In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
— Rachel Carson
This blog is the record of an adventure. In September 2019 I am taking my two dogs, Martha and Otter, and setting out to travel anticlockwise round the coast of Britain in our camper. We will be staying as close to the coast as we can, bearing in mind we are in a small motorhome and Martha has a tendency to being queasy when roads are unmade! On the whole we will be sticking to the mainland, though we hope to take in one or two of the closer Scottish islands.
I’ve called it Dogs on Board as I expect their presence will make the trip very different to what it might be without them. My choices about what we do and where we go will be as much about them as me! And I hope we can discover and share the best of dog-friendliness – from cafes to pubs to beaches – as we go round.
We have allowed ourselves four months for the trip – though that is flexible and it will take as long as it takes. There are few fixed points. I will be doing a handful of workshops as I go round and have scheduled them for roughly when I hope to reach those places – but if necessary we will simply jump on the motorway, do the job, and then return to our meanderings. Otherwise we will take it as it comes and just enjoy the journey.
So that is the trip in a nutshell as I see it before we start. But who knows what it will be by the time we finish!
The past few days have been all about reconnecting with friends – both people and places. We visited here last year on our test run and we’ve been revisiting and investigating places further this time round. And it has been great to spend some time with good friends as well.
We left Kingsbarns having had a wonderful dawn walk on the beach where Otter discovered that seagull feathers (not attached to the birds thankfully!) are the best fun to chase. We were meeting my good friend Tracey and her two dogs Cuillin and Roxy at Tentsmuir Beach at 11 and, en route, wanted to follow up a recommendation from Isla: Jannetta’s Irn Bru ice cream in St Andrews!
Ice cream duly sampled (yum!) we met Tracey and had a fabulous couple of hours running around (the dogs that is – Tracey and I maintained a dignified stroll!) on the vast and deserted Tentsmuir beach. Tentsmuir has a huge forest leading to massive dunes and then the beach and is truly magical.
It also has a crepe wagon and the Goats cheese, walnut, fig and spinach crepe is highly recommended! After a leisurely lunch, Tracey and I said our farewells and I continued on up the coast, stopping off in Carnoustie for a cup of tea with Katherine, who started her TTouch training with us in Durham. Amazingly my route went right past her front door!
My plan was to free camp along the waterfront in Arbroath but when I arrived it was already jam-packed with motorhomes – there must have been 20+ parked nose to tail along the front – and it felt very claustrophobic. While there is an element of safety in numbers when free camping, there is a limit! So I decided to press on and in the end chose a big lay by overlooking Lunan Bay, separated from the road by a large grassy verge. We were joined by an Argos lorry for a couple of hours but then he moved on and we were on our own. It could have been scary but wasn’t. I strapped the front doors together and told Martha she was the security detail, but in the end it was quiet and no one bothered us. And we had sea views!
We were up to see the dawn (I must clean the van windows!) and went down to Lunan Bay for an early walk – just wonderful – before continuing up the coast.
The highlight of this stretch was Stonehaven with its pretty harbour. We managed to park up right by the harbour wall so we could have a good explore (can you spot Wolfie?). We’d visited Stonehaven last year but not stayed too long.
The best find of the day was one we missed completely last year: Stonehaven’s war memorial. Built high up on the cliffs overlooking the town, it is designed as a number of unfinished pillars, to represent the unfinished lives of the war dead. An absolutely stunning and atmospheric place – and lovely that it looks down over the town from which the 200 men and at least one woman, left to go to war, and never returned.
From there we headed to Aberdeen with its stunning granite buildings before taking a detour inland to catch up with Ali, another old friend from TTouch. It has been about 5 years since we saw each other but it felt like yesterday and it was lovely to meet her husband Paul and lovely dogs, Tilly and Coco, who were very tolerant of Martha and Otter noisily invading their home. We set up the van outside their stables and I settled down with a G&T and a very delicious low-carb cauliflower cheese, while they went out for a previously booked meal with friends. We slept really well!
After a leisurely breakfast with Ali and Paul, and homemade banana and choc chip muffins (yum!), we said our goodbyes and we were on the road again.
