The Royal tour

Inverness 27 May
With only a couple of days left in Scotland we’ve spent most of the day in the far north. Our hotel “the Ulbster Arms” in Halkirk was probably the best we’ve had. Halkirk is a small village south of Thurso, it’s on the Thurso river which is a popular fishing river, in fact, in the lounge of the hotel is a stuffed salmon, caught in the river, which weighed 46 pounds. At breakfast this morning several men were wearing traditional sporting attire, plus fours and tweed, one gent has apparently been staying annually for 50 years. He is 93, had a dry sense of humour and was flirting with the staff.
The far north of Scotland is quite wild with peat bogs and heather covered moors but there is a surprisingly large population with occupied, and ruined, houses all along the coast and a few villages. But also wild places where the only signs of occupation are the wind turbines.

Our first stop was in Thurso, a small town but with several banks, a pedestrianised area, and a good museum showing the district from the fossils to the present. Particularly interesting were some Celtic crosses carved on standing stones.

The Castle of Mey

The Castle of Mey

It’s hard to sightsee in Scotland and exclude the castles so today’s was the Castle of Mey, which was owned by the Queen Mother who visited each August and for some time in October. She did this for 50 years from 1952 when she bought and renovated the place. The tour was conducted by a lady who had worked for the Queen Mother and focussed on personal aspects relating to her. The whole place had a more intimate feel than others we have visited with small rooms and lots of pictures, furniture and other items belonging to her. Prince Charles is the chairman of the trust which owns the castle now and stays for a week or so each July.

The other unmissable aspect of coastal Scotland is the small fishing harbour and today we visited two and saw others from the car. The first was at John o Groats, basically a rather bleak car park with the famous sign post and a dozen gift, coffee, and fish and chip shops. The harbour, which is right in the middle of all this is nice and looks out to the Orkney Islands. In summer you can catch a ferry across although the bigger boats depart from Scrabster (near Thurso) or Gills depending on which island you want to visit.

Duncansby head is the far northeastern point on mainland Scotland and not far from John o Groats, so on the recommendation of our breakfast waitress, we drove out to the lighthouse and took a fifteen minute walk out to view some massive sea stacks standing out from the cliffs, along the way we passed some deep ravines cut inland by the sea where masses of seabirds were nesting.

We’d booked a guesthouse in Inverness for tonight, about 106 miles from John o Groats so we started back about three pm. Initially the roads were narrow and slow but the improved and by the time we reached Inverness we were on a motorway. We stopped for a coffee at the harbour in Lybster but for at least 30 miles after that were held up by slow traffic. Then in Inverness our GPS (leading us to our guesthouse) persisted in rerouting us to go down a street which was closed by roadworks.
Great fun!

Thursday 28 May

Following another cooked breakfast we headed along the Ness river and into the centre of Inverness. The river is quite large (about 40 metres wide) and fast flowing with the city on both sides. There are a fair number of grand buildings. Paulette got some presents for the grandchildren and Quilliam a new jacket, a bit ironic as in two days we’re heading to what should be warmer countries.

The Ness River

The Ness River

Continuing the Royal theme we headed south to Balmoral. Our route took us over the Cairngorms and right through the base area of Lecht ski area at over 2000 feet. The trip was quite spectacular as was the whole day. Balmoral is obviously a popular tourist destination and visitors can wander around the estate (when the royal family are not in residence), view some exhibitions and enter the ballroom. All in all it’s quite some holiday home, it’s located amongst trees in a valley but it really is very remote with high moors all around.

Our accommodation tonight is in the Red Brolly Inn near Pitlochry, the best price we could find in the area at 54 pounds including breakfast, and it is very pleasant. But it was another fourty plus miles from Balmoral over a couple more high passes including through the base area of the Glenshe ski area.


To the highlands

Monday 25 May

Leaving Milnathort our first stop was at Dunkeld a small town north of Perth which has an interesting history and prides itself as being the gateway to the highlands. The town has associations with Beatrix Potter who enjoyed long holidays there in her youth. The local postman, who was an acknowledged expert on fungi befriended the young Beatrix who drew and painted fungi and became an expert herself. Dunkeld also has an ancient cathedral, half of which is now ruined, which sits on the banks of the river Tay with beautifully mown lawn leading down to the river.

