After the wonderful week in Ireland we arrived in the lovely city of Chester on a very rainy evening. Unfortunately the rain did persist the following day so we decided to have a quieter day and just a few walks and visit the truly magnificent cathedral established in 1093 as a Benedictine Abbey and in 1541 becoming the Anglican Mother Church of the Diocese of Chester. It was a huge complex of splendid monastic buildings set out around a courtyard garden.
The following morning we set off from Chester for a 30 minute drive to Liverpool, where unbelievably the Main Street is called Scotland Road. Our first impressions were of modern buildings around the rim of the cultural quarter where neoclassical civic buildings include the museum, university, theatre, civic hall – all built by benefactors of this city. Of course the Beatles music was playing loudly on the bus with the one beside me thinking he is Paul McCartney (minus the guitar!) A visit to the Beatles museum is a must in this city of course.
On to Lancaster which was where the industrial revolution took place here in the North and also the Midlands where wool for textiles and coal for energy helped the economy and the labour force with a proliferation of factories.
On we drive through Cumbria and the Lakes District to Lake Windermere and a scenic cruise on the lake. This district was where Beatrix Potter spent her holidays when she was growing up and she bought fifteen farms and bred Herdwick sheep. Upon her death the farms were passed on to the National Trust on condition they were still farmed and the Herdwick sheep remain. She is credited with preserving the area and much of the land that constitutes the Lake District National Park. It is stunningly beautiful and a national treasure.
This area gets its fair share of rain so on we go on a rainy morning making our way a short distance to the little village of Grasmere situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. It is here that William Wordsworth is buried with his family in the grounds of St Oswalds Church, so a walk to his gravesite and around this quaint village with the stream of crystal clear water running through it is a must even if it is pouring! There is a daffodil walk you can do beside the church but none flowering at present.
We drive on to Keswick in the heart of the Lakes District passing many paddocks of black sheep on the farms and arrive in this busy little place with a population of 5000. This is a market town still holding twice weekly markets. It was originally a cheesemaking and coal mining town.
We are approaching the Scottish border so the tour director comes around the coach with the plastic shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey – blimmin heck! The Scottish pipes are playing on the coach and the next minute we are all raising the glasses “slainte mhath” pronounced Slan-ge-var. OM goodness – this will cure all your ailments and ensure you live the long life! We are hoping it will cure the coughing on this bus which resembles a symphony of hacking at times! “Drink up” we are thinking!! We are travelling with a medical family from Melbourne who, wisely, are not advertising the fact!
The next visit was to Gretna Green driving through this hilly countryside of farms and forests. Our friendly Irish coach driver, Ryan, has not managed to make the rain stop despite his Irish promise he would do so and we are now beginning to understand why every second shop is an outdoor clothing shop with racks and racks of raincoats! I am sure you will have noticed in the photos, that though I am dressed in woolly sox, leggings, a thermal, jacket, raincoat etc etc, the boss is always in shorts! I digress – Gretna Green – where people elope and flock to get married and the boss and I have a meeting about whether to duck in to renew the vows but we arrive in this hugely busy and tiny place and the first thing he notices is the ice cream shop so we decide that is more of a priority than pushing past the lone piper and the archway of flowers to get married again! Besides, a bride does indeed arrive with her entourage and the place is teaming with people.
We are now in Scotland, the flag of Scotland is fluttering and Scotland the Brave and the bagpipes are playing on this coach and I forgot to get the boss to put on the kilt – not that it seems to matter as he is almost doing the Highland Fling in the seat beside me without the kilt – but in the shorts! The whiskey has absolutely gone to his head! So here we are in Bonnie Scotland and very good it is. The architecture changes immediately to the Baronial style of rough cast concrete buildings and lovely sandstone and stone houses. We are in the land of kilts, bagpipes, haggis (heaven forbid!), thistles, unicorns, whiskey, tam o’ shanters, shortbread, lovely lochs, crystal clear rivers and the blooming heather. This is a country with its own identity although united to the UK. It has its own laws, banking and education system.
We eventually arrive in Glasgow passing large wind farms (hardly any of those in England by the way because, we are told, there are areas where the councils will not allow the landscape to be blighted with them and, can you believe it, they are still building nuclear power stations when other countries are decommissioning them) and new housing estates being developed. There are many high-rise apartment blocks for its population of 600,000 in the city area but 2.5 million including surrounding areas. The main commodity of this city in years gone by was tobacco trading from the River Clyde. Billy Connolly, Annie Lennox, Susan Boyle and Joseph Lister, the famous surgeon, all called Glasgow their home. There are large universities where no fees are charged (this is the case all over Scotland but you must reside within Scotland’s border). Some of the buildings look depressingly dark from the coal burning fires of the past and the wet climate.
Just when we were praising the UK for designing showers that we can use without the need for the manual I struck a minor problem. Having been a little cold and then warmed up holding the hand-held shower rose and was thinking how lovely it was I simply turned it off (I thought). But the dinner plate on the ceiling sprang to life and showered a torrent of freezing cold water down on my head. Well, I could be the first person to visit Scotland and do the highland fling in the shower while shrieking at the same time. Heaven forbid!
We depart Glasgow and make our way up the Great Glen and lochs – 31,000 of them in Scotland. We pass desolate highland hamlets set amongst magnificent scenery. The Tour Director sends around the map for us to see the journey from Glasgow to Inverness. I am busy looking at the scenery and the boss in intently studying the map but when I look over his shoulder I notice the blimmin map is upside down and he is telling me he is having trouble finding Inverness! This is why I am in charge of the P’s and paperwork I tell him but at least he isn’t the one driving this coach!
