A Highland adventure pt 2

On Thursday 20 August, after a hearty veggie brekky at the Rossmount Guest House, I got a lift to the station as it was raining (again). I was heading south to Aviemore in the the Cairngorms National Park. I had two objectives here: one to ride on the steam Strathspey Railway, the other to ride the Cairngorm Mountain Railway. I arrived in good time for the 12.30 train so popped into a cafe to update Facebook etc. The train to Broomhill and back was pulled by Hunslet 0-6-0ST no. 3777, running in pseudo-BR livery as 68030. Various anonymous tanks were scattered about the railway. At Broomhill, I didn't get a chance to see it change ends as the passing loop is beyond the station, but made a little Flip video back at Aviemore. Some Scottish station names read like Dr Who characters: The Boat of Garten on this railway; Muir of Ord on the Kyle of Lochalsh line!

I still had a good part of the afternoon left so I caught a bus to the Cairngorm base station, where the woman in the ticket office kindly let me leave my case (no left luggage at either Aviemore station). The ride to the top of Britain's sixth highest mountain took 8 minutes. At the top we were not allowed out (walkers who walk up are allowed to ride back down) - just onto a windy observation deck where we could see reindeer but not the railway! I also saw the sun for the first time in Scotland! I had a home-made cheese scone and cuppa tea at the UK's highest restaurant (1097m) and went back down again, this time getting a good view of the rollercoater-type drop. At the bottom I visited the camera obscura (called The Dark Room) and waited for the bus back down to Aviemore. The fast bus ride round the hairpin bends was probably the most scary bit of the day! And so to the Ravenscraig Guest House, which at £40 a night was much more than the Inverness B&B, but had an en-suite bathroom and had won a green tourism award. I popped down the road to the Winking Owl for a pint of Fringe Benefit and a pretty ordinary haddock, chips and peas.

Next morning, the breakfast was pretty amazing: porridge with nuts and fruit compote followed by a huge cooked veggie breakfast I couldn't even finish. I'd accomplished both my Aviemore targets, so headed to the station to get the first train south. I'd been told Aviemore was a bit tacky, but it just wasn't very olde-worlde, and exactly what you'd expect from a place catering for outdoor activities, with shops selling sports equipment and warm clothing. First train was to Glasgow, so I imagined maybe getting a train to Oban, even a ferry to Mull. We passed through Perth and Stirling - I could have visited either of them but knew nothing about either. At Glasgow, I couldn't see any interesting connecting trains, so after a cappuccino at Costa, travelled on towards Edinburgh. I thought about jumping out at Linlithgow and visiting the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway but Sam texted me to say I'd missed the last round trip. So, it was on to Auld Reekie, a pint of 80/- at the Malt Shovel, a slow walk to Tollcross and a pint of Darkmoor at the Cloisters (where it was throwing it down outside) and, when Sam arrived home from work, some not very good (but not really awful) free comedy at the Illicit Still.

68030 at Aviemore

A Highland adventure pt 1

Originally uploaded by fred pipes
I've been spending a week in August during the Edinburgh Festival for 12 or 13 years now, and every so often I try and do some travelling while I'm up there. The last time was many years ago, pre-blog, when I took the sleeper up to Fort William and rode the steam-powered Mallaig line. That was the furthest north I'd ever been (apart from a flight to Gothenburg in Sweden in the 70s). So this year I decided to buy a Freedom of Scotland Rover for £73.25 (with Senior rail card discount) and go exploring. I probably could have got away with the cheaper Highland Rover plus a single to Edinburgh at the end, but hey! who's counting? It would give me 4 days' travel out of 8, which I thought was a bit mean, but also 10% discount on the sleeper. The trouble is, you can only buy a rover a month before you travel, so makes juggling sleeper and B&B bookings etc for an itinerary rather precarious. So, with sleeper to Inverness booked, I headed up to Euston on Monday 17 August for the 21.15. Luckily I had a berth to myself (you sometimes have to bunk up with someone the same sex) and as there's not enough room to swing a small cat in there, spent some time in the spacious lounge drinking Deuchars IPA at £2.50 a can and playing iPod games.

