Monday, 31 August 2009

North Wales Day Trip

14th August 2009

As Elaine has already been to England and Scotland and has booked a 4 day trip to Ireland with my friend's wife Megan I thought it was about time that she set foot in Wales!

It doesn't take too long to drive from Birmingham into North Wales so we set off nice and early in the morning with only a very basic idea of where we were going. As usual we would late fate decide and just follow our noses!

The first port of call was Llangollen because we spotted the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carrying the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee from the road!

Unusually for Wales at this time of year the sun was shining so we decided to have a closer inspection. We parked at Trevor Basin and had a walk onto he viaduct itself, pretty scary on the towpath but it must be even worse if you happen to be on the outside of a narrow boat!

We set off heading out towards the coast before deciding on Conwy and yet another castle! We found a good parking spot next to the castle and went for a walk around the town.

As Conwy is not very big it didn't take us too long to cover all the streets and decide against going into yet another castle! Conwy will be remembered by Elaine as the first place that she tried Kendal Mint Cake, to which she gave a thumbs up!

We headed towards the royal town of Caernarfon, famous for, guess what? Caernarfon Castle, yet another one to add to the list! This is where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales.

As we parked up I suddenly realised that sometimes it pays to have a plan! I had intended driving via the small town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch on Anglesey which boasts the longest place name in Great Britain. Never mind, that's something to come back for one day!

By now the weather was fairly typical for an August day in this part of the world, grey! We wandered around the town for a while, went through a funfair near the castle, listened in bewilderment to the welsh language and watched the children 'crabbing' on the quayside.

With plenty of daylight left we set off to visit Portmeirion, the strange yet beautiful architectural ode to the Mediterranean created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

As it was after 3 o'clock we only had to pay half price to visit the village, a real bargain! It was definitely not beach weather but we had a nice time exploring the village (made famous as the setting for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner) and the nearby estuary. After a trip to the village shop and having an ice-cream each (despite the cold weather) we left and started to head back towards home.

The final port of call for the day was the village of Dolgellau which we reached at about 7 o'clock.

We walked around the town for half an hour, exploring the narrow lanes crammed with traditional stone cottages and trying to decipher the various signs that we saw which were in welsh only!

We were getting hungry so we chose one of the handful of very inviting looking pubs, the Unicorn Inn, for our evening meal. It was a great choice as we both devoured the fabulous local lamb shank, washed down with a pint of Brains Dark.

We headed off into the near darkness and the border! Another hour or so later and we were back home after a long but interesting day trip.

Barrow Hill - Elaine and Trains!

9th august 2009

After a nice trip back to England the day before we stayed overnight in Kiveton with our friend Alexa and some of the gang in readiness for visiting the nearby Barrow Hill Roundhouse the next day to support their Diesel Gala.

Elaine already knows my mates Mervyn (the General Manager at Barrow Hill) and Jon Pridmore (NRM) but hadn't yet met the rest of the 'railway gang'. Normally Merv would have been abusing my kind heartedness by working me to the bone but this time we were just visiting!

Elaine met loads of my mates during the day who all seemed intent on showing her how railways and locomotives work! She seemed to quite enjoy her time in the cab and up in the signal box!

After a few hours it was time to head off back to Birmingham and our own bed! Another good 'road' trip!

Glen Ord Distillery

7th August 2009

After a long day and a good nights sleep we had to decide how to spend our last day in Inverness. Having sampled a fair bit of the local fire water we thought it might be nice to visit the Glen Ord Distillery in nearby Muir of Ord and see how it is made!

We set of on the now familiar path to the station, stopping only to admire a pair of magnificent Eagle Owls that were being displayed in the city centre.

We caught the train to Muir of Ord and sat back to enjoy more Highland scenery. Just 20 minutes later we had arrived and set off on the 10 minute walk to the distillery. What a peaceful place to make whisky!

We paid the £5 tour fee (redeemable against a bottle of malt whisky) and read a little about the history of Glen Ord. Like most distilleries in Scotland its beginnings were strongly linked to the illegal production of whisky centuries ago!

