Saturday, 21 June 2008

A Happy Tour

Should I stay or should I go?

I could either take the train up to the mountain top restaurant for the wonderful views, or hit the cycle track to Newtonmore thereby getting back to Inverness in time for "The Ghost Tour"I opted for a spot of ghoulish entertainment. Besides, I'd fallen out with Aviemore. In the two bus waiting hours yesterday evening, I could have taken the mountain train if the last one hadn't left at 4.15pm!

So, legging it fast and furious down the High Street (checking first I was walking in a southerly direction) it wasn't long before I picked up the familiar little blue cycle signs.With no time to linger in Kingussie, pleasant as it was, I stepped up the pace to power walking levels to reach the bus stop in Newtonmore.And an interesting place it turned out to be. What with "The Wild Cat Walking Centre of Scotland" and the intriguing "Waltzing Waters Experience" billed as "The worlds most elaborate water, light and music experience"

On a beautiful Summers Evening, what better place to dine than down by the river at the "Riverside Restaurant" With good food, wine and interesting company, this was an improvement on last night's Caff. Striking up conversation with a couple of avid coach tourers from Nottingham, as they left for dinner at their hotel, I headed for the Ghost Tour which on arrival was "Cancelled Tonite"-Now what? Luckily, across the road, I spotted a jolly looking chap in a tartan waistcoat, surrounded by a huddle of tourists. Quickly, before they left, I dashed across. "Can I join in?" "Of course" he beamed "Welcome to the Happy Tour!" took my money, slapped a smiley sticker on my chest, and we were off.

First stop was the "Mercat Cross" Originally at the crossroads in the centre of Inverness, in the days before media and the world wide web, this was the place to get the daily news. It was also the site for public humiliation, mostly of the womenfolk of Inverness. While the men were away fighting, the women got restless, and started fighting each other. For punishment they were dragged through the streets, flogged and tied to the cross where in front of a jeering crowds their ultimate punishment was decided upon, which strangely enough, didn't seem to fit the crime. Murderers were packed off on a boat to Canada. Now, it may not have been a cruise ship, and probably some didn't survive the journey, but those that did, escaped to a new life, in a new country.

We strolled on through the streets admiring the views, marred only by the ugly buildings, some short sighted town planners decided to erect in the 1960's and ended up at Inverness Castle where we heard our final tale of Scotland's most famous feisty female, Flora MacDonald.

She'd had a pretty tough start in life. When her father died her mother was abducted, to be married off to somebody else. Brought up by the chief of the clan, we all know the story of her bravery in helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to freedom in France. What I didn't know was that she later, married, had a large family and emigrated to America. When her husband was taken prisoner during the American War of Independence, she returned to Scotland, family in tow, on a merchant ship. Attacked by pirates, and seriously wounded, she still refused to leave the deck. She'd certainly had a hard life, and well deserved to end her days happily and peacefully on the Isle of Skye.

Old Bonnie Prince Charlie meanwhile, kicked out of France, tried to stir up momentum for another rebellion, but nobody really wanted to know. Skulking miserably back to Italy, where he was born, he died a dissolute, depressed alcoholic and sadly, in the end, not quite so good looking.

On a recommendation from "Mr Happy Tour" I went for a nightcap at "Nico's Bar" a cross between a Gentleman's Club and a cosy parlour. Curled up in a vast armchair, with "Rubber Soul" playing softly in the background I nearly nodded off...

Monday, 16 June 2008

A long, long wait

"Where did you say?" laughed the bus driver. Walking into the delightful little village of Tomatin, pronounced "Tomartin" I resolved to brush up on my pronunciation of Scottish towns and villages. The most bizarre example last year had been "Milngavie" (The start of the West Highland Way) pronounced "Mulgie" -Fortunately I was forewarned on that occasion.
Tomartin may have been small, but it was "happening". Checking out the notice board I saw they had a walking group - but with unfortunately no contact details. Across the road, however, in the Post Office the friendly Postmistress provided me with all the contacts I could possibly need. Why, this little place even had it's own web site! "She who knows all" also informed me that the walks Co-ordinator was on holiday this week.
Not to be deterred, I resolved to get back to Inverness in good time to a) get to the Library and onto the Internet before closing and check out the Tomatin Website and b) Get to the "Johnnie Fox Hooley Night"
All was going well until I had to wiggle from one side of the A9 to the other,and if it hadn't been for some useful information boards (i.e. "You are here") I may well have ended up in Carlisle.
Back on track, I arrived in Boat of Garten and tempting as it was to leg it down the A9 to make up time, thank goodness I didn't. Walking through the woods, up "Fairy Hill" and along the "Speyside Way" was such a delightful route. With an amazingly stunning setting for a Golf Course, it was almost tempting to take up the sport, well...maybe not. The only fly in the ointment, literally, was the pesky midges gathering around my head.
Through the headphones, the UK's leading "midge expert" A Doctor somebody or other (well worth the years of research to be at a cocktail party and asked the question, "So, what's your line of business?") was telling me, that the unseasonably warm weather had resulted in an early gathering of the blessed things.
As if I needed to know...
The Chief of the McMidge Clan had called an emergency meeting. "Ok guys, I know it's only May, but we're just going to have to start work a month early. The Barbeque's are being lit, the sun loungers are out on the patio, for goodness sake, we can't possibly let them enjoy themselves!" With grumbling and dissent among the ranks, he urged them into action "Think of the overtime!" and off they swarmed and descended on the foolish solitary woman walking through the woods.
Following a bit of a trek through the manicured "Desperate Housewives" standard suburbs, I soldiered on with the thought of a white wine spritzer, on the terrace of a chic little wine bar once I'd reached Aviemore town centre.
Well, I did enjoy the spritzer on a bench outside a pub, but Aviemore was a bit of a depressing disappointment. With a tired, "can't really be bothered" sort of feel about it, It was clear that the ski-ing hey days of the 60's and 70's were pretty much over.
Happy in the knowledge that I was heading back to the metropolis of Inverness I waited for the bus, on the wrong side of the road. Maybe it was the effects of the wine in the sun, maybe I was tired, but whatever it was, it was with dismay that I watched "my bus" sail passed in the opposite direction!
And so,with two hours to waste, I ate a mediocre meal in a dismal little cafe,and
by the time I got back to Inverness it was to late to hit the "Hooley Night"
I climbed the hill back to the hostel as grumpy as a midge dragged out of hibernation.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

