Waxam On, Waxam Off

On a somewhat dull and dreary morning we had the bright idea of heading out to the Norfolk Coast for a spot of seal watching.

Grey Seals are common along the coastline and in December they haul out onto the sands to pup. Horsey Gap, a long stretch of sand just beyond Sea Palling is a particularly popular spot with over 2000 pups born there this winter.

Seals become quite territorial when there are babies around and visitors are kept well away behind rope barriers on the tops of the sand dune.

Volunteer Seal Wardens are a fount of knowledge, many of them having monitored the seals on the beach for years. They are more than happy to answer questions and explain more about Seal life in Norfolk.

We got a little closer than expected to one little chap. His mother apparently decided the beach was not for her and delivered her pup in the middle of the footpath. The pup has since been causing trouble as he rolls his chubby self around in the fields and pedestrian paths.

After a somewhat cold and breezy morning seal watching, we headed back down the road towards Sea Palling, stopping off on the way at Waxam Barn, a restored Elizabethan building originally part of the Waxam estate.

First stop, the cafe for a warm, homemade snack!

Waxam barn is the longest Elizabethan barn in the country. In fact it is so long it has 3 threshing floors and the roof took over a year to thatch (with Norfolk reed, obviously). Being a coastal area, shipwrecks were a common occurrence and often the ship’s wood was reused. See if you can spot what may be a recycled ships’ mast pit to use by Tudor builders as a ceiling beam.

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Haggis hunting in the highlands

Another gloriously sunny day and it’s time to head out and hunt some haggis!

Normally found running around the bottom of hills and hiding from local Haggis Bashers, the haggis can be quite tricky to spot in the wild.

We headed out of Durness along the long, single road stretch to Lairg.

With spectacular mountains and on all sides we kept our eyes open for deer and golden eagles.

A quick stop to change drivers and go for a little stroll at Scourie. The bay was stunning and the short headland walk well worth the break.

With legs stretched and snacks consumed, we headed back out onto the road and down the coast to Kinlochbervie.

The scenery is stunningly Nordic and we all wondered exactly how the fish trucks get around some of the tighter bends. Fortunately the fish is all loaded and on the road well before we are even considering waking up.

Back on the main road we decided to take the scenic route. With restricted road access I would recommend following the rules and giving this stretch a miss if you’re in an RV. Our Mondeo felt a little oversized at some points.

The treacherous roads are well worth the journey. Just look at the view!

We continued following the loop to the stunning beach at Clashnessie. As we were running short on time we didn’t stop to walk to the waterfalls, which are apparently beautiful too.

The route out of Clashnessie (what a great name for a place!) winds back up through inaccessible mountain passes and gives stunning views over Sullivan as we carefully picked our way down the mountainsides into Lochinver.

We arrived on the perfect day as Lochinver’s Highland Games were in full flow. We stopped to to watch some highland dancing, hammer throwing and various races. The whole town had a festival atmosphere with the distinctive music of bagpipes rolling across the sun dappled glen.

The final stretch of our journey took us back through the wooded hills where we spotted a few cheeky deer grazing in roadside gardens.

We passed by the rugged faces of Sullivan and stopped to explore the ruins of Elphin Castle, it’s crumbling facade reflected in the still waters of the loch.

Finally we pulled into Ullapool in time for a late dinner and a good night’s sleep!

Scotland the brave (and beautiful).

Summer in Durness brings long, long hours of daylight. Which gives the intrepid visitor plenty of time to explore this stunning area.

The blue skies and even bluer waters are unbelievably inviting despite the somewhat chilly temperatures! We left the car behind and headed off on a coastal stroll.

The geology in the area is amazing and Durness is part of the North West Highlands Geopark. Some of Europe’s oldest rocks can be found within the park, over 3000 Million year’s old!

Walking along the coastline we kept our eyes open for passing cetaceans and sea birds. We didn’t have much luck.

We headed into the pastures behind the sand dunes. Due to its interesting Geology Durness is surprisingly flat and has many gently rolling fields of pasture filled with sheep and cows. This one felt suspiciously like Telly Tubby land. We looked, but didn’t find any Telly-tubbies either.

Crossing the headland we walked back along the beaches to Balnakeil.

The hamlet of Baknakeil is home to the ruins of Balnakeil old church. Inside the ruin lays the grave of Donuil Mac Morraichaidh, a somewhat nefarious character who was responsible for several murders. The churchyard is also the final resting place of John Lennon’s aunt. Apparently the Beatle and his family spent many summers up in the highlands.

