Sampling Southport

On one of our recent trips to Edinburgh, we decided to divert via Southport. It is the largest seaside town in Merseyside and the only Conservative constituency in the region. The town lies on the Sefton Coast of the Irish sea with the Ribble Estuary to the north. To the south is Ainsdale and Birkdale Sandhills Nature Reserve which is one of the largest areas of wild sand dunes left in the UK. Southport is home to the second longest pier in the country; the longest being Southend. It opened in August 1860 and is the oldest iron pier in the country and at a length of 1,108m, the longest iron one.

Interestingly in a time of climate change, global warming, rising sea levels and parts of the east coast of England disappearing into the sea; the sea in Southport has been recessing away from the coast during the 20th century. The Kings Gardens and Marine Lake are now where the beach was previously.

They were opened in 1913 and reopened after restoration in 2014. Swans and other water birds were on the water while bridges and the pier take traffic and pedestrians across to the sea front. Other green spaces in town are Hesketh Gardens and Victoria Park. Every year Southport hosts a Flower Show which celebrated its 90th anniversary in summer 2019. Lord Street is in the town centre lined with Victorian buildings and many shops. Southport still has many independent shops but has also lost some and some of the chain stores have left like many other towns in the country. Lord Street hosts Wayfarers arcade which opened in 1898 with 30 stores. There are now a few empty ones.

In September 2019, the town received £1.6m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and in addition to money given by the council, this is being devoted to rejuvenating the town centre. Most of the market was being renovated and only a few stalls were open. We found Broadhurst’s Bookshop on Market Street. It has new books on the ground floor and two floors of secondhand books.

There are two other secondhand bookshops in town. We passed one of them but it was closed. A picnic was had in the sun by the beach and I had a brief beachcomb. There was only a narrow strip of sand but a long stretch of mud and the tide was out.

On an off-season weekday it was very quiet with just a few dog walkers. There were lots of razor shells on the beach; more than I have seen anywhere else, a few cockles and whelks. I found one piece of sea glass and then noticed an older man picking up something and filling bags which he was then loading onto his cycle. We got chatting and he told me that he was picking up coal for his fire. It is not something I have seen on a beach before but he told me that he had heard of a guy in Yorkshire who collected large amounts of coal from his local beach and sold it to a power station. Later, we watched the sun go down at the end of the pier

and the lights come on.

We had to leave the next morning and driving out of town it was hard to find a Guardian newspaper at any of the garages or newsagents in the outskirts. With a bit more time and when our coastal journey gets round here there is the Botanic Gardens to explore, the Atkinson Centre and a bird reserve slightly north of the town on the coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Findhorn River and beach

In mid-November we visited friends in Inverness whom we had not seen for a while. One day they took us for a trip around some of the sites on the River Findhorn in Moray. It is one of the longest rivers in Scotland at 100km. We began at Dulsie Bridge which was erected in 1755 by Major William Caulfield as part of General Wade’s military road strategy designed to assist in suppressing the local population. It survived the Muckle Spate flood of 1829 which swept away mills, farmhouses and several other bridges.

Further downstream, Randolph’s Leap is the narrowest part of the gorge.

In the 14th century Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray lived on one side of the river at Darnaway. Sir Alexander Cummings and his six sons lived on the opposite side. Problems arose when the Cummings who had held the lucrative post of ranger of the Forest of Darnaway fell out of favour with Randolph and King Robert the Bruce and were told to keep away from Darnaway. The eldest Cummings son, Alistair, gathered a thousand men to attack Randolph but they were ambushed and retreated back to the river where Alastair and three others jumped over to the other side so it really should have been called Alastair’s Leap. There are several walks around the river and forest here of varying lengths. We did one of the shorter ones as it was quite wet.

Continuing down the riverside we came to Logie Steading which has been converted into a visitors’ centre with a café, art gallery, a bookshop and several small businesses including Logie Whisky and Wine. The road continues through Forres and on to Findhorn on the Moray coast at the mouth of the river.

We had passed through earlier in the year as part of the Round Britain drive but I have always loved the Moray coast since working in Inverness so was very happy to return. The Findhorn Foundation eco-village has been here since 1962 but is a separate entity to the rest of the village. We walked along the beach and dunes at the edge of the forest

and round to the harbour

before returning to Inverness. Wild camping is allowed on the beach for a small fee so I suspect we will be back.

Exploring Magilligan Point

Last month while visiting relatives in Northern Ireland we had the chance to explore a part of the coast that I was not familiar with. Magilligan Point sits at the mouth of the Foyle Estuary. In summer the Lough Foyle ferry crosses over to Greencastle on the Inishowen Peninsula. There is a Martello Tower which was constructed between 1812 and 1817. By the time it was completed, Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena. It is apparently open at times but closed when we visited and the opening hours information has disappeared from the visit Northern Ireland website.

