Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Hebrides Summer 2013 - Part 2: Relax, Recharge, Refresh, and Return of the Mojo

Where were we? Ah yes, heading to a Caravan Club CL in South Uist. 

'Oh, hello Mister Gàidhlig!' smiled Catriona, owner of the CL after I rang at the door. I guess that my Gaelic fleece is none too subtle: 

'Tha Gàidhlig agaibh?'
--> Gàidhlig agam, ceart gu leor, Sibh fhein?'
'Tha mi ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig, comhla ri Sabhal
-->Mòr Ostaig, ach tha Sassainach a th' annam'
'Glè mhath!'

Almost every Gaelic conversation started off like this during my stay. This would be followed by something I'd fail to understand after which we'd switch to English, but it was a start. I liked Catriona very much, and immediately felt very welcome and relaxed. Phew!

It's all very nice travelling around here, there, and everywhere, but sometimes you just want to STOP. You want to plug in to the mains and keep the caravan dry and warm inside. You're fed up with cleaning the sand off the floor five times a day. You don't have the energy to chop kindling or crank up the woodgas stove outside. You just want to get the jobs done that are weighing you down, clean up, and chill out without having to worry about the weather or where to go tomorrow.

That's exactly what I did. The Airstream was washed and waxed. The motorbike unloaded, cleaned, oiled, and taken for a spin. I slept. And Dougal? Dougal made new friends:

Dougal's other good friend, Paddy, lives at Askernish Golf Course, just a few miles away from where we were. So of course off we went to go find Paddy, who, like Dougal, has matured somewhat and was less playful than he's been before. However, he still joined us for a good half hour, and you could tell that he and Dougal remember each other:

Just down the road from the CL is an abandoned church. I liked the building very much, and in my head sketched up a 'grand design' for a one-bedroomed house with a huge galleried ceiling in the living room and the bedroom on a mezzanine:

Lovely building, but wrong location. I like the Uists very much, and it's the island chain I visit to wind down and de-stress, but once relaxed I prefer Harris where there's a little bit more going on.

There was only one other thing to do during my short stay at Catriona's CL.

You may have noticed that now and again I wild camp on the islands. As well as applying common sense (ie one, maximum two nights in a spot, stay out of the way, leave TIDIER than you find etc etc) I have a little rule. That rule is to spend what I would have spent on site fees in the local economy. Therefore I HAD TO spend £20 on food and cake in the sweet wee cafe in the Lochboisdale Post Office to make up for the two nights wild camping. Tough, but I managed.

I'd have stayed at 'Taigh Chatriona' for three nights but I needed to head to North Uist. My friend Mat was coming over to join me for a few days, and was sailing to Lochmaddy. Off I headed to Moorcroft Campsite on the South West Corner of North Uist. The lovely owners remembered me and made me feel super-welcome again. And, I'm pleased to say, indulged my Gaelic a little too. 'We could tell you were bursting to have a go!' laughed Catriona. (Please note, not all Hebridean site owners are called Catriona, but it does seem to be a theme.)

Slight panic set in when I realised that this night at Moorcroft would be my last for at least two weeks with access to a washing machine. Despite the gloomy wet weather being anything but 'drying weather', it was time to bite the bullet, hang the expense, and get everything clean and dry using the machine and drier. That night was an expensive one.

Clothes admin, and my inability to get up in the morning, meant leaving the Airstream at Moorcroft while I went to met Mat's ferry at Lochboisdale:

He'd had a super-long drive up from Dorset so was happy to chill for the rest of the day. Off we went to my favourite wild camping spot for the night.

Well, MY 'fair weather blessing' may have worn off when visiting the islands, but I now believe that I simply loaned it to Mat this year. After he arrived, the mist lifted and the sun came out. 'My' spot at my favourite place was free, and life was good once again.

Washed up on the beach where we were was an old wooden pallet, ideal for a bit of fire pit action that evening. However, the blade in my bowsaw was becoming less than sharp. Time to head to the DIY shop on South Uist, just over the causeway from Benbecula.

In the shop they had blades for larger bowsaws, and only the complete saw unit, handle and all, in the size I wanted. The kind owner therefore removed the blade from the complete saw to sell to me for £3, and ordered himself a new blade to replace the one he'd borrowed from the complete saw on sale.

