Lincolnshire

A UK Staycation visiting the Lincolnshire coast and Wolds

With Spring half term approaching, I started to think about taking another UK staycation with my parents and their dog Lily. With foreign holidays still being complicated, it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea and prices for a caravan holiday in the parks we’d usually use were way out of our budget. Not giving upon the idea, we kept regularly checking prices in the hope that something last minute would appear and with prices at chain sites not budging, I decided to google privately hired lodges and static caravans.

Humberston Fitties Beach and Tetney Marsh

Finally, on the Friday the schools broke up, a couple of options turned up, an AirBnB static for hire on private land in the Lake District, a lodge in Norfolk reduced on Hoseasons after a cancellation and a caravan in Lincolnshire on a small privately owned site by a fishing lake, all pet friendly and all around the same price. The AirBnB option disappearing as fast as it appeared, we knew we had to make a decision quickly so we went for the slightly cheaper option of the static caravan in Lincolnshire.

The site was situated inland on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Lincolnshire Wolds but the nearest beach, Mablethorpe was just a 25 minute drive away. After spending the weekend looking up which beaches were either completely dog-friendly or at least had dog friendly areas, we set off early on the bank holiday Monday morning, hoping to beat the traffic and arrive in time to spend an afternoon on the beach before arriving at our accommodation.

Fitties Beach

The journey went smoothly and without hold ups, the only problem being when we stopped at the services only to be met with the longest queue I had ever seen to get into the building and use the conveniences!

Deciding we could all hold on, we continued north of where we were staying towards Grimsby then, bypassing Cleethorpes (a resort with a huge, sandy beach but where dogs are completely banned throughout the summer season), drove south to Humberston where we were aiming to find and visit Fitties Beach.

Following the satnav to our destination, we were slightly concerned when it seemed to be taking us straight through a huge Haven holiday park, especially as we could see arriving cars queuing to check in ahead of us.

Above, and below, a stroll alongside Louth Canal

Luckily, we were guided past the queuing arrivals and out through the other side of the park where we found a small, private village, the narrow streets lined with chalet-style holiday homes and pretty bungalows. We were eventually lead down a no-through road, the car park for Fitties Beach and the neighbouring RSPB Tetney Marshes lying at the end. The car park was super busy so we drove back out, managing to find on street parking just down the road and from here, we followed a public footpath between the houses, across some dunes and onto the beach.

The beach was more mud flats than sand and the tide was so far out we could hardly see the sea but there was the sun was shining and there was plenty of room for Lily to have a run around so we spent a bit of time walking towards the Tetney Marshes end of the beach and back again.

After spending an hour or so exploring, we walked back to the car and began to drive towards the town of Louth, our accommodation being situated a few miles outside of the town in the village of Alvingham. As soon as we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice of sites for a relaxing holiday. Our caravan was one of just 3 statics on site, all of which overlooked a large fishing lake. A few tourers were parked up on the rest of the grassy field beside us while chickens roamed free around the site, their fresh eggs being sold daily.

An empty Huttoft Beach

After checking in, we drove the short distance into Louth to grab fish and chips for dinner then that evening, we took a walk along the disused canal which lay behind the site, the path eventually lead to Louth but we turned around long before that point!

The next day, we took a ride out to the coast and a beach we had researched to be dog friendly. Not far from the better known Mablethorpe, Huttoft Beach was a little gem. The beach was backed by a busy car park but after parking up, we walked away from the crowds sat in front of the car parks to an almost empty section of the beach in the distance. It was a warm, sunny day but Lily had a great time keeping cool with regular dips in the sea, chasing sticks and rarely bringing them back again!

After returning to the car for a picnic overlooking the sea, we decided to drive on to look at a few other bays, the first being Sandilands.

Above, and below, at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes National Nature Reserve

With it now being early afternoon and the sun still shining, it was suddenly very busy and we were unable to find a space on the small car park or nearby. We continued on to Sutton-on-Sea and then Mablethorpe itself but had the same problem at each place so instead we drove to try to find the beach at the Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes, nearby National Nature Reserve. We instead ended up at an entrance to the Nature Reserve that did not have beach access but instead, there was a trail to follow around the reserve and viewpoints of the distant dunes so we spent a bit of time looking around.

The church in Alvingham Village

We returned to our caravan park late afternoon but after dinner, went out for another canal side walk, this time walking in the opposite direction and heading away from Louth. Our walk took us towards the village of Alvingham and, reaching a bridge crossing the canal, we crossed it into the village, past the village churches and looped back through the village to reach our caravan park again.

Back at the caravan park, we picked up a few leaflets outlining countryside walks in the local area and in the nearby Lincolnshire Wolds and made plans to have a day away from the coast the next day and explore the Wolds a bit instead.

