England & Scotland - Whirlwind Tour 2007

England

I board the flight on time, but then it keeps getting delayed 15 minutes, then 15 minutes more, etc. We find out it’s an issue with the flight computer, which apparently needs the software reloaded, which interestingly is done using floppy disks. Soon enough, 3 hours after the scheduled departure time when we’re still sitting in the plane on the ground at the gate, the crew times out and they delay the flight until 1 pm the following day. At a certain point, you’d think they would upgrade at least to CD-ROMs to speed up the process and prevent these sorts of things.

18 hours later, we’re finally off the ground. 10 hours later, I’m in London Heathrow standing in a hopelessly long queue where people are actually literally fainting from exhaustion or heat or general annoyance, who knows. The British customs guy asks me the address I’m staying at and when I tell him “I have no idea, somewhere in Oxford and then Scotland,” he looks at me for a second, then at my passport for another, then stamps it and says “Welcome to the UK.”

2 hours later I have my bags and am getting off the bus at Gloucester Green in Oxford. I wander for a bit (about 3 hours) before finding Sanda, my friend I’ve come to visit, who says she had been sitting at the bus station for 2.5 of those hours despite my returning there several times and never seeing her. I blame my deliriousness. We cruise to her place, I get some food and promptly pass out.

4 hours later I wake up and we make some dinner. I meet Nick, the English bloke Sanda is snogging. He’s a good kid, and I can see what she likes about him: nerdy, but in a slightly alpha male way, without being too overbearing or overconfident. Plus, he knows how to swordfight, so how can you not be attracted to that? We enjoy some good food, good beers and good company and then roll out to the pub.

30 minutes later, the three of us are joined by Nick’s mates Vincent and another fellow who is an economist. No, really, that’s his job. We’re playing 8 ball billiards on a snooker table and jamming to a pretty wide range of music from the jukebox, from Achy Breaky Heart to Kanye West. After a few beers and a couple hours of games and fun, we head back home to get ready for some driving the next day.

Scotland

About noon, we head to Enterprise to pick up the car. After signing our lives away and shelling out over 250 pounds (150 deposit), we hop in the car and hit the road. I’m hanging on for dear life because I get tense when Sanda drives on the right side of the street in California where she’s from, so when she’s rolling down the streets of Oxford on the right side of the car on the left side of the road, well… needless to say, I’m holding on to whatever’s available and trying to keep the yelling to a minimum.

We make it out of the city, through a few roundabouts and onto the M40 headed towards The NORTH, as the sign clearly points out. Sanda drifts in and out of her lane quite a bit, and we end up switching drivers a couple times so I quickly understand the difficulty of switching your mindset. The harder part is actually sitting on the right side of the car, because everything looks different and distances are more difficult to judge because they’re not at all what you’re used to from sitting on the left side. We pass through a few major cities and few majorly shite (pardon my Scottish) radio stations before we finally make it to Glasgow about 7 hours later. After some aimless meandering, we find the campsite, which is actually just a glorified trailer park, and check in at the reception, which is manned by a charming Scottish girl and her dog, a 6 foot long, 4 foot tall hound named Chaos. And in a weird plot twist, the dog is actually afraid of me.

After a reasonably restful night in which we go to sleep at 8:30, I wake up around 5:30 in time to take a shower before the sun even comes up. When Sanda wakes up at 6ish, she showers, we break down camp and get back on the road at 7, headed for The NORTH and Glen Coe, our first hike.

Soon enough, the main highway narrows to one lane, we’re winding back and forth on the edge of lochs and cliffs, and we’re in the heart of the highlands. The hardest part of driving now is staying focused on the road with these beautiful, green, mist-shrouded hills and clear blue lakes every direction we look. A couple hours pass and we see three tall mountains stretching up above the clouds, and a tiny little sign set into one of the hills that says Glen Coe. We pull over at the only place there is to pull over, and sure enough it’s the trailhead of our hike into the Lost Valley.