There are seven miles of beach divided into three: Magilligan Beach, Benone Strand and Downhill Beach below the cliff. The entire foreland is 20 miles long, described as ‘Ireland’s Largest Coastal Accumulation’ with some of the best-preserved dunes in the country. Part of it is a National Nature Reserve with resident wildlife and winter visits by migrating birds including further north. Since the Martello Tower was constructed there has been some form of military use over the years. There is an army training camp here with a firing range and the red flag was flying when we visited so part of the shore was not accessible. There is also a large prison on the peninsula near the cadet training centre on the point road.

From the strand you can see Mussenden Temple at the top of the cliffs at Downhill. It is in the care of the National Trust.

Only one brave soul was in the cold water on the day we visited.

It began to get darker and wetter, so we began to head back. In summer you could enjoy the bar and restaurant at the ferry and other cafes and hostelries in Castle Rock and Bellarena. We will probably revisit in a different season as when we have completed our circuit of the mainland coast of Britain, we will de driving around Ireland.

Madagascar:Belo sur Mer to Morombe and Mikea

There was time for a short beach walk in Belo sur Mer before we left. The fishing boats had already departed and Pied Crows were scouring the beach for something to eat. Travelling back over the dunes and the salt flats was reminiscent of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was followed by a slow ascent through desert-like landscape before reaching the greener highlands again. We crossed the River Lampaolo which was dry and passed through several villages with crops and irrigation channels. Some people were walking back from the market carrying bags of rice on their heads. Madagascar is the largest consumer of rice per head of population in the world. They grow a lot and rice fields are present in most of the fertile valleys we have passed through but they also have to import it. In Western and Northern Madagascar many women paint their faces with a mask derived from grinding a branch of the masonjoany tree. It is said to act as a sunblock, a moisturiser and to remove blemishes. It is removed at night. Just before we reached our last and biggest river crossing, we saw bushes with white seeds and were told that this was wild cotton.

I also noticed that several termite mounds had had their top removed and learnt that the locals used the termites to feed their hens. The following morning, we were on R9 by 7am amongst a rock-strewn landscape. Further on baobabs and red soil appeared.

Our first stop was at a local school that the local tour company supports. Gifts were presented and we met some of the staff and pupils.

On the blackboard was an anatomy lesson.

R9 descends down to rivers and fields of crops but cacti and more desert appeared before we crossed a tributary and then arrived at theRiver. It is the biggest river in Madagascar. The ferry’s engine was broken so the boat was being pulled across the river which was shallow due to it being the dry season. This would not have been possible in the rainy season.

The other side of the river was sandy. A tributary had been dammed upstream and on the riverbank was another dam with a road on top. Other work suggested that a bridge across the river was under construction by a Chinese company.

We were now on the N35 and passed a line of baobabs longer than the Allée.

After a cactus forest we arrived at Morombe on the coast, our destination for the night. I had a wander along the beach spotting a phone-charging sign on a village hut. It looked incongruous but mobile signals are very good in Madagascar.

There was plenty of time to watch the sun go down over the sea.

The following morning was bright and sunny. Down at the sea, was the same boat with a patchwork sail.

Back on the dirt road we passed through the Spiny Forest where the Octopus Tree Didierea madagascariensis grows to 12-15 feet high with branches always pointing south. It grows on coastal red sands north and south of Tulear. The locals use it for firewood.

The road then ran alongside a mangrove swamp between it and the sea. Further on were date palms, a few villages and several taxi-brousses. Our next stop was at one of the largest baobabs, said to be around 1000 years old.

Lunch was at a small town Andavadoaka at the Olo Bé Lodge. It had only recently opened and was owned by a man born in Mauritius and brought up in Australia. He was a mining engineer and had come to Madagascar to prospect for minerals while running the hotel as a hobby. There were sea views from the restaurant.

The remainder of the journey to Mikea was on deeply rutted sandy tracks. The next day we had time to wander along the beach while some people went snorkelling off the reef. Crabs scuttled down holes as we approached and a few seabirds were feeding by the water but flew off too quickly for photographs.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby forest through cacti, succulents and mini baobabs. We met a man and two of his children from a hunter-gatherer tribe who have little contact with the modern world. His wife and other children were away collecting water. He showed us how he made fire. They spend only a few days in each area before moving on.

We walked the short distance back to our hotel to get ready for the next day’s departure.