We popped into the Balnakeil craft village, a collection of 1950s MoD buildings now filled with restaurants, crafts and an amazing chocolate shop! Yum!

Our next stop was the Smoo Cave. An interesting formation of two caves, fresh water and sea, meeting to create the UK’s largest sea cave. At over 40m in height the entrance is impressive! A large hole in cave ceiling allows light to filter in giving the whole space a rather eerie feel.

The waterfall was less impressive due to the long summer of hot, dry weather the U.K. was experiencing. To go beyond this initial chamber it is necessary to take a guided tour which crosses the river by boat before heading further into the dark.

Archeology suggests people have been using the cave since the Neolithic , and possibly earlier.

Remember our old friend Donuil Mac Morraichaidh? According to legend in the 1500s this notorious highwayman threw the bodies of those he murdered down the blowhole into the cave!

Balnakeil old church

Taking the high road.

We’re back on the NC500. It’s day 5, we’ve just about recovered from the ferry journey back from Orkney. The car is stocked with road-food. We are rearing to go.

Today it’s time to head west. Off the well maintained roads and onto the single track. With glorious mountains on one side and spectacular cliffs on the other.

We speed up to Thurso, stopping off to visit the glorious golden beach at Melvich.

Onwards to Reay and the site that might host the UK’s first space port. It’s here the road narrows and the views become phenomenal.

We climb upwards, the ancient rolling mountains and crags spread before us, bathed in golden summer sunlight. We leapfrog a team of videographers in a 4X4, and head onward.

The descent through the narrow valley into Bettyhill is dark, clouded over with low Scottish clouds that threaten rain and disappear in moments. The small town is built by a site of the highland clearances where Pictish standing stones rub shoulders along side modern grave markers outside the local church turned museum. Most of the family names are the same.

We are in clan territory now.

Onwards to Tongue, where the road meets the loch, the new causeway across the Kyle circumventing the old road. We stop to admire the view, who wouldn’t?

Pushing on again we climb through the heather and over the mountains. It feels like Middle Earth, wild and remote.

It’s stunning.

Down by Loch Eriboll we meet our 4×4 friends. They’re filming a charity cycle ride. I can’t say I envy the cyclist on these slopes. Back to the car.

The final few miles into Durness is breathtaking. Caribbean blue seas, white sand and black cliffs. The sun blesses us with golden hues and clear blue skies.

Scotland in all her glory.

Sun, sea, sand and the Stone Age.

We left early for the ferry from John O’Groats to Orkney.

The sun shining, we stepped off the boat onto the flat, green pastures of the islands. As time was limited we had decided to leave the car and take a bus tour to the sites.

Flat Orcadian fields

The Orkney Islands have an interesting and extremely long history. Inhabited for over 8500 years these flat, windswept islands have been territories of Norway, Scotland and the U.K. and are very proud of their Viking heritage.

Orkney served as a key naval base in both World Wars and the Churchill Barriers are a major legacy of the conflicts. Built by prisoners of war these “civil structures” join some of the islands allowing road connections where once boats were necessary. Their construction was strategic though, sealing vulnerable entries to what was arguably the British Navy’s most important harbour and protect the fleet from U-boats.

The beautiful coastlines of the Orkney Islands

As we drove along the coast of Scapa Flow it was difficult to imagine how the German navy of 1919 felt as they scuttled their ships. The remains of the many vessels sunk in this bay are now a major dive attraction. Some of the ships are designated as war graves and, out of respect, off limits to recreational divers.

Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney, and home to the only roundabout on the islands. A small city with a pretty harbour and a spectacular Viking cathedral. There are plenty of shops and cafes to browse as well as the city museum and historical sites.

We headed out of Kirkwall to Stromness for lunch and a wander around the pretty fishing town, before moving on with great excitement to our next stop; Skara Brae.

This Stone Age settlement, over 5000 years in age, was discovered in 1850 under the sands of Orkney after a large storm destroyed some of the dunes. Excavated over many years the small village viscerally connects the ancient with today. Recognisable elements of human habitation abound. There are beds, dressers, fireplaces and many other trappings of daily life.

The small museum holds many of the artefacts found at the site and there is a replica house to visit, giving an eerie insight into those ancient times.

The whole site is incredible and well worth the effort to reach!

Onwards again to the Ring of Brodgar. The largest stone circle anywhere in the world. Over 100m across these ancient, enigmatic stones have stood in place since around 2500BC. Just why they’re here no one knows.

This ancient monument overlooks another site, Maeshowe, a Stone Age burial mound, built thousands of years ago to be illuminated by the sun as it sets between the hills at midwinter each year.

