Tuesday, 31 July 2012

From Scotch to Ale

Continuing our journey down the eastern side of the British Isle we crossed into England and soon found ourselves at the sizable and recently restored Bamburgh Castle. Spanning nine acres of land and perched high on a rocky plateau, Bamburgh is one of those imposing, "that's not a castle ... this is a castle!" kind of places, unsurpisingly one of the largest inhabited castles in the country. We went for a much needed walk and I found myself setting up the tripod on the dunes.

Beach Dunes at Bamburgh Castle
Off the coast we could see the Farne Islands and Longstone Lighthouse which stood out in the seemingly ever-present rain.

Rain over Longstone Lighthouse
It was late when we arrive at the tiny town of Embleton and accommodation seemed rather sparse. Lacking our usual wifi-seeking laptop setup, we sought advice the old fashioned way - from the barmaid at the local inn. She quickly jumped on the phone to a neighbour a few doors down who ran a B&B, which was closed as the young owner was about to go on holidays, but seeing our predicament she didn’t skip a beat and happily offered us one of her super comfortable luxurious rooms, topped off with a discounted rate. Score!

Dinner was at the local inn with the variety of ales on tap that the English do so well, enjoyed in the beer garden out the back. Jimmy had put his cloudy pint of Indian Pale Ale down and was inspecting the garden when barman ran out and asked us, "so who had the IPA?" My confusion as I pointed to the partially-drunk pint turned into bewilderment as the barman grabbed it, tossed the contents onto a nearby shrub of daisies, and walked back into the bar. Tia and I exchanged puzzled faces, and struggled to explain the situation when Jimmy came back to a empty dry tabletop and a sopping daisy shrub, saying “Where’s me beer?" Jimmy was getting thirsty again as we wondered what this strange behaviour implied, but our barman came back with a freshly filled pint in hand. "T'was the last pull from the cask," he explained, "does funny things to your stomach." Ah, we nodded sagely. These Englishmen take that their ale seriously.

Early morning sunrise at Cannonball beach with Dunstanburgh Castle in the background was one of the reasons why we stayed at Embleton. Like Buachaille Etive Mòr I first found this place in a book by Joe Cornish called First Light, which inspired me to get into photography. The tide was way out and there were no waves but it was a good morning to be out taking photos. If anyone is thinking of capturing this beautiful scene, I recommend wearing high cut hiking boots as the rocks are slippery and extremely hard to walk on. You will slip, so the boots will protect your ankles somewhat (unfortunately the same cannot be said for your backside).

The famous Dunstanburgh Castle taken from Cannon ball beach.

We headed past Newcastle and on to Whitby, a Northern Yorkshire seaside town that seemed to blend an historical abbey with trendy cafes and elements of the carnival. It was like walking into a fair with pirates trying to sell us boat rides, fortune tellers trying to sell us our fortune, and parking ticket machines stealing it all away anyway. Horror rides and all sorts of strange and wonderful things to see and spend your money on.

On to the North York Moors. Before arriving I had always imagined moors to be desolate places full of marshlands always shrouded in mist and rain. Perhaps a place dangerously easy to get lost in, never to be found again - the perfect setting for a murder mystery novel. I am now not sure where I got this impression from, but the actual place couldn’t have been any more different. There was no mist, not much rain (which was surprising for England), and no marshland. Arriving at Goathland, we parked at the train station, which had previously posed as Hogsmeade station in past Harry Potter films. Tia was kind of excited about this so we hung around to watch the steam train puff by, before setting off on another English walk to a pub. This time our destination was the cosy Birch hall Inn, hands-down the smallest pub we have ever been to. It's single room was no bigger than an office cubical with three small tables bordering the walls, and a window in the fourth wall framing the head and shoulders of the barman who pops up every now and again and takes drink orders (somewhat reminiscent of those moving portraits in the Harry Potter world). But what it lacked in size, the pub gained in charm, and it was easy to talk to the pub's other patrons.

Stunned rabbit caught in the light - Jimmy at Birch Hall Inn
Beers put away, it was a tough walk back up a steep hill with Jimmy rescuing sheep along the way, and then an easy drive back to Birmingham.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Sipping Highlands, Lowlands, Islands, and Speyside

Although Northern Scotland had originally been set aside as a relatively easy place to travel, in other words, something to do when we were grey nomads, we were already here for Layla's birthday, we still had a few weeks left of waiting for visas, and my old man was with us and had enough grey hairs for us to say hey, why not do it now?! We bid farewell to the others who were heading back south to Birmingham, while Jimmy, Tia and I took our hired wheels north.

