Sunday, October 04, 2009

DwL's sabbatical to the Scottish Highlands

It will give you some idea of the Scottish climate when I say that we were pleased last Saturday to cross the border into England, and feel happy to be back to English weather. Despite the grey, rainy and –I can’t use the word enough – grey days in the Highlands, we still had a nice break away as a family. Each day was a (grey) adventure; highlights below:

Day 1 (London to Carlisle, 306 miles)

We enjoyed a sunny day on the English Motorways, setting off at 10:30 in the morning headed for our first destination, Monkey Forest near Stoke on Trent. In his role as good father, Matt had researched a midway point in the drive where we could get out, stretch our legs, and hopefully provide some family-friendly entertainment for Blake (who no doubt does not consider 7 hours in his car seat as a good time!). Monkey Forest was very cool indeed, as a preserve which contains nearly 140 Barbary Macaques. We learned about their habits and watched them eat, jump around the trees, and groom each other.
We headed off into more Friday afternoon traffic to finally arrive in Carlisle at 7:30 pm that night, a mere 9 hours after setting off.

Day 2 (Carlisle to Banavie, near Fort William, about 200 more miles)
The good news about the second half of the drive was that it was a lot shorter than Day 1, although it was not without incident. We concluded that Glasgow is a dump (sorry to anyone who likes it!) with a lot of traffic jams, and it was a welcome relief to keep heading north into Lochaber, the land of the lochs. This enchantment ended shortly after, however, as my 17-year streak of not having any traffic incidents or tickets was broken when on a windy single-lane road beside Loch Lomond, I had to brake quickly – but in time – only to then be bumped by the car behind me into the mini-van ahead of me. It was not exactly a great start and I was pretty upset, although fortunately nobody was hurt and there was no visible damage to any of the cars. Still, it was such a bummer and I spent much of that evening sniffling and feeling sad, sorry for myself, grateful, annoyed, etc.

Day 3…At the foot of Ben Nevis
For anyone who knows me, you will probably know that I don’t really love hiking and walking-in-the-hills type activity (I think it stems from trips as a child to Blowing Rock, and envying Mom having a nap in the car while Dad and I went up; or it could be from my nightmare Freshmen Trip at Dartmouth which was the wet and cold start to my Dartmouth career). Matt, however, is a real enthusiast – or at least he has better equipment than I do! We had borrowed a back carrier for Blake from a friend, so we got up and headed off to the Glen Nevis visitor center. It wasn’t raining, which was nice, so we set off on the ascent to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. I was having major clothing envy, as I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes, and not one of the 70 or so other people I spied in the visitor center or while climbing were sporting anything other than breathable, waterproof, windproof, microweave fleeces, jackets, and pants, and super-duper high-tech grippy boots with built-in compasses that guided them quickly up the mountain (you get the idea…jeans and tennis shoes just made me look so amateur). We walked for about an hour, and I enjoyed watching the backs of Matt and Blake and rued the fact that I still don’t know how to use my SLR as well as I’d like. We kept hoping to see the peak of Ben Nevis on the next bend in the trail, but we weren’t sure that we were getting close to being able to see it so we finally turned around and headed down, when Blake fell asleep in the carrier which just made me laugh.
We maybe should have kept going, because in the next six days, we never did see Ben Nevis despite our cottage being less than a quarter of a mile away. Somehow not even being able to see the beautiful scenery had never entered my mind.

Day 4….Why does it always rain on me?
The Travis song was to be our theme tune this day, as the skies seemed to have limitless amount of rain to pour down on us. We drove over to Mallaig via Glenfinnan (where the viaduct that the Hogwart’s Express passes over was filmed) where it seemed to rain even harder. We stopped in a tearoom to dry off and warm up, and we overheard the waitress say that they’d had 10 days in a row of sunshine, and that the current weather was evidently the payback for that. Right…just our luck.