Now, can you see them doing that in B&Q?

With the sun shining, the Hebridean folks being their usual friendly, helpful, down-to-earth selves, and with a friend in tow to show off 'my' special place, my spirits lifted immeasurably. Maybe the fact I'd slept loads and had adjusted my adrenaline levels from 'London' to 'Hebrides' also helped.

That evening, Mat and I enjoyed an al-fresco meal cooked on the Dometic Origo stove, followed by an evening just chilling out around a roaring fire, in awe of the amazing sunset on one side followed by an equally spectacular moon rising on the other side.

 That was finally it. This was the Hebrides that I know and love. The light is something else. My severed roots were once again back in Hebridean soil and growing again. I knew that evening that my earlier apathy about coming here was misplaced. If only for this one evening, the whole journey from Kent was more than worth it. Nowhere else in the world makes me feel as happy and as grounded as I do here. Nowhere else comes close. The Outer Hebrides is the most amazing place in the world. You either get it, or you don't.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Hebrides Summer 2013 - Part 1: South Uist & Eriskay - Kitesurfing and Sandblasting

After a good nights sleep it was a slow morning. The VW Camper had gone so I moved back to 'my' spot, simply because I could.

Where I camp at this spot, there are miles of beautiful coastline. The Airstream was pitched well away from the road. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, people always seem to want to park right up next to me. What's all that about?

Spot the red car:

Not only had I appeared to lose my Hebridean mojo, I seemed to have lost my kitesurfing mojo too. Here we were in the second week in August and I had not been out for one single session. Now there was no excuse. The wind was a perfect 15mph cross-onshore and once the tide had ebbed sufficiently there was enough beach to rig up on.

A good session was had, and just like riding a bike, kitesurfing is something that you don't seem to forget once you've learned it.

One of the great things about getting away to somewhere as wild and as remote as the Outer Hebrides is that it really reminds us as Human Beings of our place in relation to Mother Nature. We cannot, for all our arrogance, control the weather or its effects. All we can do is try to predict what will happen (thank you Met Office) and take action if necessary.

The weather that night was due to be wild and windy. Already the Airstream was covered in sand and salt spray from the sea. Salt spray and aluminium a happy combination do not make. One of the outstanding jobs I never 'quite' got around to before leaving was to wax the trailer. It still needed doing, and now more desperately than ever.

As such I upped steadies and headed off to the CalMac ferry terminal at Eriskay. I knew here that I would be sheltered from the worst of the wind and be able to get a good nights sleep. I was, after all, absolutely shattered both mentally and physically. I also know that at the ferry terminal is water tap and a chemical loo emptying point. Given the eye-watering amount of money that I waft in CalMac's general direction every year, I have no qualms about helping myself to a few litres of fresh water. I managed to get the salt washed off the rig, but wet weather and depleted energy levels prevented the necessary waxing.

A new site has opened on South Uist near the causeway to Eriskay called Kilbride Campsite. I felt it my duty to stay there and check it out. More details in the forthcoming Guide to the Outer Hebrides, stay tuned.

The wind still blew a hooley, which meant a cheeky kitesurf off the tiny beach opposite Kilbride with a 7m kite. The phrase 'survival session' springs to mind.

By now I was truly knackered, still both physically and mentally. The necessary job of waxing the Airstream was not going away and my mind filled with worries about corrosion creeping from every rivet. As nice as Kilbride was, it was a wee bit exposed for the wind direction. However, around the corner at South Boisdale, a new Caravan Club CL had opened. I scouted over for a look. Pretty it wasn't, but the main attraction was that the large farm building that spoiled the view also afforded protection from the wind. Gravel hardstanding meant that I would be able to clean up the Airstream on the inside too without continuously treading in sand. Time to move on.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Rocky Road to the Islands Part 2: Wee beasties, a long ferry ride, dark islands, and a dark mood