We wended our way back across to the coast then up to Cruden Bay, where we stopped for a walk. As I pulled into the car park I recognised it as another old friend. Last year we had walked along the cliff top to the ruins of Slains castle and it was beautiful, so we did it again.
Slains is a stunning ruin, right on the cliff edge, and is unusual in that you can explore the rooms and stairways without restriction. I was a little cautious as some of the windows had a sheer drop the other side and I didn’t fancy “spotting” Martha and Otter doing Parkour on those! But we had some fun with some of the safer ones.
Retracing our steps back to the village we had a brief visit to the beach (have to have at least one beach a day!) and then continued on to Peterhead and Fraserburgh – both industrial ports – with a brief diversion down to Rattray – a tiny hamlet with a 12th century ruined chapel and a road to match! We were lucky to get out of there with Martha’s stomach contents still in place!
As we turned the corner at Fraserburgh to head west along the Moray coast, the landscape changed, from the gentle rolling farmland that characterises the north coast to rocky outcrops, crashing surf and 1 in 5 inclines. What a great road.
Our final destination for the night was the Gamrie CL, a tiny site just over the hill from the coastal villages of Gardenstown and Crovie. There are only two of us here – much better than the bigger sites – but with only basic facilities: water, waste disposal of all types and electricity. It does however have a big dog walking field so the girls are happy and very sleepy!
Tomorrow we continue along the Moray coast, visiting some of the places my maternal highland ancestors hailed from. Goodnight all!
So great plans always go awry. My intention of leaving on September 10th was scuppered by a hellish migraine which kept me in bed until early afternoon. But in the end it worked out well, gave me a little more preparation time and we got away the next day, leaving Cresswell just after 10. As I had already booked a campsite in Edinburgh for Wednesday night, this gave us a lot of miles to cover on Day 1 and we rather rattled through Northumberland (so I may revisit at the end of the trip).
But we had lovely walks at Bamburgh and Low Newton by the Sea, before we crossed the border into Scotland. After 136 miles we finally arrived in Edinburgh just in time for the campsite.
Day 2 was more leisurely – just 70 miles up through South East Scotland. Some very pretty harbours towns like Elie and Crail but also industrial areas.
We had a rather disappointing walk on the Fife Coastal path – half of it was through housing estates (albeit up market ones!). But we got great views of the Forth Bridge (although Otter did not think much of the photo opportunity!) and stretched our legs through the drizzle.
Our park up tonight though is exquisite. Kingsbarns – a free car park practically on the beach. It even has a little cafe where I got a hot chocolate after playing on the beach.
I am learning a few things so far on the trip. Most importantly, it seems that official Coastal Routes do not always follow the coast. Today we have been on the Fife Coastal Route and for a good part of it, the sea was nowhere to be seen!
I naively thought it would be relatively easy to follow the coast – just keep the sea on my right and job done. Not the case! But we are doing our best – balancing keeping as close as we can with sticking to roads passable by Wolfie and not too deleterious to Martha’s stomach! (So far so good on that front).
So far I haven’t got very far with video or editing – I will perhaps do a video a week with highlights. But I’ve included some photos here so you can see what we are up to.
I am Janet Finlay. Formerly a computer scientist and academic, I jumped career a few years ago to become a full-time dog trainer and coach, through my business Canine Confidence, and I have never looked back. I enjoy the freedom of being self-employed and have built a business that is predominantly online, offering online courses, a membership and now a book. Now edging closer to 60 than 50 and responsible only for my dogs, I am getting itchy feet and want to do something different. This trip is to give me a challenge and to see whether this nomadic lifestyle is for me in any more permanent way (part-time, full-time, regular extended trips?).
I have been asked a lot about how I feel about doing this alone. To be honest I am really looking forward to it! I have always been independent and self-sufficient. I am a natural introvert, finding company draining even when it is fun. So this suits me perfectly. I have lots of friends and family on the route round and I am sure I will meet random strangers, so I won’t be isolated, but I will always have my own space to go back to. I have some concerns about the practicalities – what I will do if I run into mechanical problems, how I will manage with the dogs on my own etc. But I will find my way through things as they arise. Security I am less concerned about. I will be careful about where I camp – and Martha is a formidable deterrent to anyone attempting to enter the van!
