This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.
I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.
Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.
Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.
On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.
A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.
On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.
Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.
Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.
Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.
Both populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)
I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.
Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.
If you have ever travelled anywhere with a child, you will know that young eyes can spot a play park miles away. It’s strange how much their eyesight improves on holiday. If only they had the same visual acuity when searching for their shoes before school!
On the first day of our Scottish holiday, we are scooped up from Inverness Airport by my husband, who has already spent 10 days in the Highlands in our camper van. The sun is shining, so we head east for an afternoon at the beach, at the unpretentious seaside resort that is reputed to have been Charlie Chaplin’s favourite. Apparently he used to fly all the way from Hollywood to bask on the beach at Nairn. (Or so the Rough Guide to Scotland tells us.)
Ignoring the spectacular views across the Moray Firth that may have lured Chaplin all that way, my daughter Laura homes in on the large tiled paddling pool a stone’s throw from the seafront (but doesn’t throw any stones). It’s knee-deep on a child, and the local council kindly provides a lifeguard in the form of a kindly middle-aged lady in a cardigan. It’s not exactly Baywatch, but who cares?
To her parents’ delight, the pool is also a stone’s throw from an old-fashioned seafront cafe dispensing excellent cups of tea and ice-cream – bubble gum flavour for Laura, Irn Bru blend for her dad, while I favour the Scottish Tablet variety. Well, we are on holiday.
We savour our ice-creams while Laura cavorts in the paddling pool until closing time, the kindly lifeguard lady breaking it gently to the splashing children that they’ll have to get out so she can go home to have her tea. Baywatch, it ain’t. Then follows a short spell on the swings and slide, cleverly built into the side of slope between the pool and the beach, before we persuade Laura to head vanward for our own evening meal.
But the fun’s not over yet, as on the way back to the van she spots an even better source of fun: a good old-fashioned hill. Health and safety be blowed, you can’ t expect a small child on the first day of an exciting holiday to trip to pass by a hill without rolling down it a few dozen times.
Who needs theme parks anyway?
I’m gradually catching up with posts written on my 2013 summer holiday, and more will follow soon, but in the meantime, if you liked this post, you might like to read the others that have made it onto the blog so far:
Following this summer, I have a new standard for measuring the quality of a holiday: it should not involve:
the emergency services
any mention of us in the local paper
a dead body
By day two of our summer holiday this year, we’d already failed on all three counts, through no fault of our own.
Mindful of the feelings of the relatives of number 3 on the list, I won’t go into details, for fear of making the incident identifiable. Sufficient to say the experience was enough to make me empathise with the famous author/detective Jessica Fletcher, as played by Angela Lansbury in the ever-popular television series, “Murder She Wrote”. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher never seems to be able to take a holiday without stumbling over a corpse.
We’d stopped for the night in our camper van in a delightful, safe place that we’ve stayed many times, in a scenic corner of a pleasant town, popular with dog-walkers, cyclists, skateboarders and motor-homes. Returning from an enjoyable family cycle ride, we noticed a cluster of anxious-looking dog-walkers around a vehicle parked within sight of ours. My husband went to find out what the fuss was about, only to return, pallid, moments later, telling us the vehicle contained a dead body. Being a trained first-aider, he’d instinctively reached out to check the body for vital signs. It was cold. A dog-walker dialled 999. The emergency services, quick to arrive, diagnosed natural causes.
On the pretext that It was starting to get dark, we drew the curtains in our van, to shield our young daughter and ourselves from the distressing sight of the emergency services removing the body. For our daughter’s sake, we went out of our way to carry on with the evening as planned, putting on a calm, non-alarmist front. We played cards till bedtime, interrupted only by a knock on the door from a pleasant Polish policewoman who came to take a statement from my husband as a witness to the discovery. We made small-talk with her and she rewarded us with great advice about the best nearby beach to visit.
When she’d gone, we retired to bed and slept well until awoken by a knock on the door around 9.30am. It was another policeman.
“If I were you, I’d move on now, sir, because the local press have got wind of the incident and they’ll be coming round asking you questions.”
We took his advice and made ready to depart. Only on opening the curtains did we discover that, overnight, the area had been deserted by every vehicle but ours. We were now alone and conspicuous within a large empty parking lot, cordoned off by police tape signalling a crime scene.
A courteous bobby moved the cordon aside for us to drive out, and for the rest of the day we tried to put the incident behind us.
That is, until we were in a supermarket that afternoon, where I spotted a front-page article about the event. We were mentioned in despatches:
A camper van was parked within the cordoned off area, but police confirmed it was not involved with the incident.
I think Jessica Fletcher may have put in a word on our behalf.
You might enjoy these other posts about this summer’s adventures in our camper van – and there’ll be more to follow soon.
As regular readers may know, my family’s favourite mode of holiday transport is the camper van. For me, one of the many joys of camper van travel is that no matter where you go, your vehicle gradually turns into a mobile museum of everywhere you’ve ever been. I don’t mean we fill our van with souvenirs acquired in gift shops. I’m thinking more of everyday domestic items acquired from local shops in whichever country we’re passing through.
The Esperanto Kitchen
Take the kitchenette. The kitchen roll is French, printed with puzzling slogans about champignons, whereas the tea towel depicts the Outer Hebrides. Snacks are offered up on a French tray printed with macarons. A wooden Provençal tomato punnet is now filled with wrapped Welsh sweets. Having used the last of the Belgian soups that broadened our knowledge of Flemish words for vegetables, we’ve just restocked the soup shelf with tartan tins of “Granny’s Scotch Broth” in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Currently in the biscuit tin are handmade lavender shortbread, purchased at the Achiltibuie Piping School Café, which was quieter than expected because the Pipers were on a summer tour of France. Admittedly some of our supplies have more prosaic origins, i.e. Tesco, but at least they came from the Inverness branch.
Reading on the Road
As I like to read books about the places we’re visiting, our on-board library bears price labels from distant bookstores. (If you’re ever in Inverness, seek out Leakey’s.) We also buy novels from shops raising money for charities that we’ve never heard of. Blythe Community Care was everywhere we went this summer.
This cosmopolitan mix may be taken simply to indicate a lack of advance planning – I admit that we did once set off on a month’s tour of France without a map or guidebook for that country – but for me the eclectic atmosphere is part of the fun.
Tropic of Tetbury
Preparing to head home after this summer’s adventures, it occurred to me that one man’s exotic is another man’s local. As we import our latest Scottish bounty to Gloucestershire, others will be heading away with treasures acquired in Tetbury. They’ll be dropping Hobbs House crumbs into the pages of the books acquired in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and remembering to tell their friends about cafés named just as eccentrically as our Highland find. Can there really be a Two Toads anywhere else?
And probably, just like me, as they walk back in through their own front door, they’ll be congratulating themselves that no matter how much they’ve enjoyed their holiday, there really is no place like home.
(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2013 edition.)
More tales of our Scottish summer holiday will follow shortly.