GRAND TOUR OF SCOTLAND BY TRAIN PLUS A BIT MORE
9 SEPTEMBER TO 4 OCTOBER 2019
After a very long flight from Brisbane to London via Hong Kong, we arrived at Heathrow about 2.30pm. We’d booked a driver to take us to our hotel and we were soon in the car and on our way to the St. Athans Hotel in Bloomsbury. Our room was tiny, couldn’t swing a kitten, but the beds were comfy. Shared bathroom facilities, and that was OK with us until we saw what was meant by “shared bathroom”. The shower was just outside our door, and it was just that, a shower cubicle! And it was only up one flight of stairs to the toilet! Still, we did have a hand basin in our room.
The hotel was within walking distance to Euston Station, which was where we were to catch the train to Glasgow. There were lots of eateries close by so, apart from the loo inconvenience, it suited us quite well.
First day and a walk to the station to get our bearings then off for a wander. Stopped in a park to ring Kris for her birthday, saw a squirrel, then off to the British Museum. Security was high and it took us ages before we were finally in the Museum. Ancient artefacts from Egypt, Assyria and Greek civilisations. The Rosetta Stone a prize exhibit.
Some lunch in the park at Gray’s Inn and then the Charles Dickens Museum. It was his family home, so, as you can imagine, fitted out in typical early 1800’s style. Back to the hotel after a long day and, according to Max, too much walking.
Next day we took the train to The Embankment for another look at the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Also wanted to see the iconic revolving New Scotland Yard sign and the MI6 building. Scotland Yard wasn’t far from the station, so photo taken there. Surprised to see that the sign wasn’t as tall as you would expect. Then a walk through Whitehall Gardens, past Big Ben, covered in scaffolding due to refurbishment, The House of Commons, through another park and along the embankment to the Vauxhall Bridge and the MI6 building and another photo!
Back again, passing a small demo re Brexit, couldn’t work out whether for or against. Time for a sit down, so decided on a cruise up the Thames, this time going past Greenwich and on to the Thames Barrier, the flood mitigation system. Quite impressive. Even saw Helen Mirren’s house situated right on the riverbank. Very relaxing couple of hours. Back on the train, a very tasty Chinese tea, and so to bed.
GLASGOW AND SPEAN BRIDGE
Max’s birthday, and up early to catch the train to Glasgow and the start of our tour of Scotland. Breakfast at the station and then finally on the train. Took about five hours to arrive at Glasgow Central Station. Took a wrong turn and found ourselves completely lost, no idea where our hotel was! We were standing outside a shop trying to use the phone and the owner, Mahmoud, came out to see if he could help. He used his own phone to ring the hotel for us then called for a cab to take us there. Couldn’t thank him enough. Hotel good, but the particular part of Glasgow where it was situated a bit sad and dilapidated. Quite a bit of late night partying!
Next day, Gavin’s birthday, and our tour starts. Made our way to Queen Street Station to catch the train to Spean Bridge, our first overnight stop. On the train and wondering who may be on the tour with us. Arrived at Spean Bridge Station in pouring rain and a mad dash to the car to take us to our accommodation, Old Pines. Michelle and Ken very welcoming, with tea and carrot cake on arrival. Max had coffee and scones and jam and cream. Our room very comfortable with great views of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. Met John and Mary from Brisbane and Lois and Deborah from California. Later a delicious dinner.
Woke up to a cloudy and foggy day, but no rain. Breakfast and a full Scottish for Max and I had Scrambled eggs with smoked venison. Yum! Booked a taxi to take us to the Ben Nevis Mountain Centre to get the gondola to the top of Aonach Mor, about 650 metres up. Arrived at the top and boy, was it cold. Went for a bit of a walk, with a misty view of Loch Gil in the distance. I forgot to take gloves, and the cold and wind finally beat me. Very misty and even a bit of a sprinkle, not the best weather for photos. Still well worth the experience. Max piked and stayed indoors. Back inside for lunch, hot soup and a bread roll. Back down the mountain and a cab to the Commandos Memorial, dedicated to commandos who have died in action, in all theatres of war, including the First world War. Views out to the Great Glen, a training ground for commandos. An easy walk back to the guest house.
JACOBITE EXPRESS AND ARISAIG
Up early, another delicious breakfast, and then the taxi to take us to Fort William to board the Jacobite Express. Lots of photos taken here, then all aboard, first class seats, tea and coffee and biscuits, and we were on our way. This steam train is the one used in the Harry Potter movie The Chamber of Secrets, on it’s way to Hogwarts and crossing the Glenfinnen Viaduct. We were on the wrong side of the train, so didn’t get the views I expected crossing the viaduct but exciting all the same. You could see the trainspotters taking photos as we chugged by. We stopped for a while at Glenfinnen Station to be greeted by a young lad playing the bagpipes and masses of people wanting to get a look at the train. Next stop Mallaig, picked up by John, with Lois and Deborah the only fellow travellers on our tour and on to Arisaig, and Arisaig House, our accommodation for the next two nights. Arisaig house was built in 1864, an old mansion set in beautiful landscaped gardens. After lunch, a stroll around the gardens and a bit of an explore. A delicious dinner and early to bed.
