With a slow but steady improvement in the weather our sojourn of England continued.
Lydford Gorge provided an opportunity to stretch the legs, with a couple of hours spent wandering along walk trails, all the while being treated to the graceful spectacle of countless crystal clear streams making their way down into the base of the gorge. Following that, we visited the Finch Foundry (the last functioning water driven forge in England), saved from destruction by a savvy friend of the previous owners whom recognised it’s historic value.
Loaded with castles and all things old is probably a fair description of this country. As we travel more widely and visit more and more castles, estates, historic properties and beautiful gardens, we have come to understand the Brits a little better. There really isn’t very much land, if any, that isn’t privately owned with restrictions on access.
We keep entering National Parks expecting to see native forest and a lack of buildings and development, as we would at home, only to find houses, farms, caravan parks, car parks in random, isolated locations with “Pay and Display” parking meters and the usual “no overnight camping” signs! Is revenue really that sought out by council’s that it’s worth running power to a car park on a country lane and having someone on wages heading out to collect the bounty? I guess it must be. Gates and fences prevent you wandering freely and is an industry that must generate more wealth in this country than owning a McDonald’s Franchise! For a country that is a tiny 1300km long it seems to have found use for more fencing wire than we could ever dream of in Australia, quite astounding! And if you’d like to go fishing, get out your VISA card and let the fun begin!
A cynical view I know!
Having said that, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, just not what we are used to, that’s all! So to our English friends – don’t be offended!
With Easter looming we were quite keen to be off the road. It’s a frantic rush to have a few days off at home and it’s the same over here – lots of people moving about and very heavy traffic. We made our way via sites such as Glastonbury Tor and Cheddar Gorge to the village of Keynsham between Bristol and Bath.
Catherine and Simon, whom we’d crossed paths with back in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic (whilst on their own overland journey – Malaysia to the UK), had put us in contact with a family friend in this village where Catherine had grown up.
Peter and his wife Gill are designing a tray replacement hard sided popup camper unit on the back of their Navara and we’d been discussing different roof lifting mechanisms over the net. With an offer of somewhere to park up for a couple of nights should we be near his home town and now finding ourselves close by, we made our way to Peter’s and were soaked in hospitality once again.
Peter treated us to a guided tour of Bristol and Bath and hit all of the highlights – I think he’s missed his calling! Gill and their daughter Larissa made sure we were fed and watered and all in all we were struggling to find a reason to leave!
With the locals back at work, we hit the road and made for Wales. I had big expectations for this part of the UK and we weren’t disappointed. It still amazes me that you can cross a line on a map and have such a distinction between people. Not only the interesting gibberish that is the Welsh language, but a feeling of a little more in the way of open spaces.
Heading northward through Wales with lovely warm days and blue skies we found a great campsite on a creek within Brecon Beacons National Park. The following day we hiked to the 886mtr summit of Pen y Fan and Corn Du for staggeringly beautiful views across the Welsh countryside.
With ongoing family tree research, Jen had traced a part of my family to a tiny village called Llanegwad. It was one of many small villages that we visited on similar pursuits with some fruitful and others not so! This one was a great visit, as it appears to be where my surname originates. We wandered around an old churchyard and cemetery without any luck really, but fortunately the Pastor arrived and was more than happy to open up the old building and unlock the safe for us. Here we were able to view copies of the parish records, which added some fodder to Jen’s research, but it’s a very difficult pursuit. Probably another dead (pardon the pun) end – we shall see!
Meandering onwards we enjoyed forested undulating scenery along with quite drizzly conditions, late in the day and the never-ending search began! Finding a location for a nights respite can either go smoothly or drag on to the point where you don’t care anymore and anything will do!
A couple of options presented themselves but the winds were up and they were quite exposed and blustery, we rounded into a rural car park for a perusal of the map when we noticed a sign, British Cross Country Championship – Marches 4×4 Event and a quick Google revealed free onsite camping! Hmmm, so we wandered down the marked forestry track until we came across a couple of vehicles camped in the spectator area. Some friendly responses resulted in us spending the next 2 nights there.
Spectating the event the following day was very interesting. It is more of a rally style event with a couple of short quite rough sections rather than the more aggressive 4×4 events that we have in Australia like the Outback Challenge. All in all, we had a great time, met some nice people and were fortunate to stumble across the event.
Snowdonia in Northern Wales, which sounds more like a Castle in a fantasy movie than an actual place, is very real, mountainous and wild with meandering roads in and around the dramatic terrain. With fairly consistent rain once again and the high concentration of slate stone, the area makes you feel like you are playing a part in a black and white movie. The colours are basic and striking. Soaked in the clean mountain air it feels very raw and rugged and is the type of experience that keeps us travelling! You never know what’s next.