The drive to Oban was… OKish. You need to remember that despite the fact that this was my fourth trip to the Hebrides this year, the two that I had already done by car were in January and March. In May I came by train for the weekend. Now here we were in August, and that awful plague of little black parasites was swarming Scotland and making life hell for everybody there. Wee beasties they are. No, I'm not talking about the midges. I'm talking about the little black hire cars like the Vauxhall Corsa, Kia Picanto, and all those other basic little hatchbacks pootling along at 35mph while the idiot in the driving seat has neither the manners nor the decency to pull over and let other traffic pass. At one point I myself pulled over to allow the line of cars to pass my rig, thinking that at least they would have a better chance at getting around the wretched doddery git in front than I. One by one they all turned off until I was behind Mr or Mrs Numpty again. Every time a decent straight bit presented itself to overtake, they would speed up to 50. As soon as there was a kink in the road or a car came the other way, back to 30. ARGH! Finally, after what seemed like six hours (but was probably closer to 25 minutes) God smiled at me and presented a huge, long stretch of straight, open, empty road. I whumped the Navara into third and floored it.

Did the numpty in the hire car see that someone with a 40ft long 4 tonne rig was coming past? Probably. DId they slow down to allow me to safely pass? No. Actually, they did the usual thing and sped up. Forward vision was sufficient to put nobody in any danger, but let's just say that I may have cut back in before I would normally politely do.

The rest of the journey to Oban passed without event, and at check-in out came the tape measure to make sure the Airstream was indeed its declared length on the booking. 'It must be busy again' I thought as I took my place in the lanes.

A few minutes later I was joined by some cars in the lanes, and their occupants came up to me beaming and smiling. 'Nice move you made back there,' they said to me.  'We've been stuck behind that awful car all the blooming way, it's been dreadful!' and off they went to calculate how much brandy they could legally drink to calm their nerves and still be safe to drive upon arrival.

Out of the misty rain appeared our trusty vessel, Caledonian MacBrayne's mv Lord of the Isles, or LOTI to those close to her.

It is at this point that I admit to being a ferry anorak. You see, LOTI may be as old as the Ark, and her entire car deck is about the same size as an ashtray on the latest Dover-Calais superferry, but I love this ship. Many modern ferries look like a cross between a nightclub, a tart's boudoir, and a supermarket with their glitzy twinkly plastic interiors and polished chrome handrails. LOTI, on the other hand, is a ferry. Just a ferry. A comfortable ferry with plenty of outside space, a posh observation lounge (free of charge), a cafeteria, a purser's office,a quiet lounge, a TV lounge, and a wee bar cum coffee lounge, but still just a ferry.

We will come back to LOTI later in the blog.

Like all CalMac ferries with passenger space, LOTI has a Pet Area. I didn't need to leave Dougal in the car alone for the five hour crossing, he could come upstairs with me.

We went outside but the mist was thick so there was no chance of enjoying the gorgeous scenery that you get on that route where the Isle of Mull drifts past the port side and the equally splendiferous Ardnamurchan Peninsula drifts past the starboard. Therefore we got comfy in the pet lounge and got talking to a nice English lady who had not long previously spent the entire winter on South Uist. Her story intrigued me, as it's always in my mind to move to the islands one day. My biggest fear is the fear of loneliness, as I'm on my own without a partner. I am sure that this lovely lady had many battles to fight and had nobody but herself to snap herself out of bad days. However, the fact that the winter in the islands was always going to be be temporary, with her long-standing wife waiting for her when she went back home to England in the spring, kind of watered the whole thing down for me a bit.

It's a bit like when you see these idiots on the tellybox (not that I even have one) who make out they're out in the wilds all alone for six months, just like a certain presenter who did North Uist a couple of years ago. Oh yes, he was all alone alright, all alone with a production team of about six. Island gossip also reports that this solitary figure also flew home to England on many weekends to see his girlfriend. 'Tis funny how that was never mentioned in the series.

But I digress. My fellow passenger who had overwintered in South Uist still had an interesting tale to tell. The weather improved and the scenery appeared. We had a nice crossing.

The five hour crossing felt like… well, five hours really. Long enough to unwind and chill, and even to get a little bored. But that's all part of the experience. I love seeing the islands gradually appear in that painfully slow way, imperceptibly getting bigger by the second as LOTI powers her way through the inky black sea.