Lily cooling off at Hubbards Hills Country Park, and below, a walk in the Wolds

Awaking to yet another day of glorious sunshine and warm temperatures, we were conscious of going somewhere where there would be plenty of shade for Lily and possibly some water for her to cool off in so we decided to drive to the nearby Hubbards Hills, a country park in the Wolds. Parking up at the free car park at the back of the park, we entered the park to find a shallow river which Lily dived straight into. The pretty park has a path running from one end to the other which runs alongside the river. Lily wasn’t the only dog paddling in the river and as we got closer to the busier side of the park, we found an area in which children could paddle and play in the river too. We instead, walked away from this area, up into the hills and followed a shady path through the trees which eventually lead us out into a nearby village. From here, we crossed the river and walked back into the park, finding a quiet patch of grass to site and have a picnic before following the riverside path back to the far end where Lily once again cooled off in the river before we returned to the car.

It was mid-afternoon so after our walk in the Hubbard Hills, we decided to drive to one of the villages in the Wolds to follow one of the ‘Wolds Walks’ on a leaflet we had picked up from the caravan site.

We drove to the pretty South Thoresby, parking in a layby and trying to make sense of where we were on the map we had on the leaflet. Finding the church where the walk started at, we struggled to work out which direction we were to walk in to being our walk so we followed the public footpath signpost and hoped for the best.

Lily relaxing in South Thoresby village after her walk

We didn’t get very far before we reached what seemed to be someone’s back garden. Confused, we returned to double check that was indeed where the signpost was pointing. A local saw us hesitating and called across that we were going the right way and to go through the gate. Following his instructions, we found that the footpath cut right through a garden before leading out to a field the other side!

Following the signpost to a stile, we helped Lily through and continued along the path, reaching main road at the end of it. It was at this point that we realised where we were on the map and that we were following a second, longer walk than the one we hoped to pick up. Not wanting to return back though the back garden again, we used google maps to work out a cut through back to the original route, although this did mean walking it in the opposite direction to how it was intended and following the instructions backwards!

St Andrew’s Church in South Thoresby
An exhausted Lily!

Finding our way to the path marked on our route map, we managed to find the entrance to a public footpath running alongside a farmer’s field, past a copse and through some woods. We then followed a boardwalk over marshland which lead us back to the church in the village where we had started.

It had been a pretty walk through the Wolds on a warm, sunny afternoon and the drive through the Wolds back to our holiday site was just as pretty.

That evening, we attempted another canalside walk from our caravan but an exhausted Lily was having none of it and after reluctantly making it a few metres along the path, refused to move any further!

The last day of our trip was another warm, sunny one so we decided to head back to the coast, this time driving slightly further south to Anderby Creek.

The small car park at the beach was already full but we managed to find on road parking nearby. Walking up to the sands, we turned left at the entrance to the dog-friendly end, walking away from the crowds towards a near-empty sandy beach.

Lily enjoys one last walk on the beach

Lily once again had a great time splashing in the sea and insisted on taking up most of the picnic blanket we had brought out with us when it was time to have lunch!

We spent most of the day at the beach before returning to our holiday park again, spending one final evening taking a walk along the old canal.

We had really enjoyed our visit to Lincolnshire. It wasn’t somewhere we’d really considered going to before but we had found some really lovely beaches and what we’d seen of the Wolds had been really pretty. It’s definitely somewhere we’d love to return to!

East Sussex and Kent coast

A UK Staycation

After months of lockdown over the winter, I was desperate for a break and with Spring approaching, UK staycations in self-contained accommodation were finally to be allowed. With the opening date for holiday parks, holiday cottages and lodges overlapping with the second week of the school Easter holidays, we decided to look for somewhere to go for a few days, just looking forward to a change of scenery.

Winchelsea Beach

With Wales, our normal port of call for a UK staycation, remaining closed to visitors from across the border for the time being, we had to look elsewhere. Having family in Kent we’d not seen for a while, we started to look at availability in the south of England, thinking we could tie in a get-together while there.

Prices were sky high with everyone desperate for a getaway, especially in the more obvious holiday destinations around Brighton. Deciding to leave booking to the last minute, we eventually managed to grab a bargain 4-night stay at in a static caravan at an East Sussex holiday park.

It was a long drive from the Midlands down to the small seaside town of Winchelsea and by the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted. Not wanting to cook, we took a drive into the nearby town of Rye, hoping to grab some food from the local chippy. Unfortunately, we found both of the town’s Fish and Chip shops closed on a Monday. Not being able to find or settle on anything else, we ended up heading back to the holiday park and its local Co-op, finding what we could from the groceries we’d brought with us and grabbing a few extra items from the convenience store.

On the bech at Camber Sands

The next morning, we had arranged to meet with family at Winchelsea Beach. They were not expected to make it there til a little before midday so with Lily the dog chomping at the bit to be walked, we headed down a bit earlier. We were disappointed to find that with the tide in, the beach was pebbly, the shale stone hurting Lily’s paws so instead we had to walk her along the coast path that ran along the top of the sharply steeping beach.

