while. The people of Moffat seem lovely and friendly. After letting Jack catch his breath we carried on. The day got hotter and the skies more blue, it was just beautiful.
We decided after the walk to just enjoy sitting outside the van and soak up the sun (as it is a rare sight) and perhaps get some washing done! After Andy had had his shower I trotted off to the laundry room, bucket of washing and washing powder in hand. As I hand washed our small load I chatted to another woman doing the same. We talked of our journeys, our life at home and our children. You can find out such a lot from a person while washing your smalls in a campsite laundry room! Back to the van I was excited to use, for the first time our little mini clothes peg gadget, (very sad, but it’s the little things that really count when living in van) and it is surprising how resourceful you become. Socks and smalls were beautifully pegged out and Andy’s tripod became the gadget holder.
It continued to be a lovely dry evening so Andy cooked salmon on the griddle pan on the little stove outside the van. Another 1st of the trip! However as the evening sun cooled eating indoors was the better option. Retrieving the washing that evening and finding it still quite wet I headed off to the laundry room once again to use the tumble dryer. £1 for a twenty minute drying time, I inserted £2 and left it to do it’s thing. Fifty minutes later I returned to retrieve beautifully warm dry clothes. However folding our underwear while chatting to a man hand washing his smalls was a little disconcerting to say the least. But hey, this is proper camping!!
Unfortunately, the promise of better weather was short-lived as the next morning dawned with heavy cloud and rain confining us to the van for most of the day. By evening though the rain had subsided and we managed to get out for a walk around Moffat town which, to be honest, felt a bit dismal in the miserable weather, but had the potential to be a more appealing place in the sunshine as there were several hotels, restaurants and quite up-market shops.
Inevitably, the time came to move on from Pickering and continue our journey northwards so a route across the wilds of Northumberland was plotted – not by putting a postcode into the SatNav mind you but by good old-fashioned map reading by Annie, who is an excellent navigator, so off we headed across the moors in the general direction of Moffat – our next destination.
Crossing the border into Scotland we of course had to pull in to take the obligatory photo of the “Scotland” sign, artfully etched into a slab of rock leaving us in no doubt that we were indeed about to head into a different land.
What became immediately apparent as we continued our journey was that Scottish transport engineers use an entirely different approach to their English and Welsh counterparts when it comes to road building preferring, it seems, to use corrugated tarmac with regular basin-sized potholes thrown in to test your swerving abilities. I have never driven on such appalling road surfaces and by the time we got to Moffat we felt that every nut, bolt and filling had been shaken loose. I fully expected to open the fridge and find the milk turned to butter! Speaking to various natives over the next couple of days always produced nods of agreement with “Aye, the roads are a bit poor around here – but that’s nothing compared with what ye’ll find in Highlands” (note: read with heavy Scottish accent for best effect) The only saving grace was the scenery which was absolutely stunning even when viewed through the blur of vibration.
Moffat itself is a regular stop-off for motorists heading through Scotland and the locals, although thankful for regular custom, are always disappointed that most people, like a dodgy curry, are simply passing through and not staying to savour the delights of the area a bit longer. So we decided to stay for 3 nights and see what Moffat was all about.
Following the previous day’s trek, we decided to have a more sedate day visiting the delightful market town of Pickering which was just a short amble up the road from the site on a proper, level footpath.
Although it was Saturday the town seemed fairly quiet and the few people about were all unfailingly friendly and welcoming, as is the case in so many northern towns. Fewer people around is always an asset when we have Jack with us as there are less legs and feet for him to dodge around and less chance of him being inadvertently trodden on (mainly by me!)
Pickering itself has an eclectic mixture of local independent shops, cafes and bars and is thankfully devoid of the mainstream chain outlets that seem de rigeur in most other places, which just turns them into generic clones of each other. Not so here; butchers, bakers and probably even candlestick makers somewhere down a side street, all trade happily next to one another and the ubiquitous gift shops abound (one has to wonder how on earth they make a living?) together with Pickering’s answer to Bargain Hunt selling an unbelievable amount of tat goods you never knew you needed.
