Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Far-Flung UK

They say there’s no place like home but it’s good to leave it behind occasionally - a change of circumstance has long been recommended as a way to re-boot. So, right now, we’re in the Western Highlands of Scotland for a week of hiking, reading and eating the local cattle. And, anticipation being as much a part of the enjoyment as the trip itself, I prepared this one thoroughly, making sure that the campervan was in good working order, examining maps and constructing an outline schedule. The timing of the trip was also important because the midges which infest the region - and whose raison d’etre is to torment humans - become active in the summer months: I was hopeful that the first days of June might be too early for them.

The route took us through Glasgow, where the schedule allowed a day to wander around its centre. It’s not my first visit, but what struck me more this time was the grandeur of its main streets. I want places to be as distinct from one another as possible - if they’re not it rather diminishes the thrill of visiting them - and Glasgow, to some extent and notwithstanding the trappings of the heritage industry, retains a feel distinctly its own. It’s evident partly in the architecture and partly in the zeitgeist and it’s not hard to see why the Scots feel the swelling pride of independence when they have a city such as this. Whether full national independence is viable, however, is still in debate: a walk down Buchanan Street, populated overwhelmingly as it is by the same high-end retail brands which are found in English cities, brings home the inescapable ubiquity of international economics.

The course of the road to the West Highlands and beyond is dictated by topography and getting from A to B can be circuitous. But there is much pleasure to be had in driving the relatively empty roads which snake through the mountainous terrain. (There must be a long waiting list to become a Tesco delivery driver around here.) It’s ideal motorhome country – a place where we can live the freewheeling dream - and there are plenty of campsites where watching (and occasionally interacting with) fellow campers is all part of the fun. From the comfort of our modest campervan I observe intrepid types pitch their tiny tents on sodden patches of grass; I look on as less hardy types roll up in enormous vehicles which would be more suitable as accommodation for film stars on a shoot; and I ponder the ironies of caravans named Odyssey, Pursuit and Challenger whose owners look to have come to the end of their journey, are past the stage where they want to pursue anything other than the next meal and whose ultimate challenge is attaching the awning to the side of the van.

Lovely as it is, I wouldn’t want to live here permanently: for the inhabitants of these tiny, scattered communities visits to the cinema or theatre must be very rare events. Good cappuccino, however, is to be had at The Mountain Coffee Co. overlooking Loch Gairloch, where coffee, cakes and scones are offered along with books and gee-gaws in a comfortably shabby interior full of found furniture and climbing paraphernalia. With its vaguely Buddhist ethos and nostalgic playlist there’s an appropriate feel of “dun-climbing” about the place.

Three years ago we toured this area during a week of unbroken sunshine. This time around the weather is “mixed” which means cool, wet and windy for the most part. Bad weather, however, always looks worse through a window and, while we have not had any picnics on the Munros, we have enjoyed some yomping through the great outdoors. As for the midges, there have been very few: either I timed it right or they are just weather-wimps.

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