I’m still alive!

My apologies for the radio silence over the past few weeks. I am still alive and the trip is still going well, though I am currently recovering from a bout of something nasty in the stomach department (recuperating at Tilley Farm which is hugely restorative).

I haven’t been posting as I was finding that it was taking all my time in the evenings. Not just the writing which is quick but sorting through and editing photos and getting them in the right format, editing video etc. So we would drive, walk, visit places, then stop for the night and I would be doing stuff for the blog/Youtube every evening. It was becoming like a job and adding to the pressure which this trip is meant to be addressing.

So I decided to take a break from it. I am still posting regularly on Facebook (so send me a friend request if you are not seeing those) plus I am keeping notes – so the trip reports will come eventually. I am just not pressuring myself to keep up to date.

Pressuring myself is something I do very well. I realise that this whole trip is actually a symptom of it. I could have just said I am taking 4 months off to travel and then gone where I wanted and stayed as long as I liked. But no – I said I was going round the whole coast – and I built in stops for workshops etc. so round the whole coast I have to go – and under time pressure.

Except I don’t. I have to keep reminding myself that there are no rules except those I have set myself – and I have the prerogative to change those. I can miss out bits of coast if I like and I can stay longer in some bits than others. This is in fact inevitable but I am not somehow ‘cheating’ if I do it.

So for the rest of the trip I am taking my time where I want and speeding up when I want. I have two more workshops planned up in Yorkshire at the beginning of December but I have long realised that I would not be up there in time so will take a week out to go from wherever I am to do those then home for the rest of the week for the dreaded election. I will then go back and continue my travels.

It is all good learning. About myself and what drives me. About the pressures I put upon myself. About priorities and what is important. I hope you will understand.

Days 21 to 23: Isle of Mull

After a lovely walk along the coast at Ardnamurchan, we set off for the ferry at Kilchoan to head across to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

We were looking forward to spending a few days exploring the island, of which I have happy memories from a childhood holiday the best part of 50 years before.

We arrived early at the ferry port at Kilchoan so we were first in the queue for the drive on–drive off ferry.

This time Martha was a bit more relaxed from the start. We stayed in the van again and we were quickly across to Tobermory.

We had been offered hospitality from a couple of friends but, by bad timing, I arrived the same morning as one of them left for the mainland on a long-standing family visit, so in the end we headed straight across to Calgary Bay, where Fiona and Colin Brunton had offered us a place to park up. And what a park up it was! Hook up, water, views over the bay, guided walks of the area and lovely meals – as well as the chance to do washing and have a proper shower. I felt truly spoiled. Colin also had a look at the van and confirmed that the brakes needed attention (the light had been flickering on and off for a day or so) but reassured me that they were not unsafe. This was just as well as there was no prospect of getting them fixed on the island – at least not that week! So I arranged to have them done later in Glasgow but it was good to know they would last out.

We had a lovely relaxed day. We went for a couple of walks with Fiona and their dog Ben (Otter’s new best friend) – over the beach, through the Sculpture woods and round the castle, which was to be our regular walk each morning we were there, plus a lovely afternoon walk through the woods at Cuin. We then went to the wonderful store in Dervaig which sold everything you could imagine and many things I didn’t expect. I had never seen humous in a jar for instance – an excellent idea for the van! But mostly it was just lovely to have a day where I hardly drove at all and just chilled out.

We started our second day on Mull with an early morning walk, again exploring the beach, the woods and the castle, with Fiona and Ben. The castle was a lovely old place, with wonderful views over the bay. It had previously been in Fiona’s family and was now being renovated with help from family photos, to restore it to its former glory. It even came complete with its own ‘secret garden’.

Then it was off to explore the south side of Mull. Fiona had recommended we head for Ardalanish, where there was a great beach and a weaving shed, so we set off, taking the long route down the west coast and round Mull’s only munro, Ben More, to Bunessan. The scenery was stunning and the day warm and sunny – the last as it turned out before the weather turned.

From Bunessan, we headed off south to the tiny hamlet of Ardalanish. The beach did not disappoint. Vast and pretty much deserted (once the group of 30 hikers had left!), it had silver sands and pretty coloured rocks. Not to mention plenty of parkour opportunities. We had a lot of fun there.

