Our exploration of the north of the island began by taking the road at the foot of Glen Rosa; the B880 known as ‘The String’. I have still not managed to track down how or why it acquired that name. It crosses the moors and divides – we took the road to Machrie, our first stop. Humans have lived on Machrie Moor for 3.500 years and farmed there until climate change made this impossible. Arran has numerous archaeological sites, but this is perhaps the most well-known and is also an excuse for a walk. The obvious remains are six stone circles of granite boulders and sandstone pillars but not all of the area has been excavated and there are other remains. If there are any concerns about the condition of the remains you are encouraged to send a photograph to the researchers: details on signs at the site. A track leads to them from the car park. It is just under three miles there and back and round all the stones. The first circle you come to is Moss Farm Road stone circle which is actually a cairn. The farm road used to run right over the centre.
Further on, near the derelict farm, are more circles with views over the surrounding countryside and the mountains. At one point we spotted a curlew in the distance.
Back in the car and after topping up the caffeine levels at the Golf Club Tearoom in Machrie, we continued north up the coast, spotting a seal and a rock full of shags en route.
By the time we reached Catacol, it had started to rain. Many people stop here to admire the row of cottages known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and they are depicted on many Arran postcards. Unfortunately, theirs is not a happy history. They were erected by the Duke of Hamilton in the 19th century to house the crofters who were cleared from Catacol Glen. It seemed appropriate that it was still grey when we arrived in Lochranza.
We visited visit the castle and spotted some red deer in a derelict garden. James had to make a pilgrimage to the distillery which was opened in 1995 and is definitely on the tourist map with coaches arriving and leaving during the short time we were there.
As we reached Corrie with its sandstone coastline, I went looking for something I had read about in The Scotsman last year: The Bath of Arran. It is carved out of the rock and dates from 1835. A Doctor McCredy who lived on Arran (but was originally from the mainland) is said to have used it to cure his patients with saltwater therapy, having been told it made you live longer. The bath is about 12ft long by 5ft wide and 5ft deep and could accommodate several patients at any one time.
It fills up daily by the tide and has man-made steps down into it. Apparently, some tourists have tried it, but we were not tempted. There is a video on YouTube of some swans enjoying it. I followed the instructions in the article: go to the southern part of the village: opposite the house with red railings stop in the passing place and drop down to the shore to your right. It was then time to head back to the cottage to relax and then enjoy our evening meal at a restaurant in Brodick
During our journey to Edinburgh just after Christmas, the radio was reporting snow, ice, blocked roads and closed airports elsewhere but northwest England and southern Scotland were bathed in winter sunshine. Not long after we joined the M6, a line of vintage tractors crossed a bridge over the motorway, presumably heading to some tractor fest event. Wildlife spotted on the journey included two buzzards perched on fence posts, mute swans on the River Eden and a roe deer just behind the crash barrier. There were several skeins of geese in the blue sky and snow on the Cumbrian peaks. Our only delay was an accident on the M74 before we were driving on the A701 through snowy landscapes.
In Moffat the ram was still wearing his Remembrance Day poppies.
There was 6-9 inches of snow all around and the hill sheep were digging holes to find grass. In Penicuik, children were sledging down the hill opposite the barracks. Unsurprisingly there was less snow in the city although there was a snow shower the following day while we were shopping and the children next door were building a snowman when we returned. It stayed dry later and which was a blessing as I had booked us to see the Botanic Gardens’ Christmas light & music display which we had never been to before. It runs every year in December.
The remainder of our time was spent catching up with relatives and friends and a lunch and football match for James on his birthday. I had pondered trying to get some photographs of the torchlight procession which takes place on the 30th but it started to rain heavily just as I got back to the flat so I gave up that idea. Storm Dylan arrived on the 31st and at one point Princes Street was closed to pedestrians as some staging had collapsed. I decided not to go up the hill to photograph the midnight fireworks as the wind was still very strong and I had visions of slipping down the hill in the mud with my camera & tripod. We did see some of the earlier evening fireworks on the way to and from the Candlelit Concert in St Giles Cathedral. It was performed by their choir and Camerata and organist and included Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Mass in F, both of which I have sung before and Handel’s Organ Concerto Op 4 No 2 in Bflat. Despite being described as candlelit, there were only a few candles at the front. I must return and have a look round the cathedral at some point as it has seen a lot of history. We decided to stay in on our return and saw the New Year in very quietly. Back home we discovered that the cellar pump had failed and it was flooded but managed to it going again before the storm due to hit us tonight deposits even more water on us.
On our frequent journeys to and from Edinburgh, Moffat has become a regular place to pause. Not only is it on the scenic A701 but the town also has a lot to offer. It is, as far as I know, the only town in Scotland to have a statue of a sheep in the centre instead of some local worthy. I must confess that at university we used to tease a guy from Moffat about this. The ram is a reminder of how important the wool industry has been to the town. I understand it even holds sheep races every year in August and unsurprisingly, the local rugby team is called The Rams.