Day four of our tour and a boat trip to the Small Isles for a look at the islands of Eigg and Rhum. A lovely day with calm seas. Stopped at Eigg for a bit of a look. Very rugged and more appealing to the hikers, so for us, back on the boat for Rhum. Should have stayed on Eigg. Rhum had nothing much to offer, the jetty a long way from any points of interest. No people about at all except us few tourists. Found a spot for our picnic lunch, a bit of a wander and back on the boat. We travelled quite a distance in the boat, an hour to Eigg and then another hour to Rhum and back again. Got back about 6.30pm so, along with Lois and Deborah, decided to have a fish and chip tea at the pub. I had Cullen Skink for an entrée. The name intrigued me. Smoked haddock and potato in a creamy chowder. Delicious.
THE ISLE OF SKYE
Next day and looking forward to our trip on the ferry to the Isle of Skye, the next stage of our journey. Arrived at Armadale on Skye at about 11.30am, met by Donnie, about an hour’s drive to Portree, taking in the sights on the way, and Viewfield Hall, for the next couple of nights. Another magnificent early Victorian mansion set in lovely gardens and woodland. Our room was lovely, even had a window seat. And the bathroom floor was heated!
Time for lunch so walked into Portree, about 15 minutes from Viewfield Hall. Did a bit of shopping, postcards, stamps etc. Had a lovely lunch at the Canroy Restaurant, lamb pie and veg, then back for a rest. Viewfield Hall is basically a B & B, but they did offer soup and a cheese platter for dinner, which suited us since we had had such a big lunch.
Next morning, excited to begin our next adventure, a tour of the Isle. Donnie picked us up in his mini-bus, along with Lois and Deborah, staying in different accommodation to us, and a few others joining our tour. Such a funny man, who knew all about the history of Skye. He took us to some amazing places. The Old Man of Storr shrouded in mist and cloud, the Diatomite works ruins on the shore of the Loch. Diatomite was used in the production of paint and polishes among other things, and also in the manufacture of dynamite! Cuith-Raing, mystical rock formations lost in the mist. A climb (me, not Max!) to an Iron Age fort ruin high on a hill, Dun Beag. Highland cows and waterfalls, the Red Cuillin Mountains, misty rain then sunshine all added to the absolute beauty of the Isle, finally finishing our tour at the Talisker Distillery for a taste of the local scotch whiskey. Back to the Canroy Restaurant, with Deborah and Lois, for dinner. A fantastic day, amazing sights and great company.
Day seven and over the bridge from Skye to Kyle of Lochalsh and the train to Plockton, about fifteen minutes away. Plockton sits on the shores of Loch Carron and was the setting for the TV series Hamish McBeth and the 1970’s movie The Wickerman. The weather was brilliant, blue skies and so warm. Lunch and a walk around the village, chocolate ice cream cone for dessert, shopping for souvenirs, then back to our room to put our feet up for a while. Dinner at the Plockton Inn with Lois and Deborah, seafood platter and Max finally got his plate of oysters.
Another beautiful day and, since we didn’t have to get the train until 2pm, we decided on a boat trip around the Loch. So pleasant just cruising about, looking at the scenery. The castle, seals on rocks, views to the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, and generally the peace and quiet of it all. A quick lunch then back to the station for the train to Inverness.
About 2 hours in the train to Inverness and then a cab to Moyness House, our B & B for the next two nights. After settling in, a short walk to a local pub for tea and an early night. We had previously booked a coach, boat, castle tour of Loch Ness and surrounds. Up early next day and an easy walk to the bus station to pick up our tickets. It wasn’t long before the coach arrived and we were on our way to the dock to board the boat. We cruised down the Caledonian Canal then into the Loch. Soon could see the ruins of Urqhart Castle on the shore of the Loch. We docked here for a look around the ruins, back on the coach to spend some time at the Loch Ness Visitor Centre, then back to Inverness. We spent some time having a look around Inverness. I wanted to visit the famous Leakey’s Book Shop, but since it was Sunday, of course, it was closed. Just my luck. There was a churchyard nearby which figured in the history of the Culloden uprising. Executions of rebels were carried out there and the bullet holes could be seen in a couple of the gravestones. Very disturbing.
THURSO AND THE ORKNEY ISLANDS
Day ten and we are on our way north to Thurso, about four hours away. It seems a long time in the train, but it’s very relaxing and there’s always something to see out of the window. Our B & B in Thurso, Pentland House Lodge, was built in the 1700’s. Liz, the manager was great, very welcoming, our room very comfortable. Had a look around the town, it has some quite old buildings. Found our way to a pub for tea, and then called it a night.
Next day on the ferry to the Orkney Islands, which, along with the Isle of Skye, was the highlight of our tour of Scotland. We were picked up by Lorna, our tour guide. We visited the 5,000 year old stone age village of Skara Brae, the ceremonial Ring of Brodgar and the towering stones of Stenness. Skaill House, an early Victorian mansion, had on display Captain Cook’s dinner set! The ornate Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war out of an old Nissen hut. Quite beautiful. The Churchill Barriers built to prevent German U-boats from gaining access to the islands. Such a lot of history, both ancient and modern, and not to forget the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral with it’s Viking history. The islands misty and flat and hardly a tree in sight. Back to Thurso, a fish and chip tea with Lois and Deborah, all in all a great day.