Madagascar: Allée des Baobabs and Belo sur Mer


Leaving the hotel at 7am, we reached the Allée des Baobabs about an hour later. This is a road passing between rows of Adansonia grandideiri baobabs; some of which are said to be a thousand years old. It was quiet when we arrived

but when we were due to leave, many people were arriving.

There is a small information centre run by the local community and you can even buy a small sapling to grow your own baobab.

Continuing along the road we entered more fertile country with rice fields and banana trees but the landscape became drier as RN35 towards Morondavo on the coast. The cars were refuelled and supplies topped up and then we continued on our way. Only about 7% of the Madagascan population is Muslim and this town is the only one outside Tana that we had seen a mosque and a few women wearing hijabs. Leaving town on asphalt we soon turned onto a sandy minor road. After the first river crossing, we had to stop at the village and pay a fee to proceed. Goats were tucking into a trailer-load of greenery; very welcome in this dry landscape. A lower and much larger river, part of a large delta was crossed and cactus-like plants appeared in the landscape.

Alongside the road were people trying to sell us food. After several mostly dry river crossings we reached the salt pans of Belo sur Mer. We could see piles of salt on the causeway as we made our way along the sand tracks at low tide. This route would not be passable in the rainy season.

After settling into our hotel, we took a walk along the beach. The town sits at the edge of a small lagoon off the Mozambique channel and has a population of around 8,000. It is a regional ship-building centre and wooden boat building is carried on here in the same way as it has been for hundreds of years.

30% of the population work in the fishing industry and some were busy in the lagoon. There were a lot of shells on the beach but only a few very worn pieces of sea glass. The choice of food for our evening meal was limited as a delivery had not arrived but I did have a good chance to watch the sun go down over the sea.

Round Britain: John O’Groats to Dunnet Bay


After dinner at the Seaview Hotel which has an extensive menu and was very busy, I wandered around the now quiet seafront. There was no-one standing next to the milepost (there had been several coaches earlier).

Many people think that it is the northernmost point of the mainland. It is the furthest from Lands End on the road network but Dunnet Head is the most northerly point. There is a sculpture nearby entitled ‘The Nomadic Boulders’. Two Scottish environmental artists Dalziel & Scullion created it when it was discovered that huge boulders are moved long distances along the seabed when it was being surveyed for use by turbines. This is a small part of the sculpture which was made with three boulders that appeared on a local beach:

I then watched the sun go down.

In the morning I had a quick walk along the shingle beach looking for the cowries called Groatie buckies and are said to be found here. I did not find any. We left, heading west past the vehicle ferry harbour at Gills Bay which crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. On a day with high winds we passed a house called Windy Ha. After the Castle of Mey we took the coastal route via Scarfskerry. The old telephone box here is now a book exchange. At Ham there is a disused mill

a rocky beach and old harbour constructed from slabs of the striated rocks.


At Brough, where the most northerly café on the British mainland was closed, we turned on the road to Dunnet Head. There are several lochs on the headland.

There is a lighthouse with foghorn.

A viewpoint on the summit and overlooks to the cliffs. It is an RSPB reserve but the high winds made it difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes looking at the cliffs.

In World War Two a large encampment and wireless station was built on the head and a few concrete buildings remain.

We carried on to Dunnet Bay and had a good walk on the beach before settling in at the campsite before rain arrived. The bay had a Viking settlement and farm which had been buried by the blown sand dunes. When the current road was built, sheep on the slope rubbed themselves against it and exposed traces of a wall and a rubbish heap. In 1995 archaeologists found more evidence of the Viking farm.

Some of the objects I saw on the beach might be turned into an abstract painting. I had hoped on this west-facing beach to see the sunset and the full moon rise in the east but clouds came in and destroyed my hopes. Tomorrow we have 500 miles to drive home. On this leg of the journey we have travelled 237 miles; taking our journey at a much slower pace than some of the people doing the North Coast 500. Our total so far, from the start in South Queensferry; is 3072 miles. This is more than Route 66 but not quite as far as the Lincoln Highway.

Round Britain: Cromarty to the Dornoch Firth


On another sunny day we set off from Rosemarkie up the Fairy Glen to join the road to Cromarty. It is a village sited between the Sutors, the two headlands one mile apart at the entrance to the bay. We parked by the shore where dozens of kayakers were arriving and getting ready to enter the water. The Stevenson lighthouse built in 1846 is now a Field Station for Aberdeen University marine biologists.

A small ferry runs across to Nigg on the other side during the summer months.