Unfortunately we were not able to take photographs during the tour itself so we can't really show you too much! The tour was very interesting and we got to see the huge 'mash tuns' in full production as well as the beautiful and very hot copper stills used during the distillation process before returning to the visitor centre to sample the result of all of the hard work. Slàinte Mhath!

After investing in a couple of nice bottles we said farewell to Muir of Ord and headed back to Inverness in the blazing sunshine!

To round off our stay we visited The Kitchen restaurant on the banks of the River Ness for a fabulous meal. We headed back to our B&B in very good spirits though a little sad to be leaving early the next day just as the first drops of rain during our stay began to fall.

We loved our time in the Highlands and will definitely return one day soon.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Kyle of Lochalsh and Eilean Donan Castle

6th August 2009

No trip to the Highlands would be complete without a journey on the stunning Kyle Railway. The four trains a day service takes two and a half hours to make the journey from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland. The vast majority of passengers who use the service during the summer months do so for tourism, but don't forget this is a normal train service which provides a vital link to Inverness for many small towns (with nearly unpronounceable Gaelic names) as well.

We decided to catch the first train of the day - the 0900hrs! This was great as it gave us a bit of a lie in! We got to the station and bought our staff tickets for a bargain return fare of £4.30 each.

The weather was perfect again and we had fantastic views over the miles of wilderness that the train passes through.

Eventually the mountains give way and the sea starts to appear. As we got nearer to Plockton we were surprised to see a llama out for a mid morning stroll on the beach!

We arrived in Kyle of Lochalsh on time and set about maximimising the time we had. A trip over the Loch to the Isle of Skye would have been nice but would have meant that we would waste a lot of time waiting for buses etc. We decided that we would take a boat trip and then head off to the nearby Eilean Donan Castle.

We bought tickets for a 90 minute trip on the Sea Probe Atlantis and waited for it to come to the harbour to collect us. Soon afterwards we were at 'sea' and being shown the local common seal colony, a salmon farm, things of interest on the sea bed thanks to the glass bottom of the boat and the interesting wreck of HMS Port Napier which caught fire whilst loaded with mines in 1940 and was towed to the other side of the Loch before exploding and sending her bridge onto the shoreline hundreds of metres away!

Eventually we made our way back to dry land and treated ourselves to some fish and chips. As you might guess the fish was fantastic, probably swimming around in the same Loch that very morning.

Next up was a trip to the nearby Eilean Donan Castle, star of many films including Highlander and The World is Not Enough. We made the journey by local bus and 15 minutes after departing we had arrived. The castle is simply magnificent and testament to the labours of Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap who returned the ancient seat of the Clan Macrae to its former glory between 1911 and 1932 following 200 years of ruin.

Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs inside the castle so you will just have to take our word for it that it is well worth a visit. The castle is still owned privately by the MacRae-Gilstrap family and they still retain and use a set of private apartments there. If you are ever passing we can highly recommend a visit, just watch out for the couple of strangely dressed individuals that Elaine ran into on out way out!

Unfortunately the last bus service back to Kyle of Lochalsh does not connect with the last train of the day to Inverness so we had already booked a taxi. Eventually (20 minutes late) the taxi arrived and we made our connection with a whole 5 minutes to spare, not stressful at all!!!

The journey back was every bit as enjoyable as it had been earlier in the day and Elaine finally got to see some Highland Cattle, she just LOVES cows! The following photograph is copyright of Russell Cheyne/Reuters and can be accessed on the Internet at The Guardian's Environmental Gallery here.

We were shattered when we got back to the B&B so we popped round the corner for something to eat and were in bed before midnight. Another good day in Scotland!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle and Inverness

Wednesday 5th August

After breakfast at 0800hrs (very tough for me I must admit) we had planned to go sightseeing along Loch Ness.

Elaine very kindly (ahem) allowed me to have a short snooze while she went to the tourist information office to pick up some bus timetables and any relevant leaflets that she could find. I eventually managed to struggle into the shower and prepared for another fun day at the mercy of local public transport. Interestingly the local bus company Stagecoach Bluebird has recently been named as public transport operator of the year for 2009.

We headed off to the bus station and paid the very reasonable £4 return each to Urquhart Castle 17 miles from Inverness on the banks of Loch Ness.