Lochboisdale is always a bit of an anti-climax compared with its prettier North Uist cousin Lochmaddy, and especially when compared to the ridiculously pretty ports of Tarbert in Harris and Castlebay in Barra. Castlebay was LOTI's next port of call, which would take two hours from Lochboisdale. As we approached port, a couple on board who looked as if they had really had enough asked me: 'Is this Barra?'. I explained that on Thursdays, the journey to Barra takes seven hours instead of five, as the ship comes to South Uist first. The look of abject horror and despondency on their faces was a picture.

To be fair, Lochboisdale (or 'LB' to locals, apparently) isn't too bad at all really. It's just the that wonderful breed, 'The Planner' at the local council decided that an ugly parade of shops was a suitable welcome for people driving off the ferry. Still, it beats Stornoway hands down where you are greeted by a pig-ugly Tesco that looks like an inverted ice-cream tub. Tesco has now decided to launch Home Delivery across the islands, just to make sure they finally finish off all the lifeline community stores. DON'T get me started...

Compared to the warm and sunny weather I had left behind in Kent, the weather in the Outer Hebrides was decidedly grim. 'There'll be no stunning sunset or sitting by the fire pit tonight' I thought as I headed off to one of my favourite wild camping spots for the night. By all means I had it in my head to try out the new sites on the island, but I like to wild camp on my first night just because… just because I can.

As I arrived at 'my' place, a VW Camper had beaten me to it. Of course, they had as much right to be there as anyone, but I was still a wee bit miffed. Stupid of me, really.

My trip was preceded by an unusual feeling of ambivalence. I had really, really enjoyed the warm weather and the offerings of my home county of Kent during July. Niggles and setbacks had prevented me from getting to the islands quickly. The weather was rubbish, and now someone was parked in MY spot.

Was this finally the end of my love affair with the Hebrides?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Rocky Road to the Islands Part 1 - The M25, Twittercamp , Yorkshire, and Glasgow

As keen as I was to get to the Outer Hebrides as quickly as possible, something always seemed to come up. Both the motorcycle and the car took a lot longer having paid-for attention lavished upon them than originally anticipated, and as such were only ready by the 11th hour. I also took it upon myself to get my financial paperwork up to date so as the accountant could work on my tax return. In my case the process starts by retrieving a year's worth of receipts and starting a ledger. I hate admin, I hate it with a passion. It was a mind-numbingly boring job, but one I was glad to clear in order to free my mind so that it was free to absorb as much island vibe as physically possible.

On the long journey North from Kent, my first port of call was a site near Banbury in Oxfordshire, Bo Peep Caravan Park, to the first ever 'Twittercamp'. In other words, this was the UK's first ever caravan rally to be solely organised by Twitter. There was a grand total of four caravans in attendance including the UK's most famous Tweeting caravan, Elvis the Elddis.

The event has already been well blogged so rather than repeat what's already been said, take a look at this entry by Richard in his entertaining caravanning blog A Load of Nonsense.

Getting to Banbury from Kent involves the M25. In fact, to get to most places from Kent involves the M25. And today, it was truly and utterly horrendous. It took me about three hours to do 45 miles. UGH! How I hate the South East sometimes, even if the weather is nice.

Fortunately we all enjoyed a lovely chilled weekend, and hats off to Bo-Peep for allowing fire pits. Certainly a site to recommend.

Next up was a trip to the Caravan Club site at Clumber Park near Worksop for a feature. That went well despite the fact that I always forget that Clumber Park has no mobile signal. Not so bad when you're caravanning for relaxation, but not so good when you're trying to arrange meetings and so on. Still, everything went to plan so I was away by lunchtime on Monday.

The plan was to get the ferry from Oban to South Uist on Tuesday. I didn't book, just in case Monday's job overran. During a break on the A1 I called CalMac only to find that Tuesday's ferry was full. Blast! It was so full, even the wait list was closed. The next departure? Thursday. Dash, blast, and other such expletives. Quickly I booked my passage for Thursday and wondered what to do for the next two days.

I ended up in Yorkshire near the lovely town of Richmond to start a job that is planned for September.

A nice diversion it was too, but I was getting majorly frustrated at my lack of progress North of the Border despite having done my last shift in the day job over a week prior. To add insult to injury, the mains lead to my laptop broke. To a 21st Century freelance journalist, a laptop is an essential tool. Blast again!

