Half-term with COVID travel restrictions in place. It feels like everyone is trying to find somewhere quiet to get away from it all. At the same time.
There's ways to avoid the crowds and still enjoy the best the UK can offer at the end of May. Which for us means a 3am start, driving though the dawn to arrive at Stonehenge for the 5:30am shuttle up to the stones. It's a beautiful warm morning. Our group of 20 or so other early risers are greeted by a couple of skylarks as we walk across the dewy grass. With a quiet reverence we move amongst the stones. The hour passes quickly and before we know it we are back in the car park feeling dazed and ready for breakfast.
As we leave the roads are already filling up with the holiday traffic. People passing through to Devon and Cornwall, but we aren't heading quite so far. We fill-up with a breakfast deluxe and then head up the Tor.
In the afternoon the A-roads are thronged with cars. We soon swing off to our campsite, quietly tucked between the Quantocks and the coast. For once on one of our camping trips, the sun shines none stop. We hang out with family. Potter about quiet lanes. Grab ice-creams.
At the end of the day we sit out round the fire. Talking until late in the evening and wondering why people drive through Somerset instead of stopping here.
I've always been interested in boats without actually spending much time on the water. Born by the seaside, my dad had worked in the customs on the Humber. I had plenty of childhood stories of jumping from ship to ship on rummage crews. As a child I devoured Swallows & Amazons, reading the series again and again. But apart from the occasional ferry to Arran I didn't really spend much time afloat.
I did convince my parents to let me try some dinghy sailing. But the romance of sailing wore off in the cold of a Sunday morning on Hollingworth Lake. I was clearly destined to be a landlubber.
Years later, I managed to spend some time commuting along the Thames by the underused river boat service. From Greenwich to Charing Cross on the clipper. Then if the connection ran to time you could transfer to a small boat down to Chelsea. This seemed like a hidden service. A chap called Peter at the helm who seemed to be straight out of a Graham Greene novel. He'd tell you about what was "app-nin on the river" or ignore you as the small boat nipped along the grey Thames.
A few years ago we moved to rural Northamptonshire. As far from the sea as it's possible to live in the UK. At first glance without much in the way of waterways to need anything more than a pair of wellies to navigate by. Firmly landlubber territory.
However, on our annual trips to Scotland I started to do some sea kayaking. Inspired at first by Nick Ray in Tobermory. Then with the family paddling round Castlebay. I rediscovered the quiet joy of travelling under my own steam by Kayak.
Like most people our horizons have been a little closer to home in 2020. We've managed to keep this going on the more sedate waters of the Nene and The Broads. The odd bit of portage aside it's a pretty relaxing way to spend a day as a family. It opens up the landscape and wildlife in it's own unique way.
At the moment it’s not possible to get away so we’ve reverted to make believe adventures and camping in the garden. And somehow it works. Not a substitute for a real night under canvas, but it turns out some of the effects are the same.
As night falls and we hunker down in the sleeping bags, the sounds of the village seem amplified. The owls in the trees down by the old fish ponds sound like they are perched on the guy ropes. At one point in the night I’m convinced there’s a pair of foxes in the porch of the tent. Then in the morning as the dark fades the cacophony of the dawn chorus jolts us awake. We wriggle and turn, then drift back off to sleep in the warming tent.
Over breakfast thoughts turn to some of our favourite camping spots. That one on Barra that overlooks the perfect hebridean beach. The one with the wild horses in the new forest. I remember some of the places I’ve pitched a tent. From the top of alpine climbs to midge infested sites by the lake at Coniston.
There’s something about a night in a tent. No matter how broken the sleep, it slows you down and gives you a different perspective. I only wish we’d chosen a warmer weekend to get started this year.
A late autumn day, and despite the bright sun, the temperature is only a few degrees above freezing. A day for full winter cycling kit. Belgian style merino hat, long bib tights, windstopper jacket. It's a Monday and I've got a few hours free. Plodding along the quiet back roads that zig-zag across this part of Northamptonshire. Single track in places. Almost car free, except for some farm traffic.
I'm not going far, just looping through local villages. They are places I know well, but usually by car and as always you see a different place on the bike. The hills seem steeper (of course) and the red-brown fields on the other side of the hedgerows look heavy. Waterlogged and uninviting.
The rain gets heavier. It's time to head for home, luckily I'm not more than a few miles away from a warm shower and hot drink. I get my head down, peddling in the small ring, almost home.
Heading north again, as we do every summer. Mirroring the paths of the migrating birds who also head for the islands. They travel far more efficiently than we do, laden as we are with tents, stoves and a collection of coats and hats. They soar on the wing, using the motorway thermals and road kill for their own ends. As we trundle north, in a queue near Preston (always Preston), I envy the lightweight ease of the birds overhead.
But the roads do open up and we find ourselves by harbour in Oban, watching the ferry’s come and go. The familiar queue at the seafood shack snaking it’s way along the quayside. It’s become a familiar routine, the slow ferry queue and the dash for essentials that we might not be able to get on the island (food, drink and a haul of books) but the excitement is always the same.
Finally we are away. Despite already being on the road for a couple of days, it’s only now the holiday feels like it’s begun. The ferry slides up the Sound of Mull, past the Lismore lighthouse, which is always a marker for our trips this way. Then beyond Duart Castle and the brief glimpse of Tobermory as we head for open water. We swing away from Mull and a school of dolphin jump in the swell below the boat. The four of us (not to mention the dog) settle down to another few hours on the ferry, broken by expeditions round the deck and fetch provisions from the CalMac cafe.
The boat slows as we find the slightly smoother water and shelter of Castlebay. We shake the tiredness out of our legs and join the cluster of passengers in the afternoon sunshine to watch the castle come into view. Low clouds hang over the little town, and in the distance we get our first glance of the white sand beaches of the Island.
Over the next week those white sand beaches will be our daily destination for a swim or to launch a “sit on top” kayak. Afterwards in the photos the water will look fake, too blue to be real.
All that is yet to come as we dash down to the car deck. Our thoughts turn to the camping gear crammed into the car, and the drive past the beach runway of Barra airport up to the campsite at Scurrival which will be our temporary island home.