Messaging our family who were more familiar with the area, we asked if there was any sandy bays they knew of nearby and they suggested Camber Sands, just a 20 minute drive along the coast. Quickly changing our plans, we arranged to meet there instead at around noon and turned around to walk back to the small Winchelsea Beach car park.

With it being a warm-for-April, sunny Easter holiday day, the main car park at Camber Sands was busy and the charges seemed a bit steep but luckily, we found some on-road parking nearby and cut across a playing field to reach the dunes backing the beach. Following one of the well-trodden paths that had been made through the dunes, we soon emerged the other side to be greeted with an absolutely beautiful stretch of golden sands to our right which gradually turned to pebbles to our left.

We made our way down towards the beach cafe where we’d arranged to meet our family members who had also just arrived then walked down towards the sea to find a space to sit out and picnic together.

A stroll on the beach at Camber

After lunch, Lily and my 6 year old niece paddled happily in the sea. The tide was starting to go out and we spent the next few ours strolling along the sand, paddling in the shallows, and, once away from the busier end of the beach (by the car park and cafe), we even found time for a family game of French cricket!

Away from the crowds, with the warm sun shining and the sea sparkling, we could have been anywhere. The beach at Camber is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve been to in Europe and further afield!

Above, and below, at Bexhill-on-Sea and, further below, St Leonards-on-Sea

3 hours later, we decided it was time to make our way back to our cars and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our spacious caravan back at the holiday park exhausted.

After dinner, we took Lily out for an evening stroll in Winchelsea around the playing field behind the beach where a local children’s football club were finishing a practise session, then up to the coast path retracing our steps from our morning stroll.

The next day, we decided to have a ride our further along the coast to explore the area further. Driving out past an extremely busy-looking Hastings, we stopped instead at the quieter Bexhill-on-Sea. Like Winchelsea, the beach here was pebbly while the tide was in but we enjoyed spending an hour or so walking along the wide, grass-lined promenade, sitting out in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the sea to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch, we briefly walked Lily down to the sea, being careful not to stay too long on the pebbles before returning along the promenade to our car and driving back towards Winchelsea.

Our next stop was at St Leonards-on-Sea. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and the sunny spells from the morning had been replaces by cloud, some passing drizzle and a bitterly cold wind. Parking at the southern end of the town, we took a quick walk down onto the beach hut lined pebbly beach then battled against the wind to take a stroll along the promenade and back.

On the way back to Winchelsea, we took a slight detour to the small village of Icklesham.

Hogg Hill Mill sat on top of a hill

My mother is a huge fan of The Beatles and my sister-in-law had informed her a recording studio belonging to Paul McCartney lay just outside of Winchelsea and it was possible to follow a public footpath running alongside it. After looking it up, we found our way to Hogg Hill Mill, a former post mill which had been converted into a recording studio.

Reaching the former mill

Seeing the building lying on top of a hill, we found a small pull in to park by the gate signposted as a public footpath and dutifully all marched up the hill so my mother could get a photo with the studio in the background!

Returning to the holiday park, we ventured out again in the evening to once again walk Lily around the playing fields behind the beach, this time heading up to the coast path and wandering along towards Rye Nature Reserve before looping back to the car.

Wanting to give Lily another run on a sandy beach, the next morning we returned to Camber Sands first thing.

Back on Camber Sands briefly, and below, the intriguing landscape of Dungeness

After Lily had a run around and splash in the sea, we drove east across the border into Kent to visit Dungeness. Situated on the Kent headland, Dungeness is part of Romney Marsh and is both a private estate and part of a national nature reserve. The barren, almost destitute headland was like something out of an apocalyptic movie with rusting machinery, empty shacks and rotting boats sporadically dotted across the land, paths and the occasional boardwalk leading down to a shingle beach and the sea.

Further along, a lighthouse, which can sometimes be climbed for views across the bay, lay along with a busy cafe and more boardwalk walks across the land.

Greatstone-on-Sea

After spending some time exploring, we continued along the Kent coast, stopping at Greatstone-on-Sea where we found another pretty, but pebbly, beach. Taking a walk along the grassy promenade, we then continued into the town of New Romney and along towards Dymchurch where we hoped to make our final stop of the day.

Unfortunately, we found Dymchurch to be incredibly busy and, unable to find somewhere to park, had to turn around and head back towards Winchelsea and our holiday park.

After another walk along the Winchelsea coast path that evening then again the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to East Sussex and Kent but we’d enjoyed spending a few days exploring part of the UK we’d not seen before.

