Saturday, 2 June 2012

Of Lambs, Scones and Blind Summits

          I spent last week in a place of sugar-white beaches and palm-trees, turquoise sea, all-surrounding bird-song, blue skies unmarked by any wisp of cloud, and air-shaking, tarmac-melting heat: the Highlands, Scotland’s west coast.
          We drove to Oban and caught the ferry to Mull. I love ferries, especially little everyday working ferries.  There was a Scottish Water van and a plumber in the queue, and I wondered whether, when they were given their work-sheets that morning, they thought: Oh great! I’m going to Mull! They probably did in this weather, Davy said.  But in January, not.
Iona's cathedral
          On Mull we drove the length of the island to catch the passenger-ferry to Iona.  It was so hot on the island, we were glad to go into the shade of the beautiful cathedral.  While walking through the fields we heard corncrakes – I recognised the call from my Dad’s description: ‘Like a stick being dragged across railings, or a football rattle being shook slowly.’  He used to hear them, as a boy, in the fields around his house, but those fields have long vanished.
          We stopped for a drink at the Argyll Hotel, which served the best scone and coffee of the whole trip.  We sat in a sunny garden, beside a richly scented rose-bush, looking at a white beach, blue sea, and the mountains of Mull beyond.
          I dropped a few crumbs, but they were cleared by an unusual waiter (right).
          We stayed the night at a B&B on Mull, where the landlord didn’t give us a key because, ‘we never lock anything up.’
          We crossed back to the mainland from Tobermory (or ‘Tobe’ as the locals seem to call it), and spent most of the next two days on the most beautiful beaches that could be imagined.
          Everywhere was what Davy called ‘great lumps of scenery’.  I’m not sure exactly what constitutes a great lump of scenery, but you won’t go far wrong if you include at least one loch, a dozen mountains, a quantity of boulders and burns and any amount of blue sky.  As a bonus, throw in a beach and a couple of deer.
A great lump of scenery
          There was so much beauty that, at the end of a day, I was exhausted, and longed to sit in a dark room, stuffing my face with pot-noodle and watching ‘X-Factor’ as a corrective. But after a night’s sleep, I was eager for more scenery lumps.
          But the roads! The signs say ‘single-track’ and they do not kid. They are so narrow there isn’t room for a car to pass a cyclist.
Passing-places are provided, on alternate sides.  If the nearest passing place is on your side, you pull into it, and wait for the other car to pass.  If it’s on the alternate side, you stop opposite it, and the other car uses it to pass you.
          At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, and with locals, it works very well.  However, journeys are enlivened by foreign tourists, who don’t understand the system, or feel more comfortable driving on the left, and instinctively dive for it in an emergency.  A motorcyclist, for instance, shot across in front of us, into the passing-place Davy was just about to enter.
Another lump of scenery
          A huge camper van sat in a passing-place, watching us approach, and as soon as we were nearly level with him, pulled out, entirely blocking the road.
          Another couple made angry shooing motions at us, telling us to reverse, when the nearest passing-place was on their side, immediately behind them.  Our nearest was a considerable distance back along a winding, hilly, narrow road with a steep drop on our side.  Davy wasn’t budging, shoo as they liked, and it was they who reversed – having caused a minor queue. Not easy on roads so remote and quiet.
          The roads were so narrow, with so many blind hilltops, hairpin bends and deep dips that the road often vanished like a magic trick.  You reached the top of a rise, to see the last of it whisking round a lump of scenery, leaving nothing before you but moor. 
          Potholes had crumbled the road’s edges away, and there were drops and ditches at the sides… We had to develop a system where Davy, driving, kept his eyes on the road immediately in front of the car, while I watched as far ahead as possible (a glimpse of road sometimes reappeared in the distance) so I could forewarn him of approaching vehicles.
          After many miles of this, we passed a shiny new road sign: ‘Beware: Blind Summit.’  Workmen had been despatched from some distant depot to erect that sign.  Beyond it were miles and yet more miles of difficult, blind, narrow hairpin bends and blind summits, where sheep, cattle, motorcyclists and camper vans lurked unseen.  Why that particular blind summit deserved its own sign, we never discovered.
          But it was a great trip, and even on the morning of the day we returned, we brewed up on great slabs of rock by a waterfall, and enjoyed a coffee-break that no cafe or hotel could equal.
         I took many photos, but there were some sights I missed and wish I hadn’t…
         The enormous – HUGE – red, shaggy Highland cow standing at the roadside in a lowering glen (hey, embrace the cliché), its horizontal horns so wide that a single horn nearly spanned the narrow road.
         Two small lambs asleep on a moorside verge, their legs intertwined and wrapped around the pole of a ‘passing place’ sign.
To distract Madwippet from a mention of a cat.
         The ginger cat splayed on the pavement of Tobermory’s high street, abandoning itself utterly to the hottest sun it had probably ever known in its short life.
         But the lost photo I regret most is of the sweeps of bluebells spilling down to the loch sides.  So I tried to put the scene into words instead:

Brawling bluebells,
                       Vibrant, cobalt,
Run to the lochside,
                            Steel-blue, cobbled;
The mountain’s wall,
                Tawny, bony:
And the sky

And the palm-trees?  They do grow in the west of Scotland, where it's warmed by the Gulf stream.


madwippitt said...

Sounds like a really great break - feeling quite envious.
But did you really think I'd be so easily distracted by a photo? :-)
Although it's good to see that there are canines keeping the population safe from evil kitties!

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Susan Price said...

Thank you Garden Centre Chessington - feel welcome to drop by any time!

Freyalyn said...

I love Iona too, and I've been wandering round it in shorts and barefeet and vest in great heat. A very special place, weather-wise too. And now it's raining...

Joan Lennon said...

Blott makes me laugh!

madwippitt said...

Will next week see Blotttt planning his escape from the Tower? :-)))) Or being chased by a pack of corgis? :-)))

Penny Dolan said...

Sigh! It's far too long since I've been to Mull. The trip on the ferry still sounds as though it's magical. I was half afraid that the place had been spoilt by hordes of parents with Tobermory tv nippers.

Jenny Alexander said...

I love Iona - thanks for taking me back there!