The weaving shed was fascinating. When I arrived they were just starting to weave cloth from wool from their own Hebridean flock, so I stayed and watched the great looms at work for a while before getting myself a home-made bridie (similar to a pastie) and an ice cream to take back for lunch in the van. We never saw the Hebridean sheep but we did meet some very fine Scottish Blackface rams along the way.

From Ardanalish, we headed to the end of the island to Fionnphort, where we waved at the small island of Iona across the water, before heading back round the eastern coast road towards Calgary. The Oban ferry was just coming in as we passed through Craignure, a much bigger boat (and longer route) than the one we had taken.

All along this road are signs warning of Otters crossing. I kept a careful look out all the way, hoping to catch sight of one, but no luck. We did see a Golden Eagle, swooping down behind the forest edge, its huge wingspan making it unmistakeable and very dramatic. But the only things that crossed the road were the usual sheep, highland cows and a rather incongruous peacock, who seemed rather lost!

Next day we were heading back to the mainland to continue our trip down the west coast. After a final walk with Fiona and Ben, we said our goodbyes and headed off to Fishnish via Tobermory again and the last bit of the Mull coast around the north east corner.

By the time we reached the ferry the wind had picked up and it was a choppy ride over to Lochaline.

This part of the coast is tricky to navigate. It becomes very convoluted and roads do not always follow the coast line. In the end, with time curtailed by the need to get to Glasgow for our garage appointment, I decided to follow the marked Argyll coastal route via the tiny Corran ferry and head from there down to Oban. But first we explored the in and out road up to Drimnin.

It was a wild and windy day so we didn’t see much but it was a pretty run. Between Lochaline and Drimnin we came across the Clach na Criche or Boundary Stone which according to legend marked the border between Pictish and Gaelic lands and was said to grant wishes to any who could pass through the hole without touching the sides. I didn’t try – I could barely stand up in the wind at this point!

We made our way back to Lochaline and then on towards Corran. After the short ferry crossing, we stopped briefly near Onich for a woodland walk to celebrate clocking 2000 miles and a few moments of relative dry.

Reaching Oban was something of a culture shock after the quiet of the highlands and islands. We arrived at the beginning of rush hour and it was a relief to get through and get on along the open road again. We were heading down to Tarbert and Campbeltown but it had already been a long day’s drive, so we stopped for the night beside the lovely Crinan canal at Cainbaan. It was wild, wet and windy but at least safely away from trees or cliff tops!

Day 20: To the most westerly point

We moved on from our layby stopever early so as not to get in the way of local dog walkers. The little beach opposite as at high tide again (low tide had been 2am!) so we headed off for our walk a little way along the coast to Camusdarach, which had been highly recommended. It did not disappoint.

It did take some finding. The beach is well back through a long stretch of dunes but we arrived to find it deserted and, even at high tide, plenty big enough for a fun morning leg stretch.

After an hour or so on the beach, we headed back up the road to Mallaig as I needed a few supplies. After doing the shopping I stopped off in the lovely Tea Garden cafe for a little breakfast, a fried egg roll which I promptly splashed all down my front! But otherwise it was a lovely relaxed start to the day.

It was late morning before we set off again, this time heading along the coast to Kilchoan where we were getting the ferry to Mull the next day. Once again we had stunning views along the way.

As is our habit we took a detour down an in-out road, sign-posted to Druimindarroch. This one proved to be very much a no through road. It literally simply came to an end and we had a tight squeeze to turn round and get back out!

We stopped along the way for a walk on the shore at Camas Torsa, a rocky shore, picked up a new gas bottle from a very cheery lady at Ardshealach and finally reached Ardnamurchan where we booked into the empty campsite and then headed on up the road to the most westerly point on the mainland, Ardnamurchan point with its lighthouse.

Ardnamurchan point was beautiful but very bleak and very cold. We had a walk along the cliff but decided against a picnic at the tables right on the west point. Instead they gave us a Parkour opportunity.

Heading back to the campsite we came across fields of very interesting sheep: Jacobs, Shetlands, Soay and what looked like it might have been a Manx Loaghtan ram! I am enjoying the sheep spotting up here!