Our bus arrived at the prescribed time and a total of eight passengers boarded for the 35 minute trip. Once the streets of Inverness were negotiated it was plain sailing along the A82, right on the northern bank of Loch Ness giving us such fantastic views we felt like asking the driver to stop for photographs!

When we arrived at Urquhart Castle we spoke to the driver about our return options later in the day. Elaine has finely tuned ears and after a very short conversation she started speaking to the driver in Afrikaans! Can you believe it, we were in a remote part of the Highlands and our bus driver came from South Africa!

Urquhart Castle is situated near the village of Dromnadrochit in a stunning location on a spit of land jutting out into Loch Ness.

We paid our entry fees and sat through the interesting film show before heading outside into the sunshine. Castles are becoming something of a theme for this blog and now, thanks to one inside the castle grounds, so are Trebuchets! No flying fire bombs this time but a Trebuchet nonetheless!

We spent a couple of hours wandering through the ruins, climbing the towers and admiring the fantastic views, all the time bathed in sunshine. Before we had left Birmingham the BBC weather site informed us that it would rain every day, so far they couldn't have been more wrong! We had our picnic lunch and did a final bit of exploring (Elaine climbing) before we headed off on foot to visit Dromnadrochit and the grandly named Loch Ness Visitor and Exhibition Centre.

The 2 mile walk was very enjoyable, mostly because it was downhill all the way but also because the air was clean and crisp, the views outstanding and the weather fine!

The Loch Ness Visitor and Exhibition Centre was something of a disappointment. It looked a little run down and did not really appeal to us but we did spend some time looking at the vast collection of tourist 'tat' on offer in the shop. Incredible!

We had a drink at the local cafe before boarding a much busier bus back to Inverness at about 1700hrs.

With the hangovers gone we still had plenty of energy so we decided to take a walk along the River Ness to its mouth Carnac Point, where it flows into Moray and Beauly Firths. Another fine 2 mile walk got us to our destination where we met an elderly local who told us that he had lived nearby for all of his life. He pointed out a seal that poked its head above the water momentarily and the salmon making their way back into the Ness to spawn. He even told us that he had recently seen some dolphins (the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world are native here) but not for the last few days.

Heading along the Firth coastline we came across some really interesting wooden benches, carved in the shape of Seals, Dolphins and the Loch Ness Monster. They are apparently the work of a local chainsaw artist and are perfectly positioned looking out towards the impressive Kessock Bridge.

We decided to carry on along the coastline until we reached the Caledonian Canal then follow it back towards Inverness. After another couple of miles we reached the Muirtown Locks on the canal and watched as a large cruiser slowly made its way through each of the four locks.

By now we were getting a little tired and the sun was beginning to set so we headed back towards the Castle Tavern for something to eat. When we met up with the River Ness again we sat and watched a fly fisherman as he attempted to catch a nice salmon, as far as we know he was unsuccessful though!

Once again we enjoyed good quality meals and had just a couple of drinks before heading off to bed, without stopping off for whisky!

Arrival in Inverness

Tuesday 4th August

After arriving in Inverness (on time!) at just after 2000hrs we walked the short distance to the very friendly Braehead B&B, handily placed near to Inverness Castle. We got our keys, dumped the bags, had a shower and took advantage of the late evening sunshine to have a walk and find something to eat.

We opted for the Castle Tavern, a proper pub offering real ales, whiskies and an interesting food menu. Despite the more interesting dishes on the menu we plumped for two pub classics, Cumberland Sausage and mash for Elaine and Scampi and chips for me!

We really enjoyed our hearty meals after such a long day of travelling and chose to sample a couple of whiskies before heading off to bed, well 'when in Rome' etc......

We tried Lagavulin, Clynelish and Cardhu before settling the bill and heading off up the hill for the short walk to the Braehead B&B.

We had already met our landlady Moira when we arrived and as we arrived 'home' we met Willie, her husband. He turned out to be a real character! He insisted that we join him for a 'wee dram' in the family lounge before retiring to our bed. We were made to feel like part of the family and chatted for ages whilst Willie kept topping up our glasses with Glenmorangie! Elaine and Moira both went to bed at a sensible hour. Willie and I needed a gentle reminder that we should go to bed once the clock chimed 0300hrs and Moira came down to remind us! We had finished one bottle and had started on a new one! To say that we were a little unsteady on our feet would be an understatement, what hospitality!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Bonnie Scotland!