Nearby another, even older stone circle partially remains. Possibly the oldest in the U.K. work was being done on the standing stones of Stenness in 3100BC. The stones were used in traditional rituals well into the 1800s when one of the stones was blown up by a disgruntled landowner. The remaining stones are now the heart of “Neolithic Orkney” a world heritage site since 1999.

Our final stop, the Italian Chapel, brought us back into living memory.

This stunning chapel was constructed by Italian POWs using found objects, creativity and a lot of concrete. In 1943 they began work on a place of worship, creating everything by hand from various found and recycled objects.

Domenico Chiocchetti, a church decorator imprisoned at the camp, painted the interior. After the end of the war he returned twice to the islands to help restore the frescos. His daughter sang at the 70th anniversary mass and the chapel is still in use today.

It is a stunning building, well worth a visit for its unique and lasting impact.

Back on the boat to John O’Groats I decide I’ll be back to Orkney, there’s so much more to discover on these tiny, amazing islands!

China Tip: Qingdao adventure

There’s more to Qingdao than beer.

There’s beer that’s served in bags.

Yes, really.

It’s also priced by weight.

And exists in a variety of flavours!

Anyway, as I was saying, there’s more to Qingdao than beer.

Located on the coast of Shāndōng province Qingdao was briefly a German enclave before being occupied by the Japanese.

A beautiful city known for its “green tree, red roof, blue sea and blue sky” views. An accurate description even today as modern skyscrapers pop up along the shore front.

Host to the sailing competitions during the Beijing Olympics the marina area now has a nightly light show which could well put Hong Kong to shame.

Oddly famous for the quality of its Italian food (I concur, the Italian was great!) Qingdao is a coastal city and as such a great sport for seafood. The night market serves up an array of street food for those feeling hungry (and brave).

Xiaoyushan Park and signal hill are well worth a visit for their spectacular views and a trip to one of the bathing beaches is a must!

Bathing beach 1 from Xiaoyushan Park.

Just out of town via bus 104 (or 304) you can visit the beautiful scenic park of Laoshan. At the ticket office stay to the left for the mountain peak, or go right to visit a temple and another part of the park.

Once inside the park bus takes you to the foot of the mountain where you can choose to walk up, or pay an extra 40RMB (one way) for a cable car ticket.

Heading down the mountain just before sunset

From this point there are two routes, one takes you up steep steps to the summit for amazing views over the sea.

The second is slightly less arduous with a path heading around the side of the mountain to view a different series of peaks.

After all that hiking, it might be time for another beer!

Castles, Coves and Coos

Clinging to the Scottish cliffs, jutting out into the North Sea stand the remains of Sinclair Castle.

Propped up in part by scaffolding and somewhat protected by ramshackle fencing, this castle was once the stronghold of the Sinclair Clan.

Throughout generations of building, extending and clan warfare, the Sinclair family homestead was protected by its remote cliff top location.

My English grandmother’s family name was Sinclair and we couldn’t help but wonder if it was up here in the pastoral lands of Wick that the family originated.

Perhaps not, but the castle was well worth the detour for its fairytale-esque quality.

Onwards and northwards.

We stopped off in Wick, yet another coastal trade point decimated by the loss of the herring. The town has seen better days. We park in town (the car park by the river at Poundstretcher is free) and walk through the small town centre to the heritage museum.

Staffed by exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable ladies we were issued our own guide. Having grown up in Wick she was able to offer fantastic insights into life in and around the town. the museum holds an incredible collection of late 1800s photographs that alone are well worth the £3 entry cost. The museum is vast and a treasure trove of coastal artifacts, much of which relating to the herring industry.

Having grown up close to Great Yarmouth it was particularly interesting to learn that highlanders often made the herring run down as far as the port there. Our guide told us how children would wait excitedly for their parents to return north with gifts in their trunks from their foray down south.

After a fortifying lunch (haggis and cheese panini, who says globalisation is a bad thing?!) we continued North.

We made it to John O’Groats in time for a quick Starbucks (probably the most northerly Starbucks on mainland Britain).

And the obligatory photo stop.

Just outside John O’Groats, up a winding single track road, you will find the spectacular sight of Duncansby Stacks. We decided against taking the longer hike and spent some time watching the kittiwake hatchlings on the cliff faces. Considering the disastrous breeding seasons the Scottish seabirds have been experiencing, these may have been a very rare sight indeed!

Scotland’s notoriously changeable weather was still on our side, so we decided to push on and headed out to Dunnet Head, Britain’s most northerly point and a protected RSPB reserve.