The Essex Coast

A UK Staycation

On the beach with Clacton Pier in the distance

While I have missed being able to take off on a European city break at a minute’s notice or head further afield on heavily planned extended trip, the past year has at least, given me the opportunity to explore a bit more of the UK. After trips to various UK National Parks last summer, I headed to the East coast of England last autumn where I spent a few days exploring the Essex coast.

By the pier

Essex was a place I visited a lot as a child having relatives who lived there until my early teens. Although they lived inland, I remember making the odd trip out to the county’s coast while there – Clacton, Walton-on-the Naze and Frinton-on-Sea all being places I had vague, hazy memories of.

Now, all these years on, I had booked a static caravan for a week away with my parents and my dog just a few miles outside of Clacton and I was looking forward to revisiting some of these places.

We spent our first day of the trip driving the short distance into Clacton where we easily found somewhere to park along the promenade just up from the seaside resort’s pier. Despite social distancing and mask wearing advice still being in place, it was half term and the area around the pier was busy as families with excited children headed along the boardwalk towards the bright lights of the arcades and fairground rides dotted along the large jetty.

Moving away from the crowds, we headed onto the quiet, mainly sandy beach, lined with its colourful beach huts. Walking away from the pier, Lily our dog playing happily in the waves lapping onto the seashore. Returning to the car to sit and eat lunch sheltered from the cold wind, we then took a short walk in the opposite direction past the pier and onto the resort’s West Beach before driving back to the holiday park to warm ourselves up.

At Frinton-on-Sea

Day 2 and we drove a bit further up the coast to visit Frinton-on-Sea and the livelier neighbouring resort of Walton-on-the-Naze. This morning, the weather was a bit better and this showed on the beach here being a lot busier than the beach had been at Clacton the previous day. With the tide almost fully in, there was little beach to be seen and instead of heading down to the sand, we had to make do with walking along the concrete, beach hut-lined path behind. Walton-on-the Naze’s pier with its large yellow undercover amusement arcade in the distance brought back childhood memories of previous visits.

Returning to the grass-lined promenade, we sat out on a bench in the sunshine to eat our lunch before returning to the beach. As we walked towards the pier, the tide was slowly creeping out and by the time we reached Walton-on-the Naze, there was enough beach for Lily to have a run on and splash around in the sea.

A rainy Walton-on-the-Naze

The next day, we decided to drive a bit further along the coast to Walton-on-the-Naze itself. After stopping in the town for a bit of shopping, we parked up right by some steps by the beach just as a heavy downpour of rain began. Wrapping up warm, we braved the rain and wind to give Lily a walk on the small bit of the beach not completely covered by the sea before returning to the car for lunch.

With the weather not looking like it was going to improve anytime soon, we decided to leave the beach behind and drive along the coast to visit the Naze Nature Reserve.

Lily enjoys the view at the Naze Nature Reserve

The rain briefly stopping, we walked Lily along to the Nature Reserve’s entrance. A visitor centre and shop stands near the entrance and there are steps down to the beach. Instead, we walked along the path into the nature reserve itself past the Naze Tower. When open, it is possible to climb the tower for views over the coast. We followed a circular path around the nature reserve which took us along the cliff overlooking the coast before turning inland past some Artillerary Pillboxes from World War 2 and back towards the Visitor Centre.

We finished our visit with a walk down the path to the beach and along towards Walton-on-the-Naze in the distance before returning to the car and driving back to the holiday park.

Visiting Point Clear Bay, and below, walking around the peninsula

Wanting to see as much as the surrounding coastline as possible, on day 3 we headed south of Clacton-on-Sea past St Osyths and on to Point Clear Bay. Standing on a penninsula overlooking Mersea Island, Point Clear Bay didn’t have much of a beach, more of a shore leading down from a watersports club and hire centre and we stood watching the windsurfers hurtle back and forth across the waves in the distance before racing back onto shore. A path follows the sea wall along the penninsula and as we followed it around, we were soon met with views of Brightlingsea, another Essex coastal resort, in the distance.

Batemans Tower at Brightlingsea

The next day, we decided to drive into Brightlingsea for a better look. It was a quaint little place with its endless rows of colourful beach huts, many of them occupied with holiday makers wrapped up warm and huddled up with a cup of tea.

Lily splashing around at Brightlingsea

While again, there wasn’t much of a beach, Lily had a great time splashing around in a salt water pool at Brightlingsea Beach overlooked by Bateman’s Tower, a listed building built in the late 1800s.

A busy coast path walk at Brightlingsea

From the promenade, we followed a coast path along the sea wall then looking out over Brightlingsea Marsh National Nature Reserve.

Dovercourt Beach

Our final full day in Essex was a wet and windy day. Today, we drove north of Clacton to Dovercourt Beach, near Harwich. The dreary weather had stirred up the sea and as we walked along the promenade, huge waves crashed over the sea wall. We followed the coast path down to Earlham’s Beach, a bit of a hidden bay backed by dunes and marshland before returning to Dovercourt and making it back to our car before another torrential downpour.