The campsite was still deserted and on the final day of their season we were the only guests. It was a great site. We parked up at the top of hill with stunning views across to Mull. In the morning we could walk straight out onto their rocky shore.

Days 17-19: Over the sea to Skye

We set off from the lovely Wee Campsite at Lochcarron heading for the Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye. But first we needed a walk so we stopped at Strome Wood and set off up their woodland track. It was beautiful but very steep and I am quite certain more than the 3/4 of a mile claimed. But a lovely little walk with fabulous views over Loch Carron. 

Getting the walk in early was a good move as the day quickly became very wet so we didn’t see a great deal of the road via Plockton that we took to get to Kyle of Lochalsh and soon we were “over the bridge” to Skye. 

It is a beautiful bridge, rising high above Loch Alsh between the mainland and the Isle of Skye but I am not sure it has done the island any favours and I am pretty sure my parents would find Skye very different from when they honeymooned here just over 60 years ago. 

On our first day there we drove north from the Kyle heading for Portree, where we stopped for a short wander round the pretty harbour planning to then stop early at a recommended park up at Loch Leathan. But I took a wrong turn and ended up going up towards Uig and the top of the island – a much longer route than planned. However it did mean we could stop off at the Skye brewery in Uig to stock up on beer! 

I have to confess I am torn about Skye.

On the one hand it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Cuillins are magnificent and dominate the landscape from all angles. The light going round the top of the island was spectacular: sea, clouds and islands blended in beautiful soft milkiness. Most of this was impossible to capture in photographs not least because stopping on the rough single track roads round the north of the island proved tricky. But it was stunning. 

As I drove around the words from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, used in the Outlander theme song, seemed very apt:

"Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun..."

But on the other hand it was so very busy. Bus loads of visitors jumping on and off for photo opportunities. People everywhere and with them the visitor attractions. I realise that I am part of that, but it struck me that on Skye – at least up north – it was almost impossible to find solitude.

Because of my wrong turning our first day was long – more than 125 miles – and we finally reached our park up at Loch Leathan as the light was fading. This was a recommended “Search for Sites” park up and the views were fabulous even in the rain. The loch beside us and the Old Man of Storr just behind. A rainbow added to our early optimism.

But it turned out to be a terrible place to sleep. The road was busy well into the early hours and the ground listed to the side far more than I had expected. It was wet and miserable and we were really cold. I didn’t sleep well though I think Otter at least was less worried!

However, by morning the weather had improved giving us a better view of the Old Man and a lovely dawn over the Loch. We set off early and after a short while took a detour towards Torvaig, mainly to get away from the endless traffic stream and to find somewhere for a walk. 

It turned out to be a seredipitous choice. A mile or so down the single track road we found a lane off to the right with a large sign saying PATH. A chap with a Jack Russell was just heading down it so it looked promising as a dog walk. We parked up out of the way and set off following the sign. It was a fairly boring walk through fields but it did the job. After a few stiles we met the man and his JRT who were now coming back. He was very friendly and suggested an alternative walk along the top of the shoreline.  So we headed off the way he indicated and soon found another sign also just saying PATH. This one soon took us along the top of the shoreline, with beautiful views stretching out over the sea and the peninsular opposite. 

Our walk at Torvaig restored my soul a little but I was very weary from the long drive the day before and the disturbed night, so after a visit to Portree and Stein harbour, where the oldest inn on Skye is located (shut when we go there in the late morning), I decided to call it a day and book into a campsite to recover.

We headed off to Carbost, home of the Talisker Whiskey Distillery and set up camp on the little Certified Location at Merkadale. It was basic but functional and good to have everything to hand including the rarity of wifi.

We took a walk down into Carbost and back then settled in for the night, under another rainbow.

On our final day on Skye we set off down to the south of the island, taking a little road round the feet of the mighty Cuillins and around Loch Slapin to Elgol. This was my favourite part of Skye by far. It was wild and beautiful at every turn. Sheep and highland cattle mooched across the roads without a care and the traffic was neglible compared with the rest of the island. It felt like the Glen that had been (thankfully!) forgotten, except by walkers and cyclists.