A monument on the shoreline is a memorial to all those who emigrated to North America after the clearances. It lists the names of the ships. Most of the buildings in Cromarty are 18th or 19th century. 13 sites have connections to slave plantations, mostly in Guyana and many of the merchants are buried in the cemetery here. Slavery is something Scotland has been late to acknowledge. There is no Museum of Slavery in Scotland while several English cities have one. In 2018 the University of Glasgow announced it was paying £20 million in reparation for donations derived from slavery merchants. George Ross, a businessman, bought Cromarty in 1772 investing in a harbour, hemp works, brewery, nail works, a lace-making school, stable and a hog yard for pigs. The hemp was imported from St Petersburg and the factory produced bags and sacks for West Indian goods. He built the Gaelic chapel in 1784 for the influx of Gaelic speakers into the town. Cromarty was one of the towns that made so much money from the slave trade that it petitioned against abolition. Perhaps the most famous son of Cromarty was Hugh Miller, a self-taught geologist, naturalist, writer and florist born in 1802. The house he was born in and the one he lived in are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland but were closed at the time we visited.

He died in Edinburgh in 1856. There is a trail around the important places in the town, including his statue. The oldest building in the town still standing is Townslands Barn built in 1690 for Bernard Mckenzie. In the early 19th century it was converted to a threshing barn and latterly for agricultural storage. It is Grade A listed and was acquired by the community in 2018 who hope to be able to raise funds and restore it for some future use.

We had coffee at the Emporium which in addition to having a small café, sells new and used books, gifts and postcards.

Afterwards we continued along the north shore of the Black Isle, passing through Jemimaville and then stopping at the RSPB Udale Bay Reserve. Many migrating birds stop here to feed. We saw Canada and Pink-footed Geese and other birds in the distance. In the logbook someone in earlier in the day had seen an osprey feeding.

After crossing the Cromarty Firth, we stopped at Tain for supplies and as we were too early to check in to the campsite, had a look at the first item on the Pictish Trail. The Edderton Cross-Slab is a stone dating from the 9th century with a Celtic Cross and three horsemen: it is not certain who they are. Other fragments of stone are inside the old church which is only open at certain times. The Pictish Trail runs from Edderton to Altnaharra and visits 13 sites.

After checking in we needed a walk. The site sits between the A9 near the Dornoch Firth Bridge, the train line (and former station now a house) and just beside it runs a minor road down to Meikle Ferry Point. Cattle were grazing in the fields around the bay and looked at us curiously wondering who we were.

The passenger ferry ceased to run when the bridge opened in 1991. Prior to this vehicles had to drive to Bonar Bridge to cross the Firth. There are now houses at the tip of the point but the old piers on the south and north shore are still visible.

We have to be off the site by 10am tomorrow to continue our journey north.

Round Britain: Fortrose and Rosemarkie


The Ward Lock & Company guidebook to Northern Scotland published sometime after 1948 begins the chapter on the Black Isle by pointing out that ‘The Black Isle is neither black nor an island’. The peninsula is around 23 miles long and 8.5 miles wide. Re-connecting with our coastal tour we crossed the Beauly Firth by the Kessock Bridge. I have a memory that when the bridge was being constructed (it began in 1976 and opened in 1982), building started from each shore but the two sides did not match up or connect properly initially.

It is around 20 years since we were last here. Across the bridge we took a B road to Munlochy and then continued through Avoch and on to the campsite by the beach which stretches between Rosemarkie and Fortrose. It looks over to Fort George on the other side of the Moray Firth which we visited in June.

Rosemarkie is the older of the two towns: a monastery having been founded there in the seventh century. They were united by royal charter in the 15th century. The following morning we walked into Fortrose, stopping by the cathedral ruins. Work on the cathedral began in the 13th century. In 1572 after the Reformation, William Lord Ruthven was given the lead from the roof and it is said that Oliver Cromwell’s army removed stone and timber in order to build a fortress in Inverness in 1653. The cathedral bell clock still rings.

The nearby chapter house became a court with a prison below.

After coffee we walked down the west side of Chanonry Point to the lighthouse.There is a whole network of foot/cycle paths around the Black Isle.

Fortrose Bay is sheltered by the point and was very still.

The Black Isle is home to the only resident population of bottle-nosed dolphins in the North Sea and the point is said to be the best place to spot them but we did not see any that morning. Walking back along the east side on the beach to the campsite, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon before heading back to the point later in the sunshine. It was very busy as a shuttle bus runs from the town centre. Numerous seabirds were feeding offshore but still no sign of any dolphins. The footpath back towards Rosemarkie was lined with wildflowers gone to seed.

However, this harebell was among the few still flowering.

We walked 7.1 miles today and tomorrow it will be time to move on.