The historic sites that I mentioned earlier, which are generally castles and estates, provide an eye opening insight into the staggering lifestyle enjoyed by an aristocratic slice of English society! The pictures will shed some light on the physical beauty along with the ostentatious display of wealth that in many cases was the only reason these creations were conceived and constructed.
Many such as the one above were used only for a period of weeks during hunting and fishing season and then left to lay dormant until the next opportunity to display one’s position in society to their peers. Family’s gluttonous with wealth and in possession of numerous castles and large manicured acreage could never have envisaged that their estates would ultimately end up in the hands of the public!
From accruing a fortune through businesses such as slate quarrying, slave running and importing sugar; labour strikes and the gradual move into a more equitable world (apparently) were to see those staggering bank accounts diminish quite quickly. Relatives inheriting such vast stone empires found themselves on the end of death duties bills that were, at the time, in the order of 70%. Many were quite simply unable to financially remain in possession of these newly acquired assets or maintain them and as such, they were offered to the National Trust. This avoided the death duty and ensured the continuation of such amazing establishments.
Those whom have had to relinquish their hold on these monoliths may have been quite happy to see these maintenance hungry goliaths gone from the family slate! These examples of status were rarely the only castle in the family, so they were not necessarily short of suitable digs after relinquishing ownership!
Nonetheless, the situation has meant that these properties are now open to the public and provide breathtaking insights into the lifestyles of the wealthy along with majestic locations for a picnic or wander amongst the manicured gardens.
We also came across a ship seen on BBC’s Coast Program, which hasn’t seen the open ocean in quite some time but is an interesting story to Google if you have some time. Some of the most amazing graffiti we have seen!!
Continuing on to The Lake District in England and our next destination was Lake Windermere. As lovely as the descriptions we’d heard and time easily passed as we soaked up our peaceful surrounds. The area is a tourist mecca and prices reflect it! The thought of isolated camping on the shores of these lakes in a vehicle is unheard of although the hikes in the area were plentiful.
We aren’t against RV parks and use them regularly; we just enjoy wild isolated camping a lot more and appreciate the added benefit that it provides to our budget. RV Parks are all much the same and in the UK range from $AU30 – $AU50 per night, tending towards the higher end as the weather improves. We prefer to get a feel for an area and it’s geography by soaking in it rather than looking at the Caravan next to us or rather looking at the people looking back at us from the caravan next to us.
After a great drive through Wrynose and Hardknott passes to the western side of the Lake District, we spotted a good gravel track and managed to find a great campsite on a private fishing lake. We drove in and found a few fishermen casting fly’s onto the lake. We asked about camping and no one seemed bothered – that was enough for us and up went the roof.
A funny story was relayed to us here. One of the locals was telling us that we were now in the less touristy part of the Lake District and hence the lack of Pay and Display parking meters and keep out signs. He said that in some of the villages out in this more isolated area, if you kick one person they all limp! That had us laughing.
A bit more family history hunting and a quick visit to Hadrian’s Wall before Scotland beckoned. This is what the crowd came to see!
A quick National Trust Visit to Culzean Castle for the most incredible way to display weaponry I have seen not to mention the sheer numbers of flint lock pistols (about 700) – have a good look at the photos!
Scotland is far more liberally minded with regards to wild camping and you’re able to free camp for a couple of nights legally! So we can finally free camp unhindered and we end up spending the next 2 nights in an RV park on Loch Lomond – Hahaha… I hear you laughing! (You can’t free camp on the eastern side of the loch in peak season and must use registered locations) It was a really beautiful area with many walk trails and as with many of the locations that have stood out for us, it was the people we met that made it all the more enjoyable! Sunny blue skies and even a bit of warmth on the Loch shore with cold drinks and good conversation!
The weather was sensational but not forecast to last. Our fellow campers pointed out the best places to visit on our onward journey and we decided to make for the Isle of Mull in the hope of seeing Puffins! Spending most of their lives at sea, they generally only make landfall in early May so we were crossing our fingers that they hadn’t checked their calendar!
We joined a tour boat for the 6-mile journey from the South Western end of the Isle out to Staffa Island. The crew had seen puffins at sea but weren’t sure if they were nesting on the island yet. In any event, the island itself was promoted as being quite spectacular with it’s basalt columns and caves and would make for a great day out.
It would seem that fortune was with us however; we managed to have a sensational encounter with these exceptional little seafarers on the last day of reasonable weather before it degenerated back into arctic conditions.
