Tuesday, 15 May 2018

East Yorkshire: Four days at home

The sky looks enormous: splashed with fluffy clouds, it shapes a high blue curtain above the wide open landscape. Long grass brushes our legs as we walk, the riverbank sweeping on our left down towards dense rustling golden reeds and the glistening silvery mouth of the River Humber. Ahead, the rivers Ouse and Trent spill into the body of water. Behind, the Wolds form the only rise on the distant horizon. The scene is all apple green, buttercup yellow and speckles of magenta, and the stillness interwoven by the whoosh of the wind, buzzing insects and the occasional jet overhead. We're walking along part of the Yorkshire Wolds Way between the rural riverside hamlets of Faxfleet and Blacktoft, and are already into the swing of home. A little while back, we stopped to munch on Victoria Sponge from Miller's Cafe near Raywell and have now set our sights on the Hope and Anchor pub ahead. Another walk another day takes us to Weedly Springs in Drewton Wood near South Cave, where the scene is a luscious study in green. Another still along the clifftops at RSPB Bempton, where the steep grassy slopes above the chalky cliffs are awash with primroses and wildflowers in enticing hues of purple and magenta. Gannets bustle about the cliffs, diving and swooping and defying the strong headwind, while nestled into alcoves are a couple of cute sad-eyed puffins. A tea of homemade meat pies from Newport Butchers finishes the day off nicely. Our final day takes us to Hull, where we stumble across International Hanse Day on Trinity Square that celebrates Hull's past and present connection with the Hanseatic League (a marine alliance of trading guilds). Against the majestic backdrop of 14th-century Hull Minster, actors in medieval costume play traditional crumhorn and shawms, breathe fire and weave wool. It makes for people-watching of a most unusual sort as we settle on a bench to enjoy gooey caramel shortbread from nearby Be Coffee, lovely leaf tea from Caffeinated and Sicilian pistachio cake - scrumptious! - from friendly Alessandro's Italian Bakery, both in Trinity Market. No good city trip would be complete without some world-class art, and Ferens Art Gallery provides it in the shape of Van Dyke's Triple Portrait of Charles I on loan from the Royal Collection. Within its temple-like white facade, Ferens houses an exceptional collection of works by European Old Masters, marine painting and contemporary British art - and admission is completely free! Later, as we fly out of England to return to Switzerland, our plane is diverted due to French air traffic control strikes. And in a lovely twist of fate, we glide right over the river at Faxfleet, and can see that majestic meeting of rivers at the Humber, which winds its course to Hull, past Spurn Point and out into the North Sea.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Scotland: Mull of Kintyre