However, Moffat’s growth from a small village into a popular resort began in the 17th century when Rachel Whiteford discovered its sulphurous waters. They were believed to have healing properties. My 1894 copy of Forrest’s Illustrated Guide states ‘Moffat has now been for more than two centuries a place resorted to by strangers on account of its mineral waters’; citing chronic gout, rheumatism and ‘serious intestinal derangement’ as disorders which would benefit from them. The town has three wells in the surrounding hillsides but the Moffat Well brought it fame and prosperity. The current Town Hall was built in 1827 as a bath house where people could drink and bathe in the pungent sulphurous waters. Visitor numbers grew in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with people staying to ‘take the waters’. Victorian luxurious hotels were built to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists and several are still hotels today. Another consequence of Moffat’s fame as a Spa Town is the existence of the oldest pharmacy in Scotland. It still has many of its original shop fittings preserved. Moffat Well is a short drive or walk 1½ mile walk out of the town into the hills. It is something we hoped to do on our journey south today after a balmy few days in Edinburgh where I wondered why I had brought my coat but the low cloud, rain and the need to get home before Storm Ophelia reached western England meant we satisfied ourselves with a quick coffee in the town centre. There are also riverside walks and walks up into the surrounding hills. It is close to the Southern Upland Way and the Annandale Way. The Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall is 10 miles away in a hanging valley with walking trails nearby.
Moffat also has a campsite and several other accommodation options. There are many cafes and it even has its own Moffat Toffee. Parking is free in the town centre and in the car park at the south end. There are many independent shops including a book shop which I usually pop into when I stop off. The town hosted the World Gold-Panning Championships in August 2017.
As you leave Moffat heading northeast towards Edinburgh, you pass over a small bridge at Gardensholm Linn that was part of a murder story which gripped the whole nation in the 1930s. Dr Buck Ruxton, a physician from Lancaster had murdered and dismembered his wife and their housemaid and travelled to Moffat to dispose of them in newspaper parcels in an area still known as Ruxton’s dump. His downfall was due to pioneering forensic science at Edinburgh University examining the evidence and the use of his local Lancastrian newspaper which identified the perpetrator as someone not local. He also put the parcels in a smaller stream that was in full spate at the time. Had he put them in the Annan River, they may have been washed out to sea without being discovered. Ruxton was convicted and later hung in HMP Manchester in 1936.
Despite all this history and Moffat’s situation as a staging post on the road from Dumfries to Edinburgh, it barely gets a mention in Alistair Moffat’s book The Borders. However, we are discussing walking the Annandale Way at some point which has a loop north of the town around the Devil’s Beef Tub and then heads south to Annan and the coast. Today we had to content ourselves with driving back down the motorway with a curiously red sun peeking out from the clouds.
Before leaving to complete the Ring of Kerry we had another walk around Kenmare. the shortcut into town from our hotel is along a very short stretch of the Kerry Way a 200km long distance walk. Cromwell’s Bridge is a little further downstream from the current bridge over the Finnish River. Oliver Cromwell never visited the town although he gifted the whole area to the scientist Sir Thomas Petty in part payment for his mapping of Ireland. The name is thought to be a corruption of an Irish word. It was a single-arch rubble-stone stilted bridge built about 1700. The parapets were removed around 1900 and visitors are advised not to attempt to cross it as it is probably unsafe.
We purchased a couple of books in the local bookshop and after a coffee it was time to drive the last stretch of the Ring of Kerry: the portion between Kenmare and Killarney. The road first winds up to the Molls Gap, a pass named after Moll Kissane, who ran a shebeen (an unlicenced public house) in the 1820s, while the road was under construction. The summit is 262m and there are views of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountains.
There is a shop here and it is a popular stop off on the route. The rocks are formed of old red sandstone. Further on, the road enters Killarney National Park and arrives at Ladies View which is said to be named after Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting. It has views over the nearby lakes. A man was selling prints and photographs from a stall and there is also a cafe 100m further on.
The road descends into Muckross where Muckross House and estate are situated. They were given to the state in 1932 and can be visited. The National Park Visitor Centre is sited here. Available from here and other places along the road into Killarney you can have a tour on a jaunting cart which is horsedrawn. There are also trips available on the lakes and many other activities available around town. We took the road towards Mallow back in County Cork as the first stage of our journey to Kilkenny, the next destination on this trip. Like many towns in this area, Killarney has won a ‘Tidy Town’ award. Mallow is an administrative centre for the region and manufactures sugar (we did see a British Sugar tanker). It has a ruined castle which was burnt down in 1658. In the town centre, there were a number of closed shops like many towns in the UK but we had a light lunch in a cafe and continued on our journey. We reached Kilkenny around 5pm and found the hotel fairly easily. As we walked out for dinner a little later in the evening we crossed over the River Nore in the centre of the town.