Next we stopped at the fishing village of Johnshaven (do we read that as John’s haven or John shaven we wondered) where we had a quick walk around the small harbour before driving on to Stonehaven below Aberdeen, another attractive seaside town with a small harbour. A long drive took us to Lossiemouth where we had booked into the formerly very grand seaside Stotfield hotel. The public areas were still large and elegant but our room although satisfactory was pretty tired. We are booking places at the budget end of the accommodation spectrum, our basic requirement is ensuite facilities, and most have been pretty good but it’s a bit of a lottery.

After a good dinner we had walk around the town which has a marina with yachts and power boats of all sizes.

Another good day!

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

26 May (today)
After a drive around Lossiemouth, with its sand dune backed, East beach we stopped first at Nairn before driving on to Dunrobin castle which is more reminiscent of a French chateaux than a Scottish castle. The tour of the house was great and the formal gardens were spectacular but, for me, the falconry display was the most interesting. The gent presenting the show flew a gerfalcon, an owl and a peregrine falcon all of which flew with great precision. The owl, in particular was flying so low over the watchers that at times its wings were touching people’s heads.

Tonight we are staying in Halkirk at the Ulbster Arms Hotel.  The hotel owns the fishing rights on the adjacent river and sells beats on the river to fishermen for over 1100 pounds a week.


It has been three days since I last wrote for my blog, and with a fairly erratic Internet connection it may be a day or two before I can post again. Here is the catch up.

Friday 22 May
An alarm got us out of bed for an early start as we anticipated a long day heading to Scotland, but in the end the trip was not so bad. We made fast progress up the A1 (M) motorway stopping at Alnwick where we visited Barters, a very famous and enormous second hand bookshop. The store occupies a large hall with close packed shelves as high as a person could reach, and several other large rooms. One room has a model railway running around at shelf top level. Paulette found a children’s book she couldn’t leave behind.
A wander around the attractive, partially walled town followed along with the compulsory morning coffee before we headed north again passing Holy Island and Bamburgh castle which we have visited previously.
Next stop was Rosslyn Chapel which has become a popular tourist destination since being featured in Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. The Chapel is a lovely 15th century stone church with extraordinary carving, particularly inside. The notoriety the place achieved from its inclusion in the best selling book has been a blessing for the trust which maintains the chapel because the enormous increase in visitors has meant the now have the money to maintain the building which had been in serious disrepair.
There was quite a big crowd when we arrived so we had a good look around and I made a sketch of part of the very complicated interior, lunch at the adjacent cafe followed, then we went back inside for another look while it was quieter.
Having a bit of time before our friend was expecting us at her place 20 miles or so north of Edinburgh I set the GPS for a car park near the city centre, driving there was a bit of a nightmare but we found a park, wandered up the hill towards the castle then down the Royal Mile. After an hour or so we paid six pounds to get our car out of the parking building, spent an half an hour in rush hour tail backs, crossed the Forth road bridge ad got a very warm welcome when we arrived at Milnathort.

Saturday 24 May

Loch Leven Castl

Loch Leven Castl

Loch Leven in Kinross has been the focus of the last two days. On Saturday Rosemary came with us to Leven castle which, except for its location, is just another ruined square tower with a wall surrounding it. But it is on a small island in the Loch with beautifully kept grounds and large trees. To get the island we took a small launch and as the weather was great the outing was very enjoyable. The castle has associations with William Wallace and Robert the Bruce but most importantly Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for a year.

Today, Sunday we borrowed bicycles from Rosemary’s family and Paulette and I cycled around the Loch. The trip is 21km and takes in open marshy country, some forest areas and has good views, some important wildlife habitats and historical features from standing stones to sluice gates. The weather was not quite as good as yesterday and we were faced with strong head winds as we headed back. All in all a great variation on just sightseeing.

Burleigh Castle

Burleigh Castle

This afternoon we had a good walk with Pippa, Rosemary’s six month old dad hound who is pretty small our walk took us right around a golf course, maybe four or five km so there’s been plenty of exercise again today.