We went to the end of the road at Elgol then turned back and stopped at the base of Ben Meabost for a walk. The track would’ve taken us right up into the Cuillins but none of us are fit enough for that, so we contented ourselves with a walk in the foothills and then continued on our way down to the southernmost point of the island and the Aird of Sleet. Our walk there had to be cut short as we were due to catch the ferry to Mallaig, so we turned back and drove up to Armadale to take our place in the queue.

The ferry is just turn up and drive on. It is a short journey so we could stay in the van, which was just as well as Martha was quite concerned initially. So we sat together on the bench and had a cuddle while we made our way back over the sea from Skye.

We reached Mallaig as the sun was setting and had planned to park up in the car park there but it was packed and really not a pleasant place to stay, so we continued a few miles down the coast, taking a minor road off towards Traig. I soon came across a small layby opposite a tiny beach. On Google maps it is marked Arisaig Beach but Arisaig is further down the coast so I don’t know. But it was a nice park up if rather isolated so I put my straps on the front doors before we went to bed.

In the morning I couldn’t find my keys and then realised I had left them in the outside of the door all night! Clearly it was a safer location than I had imagined!

Days 15-16: The days of in and out roads and Bealach Na Ba

Day 15 started with a dawn walk on the lovely Little Gruinard Beach. Such a great park up with the beach to ourselves first thing. We were then off to explore the area around Loch Ewe. But first we took a small road off toward Opinan and the fascinatingly named Mellon Udrigle, which sounds like something from the Hobbit. The big surprise for us there was the wonderful beach, so we had our second beach walk of the morning. Stunning.

From Opinan we retraced our steps back to the main road. This was to be the pattern for the next few days. Following the single track until we literally reached the end of the road. Always hoping that there will be space to turn round (there always has been so far).

Moving up to the right side of Loch Ewe we reached Aultbea, which shows a lovely big beach on the map but all we could see was a rocky shore. Perhaps it is one hidden from the road, but having had beaches a plenty that morning we continued on to Mellon Charles where there was a Perfumery Cafe. I had a welcome coffee there with an awesome gluten and dairy free lemon and lime cake which was the most delicious thing. The dogs were sleeping off their beach time in the van.

We continued around Loch Ewe, once more taking a road in and out up to Cove, where there is a monument to the Arctic Convoy, the merchant navy and navy vessels that took supplies to Russia during the Second World War. Many perished en route and the memorial on the cliff top above the entrance to Loch Ewe, from which they left, was interesting and moving. I had not known about this before.

Apparently Loch Ewe was critical to the Navy during WW2, due to its natural defences and depth. There are lots of old bunkers along the shore line and a trail of information with stories of how the sailors interacted with the locals (mostly amicably) whom they outnumbered 3 to 1.

The next “in and out” road took us past the unimaginatively but accurately named Big Sand but disappointingly it was within a huge holiday park and I objected to paying to access it especially with so many accessible beaches around.

Our fifth and final in and outer took us to Red Point, another lovely beach but this one heaving with people so we continued back to the main road where we were carrying on towards Kinlochewe. We stopped briefly to see Victoria Falls, which was pretty and very peaceful. Not quite a match for its South African namesake, but a pleasant stop.

It was getting late by this point and we had covered well over 100 miles with all the ins and outs, so we started looking for a park up place. One place recommended on Search for Sites was a restaurant in Lower Diabaig, where you could park up and eat. It sounded attractive but was still a way away so I decided against it and opted for the car park in the heart of Glen Torridon. It is well used by walkers doing some of the peaks in that area, and a spot where Red Deer are known to hang out, but once the walkers left it was just us for a quiet and rather isolated night.

The heavens opened overnight and I was glad we were well up above the burn. The deer clearly had somewhere more cosy to hang out as we saw no sign of any. But we were cozy too and in the morning we strolled out in a brief respite from the rain and followed the hill walking path – but only for a short while. For today we had a major hurdle to cross: Applecross or to give it its Gaelic name: Bealach Na Ba – the Pass of the Cattle.

The weather was not much improved as we started Day 16 and before heading on the coast road to Applecross, we took the small in and out road towards Lower Diabaig, the location of our potential park up from the night before. Boy am I glad I opted for Torridon!