As I write, seated in an antique chair at an antique table in a lamplit Victorian sitting room, I can hear the sea roaring and crashing, and the billowing of the wind in the branches outside the cottage. The sky is charcoal with night, but the crests of the waves shimmer silver beyond the sash window. For my birthday treat, we're spending a week on the Landmark Trust's Saddell Estate on Kintyre in western Scotland, perhaps most famous as the location of Paul McCartney's 'Mull of Kintyre' video. Looking out across the Kilbrannan Sound to the rugged skyline of the Isle of Arran, the estate is reached by a tree-lined driveway and comprises a tumbledown 16th-century castle and a clutch of quaint cottages almost concealed by tangled woodland. We're in Shore Cottage, which is delightful in a puritanical way - all fuss-free decor and flagstone floors, with features like an original range and ceiling hooks, and prints of ships, castles and adoring couples adorning the otherwise plain walls. Its doors open onto the creamy white horseshoe-shaped bay, where an Anthony Gormley sculpture of a figure, stoic among the waves, startles. I love the dark at night and the unceasing quiet, and the fact there is no WiFi or TV, so we spend our evenings engaged in conversation and board games.
Kintyre is similarly unspoilt - it's all tumbling woodland and rolling glens, with the occasional sleepy settlement - but there is lots to do. One highlight is going to the Machrihanish Bird Observatory run by Eddie Maguire, who is kind enough to open up for us even though the centre is still closed for the winter. The observatory is perched on a rocky promontory that lots of seabirds must pass on their journeys, and Eddie is a real expert, spending countless hours observing the wildlife. Thanks to his persistence, he even spotted Argyll's first sooty tern - a bird usually found in the equatorial zone. On our visit, we see ringed plovers, eider ducks, oyster catchers and rock pipits, and enjoy watching their antics from our unseen position. Another day takes us further north to the Knapdale area and Tayvallich. It's a wet day, the rain driving sideways, and the village cafe is closed... but there's something evocative still about this tranquil collection of cottages clustered around one fingertip of Loch Sween and cloaked by folds of riotous ancient woodland. We delve into it on the three-mile Scottish Beaver Trial walk in Knapdale Forest. A few years ago, beavers were reintroduced to Scotland and have been busy creating dams here ever since. There are signs of the shy creatures all around, like footprints and gnawed tree trunks. Not ones to be put off by wet weather - just don your waterproof and smile, I say - we then venture up Dunadd Hillfort in the ancient landscape of Kilmartin Glen, where there's such a concentration of archaeological sites that only the presence of cars and roads anchors it in the modern day. From the top of the hillock, the views are commanding - serene tones of gold and pewter unfurl in every direction as if in a sfumato painting, the drizzle merging the colours together. Dunadd, at its most powerful from 500 to 900 AD, is thought to have been the capital of Dalriada, the kingdom that gave rise to modern Scotland. Some of the stone fortifications still remain intact, and there is ogham text (straight lines used in early Irish writing) carved into some stone slabs, as well a 'footprint' - size 8, apparently - in a rock near the summit that is thought to be connected to the coronation ceremony for the kings of Dalriada.
Our perhaps most memorable day is on Gigha, a community-run island 20 minutes off the coast of Kintyre. "It's just one road to the north of the island, and one to the south," the shopkeeper tells us when we collect our hire bikes. But we have acquired a dog escort nevertheless. 'Ben' joined us at one of the farms and is now running ahead of our bikes, his ears flapping and his tongue lolling, showing the way as we cycle along the six-mile spine of the island. The scenery is Scotland at its finest - tangled fields tumbling towards pure white sand beaches that meet a turquoise sea lapping between a hazy jigsaw of island and mainland. There are cattle in some fields, flocks of geese in others. Daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops are bursting open in the verges. The air feels salty but clean on my cheeks as we freewheel towards the island's northern tip, where the view opens to encompass the Paps of Jura. Ben waits, head cocked, tail wagging, as we unpack our picnic and settle on a rock in the warm sun. The sweet dog is so eager to please that he sits on command and holds out his paw for a handshake, and it's with heavy hearts that we bid him goodbye at his farm on the way back. At the other end of the island, we find Achamore Gardens, a stately arrangement of sub-tropical plants that are curled up against the cold weather. There's just time for a slice of cake at the Gigha Gallery, halfway down the island, which also sells gorgeous seascapes and toiletries handmade on Gigha. I'm equally enticed by the organic products on offer at the Ardminish Stores, and can't resist some coriander pate, bergamot dark chocolate and quinoa crisps for the journey.
The Gigha sunshine doesn't endure, and by the time we're due to return to Edinburgh Airport via the Isle of Arran, all ferries are cancelled because of high winds. For us, there is a silver lining, as we drive to Inverarey for a birthday fish-and-chips lunch and a slab of creamy Victoria Sponge at Brambles Cafe, before continuing around Loch Fyne to its opposite shore and Portavadie Spa. Our cottage there overlooks the marina and is warm and comfortable as we sit listening the wind whistle through the yachts' masts. We have the spa to ourselves in the evening, and bask in the warm outdoor infinity pool watching the waves whip up and crash on the loch as the hazy sun slides into the sea.