Day 5…4 and 20
During my days in the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club, we sang a lot of songs, the lyrics of most of which are completely obscene and not fit for reprint on a family-friendly site such as DwL. One of our favorites was one which started “Four and twenty virgins, went up to Inverness, and when the ball was over there were four and twenty less” (I can’t go any further into the song as I know my mother reads this blog, and that will probably be bad enough!). Anyway, that was the tune in my head as we set off up the A82 to Loch Ness and further into the Highlands. We stopped at Urquhart Castle, and we got lucky on this day that it was NOT raining. I was literally amazed at the effect of sunlight on everything – the color of the sky, the color of the hills, the color of the water (which up to this point had all been GREY!). I vowed to research more the scientific effects of light and color because I was literally seeing how different a landscape can be with sunlight!
Blake scampered all around the place and then we continued on to Inverness, which frankly was not very exciting. We carried on to Culloden, the site of one of the worst battles in UK history, and then it was back down past Loch Ness (no sightings of Nessie).

Day 6….Over the sea to Skye
I had heard that the Isle of Skye was one of the most beautiful places in the whole of the UK, and I can say that I can only imagine that it might be. As it was, it was raining when we went, so we only got to see glimpses of what it could look like. I was definitely of the opinion that rain is a 4-letter word.
We got a few patches of clear skies, during lunch at a pub which also hosted perhaps the UK’s most scenic playground in the front of it. Blake threw an absolute howler of a tantrum at lunch, nearly screaming the pub down because he wanted to go play on a driving video game (he has a new obsession with cars, and in fact if he were able to answer what the best part of the week was for him, I am sure he would say it was getting to sit in the driver’s seat of our car when we were parked at the cottage, pretending to drive. This usually happened at least once, if not twice a day!). After lunch we went to Davegham Castle, where the boys let me go on a short motorboat excursion to look at seals up close – which was kind of cool. I asked the boatsman a lot of questions, including one which I knew at the time was very stupid, which was what was the difference between an otter and a seal.

Day 7…The fire’s nearly out
As a very amateur photographer, I always get excited about a vacation, that I might be able to take some cool pictures of which I could be proud, print some and frame them in my home, and have them be admired by visitors. By day 7 of our holiday, I gave up on even taking my good camera out and just decided my little point and shoot would do. That’s a sad state of affairs! We took a nice, but damp, walk along a small loch, and Blake and I admired Matt’s skipping-stones skills.
That night we watched the Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up and Sing, which I really enjoyed.

Day 8…A very forgettable day, I believe...

I am pretty sure it was raining though.

Day 9…Bye bye Scotland – Banavie to Sale, 344 miles
We woke up pretty ready to vacate our little cottage, and vowed to the owner that we would return when we could see a last-minute forecast of 10 days of sunshine! Matt negotiated the tricky A82 without incident (he is, admittedly, a better driver than I am), and we detested Glasgow’s roads once again on the return route, having to make several detours to avoid being stuck in a parking lot of the M8. That afternoon we stopped in a lovely little village called Penrith, Blake got some time at a soft-play center, and that evening we stopped off to stay at Claire, Tim and Seb’s place in Sale, near Machester. We hadn’t seen Claire and Tim since April 2007, and not met Seb (who turns 1 next week), so it was really nice to catch up with them.

Day 10…Wrong place at the wrong time
We woke up and went for a nice walk with Claire, Tim, Seb, and their dog Kaibo. Blake was a bit overwhelmed at times by all the dogs in the park, but I still think he liked them (but perhaps he just likes them more from a distance). We headed off just before noon, and as we made our way back to London I remarked on the sunshine and the high temperatures (turns out the weather in London last week was very good, much better than normal at this time of year). It felt really good to be back home.

So overall, we could consider ourselves lucky that we were able to do anything with the weather we had, however, being a quarter of a mile away from the base of the UK’s tallest mountain and never seeing it in 7 days because of cloud is not the type of luck I’d want to take into a casino. We can say that we enjoyed our family time, but I think we’d both agree that we’ve done Scotland now, at least for the next 10 years or so (if not more…it was very grey!). You just can’t predict or control weather.

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