Viewpoint at Wrabness Nature Reserve

After another lunch in the car, we drove to Wrabness Nature Reserve following the path from the car park out to a viewpoint then down to a pretty beach overlooking the River Stour estuary, the Suffolk coast in the distance.

Cold and wet, we then made our way back to the holiday park to change into some dry clothes and warm up!

Lily enjoying a walk at Holland-on-Sea beach

The next day it was time to say goodbye to our caravan and holiday park but before leaving Essex behind, we once again headed to the coast, this time to Holland-on-Sea, a stretch of sand just up from Clacton. Like Clacton, the sandy beach was again lined with colourful beach huts and we spent some time wandering along the shore letting Lily burn off some energy with one last splash in the sea before the long drive back to the Midlands.

We all agreed we had enjoyed our trip to the Essex coast and would definitely visit again if the opportunity arose.

Scottish Highlands: Edinburgh

Visiting the historic St Conan’s Kirk

It was the final day of my tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands for a friend’s wedding, I had flown to Edinburgh to join a small group tour with Macbackpackers and over the last week we had travelled the Scottish Highlands taking in Loch Ness, the Outer Hebrides’ Isle of Lewis and Harris, the Inner Hebrides’ Isle of Skye, Oban (from where I’d done even more island-hopping!) and now we were about to head back to Edinburgh where we’d be waving goodbye to the minibus, our tour guide and each other.

We began our day in Oban, checking out of our hostel and loading up the bus one final time.

The view over Loch Ard from the grounds of St Conan’s Kirk

Like everyday of the trip, we had a busy day ahead of us with lots of stops along the way, the first of which was at Loch Awe to visit St Conan’s Kirk, a historic church building famous for its architecture. We spent some time looking around the church and in its grounds enjoying the picturesque views across the Loch.

Kilchurn Castle

Next up was a stop at Kilchurn Castle. Paring in the car park at the head of the trail, we began to follow it towards the castle, stopping to pet a friendly sheep sat along the way. Like St Conan’s Kirk, the castle sits on the edge of Loch Awe.

Above, and below, exploring Kilchurn Castle ruins and it’s grounds

We spent some time exploring the castle ruins, climbing the stairs in the turrets to enjoy the views from the top before walking back along the trail to the car park and climbing back on board the minibus.

The National Wallace Monument

After a quick stop at Tyndrum services to visit their award-winning toilets and grab a few snacks, we continued on to our lunch stop in the pretty town of Callander where we browsed in some of the stores and sampled the award-winning pies from the bakery before getting ice cream and walking alongside the river.

Lunch finished, we continued towards Edinburgh stopping at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. The monument is sat on top of a steep hill and after walking to the top, we enjoyed the views across Stirling.

Most of us deciding not to pay to go in to the monument, we instead followed some of the circular walks around the monument through the woodlands and enjoyed more views over where the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, the battle in which William Wallace – famously played by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart – lead his troops to victory.

At the Helix Park in Falkirk to visit the Kelpies sculpture

Our final stop before reaching Edinburgh was in Falkirk to see The Kelpies, a huge sculpture of two horses heads in a parkland. This is the largest equine sculpture in the World and reminded me of something I’d be more likely to see on one of my road trips in the USA!

Then it was on to Edinburgh where, following a group singalong to The Proclaimers’ hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), we were dropped back at the hostel we had started our tour from a week earlier. With most of us staying in local hotels or AirBnBs that night, we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, some of us making plans to meet up in the city that evening.

Edinburgh Castle perched above the city on Castle Rock

After checking back into the travelodge I’d stayed at a week before, I made my way into the city to find the meeting point for an Edinburgh ghost tour I had booked. The tour was a ‘free’ walking tour where you pay what you feel the tour is worth at the end.

It was fun to tour the city hearing some of the creepy stories although I mainly found them amusing rather than scary!

Above, t view of Edinburgh from the tour bus, and below, views from the castle grounds

The next day, I took the city’s hop on/off bus tour to see a bit more of the city and find out more of its history. While a couple of the stories were repeats of what I’d heard on the ghost tour the previous night, it was still worth doing as the commentary was interesting and it was a quick and easy way to get around.

That afternoon, I visited Edinburgh Castle. The castle sits on the top of castle rock, a huge hill, meaning it can be seen from across the city and there were great views across the city from the castle grounds. The castle was definitely worth a visit and it was interesting to find out about the history of the building and the city.

Passing Holyrood Palace while waling to Arthur’s Seat

I had a late evening flight out of the city back to Birmingham the next day giving me a bit more time to explore. I decided to spend the morning hiking Arthur’s Seat, the highest point of Holyrood Park. This hill is actually an ancient volcano. There is a well-marked path to the top and there were plenty of other people hiking to follow anyway.