After a night watching orange lights go past my window, and passing through Edinburgh at about 4am, we arrived at Inverness and I searched out left luggage. Unfortunately it didn't open until 9.10, after my train to Kyle of Lochalsh had departed. It's one thing having a rover, it's another having to lug cases about! So, it's onto the train for what Michael Palin described as one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World. It didn't disappoint - straight away we were by the sides of lochs and firths, with misty mountains in the background. We passed the point at which the Caledonian Canal enters the Beauly Firth, but then there was a problem! At Dingwall we had to de-train, as the smell of the loos had become unbearable to some passengers. This unsheduled stop allowed me to explore this lovely station in which 134,864 thirsty men were supplied with tea 1915-1919. Outside was a war memorial made from a thin twisted tree trunk brought from the battlefields of France. Unfortunately the Mallard Bar wasn't open yet, but we got a complimentary cup of tea from the trolly, before we had to lug our cases over the footbridge to the relief train. So, on the move south-west again, the scenery was getting more and more spectacular as we reached the west coast. At the end of the line I even got a certificate.

I had theoretically three hours in Kyle of Lochalsh and the plan was to pop over to the Isle of Skye on the bus. I'd just missed the 12.30 bus so grabbed a bag of chips and hung around for the 1.30, which gave me half an hour to grab a half at the King Haaken bar and a view of the Skye Bridge in Kyleakin. Then is was back to Inverness where Robert from the Rossmount Guest House was waiting to give me a lift. This B&B was booked from the internet for £25 a night, so I had no idea what it'd be like - it was rather lovely. Not en-suite (they supply bath robe to wander about in) and the tiny telly was perched high on top of the wardrobe, but everything you'd want in a B&B. I went for a quick recce of the town to see how long it'd take to get to the bus station (I was booked on the Orkney day trip, setting off at 7.30 the next day) and thence to the Castle Tavern (also found on the internet) for a pint of Three Sisters and a plate of Finnan haddie rarebit.

Train view


Day trip to Orkney

Memento Mori
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
Did you think I'd finished with coach trips after my Welsh experience? Well, I'm not against coach trips per se, just ones that start in Brighton and involve long boring bum-numbing periods on congested motorways. I figured that the way to go was to get there by train, and then have the coach trip, and that's what I did here. After travelling to Inverness by sleeper, having a rail trip to Kyle of Lochalsh (and a quick dash to the Isle of Skye and back) and staying the night in a B&B (more in the next blog item), I dragged myself out of bed on 19 August 2009, missed breakfast and headed to the bus station for 7.30 to get a coach north. The day trip was organised by John O'Groats Ferries and cost a hefty £55 but packs a lot into the day. Over the next three hours we crossed bridges over firths and skirted the scenic east coast, passing through Helmsdale and Wick. No motorways here, just roller-coaster roads and stunning views. According to our tour guide this is the best place in the UK to take a driving test - not many roundabouts and few traffic lights (we were also told this about Orkney!).

I'd been warned that John o'Groats was grim, and it was - wet, windy and with no shelter apart from a couple of tiny gift shops and a tea van. It's not even the most northerly point in the UK, just one end of the longest road. The ferry was nowhere to be seen and I was wishing I'd packed more warm clothes, then suddenly out of the mist it was heading for the jetty. The facilities on-board the Pentland Venture were rudimentary, rows of cheap seating below deck and a 'shop' selling water, coke and tickets for Skara Brae (£5.50 for seniors). But it did have a proper porcelain toilet! The 40 minute passage was a bit choppy and soon we arrived at Burwick on the southern tip of the islands to join another coach. We then drove over the 'Churchill Barriers' - concrete causeways to keep German submarines out of Scapa Flow in the war. Apparently we'd sunk old ships to block the passage but in 1939 U-47 had snuck in and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak. Before these four barriers, it must have been difficult to get from island to island.

