A couple of people have asked the question, what has been the highlight of the trip so far or what was your favourite place? When I get asked that question I imagine what it must feel like to go on Desert Island Discs and have to select one piece of music to save in the event of a tsunami washing over the island. I can’t specifically identify one particular place or event but I am beginning to get a general feeling for what I like and what I don’t. With the exception of mountains and landscapes I have decided that I don’t like big and I don’t like busy.
As we moved up the west coast of England I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt a sense of urgency. A need to pack in the miles and get ‘up there’ as soon as possible. I suppose ‘up there’ meant somewhere I wasn’t familiar with already. Somewhere north of Carlisle. That feeling didn’t really disappear though until we sailed across to the Isle of Arran and everything except the views got smaller. The roads got narrower and less full of cars and the shops became a manageable size.
Even the supermarkets could be navigated alone and without a map. It was better still when we ran out of supermarket altogether and did all our shopping in tiny little village stores that sold a bit of everything and were run by people who wanted to know where we were from and what we were up to. Shopping became a social experience again and it was easy. It is so much simpler to choose a a packet of pasta when the choice is between large or small rather than twenty five different styles and brands.
Once into the Highlands proper complete strangers began to acknowledge us with a raised finger from the steering wheel and many even stopped to let us by. Yes, you did read that correctly. Cars stopped to give two people on bicycles priority. That took a bit of getting used to I can tell you. Navigation became much easier, as exemplified by the road sign that presented us with the choice if going north or south. More often than not we had no decisions to make at road junctions for tens of miles at a time and things like traffic lights and roundabouts were a distant memory. It was, quite simply, bliss. We stopped worrying about locking up the bikes most of the time and all our precious valuables would be left unattended in the tent for hours. There were far less people in the very far north west of Scotland but we spent a lot more time talking to them.
As we headed south from John O’ Groats I first noticed things changing as we approached Inverness. Suddenly we were fighting four lane highways, looking for a safe way into the city and what seemed like enormous retail parks appeared with all the familiar brand names. Gill was keen to replace her failed waterproof jacket so we went to a huge branch of Tiso’s but they only had similar stuff to what had let her down already. We were tired and couldn’t be bothered looking further so we battled with the traffic and found our way out of the city only to find ourselves on the stupidly busy and fast A96. We got acknowledged by motorists here too but only to make it clear to us that they didn’t want us on their road. This whole world was about speed and we didn’t fit into it.
There have been some lovely quieter roads and peaceful little villages as we head south but every day we are reminded that we are now heading back to ‘civilisation’ and we become less and less visible other than as a nuisance getting in the way of people doing important stuff.
On the whole the east coast has been still been a delight but in a different way to the west and the north. The pace of life has gone up a notch or two and there seems to be more concern with making money and getting things done than there is with engaging and exchanging. The proximity of the North Sea oil and gas industry and large scale agri-business are ever present and it takes a peaceful forgotten little harbour in a small seaside village to restore the calm and inner peace that I found so easily in the more remote places we have been.
So in answer to those earlier questions; the best bits so far have been the quieter, smaller, emptier places wherever they are to be found. They are everywhere in the remote north. Maybe you just have to look a little harder to find them where we are now and cherish them all the more when you come across them. Like just at this moment. We are sharing a small campsite with half a dozen other campers.
A gentleman in a floppy hat has just started fly fishing the river twenty feet from our tent and has caught (and thrown back) two fish in five minutes. Ducks and seagulls constantly bicker and squabble and the ever present sea rolls up onto the shore within earshot. I suppose this counts as one of those elusive ‘best bits so far’.
I hope that tsunami never comes.