Above, and below, hiking to Arthur’s Seat

Although the path was steep in places and it was a warm summer’s day, I took my time and made it to the top to enjoy the beautiful views across the city.

With the hike not taking as long as I expected it to, I returned to my hotel via a detour taking me past both the Burns Monument and the Nelson Monument. Then, it was time to pickup my luggage and make my way to Edinburgh Airport, my trip to Scotland at its end.

I’d had an amazing time exploring Scotland over the last week or so and hoped to return to see more of this incredible country one day in the future.

Scottish Highlands: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland

I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.

Heading back to the Scottish mainland

It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.

Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.

Above, and below, the train crossing the viaduct

The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.

The Glenfinnan Monument

Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.

From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.

Stopping to take in the view of Ben Nevis, and below, hiking at Glencoe

Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.

Above, and below, hiking to the Lost Valley at Glencoe

The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!

It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.

After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.

McCaigs Tower in Oban, and below, views from the tower

We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.

After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.

On the ferry to the Isle of Mullfrom Oban

With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.

On the boat to the Isle of Mull

The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.

This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

On the Isle of Mull, and below, arriving on the Isle of Iona

Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.

Fingal’s Cave

Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.

Peering into the cave

The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.

Puffins on Staffa Island, and below, exploring the island

We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.

After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.

Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.

Above, and below, visitng Iona Abbey

Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.

We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.

That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!

Scottish Highlands: Isle of Skye

Heading over the sea to Skye

Following a trip to the Orkney Islands for a friend’s wedding, I was half way through a 7 day small group tour of the Scottish Highlands with Macbackpackers. Since leaving Edinburgh we had travelled north past Inverness to Loch Ness before catching the ferry across from Ullapool to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Today, after waking up in our blackhouse accommodation on Lewis, we were travelling south into Harris to catch the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

Visiting Flora Macdonald’s grave

Arriving in Tarbert, we were told we’d once again be boarding the ferry on foot, our guide driving the minibus on and meeting us on board. Tickets in hand we had a bit of free time before the departure so we spent it looking around the gift store at the nearby Isle of Harris Distillery before settling down at a table in its cafe for a mid-morning snack of tea and cake!

The ferry crossing took just under 2 hours. It was a much nicer day than it had been for our crossing to the Isle of Lewis and Harris a few days earlier and I spent most of the time out on the deck hoping (but failing) to spot some wildlife.

Coastal views at Duntulm, and below, walking towards Duntulm Castle

Once on the Isle of Skye, we didn’t waste any time, continuing our Scottish adventure by driving to Duntulm Castle. Along the way, we made a stop at a cemetery to see the grave of Flora Macdonald, our guide telling us the story of how she famously helped ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ evade capture following the Battle of Culloden in the 1700s.

Then it was on to Duntulm where we were dropped at a nearby viewpoint from which we walked along the coast path towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle.

Views hiking the Quiraing

After spending some time enjoying the views and taking photos of and with the castle ruins, we walked back to the minibus ready to continue to our next stop, The Quiraing. Formed by a huge landslip, The Quiraing is now said to provide some of the most spectacular landscape in Scotland.

After parking in a nearby road, our guide led us towards the rocky hills and cliff in front of us and started following a steep path up into them.

While it was difficult to keep up sometimes, most of the group having to stop to catch our breath as we climbed the steep, grassy hillside, it was definitely worth it as we were soon met with stunning views stretching out in front of us.

Sitting on a cliff top, we then downed water and caught our breath again before beginning the almost as difficult descent and returning to our bus. We then continued our drive through Skye.

Above, watching the sheep shearing, and below, walking to Lealt Falls

Our next stop was at Lealt Falls. Just before we arrived, we spotted some sheep shearing going on at a farm we were passing so pulled over to get a closer look!

Arriving at the falls, we followed the path to a viewing point from where we could see the waterfall in the distance then carried on following the path around to a coast path with some pretty views of a beach below.

Lealt Falls in the distance

With early evening now approaching, it was back on the bus to drive to the nearby town of Portree. We made a quick stop along the way to see famous Isle of Skye landmark, the Old Man of Storr, a distinctive rock formation high up on a hillside then arrived in the pretty harbour town of Portree for a spot of shopping to top up on snacks for the next day.

Our final destination on the Isle of Skye was in Kyleakin, a seaside village on the east coast.

Sunset at Kyleakin

Here, we were spending one night in a local hostel. Unlike at other hostels where the only other people in our dorms had been other members from our group tour, here we found we had all been split up with some of us sharing dorms with other people who just happened to be staying there that night but it was nice to get the chance to speak to other people and hear their stories of their experiences in Scotland so far.

We had arranged to all meet to walk to one of the local pubs for dinner. When we arrived it was way busier than we had expected but after a bit of a wait, we were eventually all seated in small groups and couldn’t wait to tuck in to our ‘pub grub’.