We had a couple of hours in Kirkwall, so I made for the cathedral of St Magnus, where I took pictiures of the memorial tablets all around the walls, each with a carved skull and crossbones. The cathedral cafe had a huge queue so I had a wander around, spotting the Wireless Museum (but you had to pay to get in so I didn't bother). The cheese and onion sandwiches made by the B&B were a god-send! Back on the coach we headed for Skara Brae, where I made a beeline for the cafe and a cappuccino before trekking down to the coast. The path there contained a timeline of historic events to show how very very old the Neolithic village was. From a distance it looked like a crazy golf course, with neat undulating patches of grass between the excavations. We saw Fred Flintstone's stone bed and stone dresser in the sunken ruins. Then it was onwards to the Ring of Brodgar, a large Neolithic stone circle around a patch of purple heather. After passing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the tomb of Maeshowe, we headed back through Kirkwall and on to the ornate Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm island, built by POWs from two Nissan huts and whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Most of the decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, who remained after the war to finish it off. Apparently there was a narrow-gauge railway in the POW camp.

By now the weather and visibility had improved, but the voyage back to the mainline was so rough I had to go up on deck. The boat was rolling around madly and I had to hang on for dear life, but we saw seals and various interesting birds (don't ask!). Just as we approached Jo'G, the choppy 'white horses' gave way to strange long waves. After the long road journey back to Inverness, I popped in to the Castle Tavern for a pint of Flora MacDonald. An excellent day out- highly recommended!

Top tip: a bloke I was chatting to in the Skara Brae cafe said he'd bought his ticket online through a US travel agent, paying in dollars and thus saving a few bob on the exchange rate!

Inside the Italian Chapel


London: art, music and Devant

Originally uploaded by fred pipes
What would make me endure three of the busiest areas of London on a hot Saturday? A rare David Devant and his Spirit Wife gig of course. I got a cheap rail ticket off the internet so I planned to make a day of it, using my free bus pass as much as possible. So, first off it was a 52 to Ladbroke Grove to see Mick Jones's Rock & Roll Public Library. Except... the bus stops at Victoria had all moved cos of road works! And when I eventually got there, it was Portobello Market day so the side streets were heaving. Anyway, pushed my way to the studios under the Westway and spent some enjoyable minutes looking at and snapping Mick's stuff. The Library (on until 25 August) was much neater than I'd imagined but like the Musgrave Collection, full of all kinds of stuff, from fanzines to a Rorke's Drift tableau. Next it was a 23 bus to Trafalgar Square to catch a plinther. This was not to be, however. I'd foolishly caught a bus going to Trafalgar Square via Oxford Street.

Now, if you've never visited London, take my advice. Don't even think about going to Oxford Street, except maybe at 4am in the morning, especially not on a hot Saturday. The buses were gridlocked and the pavements a slow-moving sea of people clutching Primark bags. I managed to fight through them to the sanctity of upper Regent Street, where I could catch a C2 to Camden and thence to Chalk Farm. The next stop was the Roundhouse, a former engine shed famous for Pink Floyd and Soft Machine concerts back in the 1960s, where David Byrne had installed a harmonium connected to various bits of the structure, entitled 'Playing the Building'. There was a long queue at the box office so I chanced going upstairs for a quick look and the guard kindly let me pop in and take a photo. There was a long queue waiting to play with it so I left. On the way to the next bus stop I sampled a free falafel, which was juicey and tasty so I ordered a small wrap which came heaped with good stuff for £4. I'm ashamed to say I ate it on the top deck of a bus heading for Euston station... where i changed for my final bus of the day to Highbury and Islington where I had a few beers at the White Swan (a Wetherspoons pub, so the guest beers were £2.10 a pint I had Mutley's Revenge). I was joined by other Devant Devottees and at 8.30 popped next door to the Buffalo Bar to see the first band of the night: Keith TOTP & His UK Minor Celebrity Indie All-Stars Orchestra, who played amongst other things a pretty shambolic version of 'One thing after another'. Next up was Dream Themes, who played instrumental tv theme tunes, and finally it was our headliners, with Foz? in a sparkly jacket, who started with secret track 'Lifeline' (video here) and went through the hits, including a Disco 'Ginger' and ending with 'Work, Lovelife, Misc' and 'Pimlico' then an encore of Aunty Mabel and err... another one I forgot (my Flip had run out of memory by then! Help!). Then it was a dash to the tube station and back to Brighton on the 1am train (going via Lewes) and a long but downhill walk home. Zulu