We hadn't had a chance to research where to go and what to see in Scotland, but we had appropriated a nice big road map and guidebook from Layla's car which, combined with a few rugged photos I vaguely recalled from the Isle of Skye, pointed us northwest. At the wheel, I had a wonderful feeling of the open road and all its possibilities. Tia rode shotgun with the semi-reliable GPS and even-less-reliable music cable, with Jimmy in the backseat operating old-school with sprawling road map and guidebook, buried under a heap of jumpers and raincoats.

From Glencoe we followed the bilingual signs (English and Gaelic) through Fort William, past Ben Nevis (Britain's tallest mountain) and back to Mallaig, in the hopes of catching the ferry across to Isle of Skye. The vehicle allocation for the ferry was full when we arrived, but we waited in the "extras" parking line since sometimes they were able to squeeze another one or two small cars on board. We were still behind by five cars, so we didn't expect it when somehow the ferry packer was able to fit six extra cars onto the boat. I thought I was a good packer, but this blue boat was like a blue Tardis!

Landing on the Isle of Skye mid-morning, we were hungry for both food and sights. We found our way to the Sligachan Hotel, the only place open for food at 11am. The breakfast muffins were mediocre, and I wasn't game to try the black pudding that Tia was munching on, but I don't believe food was what kept this establishment going.

A bar with over 350 bottles of Scotch, only in Scotland - Sligachan Hotel, Isle of Skye
Three hundred and fifty bottles of Scotland's finest sat behind the bar, and no two were the same. It was a dram pity that I had not been in Scotland long enough to be able to handle strong drinks before midday, and that I still had some driving to do. But it was an impressive collection.

Now that we were fed, we headed west for some sights. The tiny village of Carbost not only featured the Talisker distillery (of the seriously smoky sip), it was also populated by some crazy straw-filled residents. These were not your usual yokel in checked flannel and straw hat; this was the Tattie Bogal featuring witches on broomsticks, a hungover drunk complete with plumber's crack leaning on a wall and appearing to puke, a hitch-hiking panda, a fireman climbing a ladder, and the Queen packing a shotgun. This one was my favourite of the bunch.

Gotcha! Now Who's Scared? Crazy Good Scarecrow - Isle of Skye, Scotland
Talisker Bay, a beautiful beach edged with an impressive sea stack on one side and sheer cliffs with a waterfall on the other, was our destination for sunset. We found a peacock-patrolled parking spot, from which we walked the track through a herd of mildly panicked sheep (someone had let their dog off the leash) to the sea. The beach itself was made of large black pebbles piled over black and white sand which, mix together, formed incredible patterns. Unfortunately our timing for sunset was off by a few hours, and we whiled away the afternoon poking around the rocks, chatting, reading and playing with the ten-stop filter on the camera.

10 Stop fun of Talisker Bay's sea stack - Isle of Skye, Scotland
While sunset was a disappointment (too much cloud), dinner at the pub a stone's throw from our hostel was good local fare washed down with a few drams of Island and Highland whiskey. We are starting to get a taste for the scotch varieties, on the rocks, with dash of water, or simply neat. The smokey peat of the local Talisker was an acquired taste though.

The next morning we visited the Old Mann of Storr. The formations include a series of huge needle-like rocks jutting out of the hills. The lighting started to work its magic as it broke through rolling mist and shifting rain clouds; this dry-stone wall covered in lichen stood out in the grassy landscape.

Glamaig is the northernmost of the Red Hills on the Isle of Skye. Taken with a nice lichen covered dry stone wall in the foreground. - Isle of Skye, Scotland
The wind picked up and started to really throw the rain about. There was no way I was going to see anything when I walked up to the Old Man itself. Here is the clearest shot I was able to take of it, it was a challenge just keeping the camera dry.

The old men of man of storr on an overcast day - Isle of Skye
Working our way back down to the car I was side-tracked (as usual) by the dramatic clouds and awesome lighting on tufts of grass.

Near the old men of man of storr on an overcast day when the sun finds a place to shine. - Isle of Skye
But boy was it windy! We could hardly talk to each other, and had to lean into the wind in order to stay upright.

Windy day on Isle of Skye, Scotland
Finishing our loop around the island we left Skye and headed north. The drive was fantastic with lots of beautiful lochs, streams and rugged terrain, ending at the bottom of a rainbow at Ullapool, tasting a few wee Lowland and Speyside drams.