As we walked back to the hostel afterwards, the sun was just starting to set.

It had been a busy but fun day exploring the Isle of Skye.

Tomorrow, we’d be up early to drive to Armadale and catch a ferry back to the mainland and continue our adventure.

Scottish Highlands: Outer Hebrides

Visiting the Isle of Lewis and Harris

A rainy day on the ferry from Ullapool

Having decided to tour the Scottish Highlands to justify the cost of flying north for a wedding in Orkney, I was one day in to a small group tour with Macbackpackers. We awoke this morning in our hostel dorm on the banks of Loch Ness after a busy first day travelling there from Edinburgh and following breakfast in the hostel’s common area, we loaded up the minibus, climbed on board and set off for Ullapool. From here, we’d be boarding a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, spending 2 nights on the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Arriving in Ullapool ahead of schedule, we were given our tickets to board the ferry as foot passengers – our guide would be driving the minivan on board and then meeting on the ferry – and then had just under an hour of free time. It was pouring in rain so we decided to spend this time in a local cafe drinking tea and sampling the homemade cakes before walking over to the ferry terminal in time to board.

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

It took just under 3 hours to make the crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis during which time we amused ourselves playing I-Spy type games, going for walks out on the deck to enjoy the views once the rain had stopped and looking around the ferry’s gift stores and cafes, buying some snacks for lunch.

As we approached Stornoway, we all made our way back to the minivan parked in the bowels of the ferry and once we had docked, our guide drove us off the boat and back onto dry land.

Above, and below, views from the coastal walk at the Butt of Lewis

From the ferry terminus, we drove straight to the most northerly point of the island, known as the Butt of Lewis. Parking up by the lighthouse, our guide then lead us on a circular walk along the cliff tops with some beautiful coastal views along the way.

After our walk, we made a quick supermarket stop to pick up supplies for the next few days then drove towards our accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we’d be staying at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in a restored traditional Scottish blackhouse built in the 1800s.

View of the beach from outside our Blackhouse and above, our Blackhouse accommodation

We had a building to ourselves – a large, stone blackhouse with a dorm at each end of the building and a common area and kitchen in the middle. The building was situated right on the coast and after settling in a few of us went for a walk down to the beach before dinner. We spent the rest of the evening cooking another group meal then chatting and playing party games over drinks.

Dun Carloway Broch

We got to have a slight lie in the next morning then after breakfast, boarded the minibus to be taken to our first stop – Dun Carloway Broch, a stone structure found only in Scotland which was thought to have been constructed around 200BC. The Broch had recently been closed after becoming unstable so we had to admire it from afar but the museum was open giving us a chance to learn more about it and see what it would have looked like inside.

Sheep near the Broch

As we left the Broch, we were excited to see a huge herd of sheep being driven down the middle of the narrow country lane as they moved fields!!

Then it was back onto the minibus to head to our next stop, another ancient structure, the Callanish Stones.

Above, and below, visiting the Callanish Stones

Similar to the stones I had seen in Orkney a few days earlier, the Callanish Stones are large, ancient stones arranged in a stone circle with a central stone in the centre. We spent some time exploring the site as well as making use of the facilities including a cafe.

Above, beginning our hike, and below, hiking on the cliffs at Bosta Beach

Stop number 3 of our busy day on the Isle of Lewis was at Bosta Beach. Here we went on a lengthy circular hike up onto the cliff tops. The views along the way were incredible and we finished off with a walk down onto the sands.

Miavaig Harbour

We made a quick lunch stop next at Miavaig Harbour where some of the group chose to sample the fresh seafood. Then, after a snack and petrol stop, it was on to Uig Bay where we walked along the beautiful, huge expanse of sand at Acosta Beach, paddling in the sea when we finally reached it!

Mangersta Sea Stacks

The rain started to set in just as we left and it started to really pour down as we drove to our final stop of the day, the Mangersta Sea Stacks. With the rain not showing any signs of abating, the stop was a lot quicker than we had originally planned with most of us having a quick look and taking a photo before jumping back on to the minibus.

Looking back at the beach while taking a cliff top walk from the Blackhouse Village

Back at our blackhouse accommodation, we cooked dinner and had a quiet night relaxing and an early night – we had an earlier start the next morning to drive down to the ferry terminal on the Isle of Harris (not actually a separate island to Lewis but just the southern third of the island!).

From here, we’d be catching the ferry across to the Isle of Skye.

Up and ready early the next day, a few of us took a walk along the cliff tops, following the coastal path from the Blackhouse Village and back. Then, it was time to load up the minibus, wave goodbye to the Isle of Lewis and Harris and set off for our next destination.

Scottish Highlands: Journey to Loch Ness

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh

Having travelled all the way north to the island of Orkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.

Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.

Crossing into the Scottish Highlands

After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.

There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.

Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!

After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!

An old blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum

Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.