The road over to Diabaig was wild – hair pin bends, 25% inclines and a very narrow single track road. It was beautiful but I was glad I had not attempted it while tired the night before. When we reached Lower Diabaig I looked at the hill down and bottled out. I was not sure if we would get back out again! But this was all great preparation for what was to come later in the day.

We took the easy coastal route round to Applecross. It was drizzly and foggy so views were more limited, but a pleasant run. We stopped at Applecross beach for a rather wet walk on another great beach – and we even came across a little flock of Shetlands sheltering up in the woodland by the side of the road.

After a brief stop in Applecross, we set off to tackle Bealach Na Ba. Wow! What a road. It has the steepest ascent of any road in Britain rising from sea level at Applecross to 2054 ft (626 metres). It is similar to mountain passes in the Alps with hairpin bends and has blind summits and sheer drops at regular intervals. To make it more fun, as we drove up, the fog descended on us and I could barely see.

In reality, visibility was probably 20 feet but when you are on a single track road watching out for anything coming up the other way, that isn’t very far! I was gripping the steering wheel, crawling along, at one point genuinely scared!

But finally we started to descend and come out of the fog and it was worth it for the views that appeared before us. I could have done without the driver who decided to park up on the passing place on one of the switchbacks, and the one who waited until I had reversed back up the hill before thinking that perhaps they could move onto the gravel, and the many who attempted to race round it, overshooting passing places that should have been perfectly usable. And I don’t think I would choose to do it again in a hurry – at least not in a 15-year-old motorhome (although she did brilliantly). But I am glad we did it this time. It was an amazing experience.

I didn’t take any pictures but I have uploaded the unedited final 12 minutes of the descent. Excuse my language! It was a scary experience and I think I was slightly hysterical to have survived unscathed!

When we reached the bottom I stopped at the very busy dog-friendly Bealach Cafe and Gallery and had a wonderful Tuscan Bean soup and a salted caramel shortcake. I think I earned it. I ended up sharing a table with a chap from Dent who was just having a cheese toastie before tackling Bealach Na Ba the other way on a bike! So I felt like a wuss – although he graciously (though I think optimistically) said he thought it might be harder in a motorhome!

After my late lunch break I was much restored so we drove the last few miles to our campsite for the night: The Wee Campsite in Lochcarron. This very informal spot is great – you just park up and at some point the chap comes along and takes your money. And right next door there are pigs! Otter was fascinated and spent the rest of the drizzly evening pig watching from the van window! I made some more soup – carrot and pepper this time. Very nice!

Video: Week 1

Each week I will do a video summary of what we have been up to. Here is Week 1. I know we have already finished week 2 but it still needs editing!

Are you scared and other frequently asked questions

Most of my posts so far have been trip reports – sharing a glimpse of where we have been and what we have done. But people have asked a number of questions about the trip so I thought it might be worth doing a kind of FAQ for the trip. If there is anything you want to know just ask!

Are you scared?

I think this is mostly in connection with free camping though perhaps also doing this alone. The honest answer is I haven’t been yet. The closest I got was when a car pulled into the layby where I was parked alone, just as I was getting the dogs out for their final ablutions. But it was weird rather than scary – they drove on past and straight out the other end. Either they got a sight of Martha and didn’t fancy their chances or they weren’t on the look out for an overweight middle aged woman!! Either way there was no trouble.

When we are on our own at a park up, particularly if it is on the road, I will strap the front doors together so they can’t be opened even if someone broke the lock. But to be honest Martha is a great watch dog and would not take kindly to anyone entering without permission. Even Otter would make a lot of fuss! I think it would feel very different without the dogs but with them it is all very relaxed. And almost everywhere there has been at least one other van so it feels much safer.

Do you have a set route?

Not really. I am following the coast as closely as I can but in reality there are bits where it is just not possible by vehicle. So we have a big atlas and each evening we plan roughly where we will go the next day. Sometimes that has to change when we see the road – it has to be sensibly passable by a small motorhome – and sometimes we decide to follow a route that we had not found on the map. We keep going – stopping for breaks, walks and visits whenever we want to – until I get tired and then I look for somewhere to stop. I have pre-booked (the day before) a couple of sites when I knew I needed to service the van. I have popped into one or two on spec (there are spaces at this time of year) and I have rung CLs on the day for that evening.

