After last year’s non-holiday summer, everyone in our family was yearning this year to get out of Edinburgh for a proper summer holiday. With the Delta variant on the rise, international travel was off the cards, whatever the state of vaccinations, so like the rest of Britain we were looking closer to home. Luckily, school holidays in Scotland start earlier than in England, so we faced less competition for holiday homes in remote locations, and were able to book one without much trouble. It wasn’t cheap, but not as bad as some reports of costs down south.
So at the end of June we headed north to the Cairngorms, to spend a week in the hamlet of Corgarff. It was a peaceful spot, with sunny weather all week, and the quiet broken only by the sound of passing motorbikes during the day and distant sheep at night. We spent our days mostly around the house and the woods and hills nearby, but ventured out to visit the local castle and the town of Tomintoul at the start of the Speyside Whisky Trail. Walking through the woods, I almost trod on a small rabbit hiding in the nettles, who helpfully (terrifiedly) stayed still for a few seconds afterwards for a photo. Other photogenic locals included a housemartin building a nest in the eaves of the house, and a dozen black-faced sheep on the hill across the road.
During the week we drove north along the Spey to Roseisle Beach, recommended to us by a Corgarff local, where large concrete blocks lined the dunes to prevent erosion. We spent another afternoon at Balmoral, to see where the Queen spends her summers, and later in the week went walking in the Muir of Dinnet nature reserve, which features an impressive bog and a cavernous hollow carved out of a tumble of rocks by a deceptively small waterfall.
Not everything from the week fit neatly into the gallery above, so I’ve tacked some of my photos onto others at Detail. The castles at Corgarff and Balmoral have their own pages at Castles of Scotland IV, and our afternoon at Roseisle Beach is at the end of Scottish Sand III. I also added some panoramas of the Cairngorms and a few local ones from July (taken while trying the city’s best ice-cream in Queensferry, and picking twice as many strawberries as intended at Craigie’s Farm) to the latest gallery of Scottish Panoramas.
A month later my son and I travelled further afield, on a spontaneous road trip through north-east England and northern Wales, avoiding the big cities and sticking to outdoor sights. Rather than pre-booking everything and locking ourselves into a specific route, I used an iPhone app to book B&Bs along the way, managing to find something within reasonable distance of my target towns each time: a farm on the south coast of the Solway Firth, a rundown hotel in the faded Cumbrian town of Millom, a spa hotel in St Asaph in Wales, and a poky attic room above a restaurant in Kirkby Lonsdale in the Yorkshire Dales. It was a lot easier than having to visit tourist centres at 4pm every day to arrange bookings, as I remember us doing when my family travelled through these areas in 1986.
Some of the sights were the same as on that trip: the Lake District, the castles of Conwy and Caernarfon, Hadrian’s Wall. Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick was deserted in the winter of 1986, but was crawling with tourists now; the roads between Ambleside and Windermere were bumper-to-bumper, with nowhere to park, just as they were in 2003; even Swinside Stone Circle, at the end of nerve-racking single-track roads and a mile’s walk, was busy. International tourists may be missing, but British ones are more than making up for it, at least in the better-known locations. It made the lack of mask-wearing in England, two weeks after its “freedom day”, unsettling at times. (Cumbria seems to be paying for it now, as a few days ago tourists were being asked to test before visiting, after Covid cases there doubled.)
Down in north Wales, though, things were quieter, and here the restrictions still in force made it feel more like Scotland. The fish and chip place we tried in Conwy was takeaway only, so we ate them down by the harbour, outside the town’s World Heritage walls. Back inside the walls, I bought some local gin flavoured with sea buckthorn to take home. After some rain cut our wandering short we drove up the valley to the town of Llanrwst, across its beautiful seventeenth-century bridge, and back through the dusk to St Asaph to watch the Olympics in our room.
My son was missing his friends and home, so the next day we headed north again, but not until we’d done a last tour of the north of Wales. We drove west again to Caernarfon, birthplace of Lloyd George and home to another spectacular thirteenth-century castle. Seeing inside it was by booking only thanks to Covid, and there were none left for the day, so we had to admire it from outside, including from across the swing-bridge in the town harbour.
South of Caernarfon we cut across the Llŷn Peninsula, the most Welsh-speaking of Wales, to the town of Pwllheli, home of Plaid Cymru. I had thoughts of visiting Portmeirion, the Italianate private village where The Prisoner was filmed, but once we got there we saw it cost a fortune to get in and couldn’t be bothered. Instead we turned inland (missing the chance, I belatedly realise and regret, to visit Harlech, another of Edward I’s four spectacular castles in the area). We stopped for lunch in the town of Penrhyndeudraeth, a chance to overhear spoken Welsh in a cafe and to see what must be one of the last Robin Reliants still on the road.
Then it was into Snowdonia, through the slate-covered hills around Blaenau Ffestiniog, and across the countryside to join the M6 north. The rain that had been off and on all day came down heavily now, so there wasn’t much else to do than drive, while listening to a podcast my son has become obsessed with. After stopping for the night in Kirkby Lonsdale, we drove the next morning through the dales to Sedbergh, passing dozens of traveller caravans and horses waiting on the sides of the roads for the Appleby Horse Fair.
From there it was back to the M6 until we could join the road along Hadrian’s Wall, stopping near Haltwhistle for a walk along one of its best stretches, and visiting the excavated ruins of Vindolanda before the final drive home.
As well as the gallery above, I took enough panoramas to warrant a gallery of those as well.
I hadn’t fully appreciated until these trips how much I’d been missing travel. Our road trip was my first time outside Scotland in eighteen months, and the places we were visiting, with their echoes of past grand tours, scratched that international travel itch, if only for four nights.
But that’s probably it for a while.