Out and about

We’ve made a real effort to have a couple of quieter days and have managed pretty well. Yesterday we weren’t away from our lovely holiday let until well after 10am. We’d decided to visit Raby Castle and on our way we stopped at the town of Bishop Auckland, an appealing town which was once the home of the Prince Bishops of Durham. A good walk around the town had us finding a new community art gallery where local artists are able to show their work. The standard of the work was pretty good and we reflected on how valuable such a space would be to us in Rangiora. Unfortunately I was not able to find out whether they were paying a lease for the space.
Raby Castle is the home of Lord Barnard, and while, from the outside, it is a very large medieval castle dating from the 12th century, in part, the interior is a grand stately home with a vast traditional entrance boasting displays of stuffed game and weaponry. The great hall would have enclosed three or four of our house, in fact the room was so tall it it would have contained at least six or eight of our house if you stacked them. There were two magnificent drawing rooms the larger of which was a truly spectacular octagonal space with yellow silk wall covering, red drapes the most enormous chandelier and gilt fittings everywhere. The castle stands alone amongst mature trees in its deer park but has a walled garden separated from it by 200 metres or so. There were 20 or so people in our your group, a couple of nice children who were very well included by our guide, at one stage he was playing a game of table curling with them, of course there was the, rather posh, woman who wanted to know everything and would not keep up with the group.
The castle tour took one and a half hours and lunch in the cafe along with a walk in the garden took our time there to more than three hours. A well worth while day!
A wander around the town of Barnard Castle and a look at its ruined castle finished our day out. The day had been cold but we were pretty gob smacked to be hit by a dramatic hail storm along with thunder and lightning. This drove us into a cafe (unfortunately a Costas) but coming out after a good cup of tea the sun was shining again.

Today we returned to Durham for the day visiting the lovely Crook Hall and gardens, a rather smaller establishment also dating from the 12th century. The house was fascinating but the cottage garden outshone it. I managed a couple of sketches before Paulette and I got lost in in the maze.
Another wander around the river and up through the town took us back to the Cathedral which was much quieter and perhaps even more tranquil and reverential. We both climbed the tower, (325 steps) Paulette slightly reluctantly, our legs and breathing were fine and the view spectacular. Paulette was pleased to find that the top of the tower was a fairly enclosed.
Back in the Market Place, which is sort of the centre of the city, I sat for most of an hour sketching while P wandered around the town doing a little shopping.
Tonight we ate at a nearby pub “the Old Mill” where we got a good meal in a very nice environment.

Another great day!!

Thursday 21 May

The Trincomalee, Hartlepool

The Trincomalee, Hartlepool

Today, our last in Coxhoe before we head for Scotland was another fairly quiet one. After doing our housework we headed off to Hartlepool to the Maritime Experience. It’s another themed museum based round the “Trincomalee” a naval frigate approaching 200 years old. The ship was built for the English navy in India and served all around the world. For a largish square rigged sailing ship she is in excellent condition and sits floating in an enclosed dock. We were able to visit four decks and got a good idea of how it would have been to live on board. Below decks there was little headroom with each lower level getting more cramped. When the ship was in service it had a crew of over 300, officers and the ship surgeon had small, semi private, spaces but only the Captain had a grand cabin.

Back on shore we toured a multimedia exhibition called Fighting Ships which tried to give the visitor some idea of how things would be on a ship in battle.

We were also able to wander around a paddle steamer which was formerly used as a passenger ferry crossing the Humber.

One of the girls in the museum suggested that we could walk around the marina area. The exercise was good and the day even warm at times, the marina is an inland dock area separated from the sea by two modern locks and must have been a bustling seaport before the ships got too big. The whole area has had a major renovation with bulk apartment blocks, modern shops and massive amounts of brick paving but is now looking uncared for with lots of rubbish and weeds growing up through the paving in places.

We next drove the car a couple of miles to Hartlepool headland which was much nicer with a restored first war artillery battery, a lighthouse, beach with paddling pool and beautifully kept terrace houses. On our walk we found a pub where we had a very late lunch before returning to the car through the graveyard of St Hilda’s church.

I am sorry that some of you are seeing our pics upside down. They are showing ok on my iPad, so I don’t quite know what to do.

From the Roman period to the early 20th century

The Marketplace, Durham

The Marketplace, Durham

Yesterday was, perhaps our least successful day so far with cold windy weather and too much driving, but it did have some good points.