Back on the train from Thurso to Kingussie via Inverness, about a 5 hour journey. Picked up by Derek, the owner of The Cross, an old tweed mill. A lovely place set in woodland, with a delicious afternoon tea on arrival. A stream gurgling under our window, a view of birds at the feeders and I was set for an afternoon of birdwatching. Great tits, blue tits, chaffinches, a wood pigeon and a Great Spotted Woodpecker! Time for dinner. Canapes to start, goat cheese cream in a cone, duck croquette, salmon tartare. The next courses, Potato and Leek soup, Scallop and Prawn entrée, the main Venison Loin on creamed cabbage, and for dessert, Chocolate Mousse Cake with Salted Caramel Drops, Praline and Banana Sorbet! Unbelievably delicious. This dinner was included as part of our tour, thankfully, as it was quite expensive, as you can imagine.
Next day went for a walk into the village. Not a lot of shops, a few eateries. Even the bank is a mobile van. Had a plan to walk to the Barracks ruin, started to rain, no brolly or coat, so found ourselves a coffee shop for a hot drink to warm us up. You’d think we would have twigged to the changeable weather by now. After a walk in the wood, back to The Cross, gathered our luggage and then to the station for the train to Pitlochry, about three quarters of an hour away.
Our accommodation here was Craigatin House, a former residence of Queen Victoria’s doctor. Pitlochry is a very picturesque village, a popular destination, with coach loads of tourists arriving throughout the day, and so quite crowded. Souvenir shopping here, and a good look around. Back to our room for a rest then out for tea with Deborah and Lois. These girls are such good fun.
After breakfast our next excursion was to Blair Castle, apparently often visited by Queen Victoria, typical early Victorian grandeur, set in extensive grounds. After that a tour of the Blair Athol Distillery and whiskey tasting. Dinner with Lois and Deborah at the Auld Smiddy Inn. This was the last day of our tour of the Scottish Highlands.
Up and packed the next morning, and since we weren’t due to catch the train to Edinburgh until around 12 noon, went for another sight see, having a look at the hydro-electric plant and the fish ladder on the loch. Back on the train to Edinburgh, about two hours, and all too soon it’s goodbye as we went our separate ways, Lois and Deborah staying in Edinburgh for a few days, and us, after picking up our hire car, making our way south. Our next accommodation the Goblin Ha Hotel at Gifford (still in Scotland!) for the night.
THE BIT MORE
We left Gifford very early, the hotel manager kindly providing us with a packed breakfast and made our way to Grimsby for lunch with Paula, Max’s cousin, and her husband Mike. Had a lovely visit with them. Then on to King’s Lynn for a couple of nights. We wanted to visit the Norfolk Coast since we didn’t get there on our previous visit to the UK. We’d booked a room at Russett House, an old but very comfortable B & B. A good night’s rest, then up for a drive around the area. The day was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. A good drive all along the coast, beaches, holiday parks and quaint villages. Back to King’s Lynn via Castle Rising, a 12th century ruin. Fun exploring the old castle. By now very cloudy, knew it couldn’t last. Out for tea, and a walk through the park, coming across a squirrel munching on a nut, remnants of the old town wall and the Red Mount Chapel, built in 1485. A Chinese tea, very tasty, on leaving the restaurant, pouring with rain. We had our spray jackets on but no brolly and were soaked by the time we got back to the B & B. Thank goodness for heated towel rails and heaters. Clothes draped all over the room.
Then to Blackmore’s End and a visit to Max’s other cousin, Lynda and her hubby Adrian, via Great Yarmouth, another seaside town. Lots of amusement arcades and van parks. Closed down for the season, but I imagine it would come to life in summer.
Finally found our way to Lynda and Adrian’s. A lovely drive, though, stopping for a drink at a pub in a quaint little village called Finchingfield. Spent the night with Lynda and Adrian, then made our way to Cambridge for a couple of nights. A nice drive, passing through very picturesque countryside, so very Ye Olde England! We’d booked a room at The Earl of Derby pub, so after settling in, went to have a look at Cambridge.
We made use of the Hop-on Hop-off bus, providing an excellent tour of the town. It was a lovely day so a punt on the River Cam a must. Very relaxing gliding along the river, the tour guide giving an excellent commentary of the history of Cambridge. The ticket for the bus was for 24 hours, so next day, back on the bus, getting off to explore the very old part of the town. All the old colleges and the iconic King’s College Chapel. Such a magnificent building, the foundation stone laid by Henry VI. The timber screen inside the Chapel donated by Henry VIII! The history of the place was mind-boggling.
And so ended our holiday. Back to Heathrow, a nineteen hour flight, only stopping at Hong Kong to change planes, getting in to Brisbane at midnight! Seriously jet-lagged for a week. We had a wonderful time, with fabulous travelling companions in Lois and Deborah. Happily, we are keeping in touch with them both, new friends made on our travels.