It’s raining on and off every 5 minutes, so we put on warm clothes and rain gear, load up with some emergency essentials just in case, and spray on approximately an Imperial pint of bug spray (which we affectionately called jungle juice since it was strong enough to protect you in the jungle and it tasted somewhat like the drink of the same name when I accidentally inhaled some). Within 5 minutes of hiking, we are crossing a wood bridge through a forest of trees and over a rushing river 100 feet below and it’s the most amazing hike I’ve ever done. It climbs steeply up into the mist and we’ve soon got a commanding view of the lush green valleys and hills that surround us on all sides. The farther we go, the more incredible it gets as we scramble over boulders while walking along the edge of the path that drops down right into a waterfall and stream below. When we come upon the cascade, we snap some pictures and take a drink of the most delicious and satisfying water I’ve ever had. No wonder they use Scotland water for bottled water.

A couple hours go by, more time than should because we’re stopping every 5 minutes just to stare in awe at the sensory overload, and we make it back to the car and are charged up for the rest of the trip. We check out the guidebook and find a good place for grub nearby, and in 20 minutes we’re sitting in a lovely lodge-type restaurant, drinking beer made from heather flowers and gooseberries and eating burgers made from Aberdeen angus and wild boar.

So far, Scotland has been good to us.

We get back on the road a little bit drier and full of highland goodness, and head in the direction of The NORTH. We’re checking out the “41 things not to miss” in our Scotland guidebook, and one of them looks pretty close by, so when the right highway comes, we turn to the west and start rolling towards Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel. Pretty soon we turn onto a road that is one lane—not one lane each side, but one lane only, so within five minutes we find ourselves going 40 mph and staring down the headlights of someone else coming right at us at the same speed or faster. He pulls off to the side, or I do, I can’t really remember, and we continue on. This happens about 30-40 more times in the next hour of driving on this one lane road, and it often involved coming to a screeching halt and having to back up to an open spot so one of us could pass. So, that was fun.

We finally arrive at the end of Loch Shiel where our campsite is for the night, only to find out that the Glenfinnan monument, one of the 41 things not to miss, is actually on the other end of the lake. Oh well, we’re on an adventure, these things happen. We set up camp and then head out for another hike, this one being 7.5 miles but with little elevation gain, so only about a 4 hour hike.

This one starts less than a mile from camp, and as we’re reading in the hike book about it, Sanda gets to the part where it says “3) Ford the stream and follow the trail uphill…” and we both stop, look at the book, look at each other, and chuckle. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” I say.

We see a turn off for a trail, but the signpost just has a picture of a horse. “I think this is it,” says Sanda. “But we’re not horses,” I observe. Oh well, we try it anyway; if a horse can do it, surely two able bodied young people can. After all, it’s an adventure we’re after.

And an adventure we’re going to get, since after five minutes of walking, we come to a river in which the trail leads directly into it and right out of it on the other side. We think about going back and seeing if there’s another trail further up, but then we thought “who are we to be afraid of a little bit of water?” Next thing we know, we’ve got our shoes and socks off and trousers rolled up to our knees, and we’re ankle deep in the Scottish river.

The best part? Halfway across the river, I look upstream and see a bridge. And, of course, when we put our shoes back on and get back on the trail, we notice within moments that our trail meets up almost immediately with the one from the bridge. Whoops.

We spend about an hour on the trail, uphill through marshes and leeches and several different kinds of insects, all of which seem to be angry with me about something since they keep attacking me and not Sanda. We finally decide this hike is awful and we should simply turn back and return to camp. We got back, had all of our firewood prepared for a fire, and decided to lie down and relax for just a few minutes before making a fire. Eight hours later, we wake up and decide we don’t need a fire after all.