Anyway, we are heading to Loch Lomond and the Scottish music is once again playing as we pass large hunting estates between 5,000 and 8,000 acres in size. We stop on the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond amid the lush green hills with torrents of water cascading down from the many waterfalls. The land at the side of the road is a bog, the many different species of trees stand straight and tall with a carpet of ferns and moss underneath and the heather is flowering on the sides of craggy rock walls.
The mountains in these highlands are big and the snow markers along the side of the road indicate this gets a lot of snow in winter. The mist is veiling the mountain tops but beside us along the road the fields of heather are cutting a purple swathe in the fields.
We pass through Glencoe, known as the Valley of Tears so called because of its rainfall and the waterfalls cascading down the green mountains. We visited the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness and the boss searched there for Nessie – no luck!
Well, today was my birthday and what better way to spend the day than to do the Whiskey Trail (no I am not tasting!) This is a ring of beautiful countryside out of Inverness and resembles the Ring of Kerry in Ireland in its own way (with the exception that it is drowning in whiskey!) So off we go on the narrowest of country roads with many stops so the locals coming at us can pass. It is lovely countryside and the sun is shining down on the horses and sheep in the paddocks. We stopped at Cawdor Castle, a stately home occupied by the Dowager Duchess. We have been to many castles and this was one of the best – still occupied which made it homely and inviting rather than just a museum. The gardens were truly breathtaking and the whole estate cared for magnificently. We were given a statistic that was interesting – England’s 36,000 aristocrats own one third of all the land and in Scotland there are 340 large shooting stations and 500 people own half of the land. Controversially, these estates pay no business tax.
Anyway, we are on this whiskey trail and on we go. There are 100 distilleries in Scotland. Scottish whiskey has to have a 40% alcohol content (can be up to 50% heaven forbid!) and has to be matured at least three years in oak.
The first stop was at the Spreyside Cooperage to watch the men repairing the second hand oak barrels shipped from the US ready for the whiskey. They do piece work and are paid per cask and was fascinating to watch the speed they work at and how hard the work is and how young some of the apprentices are.
Then it was on to Glenfiddich where we learn that the casks used there also come from the US and were originally used for sherry and bourbon. Glenfiddich whiskey has to age at least 12 years and our interesting tour takes us through the distillery and into the store houses.
Well, I thought I had got away without anyone knowing about my birthday other than the one in charge of the B’s but we got onto the coach the next morning and the tour director has an important announcement to make – oh no! So my worry is that I have had two birthdays in two days and does that make me two years older? But on we go towards Edinburgh once again past large sheep farms and the purple heather and the sun is trying to break through this grey sky. This stunning environment must surely inspire painters and artists – it is like viewing a beautiful landscape painting at every turn – crystal clear streams meandering through the valleys, cascading waterfalls, mountains shrouded in mist, lush green trees with brightly coloured mosses and ferns underneath, heather, fireweed, stones tracks and walls. This is a visual feast of nature in its purest form and it is magnificent. They talk about Scotland the brave but we think it is Scotland the beautiful.
We stop for morning tea at Dunkeld Estate – the former hunting estate of the Duke of Athlone and now owned by the Hilton Hotels. Here we are given a falconry display with a hawk, an owl and a falcon and it is most interesting.
We arrive in Edinburgh with its city population of 500,000 and there are mixed views of this city with its white concrete houses and the Victorian houses of sandstone which has blackened over the hundreds of years to make parts of the city look very dark. The stone buildings have aged much better and are quite beautiful. The Fringe Festival is on and the city is pure madness with hundreds of thousands of visitors present. The Military Tattoo is on too and we are going. Our first visit is to the very special Palace of Holyroodhouse at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile where we are privileged to get a private tour at the end of the day through the Staterooms and Great Hall and to see where the Queen greets and eats when she visits. Another highlight here was the exhibition of the wedding garments of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex which are on display here for just a short period.
Today’s visits in this city were to the Royal Yacht Britannia which is moored permanently here. It was a wonderful tour around absolutely every part of this amazing ship. I remember going to the waterfront in 1963 when it sailed into Auckland Harbour with the Queen onboard and how spectacular the boat looked. Then it was on to Edinburgh Castle with thousands of others because of the number of visitors in this city for the Fringe Festival and the Tattoo.
We set off on the short walk back to the Castle at 8 pm and the Tattoo commenced at 9 pm after the sunset. It was a dream to see this with the Castle in the background. We were dressed warmly (actually we looked like two Teletubbies) on this chilly evening and there were a few light showers but our seating sheltered us very well. We were extremely proud when the NZ Champion marching team Lochiel came on dressed in white blazers and tartan skirts and performed a wonderful display to the music from the Scottish pipe band. The crowd gave them rapturous applause and our travelling mates thought they stole the entire show. The NZ Army band also played a brilliant medley which ended with the Haka also very much appreciated by the audience of 9000 in this rather small arena. Australia was not represented so we were one up on our travelling mates! The tattoo finished with the mass bands and it was an unforgettable experience. So there ended our time in this beautiful bonnie Scotland and we have loved it.
On now to finish this tour before having a few days downtime in Greenwich and back home so just one more instalment to go!