Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

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.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

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.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

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.

magnetBoth 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.

 

Posted in Family, Travel, Writing

“Murder, I Wrote” – Or What Not To Discover On Your Holiday

Following this summer, I have a new standard for measuring the quality of a holiday: it should not involve:

  1. the emergency services
  2. any mention of us in the local paper
  3. 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.

Beachcombing in Ullapool: A Story Behind Every Stone

The Unusual Souvenirs of Camper Van Travel

Posted in Family, Travel

Beachcombing in Ullapool – A Story Behind Every Stone

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Laura looks for treasure on Ullapool’s shore on Loch Broom, Scotland

We’re in Ullapool, on the north west coast of Scotland, and my husband, our ten-year-old daughter Laura and I are beachcombing along the pebbly shores of Loch Broom. It’s a sea loch, which means it opens out into the sea rather than being enclosed by land and its water is salty. Who knows what treasures we might find here, washed up on these ancient shores?

My husband always casts a scientific slant on these expeditions. His natural reaction is to classify the rocks with their correct technical names.

“Ah, that’s an aggregate, ” he declares, dismissing a glorious hotch-potch of a rock with a single harsh word.

A couple of days earlier, on Nairn beach, I’d been pleased to find a heart-shaped piece of sea glass, particularly because I’m working on a story of lost love called “Sea Glass”. Its pale, opalescent surface, gently scoured by the sea, hints at secrets locked within.

“It’s only a basilisc pebble,” is Gordon’s reaction to my find.

I decide not to tell him how much I paid for a pair of delicate green sea glass earrings in Strathpeffer en route to Ullapool.

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So where’s the rest of the house?

Although not all our beachcombing finds are so classically pretty, all are beautiful. Today I’m intrigued by a house brick, its once sharp corners softly rounded by the sea. Where is the rest of the house? I wonder. Has it fallen into the sea? How far has this brick travelled?

My daughter has tuned in to my thoughts.

“I can’t stop looking at all the pebbles,” she declares. “There are so many of them, and behind every stone there is a story.”

And every stone is different, ground to a unique shape and size by relentless, indiscriminate tides. The sea is an unbenevolent creator.

For a moment, I see myself as a pebble, tiny among a universe of pebbles that extends in either direction as far as the eye can see – inland to the far end of Loch Broom, out to sea where the loch broadens to segue into the sea, flowing out around the Outer Hebrides before rushing towards more distant lands. Its next stop: Canada and the USA, to whose shores so many impoverished Highlanders fled in the wake of the unspeakably cruel Highland Clearances. For most of these reluctant emigrants, these pebbly shores of Loch Broom would have been the last they ever saw of their beloved Home Country.

As Laura slips three carefully chosen stones into her pocket as bounty, I touch my sea glass earrings with renewed appreciation. We’ll treasure the few stones that we can, each in our own way.

The rewards of beachcombing