We knew that if we were to visit the places on our list from our Durham base we woud need to do some driving, so we headed off to Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrians wall. The “sat nav” told us it was 49 miles by the shortest route and that the quickest route was 12 miles further. We’ve accepted that in the UK you can travel a long way quickly on motorways or the major A roads but on most other roads it is difficult to average 40 miles per hour. But if you choose the motorway you see much less, so the compromise, for us, is usually to take the shorter but slower routes.

So getting to Housteads took over an hour with Q spitting the dummy at the “bloody” GPS navigator which seems to insist on taking us through the centre of Durham wherever we want to go. At Housteads it was P spitting over the four pound parking fee in addition to the six pound each entry fee. And the senior concession was only 60p each. To get to the fort we had to climb a bleak, cold, windy hill, I cannot imagine what a poor soldier from Rome must have felt when he was stationed here in the second or third century AD. The fort is only foundations now but it has excellent signage and we could imagine how it must have been. The highlight for us was the communal latrine. Some people were walking along the wall but the wind was strong and cold so we headed back to the car.

Deciding on a different route home and choosing the GPS “shortest route” option had us driving on single lane roads over high moors at very low speeds but did take us to a nice pub where we got an excellent if rather late lunch. A brief but bracing walk in Alston (in Cumbria) then back home on another slow road left us exhausted and a bit grumpy.

A great nights sleep really helped and today we headed to the Beamish Museum, a 350 acre museum rather like Christchurch’s Ferrymead should be. 1920’s and 30’s trams and buses take visitors between areas, preserved or built as places from the early 20th Century. There is a town from 1910 a pit village and colliery, a 1940’s farm, a hall where the Squire may have lived and a railway where they were running a replica of one of the earliest train engines.

We found a village hall where local school girls were singing and dancing along with a group of elderly people as part of Dementia week so we joined in for a while and were made very welcome. Quilliam went down a coal mine and we saw pit ponies, draught horses, pigs and almost every farm animal imagineable. The place was quiet on a Monday which was a welcome situation.

Each place was working with excellent staff dressed in period gear keen to talk about what they do. There were bakers, sweet makers, blacksmiths and others selling their products. The weather was a bit better and we had a most enjoyable day.

No photos until I have a better internet connection. Sorry!!

Whitby and beyond

We are staying in our holiday let, on a farm, in the village of Coxhoe near Durham for the next week. The cottage we’re in is lovely, comfortable, warm and beautifully furnished but we have no wifi internet connection so it may be a few days before I’m able to post this.

Yesterday morning we parked the car by the Captain Cook statue above the entrance to Whitby harbour and walked down the steps into this attractive port town. After watching a small ship pass out through the swing bridge (this bridge divides in the middle and both halves swing open horizontally to let ships through) we window shopped our way through the old part of the town with its narrow winding streets. Timber framed buildings, some crooked and overhanging the roadway give the place real character.

Ten years ago we spent a night in Whitby and climbed the 199 steps up to the church and ruined abbey, so we repeated the climb and I think that this time we managed it with less effort. My knees are giving me no trouble and our fitness has improved a lot over the last two weeks.

On our way back down to the harbour and back up to the car Paulette bought a silver cross set with Amber that she’d spotted the previous night in an antique shop window.

We set the GPS for Saltburn by the Sea and were delighted, when we got there, to find a beach with excellent surf a longish pier and an hydraulicly operated cliff railway. We had a ride up the cliff (adults one pound, seniors 50p) walked along the top for a couple of hundred yards, took some steps back down then wandered along the pier where we watched surfers for a while before getting ourselves an ice cream on our way back to the car. Lovely!!

This morning we had a good sleep in before making our own breakfast for the first time since we left home. I wouldn’t say that I am sick of cooked English breakfasts yet but it could happen. Later we headed into Durham, found a market in the Marketplace (funnily enough), and visited the cathedral. We’ve seen a fair number of awesome cathedrals now but this one did not disappoint, it’s largely of Norman (round arches rather than pointed) construction and houses the tombs of St Cuthbert and The Venerable Bede. After an hour or so we lunched in the restaurant in the under croft with its vaulted ceilings.