The view from Duntulm Castle window -  Isle of Skye

Just another dry stone wall I think along Little Loch Broom

Fishing for gold at the end of the rainbow - Ullapool
North again, we hugged the coast as much as we could finding lots of reasons to stop along the way, such as castle ruins, prehistoric cairns, highland cows, waterfalls and the odd boat, eventually making it to the town of Durness.

The view over The falls Of Mesach

The moody Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt

A small waterfall off Loch Assynt

Highland Cows - Somewhere along Highway B869

Boats along highway B869
Durness beach was particularly photographic and I enjoyed the huge expanse of sand dunes behind it covered with shimmering swathes of grass.

Skipping on the beach - Balnakeil, Durness

The sand Dunes behind the beach at Balnakeil, Durness
Alas, we had to turn around eventually. Starting south we passed Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. Consequentially I became the subject of some bad "dad jokes". We broke up the journey at Invergorden, where repaired oil rigs live alongside the latest in giant wave-energy converters, and where our hotel hosts quickly showed us our rooms before running off for some fly fishing. Who could blame them.

The view accross Loch Eriboll

Ben Hope on the far Right, Ben Loyal on the Left

A cool boat hours on Loch Loyal
It was our last day in bonny Scotland, and after a good sleep-in and a haggis-heavy breakfast, we continued our drive south. Blair Castle Gardens offered bagpipe tunes and an early lunch, a walk in Diana's Grove (home to some of the tallest fir trees in Great Britain) and Hercules garden, featuring a lake built especially for freezing over in the winter for some lord or lady to have a go at curling.

Blair Castle

Flower in Hercules garden at Blair Castle Gardens
We still had not been on a distillery tour yet, an unforgivable omission that we remedied quickly by pulling into the Dalwhinnie establishment and signed up for the next session. Turned out to be an educational and entertaining experience topped off with a wee dram and some fine chocolates.

With 200 miles still left to go we had to detour around Edinburgh, to Tia’s disappointment. We did however find time to check out one last distillery with a cheeky stop at Glenkinchie, our priorities obviously in order.

Glenkinchie distillery
The blood-alcohol tolerance levels of the local driving laws prevented another distillery stop before we finally crossed the border back to England. Hope to see you again someday Scotland.

Windfarm on the hills around Edinburgh

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A Scottish Birthday

My sister's 30th birthday was looming and her awesome husband Matt had already got a surprise party planned. He had successfully managed to keep Layla none-the-wiser for two whole months, an amazing feat that those who know her would appreciate, complete with cleverly disguised "fake plan" to keep her from interfering with the "real plan", when Layla decided last minute to uproot all planning with her own ideas for her birthday. The only way Matt could convince Layla to stop planning was to confess to the surprise party and admit that yes, everyone was heading to Glen Coe to celebrate her birthday in bonny Scotland.

So once again we packed four adults, Jude and everything we needed for a Scottish summer birthday (including very large presents and lots of rainwear) into the little Audi A3 and spent most of the journey trying to get comfortable. The route north just happened to take us past the picturesque Lake District, Cumbria. So we had no choice but to do some serious detours to at least glimpse at what the area had to offer. Pausing just outside of Ambleside near Cote How Organic Tearoom, we went for a lengthy walk along the small creek which had these lovely stepping stones to aid in crossing it.

A nice stream by Cote How Organic Tearoom - Ambleside
On the Stepping Stones - Ambleside
A nice place to live - Ambleside
Driving the whole way in a day would have taken its toll and although Jude had the most comfy seat in the car, she advised us in her five-month-old wail, I mean, way, that she much prefers to break up a journey to see more things along the way rather than just rush past them in the car. So for the first night we stayed at a B&B in the town of Dumfries, just over the Scottish the border. It was an easygoing place to start a couple of weeks of haggis, neeps and tatties. It did have one quirk however, being its host, a fellow with distinctly American origins, who wore his kilt with so much pride that there were at least fifty photographs of himself wearing it scattered on walls throughout the building. The town itself was worth a stroll; while looking for a nice spot for dinner we stumbled upon a crowd of patriotic locals (including our kilted host) enjoying a play about Robert Burns, with scenes staged at some of the town's key landmarks.