Round Britain: Spey Bay to Nairn


In order to cross the River Spey, the coastal trail runs south alongside the river down to Fochabers. It passes a small community with the evocative name of Bogmoor. We continued into Elgin for supplies. Lossiemouth is the next town along the road, for many years the home of RAF Lossiemouth. The east beach is reached by a footbridge across the River Lossie.

There was some street art by the harbour which was a little worn.

While having a coffee in one of the esplanade hotels, we got into conversation with a family at the next table. The older woman had been a nursing assistant at the hospital in Elgin which is struggling to recruit doctors and some services may be closed and relocated. Even though they are closer to Inverness here, they are still in the NHS Grampian area which means they often have to travel to Aberdeen for appointments and procedures. There were a few ice-cream parlours run by Italian families as there are in many towns in Scotland. Many of their families had come over to Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. West of town on the coast near the RAF base is Covesea Lighthouse which can be visited and the old keepers’ cottages can be rented for holidays.

Further west is the private Gordonstoun School. Just before Hopeman, the road was closed because of an accident. A cyclist had been hit by a car and the air ambulance was on the road. Our next stop was Burghead

where the ramparts of an old fort can be seen under the vegetation and there are two ancient wells. The town has a large maltings and there is another on the road to Kinloss. The ruins of an old Cistercian Abbey founded in 1150 by monks from Melrose Abbey in the Borders. It functioned for 400 years until the Reformation in 1560. In 1650 Alexander Brodie of Lethan reduced it to a ruin and sold some of the stone to Oliver Cromwell for the construction of Inverness Citadel.

Findhorn lies at the mouth of the River Findhorn. The Findhorn Foundation here began in 1962. An eco-village which functions in a sustainable and spiritual manner was opened in the 1980s and in 1997 is became a NGO. There is a on old hotel now used for workshops and meetings etc and they have retreats on Iona and Erraid. We had a walk on the beach.

JA Steers in my New Naturalist Sea Coast book states that the coast between Nairn and Burghhead has ‘the finest mass of sand dunes in Great Britain’. Culbin was an old estate which was working agricultural land. In 1694 it was overtaken and buried by the sand, re-appearing once around the end of the 18th century. Much of the land is now forest but there is a nature reserve. We stopped in Nairn and had a walk on the East Beach.


Our campsite was away from the sand and in Denlies Wood which lies to the west of Nairn. Before the rain caught up with us, we had a walk in the woods which was a pleasant change from beaches.

Although the woodland is mixed, there is lot of Scots Pine and other conifers, so we have seen red squirrels and back at the campsite hooded crows probing the ground around the pitches. We are hoping for a drier day tomorrow.

Round Britain: exploring Spey Bay


Ever since we walked the Speyside Way in 2012, I have wanted to return and explore Spey Bay more. The campsite here is run by the local golf club. The last time we saw it there was nothing between it and the sea but there are now several new houses between the golf course and the beach with another section yet to be completed. This may have been where the old hotel was situated. In World War II troops were based in the Richmond and Gordon Hotel here and an airfield was built nearby at Nether Dallachy. The hotel burnt down in 1965 and a replacement was built but is no longer here. Spey Bay has Scotland’s largest shingle beach. It is situated on the eastern side of the estuary opposite Kingston on the west. We arrived late afternoon and the after the showers ceased, had a wander on the beach.


Later I returned to see the Summer Solstice sunset.


On most other beaches there are notices asking you not to remove stones but there are none here and in the morning, I saw some people filling large shopping bags.

You can sometimes see Bottlenose Dolphins and whales offshore but today all I could see were birds. At least the crazes for padlocks on bridges and stacking rocks does not seem to have made it here yet. Salmon fishing has probably carried out on the River Spey since prehistoric times. In 1768 a fishing station was built at Tugnet but all that remains are the ice-houses built in 1830, the largest surviving in the UK. Only a third is visible above ground.

The fish were stored here before being shipped out. The last salmon was landed in 1991 and the nearby building is now the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s Scottish Dolphin Centre. A local high school project begun in 1988 and completed in 1991 with sponsorship and assistance from local sculptors and stone masons created a number of mosaics and some sculptures.

Across the river is a nature reserve. We saw a heron, swans and various ducks from the opposite bank.

We walked down the section of the Speyside Way to the viaduct (another remnant of the Beeching cuts) and into Garmouth on the other bank.


The Speyside Coffee Roasting Company is based in the local hotel – they roast the Brazilian beans and grind as required. It certainly tasted good and I bought some to take home. We also spotted an information board for the circular 95-mile Moray Way. It is comprised of some of the Speyside Way, the Moray Coast Trail and the Deva Way. It might be on for us to do at some point. As we turned to return to the campsite it was getting more overcast.