Next we walked down to the river and headed around much of the loop on which the cathedral, castle and old town are built. It was a bit strange, here we were in the centre of a city, in a forested area by a river with bluebells and wild garlic flowering in profusion unable to see any buildings and mostly unable to hear any traffic noise. As we walked we chatted with a friendly and helpful chap who suggested a few places we might visit.

Later this afternoon we walked from our cottage around the village of Coxhoe visiting the churchyard and passing the hall where some function was underway. The walk took nearly an hour so we’ve not eased up on the exercise.

James, jet and the jugular.

James Cook statue

James Cook statue

Besides being a very attractive small harbour town Whitby has three or four significant claims to fame. It has a large ruined Abbey set high on a promontory above the town and the sea. Captain James Cook was born there and all of his ships were built there. Bram Stoker chose the town as the port where Dracula arrived in England for his novel. And it is the home of the black gemstones called “jet”.
We started our day in York with a visit to the Minster which is yet another magnificent church, this time with a history which goes back to Roman times. It’s foundations are partly laid on the remains of an earlier Roman building where Constantine was first declared Roman Emperor.

In the Minster there were a group of school children all dressed in hi vis jackets. A guide had them enthralled as they stood under a central tower asking questions and gathering them close to let them into a secret.

The old part of the town has narrow streets with timber framed buildings leaning at all angles. The most famous street is called the Shambles which we finally found after walking right around the area. Well I guess we saw more of the city than we might have otherwise. Our last act in York was a good walk around the medieval city wall.

Back with the car we headed across the North Yorkshire moors to the famous Robin Hood’s Bay with its houses tumbling down the hill into the bay. It has a history of fishing and smuggling and, for the last hundred years as a tourist destination.

Our hotel in Whitby sits high near a cliff at the North of the town and after checking in we walked the half hour into the town for a fish and chip dinner and a wander around the harbour. By the time we got back we were pretty weary. Probably too much walking again.

Tomorrow we head to our holiday let near Durham where we’ll be staying for the next week.

In Yorkshire

We’ve been really lucky with our accommodation so far. We always look for budget places, trying to spend around $120 NZ per night. The London hotel was a bit dingy and on the “lower ground floor” but brighter light bulbs would probably have fixed most of the problem. Last night in Skipton was pretty good, the Craven Heifer Inn was set on its own out in beautiful countryside with great views good food and beer (I had a pint of Hettons Bitter) and great view from our room. The breakfast room was really lovely with the sun shining in and delightful original watercolours of local scenes on the walls.

The sun was shining and the wind had dropped when we started the day at the market in Skipton before visiting the castle which is much more intact than most, in fact one end of the building is still occupied by the owners. Our trip has had a few highlights so far but this is another lovely place with manicured grounds and beautiful trees, some in blossom, framing the stone buildings.

Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle

Next we drove to Ilkley which was a bit posh for us but we went for a walk on the moor up past the Cow and Calf rocks and on to the tops. Our fitness must be building because the steepish up hill stretches seemed to go without too much heavy breathing.

Getting back to our car after ninety minutes or so we set the GPS for York stopping in Otley where I managed the quick sketch below while Paulette wandered and visited charity shops. Walking back to the car we stopped at a donkey sanctuary shop where I picked up a tea towel as a gift.



On to York where we parked at our guest house and walked to the Minster stopping for a cup of tea and a sandwich at a slightly eccentric cafe in Gillygate.

Lost in Skipton

Yesterday we spent the full day in Liverpool. We had decided that at nine pounds the “Hop on hop off” bus tour was good value but discovered that, as seniors, we could get tickets for six pounds. Ya!

The modern Catholic Cathedral, a vast circular building with lovely, modern stained glass was a joy to visit, as was the (also fairly modern) Anglican Cathedral designed in the traditional gothic style. This is a truly vast building with giant arches and a Lady Chapel, lost out the back, which is larger than most churches.


The town seems fixated with its Beatles past. Tours pass the houses where they were born, at least two of which are now National Trust properties, there seem to be several Beatles museums and around the Cavern area there seem to be numberless Beatle souvenir shops.

Today we picked up our rental car, a new Peugeot 308, but our first stop was at a laundrette before heading on to Whalley where we visited the ruined Abbey. Tonight we’ve spent an hour or so following a marked walk around Skipton, a very attractive Yorkshire town with a canal and a castle. Very enjoyable despite a strong cold wind and our getting lost several times.