You may be wondering why we have posted so many updates in one day! Well firstly we have been getting a little behind and secondly we are on our way to Bonnie Scotland for a few days. We have taken advantage not only of our free (first class) travel passes but also of the free wireless internet connection offered on National Express East Coast trains (excuse the plug for my employer!).

We left our old home town of York at 0955hrs this morning and spent 4 hours in Edinburgh before catching the 1633hrs to the 'Capital of the Highlands', Inverness. As we speak we are somewhere near Kingussie enjoying the stunning scenery.

The plan is to spend 4 or 5 days exploring the Highlands (by public transport) before heading back to England at the weekend. We'll try our best to add some photos to the blog as we travel around but if we can't you'll just have to wait!

Jess and Gary get married!

We certainly had a very busy 48 hours last weekend. After getting home from Rachael and Andy's wedding at 0300hrs we had a few hours sleep before setting off to see Jess and Gray get married! Fortunately their wedding was also fairly local so we could maximise the time we spent in bed!

Once again we met the groom and most of the congregation in a local pub before the event (do you think that Elaine will allow me to do the same next January 9th?!). This time Elaine went the whole hog by wearing a hat! Unfortunately we have no evidence of this but I am sure that someone will provide a suitable shot!

Unfortunately the weather was terrible but that didn't bother Jess and Gary, after the service they were straight out in the rain for some photos, which I'm sure will look great as bad weather always seems to give very special light conditions.

The reception was nearby and the photographer took advantage of a break in the weather to take some more photos of the wedding party and guests. In true Gary style the newlyweds made a grand entrance to the reception and received a standing ovation!

The reception was hugely entertaining and we met some interesting people as well as some old friends. Speeches were delivered between courses (this worked really well - obviously we were filling notebooks with ideas at both weddings!) and included a speech from the bride herself (Elaine has now sealed victory in this department and will no doubt have her say at our reception)! It has to be said that Gary is a very funny man and his speech didn't disappoint, I think he missed his vocation!

We were entertained by the father of the bride's band afterwards who were excellent, as was Jess' mom who sang for us in the church. Not sure if either of ours will be doing that for us!!

As the evening wore on it was time to release some chinese lanterns, covered in good luck messages from all of us, into the Birmingham night. They made a real spectacle as they kept on rising and flying away towards Moseley.

All too soon it was time for us to take our very tired bodies home for a well deserved sleep!

Congratulations Mr and Mrs Hitchmough!

Rachael and Andy get married!

After a cracking Stag at Ascot Races the weekend before and a round of golf at Moor Hall the day before Friday 31st July was finally the day that Andy married Rachael!

We got dressed in suitable attire and met the groom in the pub next door to the church for a quick final drink as a single man! Unsurprisingly the pub was a popular meeting point for much of the congregation and soon enough it was time to head off into church.

Unusually the ceremony was conducted by Andy's father and was followed by the christening of Andy and Rachael's daughter Ruby. Everyting went very smoothly and soon afterwards the confetti was being thrown at the happy couple outside.

This was a very local wedding for us as the church is about 1 mile away from our house and according to Andy, the groom, we live 1700 yards from the reception at Moor Hall Hotel We arrived before the guests of honour and enjoyed having characateurs of ourselves drawn by an artist and leaving video messages (these must have got funnier as the night wore on!). Elaine, being South African, is not used to the tradition of wearing hats at weddings and has always laughed at 'fascinators' previously but guess what? She went for it at this wedding! The following photo is especially for all of her friends!

The photographers eventually started marshalling the guests into the required formations for the group wedding shots and those of us not required spent our time hanging around on the professional's shoulders to get our own version of their shots! Here are Andy and Rachael with their two children Max and Ruby.

It was time for speeches and food so we took our seats and listened with interest. Always good to have a laugh before a good meal I say, though importantly there was a very serious side to both the groom and best man's speeches. Breast cancer has affected many people known to those of us in the room so the opportunity was taken to highlight what we could all do to help promote the fight against it, starting with a generous contribution from the groom. We would appreciate it if you all took a moment to visit Cancer Research UK to find out more.