Eastbourne: Towner and Musgrave

Expensive tart
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
The last time I visited the Towner, it was out of town in an old grange, opposite the oldest pub in Sussex. That was in 2004 and it was to see an exhibition of illustrations from Ladybird Books - and of course its extensive collection of Eric Ravilious paintings. Now it's relocated to the town centre, a modernist building tacked onto the Congress Theatre and overlooking Eastbourne's famous grass tennis courts. So, after saying hello to Ed Boxall doing a workshop in the kid's room (the Art Box, actually - there are also rooms called Junction Box, Fuse Box and Light Box - why don't they give rooms sensible names these days?) my neighbour Angie and I plunged into the exhibition on the second floor entitled People's Choice, a miscelleny of works presumably from the permanent collection arranged in themes: landscapes, seascapes, abstract, etc, and with a corner of his own, Eric Ravilious. There were six paintings in all, including Cuckmere Haven and two watercolours with trains. A good start I thought. From the rest, Angie's favourite was Windover in Winter (1945) by Frank Wootton, who apparently would regularly cycle 60 miles to Sussex from London to paint the South Downs. Mine was Charles Knight's oil painting of Ditchling Beacon - deceptively scruffy close up but magically taking form from a distance. There were also a couple of not brilliant Edward Bawdens in the room too.

Then it was up to the top for the cafe before the lunchtime rush. The soup of the day contained chicken so I pointed to a small pie-type thing in a cabinet which was rushed to the kitchen to be warmed up. It turned out to be a caramelised onion and goat's cheese tart, and with a few leaves and a cherry tomato cut in to quarters, came to £7.95!! With a regular cappuccino, I'd spent almost a tenner. Ah well, I'll ask before oredering next time. It was tasty enough but had been microwaved so the pastry was soggy. Angie's smallish £4.95 soup didn't look too special either. Also on the top floor was a darkened room containing three 'chandeliers' made from plaster bones, surrounded by cardboard boxes and piles of newspapers ('In the eyes of others' by Jodie Carey). So, where was the rest of the permanent collection? On the ground floor was a huge couple of spaces, one with contemporary works, including an Ian Hamilton Finlay sculpture and an Anya Gallaccio, containing well rotted flowers - and in the other massive space a couple of film/video installations. And that was it! Apparently you can view the 4000-odd collection in store by appointment and I was told I would soon be able to look at them on the website (but there again, I could buy a book and stay at home!). Very disappointing.

On a tip-off from Peter and Lisa we then went to find the Musgrave Collection, via a walk along the prom. We found it on Seaside Road. It couldn't be more different than the Towner - a low-tech space with tons of stuff crammed into the former shop. George Musgrave is 93 and still painting - he has led a remarkable life, all documented in his many oil paintings (his latest is in the shop window) - he invented yellow lines on roads, designed and made plastic toy soldiers, was a minister in Angola - all documented in his painting 'Speck of Dust'. This is how museums should be (and if you like this one, give Seaford Museum a go). The modern style of curating seems to be to put as few objects into as large a space as possible - this is the old fashioned museum at its best. There is also a Museum of Shops in Eastbourne, but will have to wait for another day. It was scorching hot and after a fairtrade tea and cake in a hairdressers by a roundabout got the train back, changing at Lewes.