Day 3 of the adventure begins with driving out of the Loch Shiel area, but before we leave, we take a 5 minute detour to see a castle. When we get to the shore, we see across the water a castle on an island with no visible way of getting to it. Luckily for us, there are signs saying something to the effect of “Please do not approach, climb on, go inside, or go anywhere near the castle, as it is in ruins and could fall apart and kill you at any moment.” So I guess it worked out for everyone. We snapped some pictures and went on our merry way to the west coast of Scotland to a town called Mallaig, where we drove our car onto a boat and took the ferry across to the Isle of Skye to the town of Armadale.

As soon as we arrived, we noticed signs for a castle, so we stopped on the way to the The NORTH and toured Armadale Castle, home of Clan Donald, which is the largest clan in the world. Basically, everyone named MacDonald is a part of Clan Donald, with Mac meaning “Son of.” The castle itself was somewhat underwhelming, since it’s mostly in ruins and you really can’t even go inside, but the museum was interesting and we learned about some of Scottish history and the rise and fall of the Donald clan. And at least they had pictures of what the castle looked like intact; probably wasn’t too shabby a place to live.

Pretty soon we’re rolling again. We head towards The NORTH and then turn west, looking for Cuillin Hills for our last hike. After turning down a couple of unmarked roads in the general area of where we should be going, we finally end up on the southwest end of the Isle of Skye in the Glenbrittle area, and we take off for a 5.5 mile, 4 hour, 2000 ft elevation gain hike, our hardest yet.

It’s steady and uphill the entire way, and we have to wade through a few small streams and a few piles of sheep feces, but we make it to the end of the trail and a beautiful waterfall running down the side of the mountain. Then we notice the rock trail that leads up as far as we can see, and we decide we’re both not stopping when there’s clearly farther to go. After all, it’s a long way to the top when you want to rock and roll. So we keep rockin’ and rollin’ up the hill, stopping every few minutes to take a breather, and just when we’re getting ready to turn back, we reach the top plateau and sit and just stare out at the thick shroud of mist covering everything in sight. And before heading back down, we both agree it was an amazing hike, and probably would’ve afforded one of the most spectacular views ever if we could actually see anything.

When we get off the mountain, we head to an inn and grab some food. I get haggis with neeps and tatties, which is Scottish for mashed turnips and mashed potatoes, and Sanda orders a venison burger. And of course, we both get pints of ale. When our food comes, I’m actually saddened that my haggis isn’t stuffed into the sheep’s stomach like it’s supposed to, but it still tastes good. Our waiter affectionately refers to Sanda’s dish as a “Bambi burger,” and after taking a couple of bites, I find Bambi to be delicious and just the right amount spicy.

Our last night in Scotland, we try to drive as far back down, towards The SOUTH, as we can to avoid a longer drive the next day. We do about an hour of driving when we round a corner and see before us an amazing site: a huge castle is sitting on an island right in the middle of two lakes, and it’s lit up by spotlights and connected to the mainland by an old stone bridge. And, luckily for us, this castle is completely intact and the visitor center is closed, which one would think would be bad but actually just means we don’t have to buy tickets to walk over and look. We quickly find out it’s one of the last intact castles and thus is often used in movies like Highlander. It was an excellent end to an amazing day.

We keep driving until it gets dark and then stop at the first campsite we see. The reception desk where we pay to pitch our tent is already closed, which to me just means we can camp for free. We set up camp and go to bed, and it seems Scotland has grown tired of us because the entire time we are putting up the tent, it is pouring rain, getting water inside the tent through the roof. We spend a long, rainy, windy, mostly sleepless night at this campsite, and leave as soon as possible in the morning to start the 10 hour journey.

Aside from the beautiful landscapes, one more random castle, and the same 10 songs over and over on the radio, the journey back is uneventful. The last night is spent eating fish and chips and drinking pints at the local watering hole that’s been around for literally hundreds of years, then getting to bed at 11, early and yet being the latest sleep time all week. I woke up naturally at 5:30 the next day to roll out to the airport, and it wasn’t at all strange to wake up that early, so the lack of strangeness was somewhat strange. The flight was uneventful, but there were some good movies and the flight attendant gave me a bottle of wine because he saw I was an employee. That’s a happy ending in my book.
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