It’s lucky they are good at seafaring because their landing skills on Terrafirma could best be described as a controlled crash. Fortunately the island as with most of the terrain around the area is covered with a thick bounty of long grass, providing the little Puffins with a mattress to absorb the shock as they crash into it, body dropping below their wings and feet splayed they hope for the best! Some come close to going end over end and others bounce off the grass and go head first down their burrows, it was exceptionally entertaining!
Amazing scenery describes Mull, stark and eerie with treeless rolling hills and a layer of water sodden peat iced over the island!
Ben Nevis came next, the highest peak in Scotland and then onto the Isle of Skye. Another fix of stark and aggressive scenery with beautiful bays and cliffs, even a dinosaur footprint or two presented but the temperature was descending rapidly and with it came our first serious snow since northern Mongolia.
Parked on the side of the road at “The Storr” in the Trotternish Range on Skye, a van parked behind us and “Hello Fremantle” came from its driver! (Our Fremantle number plates) A family from Tasmania on a 1-day visit to Skye as part of a 6-week holiday was behind us. We had a chat about travelling before parting company – you never know whom you might meet!
Back on the mainland, we were hoping to drive one of the highest roads in the UK, Bealach na Ba, and as we ascended through the snow line, heavy sleet and snow began and slowly everything began to white out. At the beginning of this road there is a large sign stating this road may be impassable in wintery conditions, not suitable for caravans or large vehicles, single lane and a 1 in 5 gradient at times with hairpin bends! I would describe the conditions as Antarctic Blizzard so I think that would definitely count as wintery!
I was a little surprised then when we rounded an icy hairpin bend to find a VW Passat wagon sliding down the next section of road backwards! He would drive forward until all that could be seen was the blur of the spokes on his rims and as traction faded he would begin his involuntary descent!
At this point I had to reverse to allow him some extra room and as I applied the brakes we slid a little before coming to a halt. What he was thinking attempting this road in a 2WD I don’t really know! Fortunately there was a passing place close by and were able to get around him. I’m not sure how he got on as I don’t think an out of control reverse around hair pin bends on ice was going to end well! We continued on into the white, coming across one other small front wheel drive car coming in the opposite direction, wheels spinning and with looks of concentration on their faces! Upon passing them you could see where they’d been sliding all over the road! Maybe they can’t read.
Again we got out of the way!
Coming from the opposite direction is easier, but you still have to go down the other side.
Dropping below the snow line around 15km later we descended into the town of Applecross where we were met by a snow plough and grit truck heading up to clear the road of snow and probably also VW’s and the like!
Doesn’t matter in what direction I look through this section of Scotland, it’s just fabulous scenery everywhere. Deceptive it is though, for the rolling hills that look so inviting are not so pleasant once you begin walking upon them. Grass tussocks hide large lumps and dips along with undulations of black peat soup that is eager to invade your nice hiking boots! Water lays within pools all over the ground just ready to sprout life into the apparent swarm of midgies that are due to arrive in this deceptive paradise within a month or so.
A walker’s dream is not an understatement, however you really need to stick to listed walks due to the reasons in the previous paragraph. It’s difficult at times to choose a walk as the options are endless. We’ve enjoyed many forays along trails and all have been worth the effort, but one of the best so far, I think, was a walk near one of our overnight camps up a mountain known as Stac Pollaidh. It is a sandstone structure that is slowly suffering the effects of freeze and thaw as it atrophies back into non-existence. A fabulous few hours that reminded me just how insignificant everything really is. Anyway enough of that!
Dunnet Head, the northern most point of Scotland and the UK mainland was reached and provided us with incredible views across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney’s. The following day we reached the location known as John O’Groats which, for some reason that I still can’t understand, receives all of the notoriety associated with being the most northerly point even though it’s some 3.5km short of Dunnet Head’s northerly latitude. Nonetheless we’ve managed to drive from Lizard Point being the most southerly point in the UK to the most northerly point and although 1300km will see you achieve the journey in the most direct fashion, we’ve managed to cover over 4000km making the trip. Guess we can’t be accused of not having had a reasonable look around now can we!
The weather has remained quite rough. Our Webasto diesel camper heater has become our best friend! I couldn’t imagine travelling again without one! I respect that I’m from a land of sun and rather warm temperatures, at times quite uncomfortably so, but hey! It’s spring here and the seals are scared to go swimming it’s that cold! Jen has been trying to spot an Otter but I think they’ve all frozen to death! Beautiful and absolutely majestic is Scotland, a must see destination on your bucket list! Make sure you’re here in summer….
More to come – Justin..