We took a meandering coastal route via Ayr to eventually find ourselves looking at Buachaille Etive Mòr, The Guardian of Glen Coe. This mountain was special to me. Several years ago I was going through a book by Joe Cornish called First Light and one of his amazing images was that of Buachaille Etive Mòr. A few weeks later I had my first DSLR in hand. It was the spark that had ignited my photography passion. I was so excited to finally be here and I was looking forward to taking my own shot of this famous mountain. Unfortunately the weather and light were not as excited as I was, but over the years I have learned that this is usually the case and no longer get disappointed, well not that much.

Buachaille Etive Mor - The gardian of Glen Coe
The gardians of Glen Coe
Finally arriving at our humble holiday house, we all settled down with a few beers, with a couple of us logging onto to the web to settle issues with our Chinese, Russian and Mongolian visas, as you do on Scottish holidays.

Old Ropes
The next day was the big day for Layla, and despite her efforts, Matt had managed to maintain a few surprises. First there was the puppy that she never got (its a long story), followed by a train journey that she did get. It was a trip on the West Highland Rail, voted as one of the best rail journeys in the world and featured several times in the Harry Potter films. We scouted out some curious seals after fish and chips in Mallaig, prior to heading to the Oban Distillery for a cheeky scotch.

Oban Distillery - Oban
It was late afternoon when made our way to The Seafood Temple in Oban, taking in the beautiful seaside surrounds on the picnic tables outside the restaurant while presents were opened and another surprise materialised. Long before today, Matt had asked for Layla's friends and family from all over the world to send him a happy birthday message for Layla. The overwhelming response of amazing creativity, side-splitting hilarity and beautiful heartfelt messages were cleverly compiled into a video production that was so entertaining that we were all torn between laughing stitches and tears by the end of it.

This, and possibly the champagne, put us in a great mood as we entered the restaurant to enjoy the ultimate fresh seafood feast, where there was no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Seafood!!!!!An amazing meal at the The Seafood Temple - Oban
Thats what you call surf and turf - The Seafood Temple, Oban
The seafood was extremely tasty with plenty of wow-factor, but it was Matt's final surprise that (shall I say it?) took the cake. Before you cringe, let me just tell you that this was no ordinary cake. It was an amazing masterpiece of fragrant vanilla sponge and blue/green icing taking the form of none other than entire world itself, with little red dots all the places on the planet that they had travelled to, and flags highlighting the places they called home. Impressive don’t you think?


Layla's 30th birthday cake, easily the best cake I have ever seen. Those red dots are where she has travelled since meeting her husband. The Seafood Temple - Oban
Happy Birthday Layla!

Layla on here 30th birthday - Oban
After a couple of days chilling around the beautiful Glen Coe, we split up with Layla and Matt who had to head back to England. Meanwhile Jimmy, Tia and myself continued our holiday by hiring a car for another week to explore a little more of Scotland.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Back to Ye Olde England

We took our cheap and inconvenient late night Iceland Express flight from Keflavik, powering through four hours of sleep at a Stansted Airport hotel after booking the last available tickets for an early morning series of connecting trains to Birmingham. "You're very lucky to get these tickets," said the friendly cockney-accented man at the ticket window, "Wha-ever you do, don't miss the first train!" We all laughed in agreeance. Arriving half-an-hour early the next morning, we combined minimal sleep with some very poor signage, and managed to miss this crucial train to London. We could not believe it, but pacing up and down while shouting "Grr!" to the empty platform didn't seem to help. Neither did having to circumnavigate a couple of out-of-service tube lines with a convoluted replacement-bus service and queuing again to officially change the validity of our tickets during London's morning rush-hour. We barrelled through the crowds using our heavy backpacks for momentum to narrowly make our rescheduled train to Birmingham, arriving dazed and rather frazzled into the hugs and smiles of family.

What a smile, Jude loving the ball pool - Coleshill
We babbled on in the car about the last seven weeks of European adventures, while our little five month old niece kept eyeing at us with that suspecting look of "I've seen you before … but where?"

Aston Villa's newest member - Jude at the Villa Stadium
Family life in Birmingham cracked along as normally as it could with a revolving door of visiting relatives and a baby. The household's Aston Villa membership was renewed for the new season. Ben and I got right into the complicated process of getting Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas for a future Trans-Mongolian journey as non-UK residents (going through an agent to fabricate the "necessary documents" worked out easiest for us). Jude went on her first set of swimming lessons - turns out she's a natural water baby. Ben and Layla picked up their dad James from his first ever long-haul international flight (besides New Zealand, but we're Aussies so that doesn't count), and he seemed more or less intact, although he did swear to never ever do that again.