On the return journey the evening lights were reflected in the water
and the castle was lit up.
This mornings journey took us out of Cork, past Macroom and over the Derrynasaggart Mountains where Ireland’s highest pub the ‘Top of Coom’ is situated. It is situated just over the border between Counties Cork and Kerry. The scenery around us reminded us very much of Scotland, especially the hills where I grew up.
The road descends through Glen Fesk and on into Killarney which boasts Ireland’s only Lord of the Rings themed pub. We had a coffee and a brief wander around town before taking the turning for the Ring of Kerry. We only had a few hours to drive the road and there are many routes over the mountains and interesting ancient sites around which will have to be explored in a more leisurely fashion on another trip. Our first stop was at the point at Rossbeigh where the tide was just about to start to recede on the rocky shore. A couple of people were trying somewhat unsuccessfully to surf.
There are sand dunes and a beach on the other side of the point and it is possible to explore it on horseback if you wish. We could see the Slieve Mountains across the water. The next stop for a walk was Inny Strand on Ballinskellig Bay just before Waterville. This was a little busier with some people swimming. The water would not be warm enough to tempt me in.
Parking here is limited but we managed to find a space and walked on the beach.
The tide had retreated more since we left our last walk and numerous jellyfish were stranded on the beach.
On the edge of the bay was a derelict concrete building. After wondering what it was, we discovered that it had once been a hotel. We could not help thinking that if someone could invest in it, it could be resurrected in such a beautiful spot. Back on the road we kept stopping at various points to admire the view.
Near Castle Cove, the mist descended and began to hide the islands offshore.
We had a brief spell of rain and passed several signs to standing stones (some people even seemed to have them in their garden) to explore in the future. Eventually we reached Kenmare, a small town filled with places to stay, eat and drink in addition to local services. Its name means ‘head of the sea’ and it sits at the end of a bay. It is a good base for exploring the local area. After settling into our hotel we walked the short distance into town and after eating, found some traditional music in a local pub to finish off the night.
The day length is noticeably longer up here. Lake Taupo was being buffeted by strong winds as we left and the ducks looked very ruffled, not knowing to risk swimming on the water.
Making a note to return in a different season, we got back onto Highway 1 just north of the town. There are plenty of adrenalin activities to do around here but I would be happy just to do some walking on the trails. The road passes through the large Kinleith Forest before descending into farmland.
North of Hamilton, farmland merges into coal mining country and Huntly is the centre. There are both underground and opencast mines here. Happily, we found a diversion around Lake Waikare. It is struggling with algal bloom and pollution from the surrounding farms. There is a big clean-up operation underway in the Waikare River which runs alongside the road. It was just as windy as Lake Taupo.
Very few birds were attempting to fly today but we did spot a few wild turkeys foraging by the side of the road. Nearer to Auckland the expressway becomes a motorway. With roadworks and road improvement schemes we felt quite at home. We dropped the hire car off and dragged our cases the three blocks or so to our hotel. We are now joining part of the British Lions tour so that James can enjoy some rugby. It does leave us with quite a lot of free time however so tomorrow we will sample some of the delights of Auckland. While we were checking in, the screens in reception were reporting serious disruptions with road closures and ferry crossings due to snow in the South Island. At least we have escaped that.
We spent most of the morning on Highway 1 dodging heavy showers and getting used to the new rental car. The road runs by the coast for the first few miles before continuing inland. We had a brief stop on the windblown beach at Pukera Bay with Kapiti Island in the distance.
Foxton was our coffee stop and as this area is not very densely populated, reminded us of many places on the South Island. We were the only customers in the cafe at the time. Foxton was a New Zealand flax-stripping centre, has a Dutch windmill in the town centre and a beach. As we drove on, listening to music on the iPod, The Stranglers’ ‘Something better change’ came on and seemed very apposite given the political situation back home in the UK.
Sanson sits at a road junction and that is all it seems on the map, so finding The Ministry of Books was serendipitous. This very large shop is well-organised, has a huge selection on all aspects of New Zealand and many other subjects as well as some antiquarian volumes.
By the time we emerged with a couple of purchases it was raining very heavily. The next big road junction was at a town called Bulls. In addition to a large black bull sculpture, a notice welcomed visitors saying it is ‘a town like no udder’. The next town on our route was Waioru which described itself as an ‘oasis in the Rangipo Desert’ at 792m altitude. It is a garrison town and entry to much of the countryside on the road through the desert is restricted as it is an army training ground. We had our lunch at the rain-soaked summit which is at 1074m and noticed several military police vehicles, a fire engine and ambulance passing us on the road, red lights flashing. A rainbow appeared in the sky
but the torrential rain continued and only a mile or so down the road we had to sit and wait for more than an hour until the accident was cleared. We then descended down to the lake and alongside it into Taupo and our hotel but all we could see was the rain.