I don’t want to book any further ahead as it just puts pressure on us to cover distance.

How far are you travelling each day?

This question has come up both from those who think we are covering the ground quickly – and those who feel we are taking our time! The short answer is “it depends” but it is averaging around 80 miles a day. Any more than this feels really tiring. We would do less if we wanted to spend a long time at a place but this pace allows us to pause where we like, do several decent walks a day and stop off to visit the odd gallery, shop or visitor attraction.

I am doing very few café stops – except the ones where we make our own – and have not visited too many attractions simply because of leaving the dogs. It has been ridiculously warm for most of these first two weeks and the van, while not getting dangerously hot, does get stuffy. So far, we have stuck to things we can all do together. That may change as the weather cools down – we will see.

Are you coming to … [insert where you live]?

If it is on the coast then almost certainly. I am not making it to many islands and if you are up an unmade track then I may miss you but I will be visiting as much of the coast as I can reach. At the moment it looks like it will be Scotland until the start of October, the West coast and Wales until the start of November, the South West and South East until December, then the East coast in late December/January. I have a few workshops planned so may be taking a few days out of sync to do those if I am not there at the allotted time but otherwise will be steadily working my way round. Give me a shout if you’d like to have a coffee – and even more so if you have a coastal park up you can offer!

How are the dogs finding it?

Great question especially as Martha has famously been extremely car sick in the past. They are actually taking it all in their stride. Martha has amazed me by not only not being sick at all but actually looking quite cheery when I have checked on her on some of these very windy and bumpy roads. She either sleeps or seems to be getting her sea legs and just watches where we are going. Otter travels in her box in the front and loves it as always. She is excited when it is time to leave a place and asks to go in her box.

But they are both also enjoying the variety I think. Otter is becoming more tolerant of dogs and children – and Martha is only barking when she feels something needs sorting. Both are sleeping really well and are very relaxed in the van.

How do you manage off grid?

The van is self-sufficient – especially as the battery charges when driving so we always have enough electricity for our free camps. There is also a solar panel which will have been working over-time recently!  We have an onboard toilet (lasts me on my own 2-3 days before we need to empty at a campsite) and water and waste tanks last a similar amount of time. The van also has gas heating (not required at the moment but we have had a couple of cold evenings) and gas water heater – though to be honest I just boil the kettle if needed. Cooking is gas (calor). Aside from a slight problem we have at the moment with a calor gas bottle which seems to be mis-threading, it all runs smoothly (we have two gas bottles on board so this is not a disaster just an annoyance).

When running on 12v battery, I have an inverter which allows me to still charge my computer and camera batteries and we have several 12v to USB charge points. So I can function off grid perfectly well for 2-3 nights.

At the moment I am aiming for at least 2 off for 1 on, where the on can be a small site or CL as long as it allows basic servicing of the van.

What about showers?

There is a shower in the van and I have used it to wash my hair when on hook up without a shower block. I could technically use it to shower fully every day but it would use a lot of water and gas – and frankly make a wet mess in the bathroom! So I just have a thorough flannel wash or do a “baby wipe shower” (with biodegradable, plastic-free baby wipes!) on the days when we are not on a site. So far I have managed to have a full shower one night in three and I don’t think I am smelling badly!

How do you get internet?

Mostly I tether my computer to my phone or iPad both of which have 4G through different companies. Even so much of the North and West coast so far have been without signal, so the answer then is that I don’t. It is much less of an issue than I would’ve expected. Having taken an official break, I am not feeling guilty if I can’t get online. I can write blog posts in Word to upload when I get the chance.

Occasionally sites have decent wifi which is a treat. The bigger sites have it for a price and I haven’t used it yet but I may need to – it is reasonable if you pay for 12 months.

Do you get lonely?

Not yet – but perhaps ask me again in 3 months. So far in a fortnight I have met up with three lots of friends, which is probably more than I would do at home! The dogs are great company and I am happy on my own. I thought I would miss online communication more than I do but so far I am not minding being without for a lot of the time. Plus I have met new people and got involved in some community things while staying with friends which is a lot of fun.

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