The speeches were followed by a really good meal and the traditional dance! The free bar was an unexpected treat and really helped to get people in the mood for dancing. Not least Bas, who will be one of my best men next January, who treated us to his famous interpretation of 'Ice Ice Baby' and didn't leave the dance floor again! To say he was a bit sweaty by the end of the night would be an understatement! He finished a great night in the wee small hours shirtless and wearing an improvised tafetta tie!

Congratulations Mr and Mrs Jefferson!

Warwick Castle - Medieval Adventure!

On the 28th July we took advantage of some 2 for 1 vouchers that we had aquired which were valid for entry to any of Merlin Entertainment's facilities in the UK. Being so close by we chose to visit the magnificent Warwick Castle.

When we arrived at just after 1100hrs we feared that we had made a mistake as the school holidays had already started and we had to park about two miles away from the entrance in the overflow car park! It did mean though that we were parked nearer to the exit than most and would probably get a quicker escape at the end of the day!

We walked up to the entrance and paid our £19.95 fee which turned out to be a real bargain. Things have certainly changed for the better since my last visit here over ten years ago.

We wove our way through the throngs of school children and took the obligatory pictures in the stocks. Elaine was fortunate as 400 years ago we would have been throwing rotting vegetables at her!

The original castle was founded in 1068 by William the Conquerer so there is quite a bit of history to work through during the visit! The Castle retained its defensive role until the 17th century when it became more of a stately home, remaining so until 1978 when it was sold to the Tussauds Group (of Madame Tussauds fame) which turned it into a major tourist attraction. Pictured from Ethelfleda's Mound (the original 1068 earthworks) the defensive qualities of the castle are clear.

The central courtyard is the venue for regular medieval combat demonstrations. The actors are really good and provide an hilarious commentary as they demonstrate ancient techniques and lay to rest many myths about fighting in those times.

The castle is home to various exhibitions detailing life behind its walls throughout the centuries. From Kingmaker, through to the Great Hall, Victorian life and even the more recent visit of HRH Queen Elizabeth II super realistic Tussauds waxworks entertain the visitor. In the Great Hall Elaine finally found her 'knight in shining armour'!

The 'Flight of the Eagles' show takes place outside the ramparts twice a day. The audience have the privilege of getting up close and personal with an Eagle Owl, a Rüppell's Griffon Vulture, a Bald Eagle and a fabulous Stellar's Sea Eagle. The show is so up close and personal that the Rüppell's Griffon Vulture's wing even clipped Jon's head as it came in for a swooping landing from the castle ramparts!

Bald Eagle

Stellar's Sea Eagle

Next up on the list of activities for us was our picnic lunch, what a fantastic setting for some cheese and biscuits! Keen not to miss out on anything we ate quickly and headed down to the river island to see the jousting tournament. Once again the actors provided a very realistic show for us to enjoy whilst the Jester worked hard to keep us laughing!

A walk in the Peacock Garden was rewarded with a full show by many of the cocks. They are obviously natural showmen but I'm afraid that we seemed far more impressed than the hens did!

We took a quick walk around the ramparts so that we could get all the way round to Caesar's Tower before the 1700hrs firing of the world's largest Trebuchet. The top of Caesar's Tower gives a fantastic view of the river island and the large catapult to which it is home! 1700hrs came and off shot a 150kg fire bomb over 200m through the air. A very interesting way to round off a great day in the castle.

We hot footed it out of the castle, through the archery and medieval cookery demonstrations, to get to the car and beat the traffic. We were semi-successful and decided that we should call into Warwick itself before heading home. The town has some fabulous architecture and many Tudor buildings still survive. How could we resist having a quick drink at The Tudor House Inn to bring an end to a fabulous day?

We highly recommend a visit to Warwick Castle. There is plenty to see and do to keep adults and children alike entertained for a full day. We didn't visit the Princess Tower (a mile long queue of little girls dressed as Princesses did though) or the Dungeons (you must pay extra to visit this new exhibition but by all accounts it is well worthwhile). Just remember to take a pair of comfortable shoes and a spare memory card (or film for some of you) for the camera!