Reach Out - Birmingham
Madonna was in town and a couple of tickets were up for grabs, so four of us went to see the Material Girl put on one of her famously spectacular shows, complete with dazzling acrobatics, theatrical fireworks and controversial stripping. We all left Birmingham's NIA very thoroughly impressed with the energetic 53 year old's ability to entertain, Express Yourself still buzzing in my head.

The Hand, Jude playing in the ball pool - Coleshill
And of course, normal family life features birthday parties! Tom had turned over a 30th year, so it was a brilliant barbecued bash featuring balls, boules and booze to while away a fabulous English summer's day.

The whole family enjoying the balls - Coleshill

Friday, 13 July 2012

Shooting Ice and Puffin Volcanoes

It was a bit odd, waking up early to backtrack down the same road we did yesterday and I had to ask myself why I booked a place so far away. But hey, with a trip this rushed we were not going to do everything right.

So we revisited the amazing glacial lake Jökulsárlón, marvelling at the shimmering black sand beaches and snapping some daylight shots with my latest favourite technique of using a tripod and ten-stop ND filter to get crispy sharp foreground with smooth flowing water.

Waves crash over Ice - Jökulsárlón
Iceland 2012 - Jökulsárlón
Oh, and a happy-snap of what I look like when I don’t shave for 8 weeks. This seafood soup from a cafe by the lake was surprisingly delicious too, definitely worth a second helping.

Viking eating soup - Jökulsárlón
Further back along the road again we paused for one last peek at the misty curtain of Skógafoss.

A moody shot of Skogafoss Waterfall
Like the last time we drove this road, I couldn't help stopping every now and again for some quick shots. Iceland is like that I think.

The dynamic Mountains of Iceland
Sheep in Southern Iceland
One worthwhile stop for both of us was a family-run roadside museum with informative displays on Iceland's volcanoes and glaciers, with a great little video showing life for those living beneath a volcanic glacier. This of course was Eyjafjallajökull, the comparatively small but now famous Icelandic volcano whose ash cloud caused flight delays all over the world in 2010.

Eyjafjallajokull - The volcano that caused the 2010 chaos
Reynisfjara Beach was another geologically interesting stop. The beachside basalt columns were massive and were easy for kids and likeminded tourists to climb all over.

Basalt Columns at Reynisfjara Beach
But our goal today was Heimaey, the only inhabited island in the volcanic Vestmannaeyjar. We took the short hop over on a car ferry over which was a first for me. A couple of historical facts about these Vestmannaeyjar islands fascinated us. For instance, the newest island was formed in 1963 called Surtsey island, which was intensively studied by volcanologists during its eruption, and afterwards by botanists and biologists as life forms gradually colonised the originally barren island (an algae got there first!). Very few people have ever stepped foot on the island, only some scientists for the study of biocolonisation. This allows the natural ecological succession for the island to proceed without outside interference. Heimaey island itself has a fiery history, with the most recent activity being when a volcanic fissure erupted in 1973 to create a new red cone called Eldfell and pour out millions of tonnes of lava over five months. It was quite devastating to the nearly one-third of all Heimaey homes that had been burned or covered with lava, but in the end the island gained 2.5 square kilometres of real estate and a more sheltered harbour.

Eldfell, Last erupted in 23 January 1973 - Vestmannaeyjar
The other main reason for visiting Heimaey was to see the ever-entertaining puffin colonies. These crazy little birds have some real character. It was hard not to laugh at their massive beaks, fat bodies, and tiny wings that suggested being stuck in an awkward evolutionary stage between normal flying birds and penguins. They were so inefficient and watching one land was rather amusing (think crashing into the side of a cliff).

A pair of Puffins - Vestmannaeyjar
Puffin on the rock face - Vestmannaeyjar
We also ate one, which was interesting but not all that enjoyable since I wasn't a fan of smoked things in general. The puffin plate came with a side of minke whale. It was not too bad, much like mild beef, but really it was not worth it. Leave it in the sea and eat cow instead, much tastier.

Puffin on the Right, Whale on the Left. Two things we will not eat again - Vestmannaeyjar
After a couple more shots of the beautiful landscape we left the tiny island and headed back to the airport for our evening departure.

Wave busts as it hit the rocks - Vestmannaeyjar
Waves crashing against the rocks - Vestmannaeyjar
We really loved Iceland and I’m looking forward to the day I get to see it again. I’m thinking it would look great in early spring when there is more ice and snow.