Dashing off to catch the northbound train, knowing I was unprepared was one problem.Beyond the first two nights, I hadn't a clue where the next bed was coming from. Settled into my seat and checking the rucksack, to find I was also unequipped (I'd forgotten the maps! ) was another.
Working on the basis of "something will turn up" It did, in my head. Walking up a deserted Princes Street, with the wonderful view of the castle silhouetted against the night sky, I made up my mind. I liked Cities. All this country walking malarkey is fine during the day, but at night...well, it's all about choice and facilities. And so it made perfect sense to base myself in Inverness/Edinburgh and commute on the "City Link" bus service. As to the second problem, following the cycle route through the Cairngorms shouldn't prove to much of a problem, once I'd worked out how to get out of Inverness to reach it.
Peering intently at the map on the wall in the youth hostel the obligingly helpful young assistant came to my rescue. And so, clutching the map he'd printed out for me, I headed 3 miles through the industrial suburbs to reach the "General Wade Military Road" and beyond, through Daviot Woods to pick up the cycle trail. Easy, peasy and I was loving it. Walking through woodlands on a well marked track, what could be better? Three cheers for General Wade! and "So say all of us" said the Highlanders. Commissioned to spend taxpayers money creating a network of straight roads into the Highlands, for the purpose of controlling the marauding clans, Wade succeeded in leaving them a useful transportation system for a future industrial revolution.
So fast forward to the 21st Century, no map was no problem, and with the ever frequent "Route 7" blue cycle signs, it wasn't long before I reached the A9 and the bus stop back to Inverness.
Delighted to find I'd been upgraded to "West Side 2" (which meant it had a cupboard in addition to the bed and chair) I happily stowed my belongings away in the knowledge that this was now "home" for the next three nights and went to find somewhere to eat.
Prepared for an early night, why then wasn't I tucked up by 10pm? Because walking back up the hill to the hostel, passing a restaurant, I was being beckoned in to join a party. Pausing for a second, I made up my mind. Well, it had been a pleasant but quite uneventful day, and after all, I had a "Blog" to write.
So before you could say "Let's go living in the past" I was introduced to the band, and road crew of the "Jethro Tull" 2008 tour. Wow! last seen at Bridlington Spa in 1972, I had to ask the burning question "Could Ian A. still leap around the stage like a demented pixie on pro plus?" Not quite it seemed, and neither could I get to see what he was capable of in 2008, as tomorrow nights concert was sold out.
Tempting as it was to join them for "one for the road" at the Irish Bar I took the mature and sensible decision to carry on up the hill back to my cell.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Sixteen Candles

I didn't hang around in Alness for long as I wanted to get to Evanton. There had been this cutest little internet cafe, run by the local church there. An ideal place to have a mid morning coffee and use the computer (for a ridiculously nominal fee) Well, of course, it wasn't open. But what I did find on the notice board was a poster advertising a local "Walking for Health" group. Hurrah! I wrote down the contact details.
Today was a good day, I seemed to whizz through the miles. Map reading my way through the gradual urban build up towards Inverness, it wasn't long before I spotted the Kessock Bridge on the horizon.
Arriving in town with plenty of time before I had to catch the bus back to London, I had one last, and very important thing to do. As if by perfect timing, I entered into the quiet solitude of the empty Cathedral. Lighting 16 candles, I was alone, watched only by the CCTV cameras above me. Feeling rather guilty for using up the entire candle supply I put £5 in the box, and left, hoping I'd be forgiven for being nearly a week late.
Boarding the bus back to London, I asked the question "Well, are you all up for the next leg,Inverness to Edinburgh?" "Boom! Boom!" they chorused in unison. I'll take that as a yes.