Chickens roaming freely at the Highland Folk Museum, and below, at Culloden Battlefield

The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.

From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.

Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!

Spotting some ‘hairy coos’

We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.

View of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness and below, on the banks of Loch Ness

The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!

We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.

It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!

A weekend in Orkney

Having been invited to a wedding by a friend who lives way up north in the Orkney Islands, I began making plans to fly up there from Birmingham for 2 nights. Discovering just how expensive this was going to be, I ended up having to change my initial plans slightly, taking a direct flight with Loganair from Manchester rather than flying to Edinburgh from Birmingham and then having to change flights.

The trip was going to cost so much that it seemed a shame to only be spending a weekend in Scotland when the flights were so much so I decided to extend my trip adding on an extra week touring the Scottish Highlands after my weekend in Orkney.

Kirwall marina

Flights, itinerary and accommodation sorted, I travelled to Manchester by train and on to its airport on a Friday afternoon only to find my flight to Scotland had been indefinitely delayed. Strike action was going on and it was a scary few hours waiting to find out not only if my flight would run at all, but if it would be scheduled in time to arrive in Orkney before it’s airport shut down early due to the industrial action.

Luckily, a new flight time was eventually announced and we set off with minutes to spare. After a short but pleasant flight – I especially appreciated the free tea and Scottish Caramel bar on board – we arrived, the penultimate flight to land that evening in the moments before the closure.

The airport at Kirkwall couldn’t be more different from the huge, busy metropolis that is Manchester airport. Instead, we walked from the steps of the plane into a small hangar with a single waiting area for departures, a (now closed for the evening) cafe and a small conveyor belt which our luggage promptly appeared on. Meeting my friend who who had scraped in on the final arriving flight of the day shortly after, we walked the short distance outside to the bus stop and waited for the next bus into Kirkwall centre. The journey didn’t take long and from the central bus station, it didn’t take us long to find our hotel – a pub/guesthouse.

Arriving at the Skara Brae Visitor Centre

After settling into our room, we went for a walk into the town centre. Other than the local convenience stores, the businesses had all closed for the evening but it at least allowed us to get our bearings and find the Cathedral which tomorrow’s wedding would take place at. Returning to our hotel, we had dinner at the pub downstairs before settling down for the night trying to ignore the music coming from the bar!

Views on Orkney Island, and below, at the Ring of Brodgar

The next morning, we walked to the local garden centre for a delicious cooked breakfast at their cafe then spent some more time exploring Kirkwall, visiting some of the now open independent and boutique stores. The rest of the day was spent getting ready for and attending the wedding, a lavish and traditionally Scottish affair that was lots of fun to be a part of!

We all had early evening flights booked out of Orkney the next day so planned to use the day to explore Orkney a bit further. We had originally hoped to hire a car and explore the island ourselves but it was a Sunday and most of the car hire services on the island either weren’t open or closed early meaning we wouldn’t be able to return our car at a suitable time. So instead, we had enquired at the tourist information office the morning before about using the island’s sightseeing bus service. The T11 service which doubled as a commuter route, offered an open-topped hop on/off bus tour of the island looping back round to Kirkwall.

The service was busy but luckily they had multiple buses ready to cope with the demand. Despite it being a cool, blustery day with the occasional drops of rain in the air, we bundled ourselves onto the top deck to get the best views along the way.

View from the Ring of Brodgar

The bus made stops along the way at points of interest giving us time to get off and see these attractions before either jumping back onto the same bus or waiting for the later service. The buses were not very regular and with our time restraints, we didn’t have the option to wait for later buses if we were going to be back in Kirkwall for our flights back so we made the most of the time we were given at each stop before jumping back on the same bus.

The first stop was at Skara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore a Neolithic village of ancient stone houses discovered to be lying on Orkney in the 1800s. The entrance fee into the grounds was more than we wanted to pay given that we didn’t have much time to explore and get our money’s worth so instead, we read about the site at the visitor centre, looking out at the stone houses from there before grabbing a delicious lunch from the on site cafe.

Following the Orkney coastline

Back on the bus, we continued through Orkney making one more stop at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of ancient standing stones. We were given time to walk up the path to the stones and take photos before getting back on the bus one last time as we returned to Kirkwall.

While the tour wasn’t ideal, we were at least glad to have had an opportunity to get out and see some of the island while we were there.

Once back in Kirkwall, it was time to collect our luggage and catch the bus back to the airport where I’d be catching my Edinburgh-bound flight, ready to start a new adventure the next day – exploring the Scottish Highlands!

Planning a trip to Scotland

About to board a Loganair flight to Scotland

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the USA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks in Europe too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.

Travelling to the Scottish Highlands

When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!

As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.

Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.

Some ‘hairy coos’

While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!

To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!

Ancient standing stones on Orkney Island

The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.

Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.

With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!