A quick overnight at the super-convenient Strathclyde Country Park Caravan Club Site made for the ideal opportunity to unload the motorbike and scoot into Glasgow for the offending item. I'm no particular fan of Apple, but I do like the fact that when you need something like that, you walk into an Apple shop, say 'Help!' to the first person you see in a blue T-shirt, and five painless minutes later you are walking out of the shop with exactly what you need. Yes, you may be far lighter of pocket than before you went in, but for the sheer lack of hassle and the complete convenience of it all I don't mind paying that bit extra.

That night I was cued up to go onto National Radio to talk about caravanning. The researcher called as I was about to climb onto the motorbike in Glasgow just to go through a few things. She asked about my caravanning, and I told her of some of the exciting adventures that I am privileged enough to experience, be it wild camping up a mountain in the snow in January or kitesurfing off the white sands and turquoise seas of a Hebridean Island.

As ever, I didn't fit the profile of the kind of caravanner they wanted to portray. As usual, I was dropped. Still, it wasn't all doom and gloom. The Asda at Hamilton just down the road from Strathclyde Country Park sells Harviestoun's Bitter & Twisted, one of my favourite ales. At least I no longer needed remain stone-cold sober that evening. Mwahahaha!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Kentish collections, Rye ramblings, and motorcycle musings

July 2013

After getting back from overseas, I had a month to get everything done before a deliciously long break up in the Outer Hebrides starting early August. Many shifts were worked at the day job to get the time off for the Scotland trip, but there was plenty of touring to catch up on too.

For four years I once lived in the seaside village of Camber near Rye, famous for its glorious sandy beach. It was lovely to go back there and rediscover my old stomping ground.

For the purposes of research I was staying at the Park Resorts site at Camber Sands. It's in a great location next to the beach, although the pitches themselves could do with a little bit of love. If you're into the all-singing all-dancing kind of holiday resort with entertainment laid on, this is the place for you.

I was astounded at the amount of Static Caravans on site. About 1,000 apparently. There were new ones for sale at the entrance, and for a half-decent one you're looking at £50k. On top of that you have £300 per month site fees. That's over £3000 per year in rent plus repayments on the van plus depreciation. I begrudge nobody their little slice of paradise, but what struck me was… well, it's not cheap, is it?

Next stop was Romney Farm Caravan Park down the road at New Romney. Personally, this is more 'my' kind of site. Very old school and quiet, but of course without the entertainment for kids which can give stressed-out parents a break like at Park Resorts. Kids here need to make their own entertainment out in the fields, just as I did when I was caravanning in the 70s with my Nan. Gosh, that makes me sound so old.

Rye is gorgeous. I absolutely love it. You can cycle it in 20 minutes from Park Resorts, or there is a CL within 20 minutes on foot, but I've never had much luck when staying at the latter, and it's a bit spendy for what it is.

The latest string to Rye's bow is Edith's House, a fabulously camp tea room where the welcome is warm (and it extends to your dog) and the cakage is devine. A definite must.

My favourite pub, The Ship, is also in Rye. It's a wee bit on the expensive side and the choice of veggie dishes on the menu is thin, but I like its atmosphere and general ambience.

A trip on the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was a must, and afterwards I hung around in Dungeness to indulge in a bit of 'non-magazine' photography just for the sheer enjoyment of it.


With my outstanding jobs done, it was time to chill at my favourite CL in Kent, which of course remains a secret. Surrounded by hop fields, quiet, rural, and only £4.50 per night. I love it.

One of the tasks to attend to before Scotland was getting the motorbike MOTd and serviced. It took a lot longer than expected but Dougal and I were enjoying the Triumph Bonneville courtesy bike in the meantime.

I really, really enjoying thrapping about the lanes of Kent on a retro twin. In fact, I loved it so much that I made the decision that the lardy Daytona that I have cherished for over 20 years since new is no longer suitable for my needs. The days of jumping on the bike and riding to Greece are now over, partly thanks to Dougal. Nowadays the priority is for something light and small enough to load easily into the Navara. I took out a Triumph Thruxton on a test ride and loved it.

That was fine enough until I realised that in 2008 they did the Thruxton in silver. A silver bike would, of course, match the rig in the way that my black Daytona simply doesn't.

It makes no logical sense. But then, motorbikes rarely do. The search for a silver Thruxton begins.