So I am looking forward to travelling, walking on lots of beaches, playing with new technology and editing techniques, writing, reading, spending time with the girls. I plan to learn to drop spin and crochet. I used to have a small flock of Shetland sheep and I still have bags of their wool waiting to be processed. Plus I will be taking the time to evaluate where I am, what I am doing and whether I want to change any of it. Everyone needs thinking time and space.
My two dogs who are accompanying me on this trip are Martha (r) and Otter (l), collectively known as “the girls”.
Martha is 8 and is a Smooth Collie – like Lassie but without the fur coat! She is very loyal and loves being with me and she enjoys van life – especially the stationary parts. She gets very excited when we do almost anything and likes to make sure everyone knows it! She is not a natural traveller being prone to motion sickness but with a lot of work, a memory foam mattress to sleep on and careful driving, she is finding a whole new world out there. Last year we did a 1000-mile round trip in the van without any incidents – she sleeps most of the time while we drive and certainly finds the van much easier than the car. The bonus is I am becoming a more relaxed and thoughtful driver. Martha gets on with everyone, human and canine, when she has to but she is happiest just being with her family and friends. She is a great watch dog and one of her roles on the trip will be security patrol.
Otter is 2 and is technically a Chihuahua x Papillon x Miniature Pinscher – but she is mostly Min Pin in attitude and character! Bright, enthusiastic and funny, she is up for anything. She has a terrier heart in a lap dog body – the perfect combination. She loves nothing better than going on a trip, jumping into her travel box whether it is in the car or not, so she is going to love this trip. She loves adults and dogs if she has the chance to check them out first. She can be less comfortable around very young children. She needs a few moments to reassure herself that everyone is safe and, if approached too quickly, she will get alarmed and bark – so we are careful around loose dogs and children particularly.
So why this trip and why now? Well I have always been fascinated by the coast. I love beaches and cliffs and I am drawn to the sea. In the UK we have thousands of miles of coastland so it makes sense to me to go to see more of it. Plus the dogs love the coast – lots of opportunity for play and off lead fun. So when I was thinking about a possible adventure the coast was an obvious one for me. I have since read that the coast is boring, one beach or seaside town is much like another. I don’t believe it – but we will find out!
And if not now, then when? I can go now. My work is largely online. My only responsibilities are the dogs, who will come with me. I am fit and well enough to do this now. I have the resources I need (a share of a van, enough savings to cover my costs, time). Who knows if that will be the case in a year or five years? So why wait? I am going in Autumn/Winter for several reasons:
I don’t want to fight through holiday crowds. Going outside of school holidays means that roads, camping areas, beaches etc will be quieter and there will be fewer restrictions on the dogs visiting beaches.
It is the time my sister is least likely to be house sitting, so there will be no long periods where our house is left empty.
I will be able to explore van living without worrying about whether the dogs will overheat while I go shopping.
I do cold a lot better than I do heat!
People have also asked what the trip is for. That’s a hard one to answer because, first and foremost, it is just for itself: exploring, enjoying time together, seeing new places, travelling. I won’t be working as such but I will be keeping my online membership going and doing a handful of hosted workshops to top up finances. I also hope to play with video editing and possibly some craft stuff. I am definitely intrigued by how easy or otherwise it will be to travel alone with two dogs – just the practicalities about how that will work and the places that we can enjoy together – and I will blog about that as I go. I definitely want to spend time writing – I will decide what as I go.
But mostly I just want time out to reflect and review where I am. I have had a couple of years of extreme change and have just completed a major project that has been on my mind for many years. So now is a good time to take stock and to reflect. It sounds corny to say get back in touch with myself but that is part of it. Stripping back my responsibilities will help me to explore what I want from the next stage of my life.
So that is the trip in a nutshell as I see it before we start. But who knows what it will be by the time we finish!