The highlight of Pickering, for me at least, was the station. Not that I’m a trainspotter but this station is one end of the North York Moors Railway which still uses steam engines to run the majority of its scheduled services. Our timing was perfect as the 2pm service from Whitby was due to arrive shortly giving us just enough time to enjoy the ambience of the faithfully preserved station as it would have been when steam trains were the norm many decades ago.
Right on time (are you listening Chiltern Railways?!!) the distant whistle announced the imminent arrival of the puffing, steaming beast and, moments later, the engine chuffed its way into view accompanied by much snapping of cameras (mine included) and a tangible frisson of excitement from young and old alike.
There’s something magnificent and majestic about a steam engine – a living beast; a thing with a heart and soul which needs nurturing and feeding. So much more romantic and awe-inspiring than the 9:15 diesel Sprinter from Birmingham Moor Street.
Although the ride across the moors up to Whitby must be one of the most picturesque railway journeys in England, the £31 per person ticket price seemed a little too much for a couple of hours of self-indulgent nostalgia so we passed on that one in favour of a pork pie and vegetable pasty for lunch. Not quite as nostalgic but just as tasty.
After spending much of the previous day driving, the next day’s plan was to leave the van on its pitch and go for a long walk from the site. Although there seemed to be a number of footpaths leading off from the site, as Annie pointed out they would probably all be extremely muddy following the recent weather conditions. Good point. Plan B was to head up the road a bit to Dalby Forest and walk among the pines, so we packed the van up and drove the 8 miles or so up the A169 to the Dalby Forest Visitor Centre carpark where we were literally stopped in our tracks by the parking fees notice: £9 per day. That’s it. No option for a reduced fee for a shorter stay, £9 – take or leave it.
We left it.
Dalby forest is managed by the Forestry Commission, as are most woody places throughout the country, including our favourite location – the New Forest where ALL carparks (and there are many) are completely FREE. So unless the £9 entrance fee at Dalby Forest included complementary tea & biscuits on arrival, a sherpa to carry our bags and a foot massage at the end of the walk I cannot see the value in spending so much simply to park up for a couple of hours or so.
Instead, we drove on up the road a little further to a place called the Hole of Horcum in the North York Moors National Park where a large off-road carpark offered to relieve us of only £2.50 to stay as long as we liked. Still a little irksome but way better than £9!
A hand-carved map(!) on a board by the pay machine displayed the variety of routes which could be undertaken from this point depending on whether you preferred to use two feet, two wheels or four hooves. The walking route followed along a ridge that stretched off into the far distance before looping back round by descending into the valley and returning to the start. The weather was good, spirits were high and Jack was positively quivering with excitement. Or maybe he was just cold. Anyway, off we set.
As we were following along the top of the ridge and because the soil was sandy I was surprised to find that in places the path was still extremely waterlogged, which was testament to the sheer amount of rain (and snow) this area had seen recently.
However, this was nothing compared to what awaited us in the valley: footpaths of boot-sucking mud like molten chocolate, streams now gushing rivers, routes completely crumbled away necessitating clinging onto walls, fences and nearby sheep simply to remain upright. Progress was slow, muddy and painful.
Eventually though, and after much hilarity doing battle with nature, the end was in sight. The problem with walking a circular route is that, inevitably, you have to end up back where you started and this means that if at some point along the way you have descended a couple of hundred feet, at some other point (i.e. now) you have go back up again. The descent had been fairly gradual but to return to the starting altitude required a rather steep climb to knock any notion of our collective fitness squarely into touch!
Once back on site I plotted the route on the map and was utterly dismayed to find it had only been a mere 5 miles! In our minds though we’d done enough to earn a trip to the local Black Bull pub where it was Fish & Chip night – two large portions for fifteen quid. Bargain, and they were superb!
All in all, a good day if ultimately expensive as we both now need new walking boots!