As the Scots say, "West is best". So for our August holiday we put that to the test, heading slightly further west than usual. But not by much. A few days west of our usual summer spot on Mull, in a off-grid Bothy on Ulva. A couple of hours walk from the ferry under leaden skies. Past the many cleared settlements. To arrive at the most perfect spot. A little house by the sea with a white sand swimming beach. In the evening a cosy fireplace and just enough comforts. Not to mention an owl outside the kitchen window. Not luxury in the holiday brochure sense, but a place to make family memories, which is it's own kind of luxury.
Life, COVID and everything else means that it's 6 years since we last went on a family ski trip. Having driven to the Dordogne and back in the summer, we decided on another EV road trip. An early start, a dash for the tunnel and before we know it we're at our overnight stop of Reims
The next day, with late season snow forecast we arrive full of excitement. Over the next few days the girls and their cousins maintain their enthusiasm - fuelled by mountain top crepes and bolognaise! We split our time between Morzine and Avoriaz, and despite the spring conditions there's plenty of runs (and cafes) open.
On our final day skiing there's a sprinkling of fresh snow and blue skies. The slopes are quiet and the kids do laps round a couple of runs - hopping on and off the chair lifts like veterans.
It's a joy to see them catch the skiing bug. I've pretty much failed to pass on any of my sporting passions, despite an almost constant stream of participation and spectating opportunities. Maybe winter sports will be the one that sticks. Six years was way too long, hopefully we'll all be back on the slopes next year.
Jan Pieńkowski is one of those childrens illustrators or authors who provides a link between my childhood and my childrens childhood. "Haunted House" was one of my favourites, as well as of course Meg and Mog. Someone who had a huge impact on storytelling, illustration and bedtimes!
It’s a surprisingly warm summers day. We’ve been coming to Mull for more than a decade, but we’ve never had weather like this. It’s a flat calm on Calgary beach and the sun is beating down. The beaches of the west coast of Scotland often look like the Caribbean, but for once they even feel like it!
It’s pretty busy, for the Inner Hebrides, which means not that busy at all. Once I push out from the beach the hubbub slips away and I’m floating over the seaweed below, looking out for fish beneath the gentle waves lazily rolling in. I stand up from my kneeling position. After a few minor wobbles I’m ready to scoot round the northern side of the bay, up towards the old pier. There’s a couple having a picnic who are slightly surprised by my “hello”!
The bottom drops away from this point, and I get a moment of vertigo as I suddenly feel like I’m a long way from shore. I spin the board round and head back in a little before pushing across the bay towards the far side, past a yacht anchored a little way off shore.
As I head back in, the effort starts to hit me, there’s more current here than you might think, and on another day it would be a much riskier enterprise, but with a few minutes of long pulls on the paddle I’m back in the shallows where the girls coming splashing in to meet me.
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.
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.
That moment when you let go of the saddle and instead of swerving off to the left or right they glide forwards, feet whirring almost in a blur.
When our eldest Vi learned to ride her bike, it was a slow and painful process. I’d bought a heavy old bike off eBay. At that the time we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. On a Sunday morning we’d go out and try to get her riding on her own, but it usually ended up in both of us getting frustrated. Bike on the floor. Tears. Shouting. She can ride her bike now. We soon got rid of that clunky old bike for something more lightweight and easy to manoeuvre.
A few years on and it’s Hazel’s turn. Full of gung-ho enthusiasm to emulate her sister. We don’t live on the ‘banjo’ anymore, instead there’s a few quiet village roads which have served as good training. Hazel wobbling along with me running alongside. Grabbing the saddle as she veers towards the curb. Almost there, but not quite.
Easter time and we are away on holiday, staying on the old Stanegate. There’s some traffic during the day to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, but after closing time there’s no traffic at all. After a few test runs she’s racing up and down the Roman road.
Over the next few days we find a few different routes. A disused railway in Kielder Forest and a dedicated trail at Wallington. But it's the deserted Roman Road each evening that's the favourite.
Back to the “inner isles” (Na h-Eileanan a-staigh) for our summer trip. Some new islands this year. But the same objectives: Immersing ourselves in landscape and history. Exploring beaches. Scanning the horizon for the wildlife (this time including Basking Sharks).
Each time we go back to these islands the connection gets stronger. Our collective Islomania intensifies.
3 weeks, 1500 miles driving, 5 Scottish Islands (Coll, Tiree, Mull, Ulva, Bute) and 11 ferries. Happiness.