Driving through the narrow country lanes we spotted our first Herlun’ Coos! We of course pulled over for an impromptu photo shoot, which the cows seemed to love. They wandered over to inspect us and posed, auburn hair gleaming in the sun.

Dunnet Head light house is automated, but the RSPB still use the buildings and there is access to the most northerly coastal view point out over the Orkneys.

We drove back to our AirBnB inland along yet more stretches of single track lanes. Along the final few miles as the sun slowly set, we passed modern wind farms, forestry areas and ancient burial Cairns. Thousands of years old the cairns are large and sturdy enough that they can still be safely accessed by crawling inside through narrow tunnels.

An incredible end to the day.

Beaches, bridges, brochs and birds

It’s beach weather in the highlands.

Day 2 starts as all the best days do, with a quick jaunt to the beach. The air is still, the water flat and the sand soft and golden.

If only it was 10 degrees warmer.

We take in the views before heading north to Dunrobin Castle. One of many highland estates this was home to the Dukes of Sutherland and it’s iconic fairytale facade overlooks the water. It’s undeniably stunning.

Every day, visitors to the castle are be treated to a falconry display and the birds are often found flying free around the castle, making use of various overlooks as perch spaces.

Inside the castle and you get a glimpse of highland life for the upper crust. The spectacular garden views and beautiful interior decor are well worth the visit. The on site museum holds some very interesting archeological finds, and a rather disturbing display of Taxidermy.

Fortified with my favourite highland cuisine we headed further North, but not much! A few miles from Dunrobin Castle stands an ancient broch, a fortified Bronze Age building characteristic of Scotland.

We continued on to Helmsdale, stopping briefly to visit the local museum and the memorial statue for those removed from their lands during the highland clearances. Once a busy fishing port Helmsdale’s fortunes were tied to the herring and the town is a fraction of the size it was 100 years ago.

Taking a side route off the main road we came across one of the many “outdoor museum” locations, an abandoned pre-clearance village, now reclaimed by nature.

As we strolled through the ruins we spotted antlers, then more. A few meters away three stags gazed at us across the heather.

What a way to end the day!

Take me back to the Black Isle.

It’s a heatwave!

With temperatures regularly in the 30s and not an air conditioning unit in sight what’s a girl to do?!

Head to the coldest, wettest and windiest parts of the U.K. of course!

Yes, Team Family and I decided to venture “beyond the wall” and hopped on a plane to Edinburgh.

After battling our way through the Fringe Festival crowds and popping in for some family visits, we packed up the car and headed north to the highlands.

Beautiful Dunkeld

The next morning we hit the road to begin our NC500 route. Like all the best road trips things did not get off to the perfect start. In our over confidence Francis, our gps, was relegated to the back seat and we attempted to follow a road map.

Oops.

Francis was quickly reinstated as chief navigator and we wove our way down teeny tiny roads to the Black Isle brewery.

We stocked the boot with organic beer and headed off around the Black Isle (which is not actually an isle at all). An excellent way to start our highland adventure!

Our next stop was one of many clootie wells where we left our own offering before continuing around the peninsula.

The Black Isle has a long history as a seat of religious power in Scotland and the stunning churches and cathedrals are well worth a visit.

The tiny museum in Rosmarkie is home to an incredible Pictish standing stone. The Picts are a mysterious people with no written history and little archeological evidence other than these enigmatic stones with their carved symbols.

The beaches of the Black Isle are also worth a visit, if you’re lucky you might even spot the resident pod of dolphins.

The last stop on the Black Isle was the pretty Fairy Glen. An RSPB reserve with a pleasant walk through a quiet woodland culminating in a pair of lovely waterfalls.

Our arrival into Dornoch was timed perfectly as the local pipers marched down the high street, a fantastic welcome to the highlands!

The big spotted fish

The sky was blue, the ocean an inviting aquamarine. It was 8:00 in the morning and we were heading out from Sairee Beach on Koh Tao, the order of the day, to find a whaleshark.

Dive 1, we headed down to the pinnacles at South West. Descending through amazingly clear water onto the reef. In the distance a huge tail swept past, surrounded by divers. We look on from below, excited to spot the shark.

Continuing through the coral we head out on our dive, away from the crowds.

We follow a shoal of barracuda, watching in awe as they circle us, and suddenly we’re in the presence of a giant.

Alone with this 5 metre Goliath we hang motionless while it cruises by.

We finish the dive with barely contained excitement.

But we’re in for one final treat, a last second flyby as we complete our safety stop.