Back to England via Dumfries and Galloway

It was stormy and I wasn't sure if I was more worried about sailing and getting to the Lake District that evening, or not sailing and missing our treat of a weekend in Patterdale. The CalMac ferry from Brodick to Ardrossan is cautious, and I applaud that. (Raging winds had been battering our caravan all night). Thankfully though the MV Caledonian Isles sailed the choppy seas and we arrived bright and early on a gleaming Ayrshire coastline. Raging storms came and went, disturbing the pristine skies for minutes only as we drove south through Ayr and then Turnberry.

A little further along we parked up and dashed along the shore at Girvan - stunning sands opposite a horizon adorned with the nobble that is Ailsa Craig. "I'm going to take a picture," said Tim, withdrawing the camera from its bag, at the same time getting distracted by a swan flying overhead. "Oh, look at..." he began in wonder, gazing up at the swan, before we heard SPLAT then saw the mess. A splodge of swan poo had hurtled towards him, accelerated by the wind, and splattered across his jacket! Back to the car to clean Tim up then we drove on, stopping briefly for a gulp of sea air from the tower of a clifftop castle.

Our drive continued through the rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway, where we could easily believe we were the only folk in the world. We detoured to coastal Kirkcudbright, a fishing town with a pleasant harbour, colourful houses and many an art gallery - it's known as the "Artists' Town". Next on our list was the "Food Town", Castle Douglas. True to its name, it welcomed us into the most unassuming streetside cafe - Streetlights - which turned out to be a marvel.

Although not usually keen on standard cafe fare of sandwiches, I would have eaten anything then - it was approaching mid-afternoon. Imagine my delight when I saw the healthy variety on the menu! I eagerly chomped through my falafel salad with creamy mint dressing. Make for Streetlights at 187 King Street if you ever find yourself hungry in Castle Douglas. And then it was back to the car for the final leg of the journey, at the end of which would be Patterdale. Driving through Dumfries and Galloway made for such a lovely route - give it a try next time you're in those parts and not in a hurry ...

Isle of Arran: Scenery to bottle

Nowhere more than on the Isle of Arran do I wish I could bottle the scenery and take it home, to open up every time I need to escape from the everyday. My most recent visit - for Hogmanay - was packed with landscapes of the most mesmerising sort. First, walking from Dun Ffion along Clauchlan's Point on the shiniest of days, we stumbled upon a panorama of Brodick Bay in a mediterranean blue surrounded by a mountainscape encompassing Goat Fell, the Three Beinns, A'Chir and Cir Mhor. The view was permitted thanks to the removal of swathes of pine woodland, part of a programme to reinstate native tree species - and what a treat for walkers now.
Another 'bottle it' moment came one afternoon spent plodding along the sand at Machrie Bay. A golden sheen polished the sea and sky. I shut my eyes and could hear only the lapping waves. We gazed at the same sea while walking from Catacol up to Coire-Fhion Lochan, the altitude extending the view to the Paps of Jura and Islay. We passed a collection of houses in enviable locations, before crossing rough moorland to the lochan. An eagle soared above. The steep sides of the basin left wintry grey reflections upon the water. Now, no sound but the rustle of the wind. A party of red deer observed us from afar, as still as statues. That same afternoon, Nigel treated Tim to a RIB boat trip (he returned glowing!) and Mum and I played Christmas carols. I attempted playing the recorder for the first time since primary school!
We were spending our first 'Hogmanay' on Arran, and New Year's Eve was lovely. It started with scrumptious scones (mine were cranberry and orange) at Janie's cafe at Home Farm outside Brodick. We stocked up on smoked salmon and mackerel pate at Creeler's next door before returning to the campsite, where it was blowing a gale. I had prepared myself for the worst after deciding to spend midwinter in a caravan, but it was toasty and cosy - though a tad worrying when the wind seemed to lift it.

The weather cleared that afternoon and we had a nice walk along the golf course. Around us, the fells were golden - amazing, this colour, when the world around should be dead. Evening celebrations started with dinner (salmon in creamy sauce) and pen-and-paper games at Lochranza Hotel, and continued at the caravan over several competitive rounds of Masterpiece. There's nothing like a board game on a wintry night.

We saw in midnight singing Auld Lang Syne and toasting a 'wee dram'. New Year's Day began with the sensation of the caravan being lifted by the wind (again) and the pounding of raindrops - let's hope the year didn't start as it intends to go on! We forced ourselves out, getting a good soaking on the way up - and back down - Glenn Esan. We looked upon its swollen waterfall, whose lagoons apparently make a nice summer swimming spot. The afternoon was somewhat cosier in a beautiful house overlooking Lochranza Bay, where friends of mum had invited us for a delicious roast lunch.

In Scotland it's important not to wish anyone happy new year until it has arrived - so we spent time clinking glasses and well-wishing over glasses of Bucks Fizz. I loved meeting the locals, all of whom had fabulously interesting backgrounds, and was royally entertained by their performance of Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter. It's one thing visiting a place, and even more of a treat to get an insider glimpse by meeting the people who live there...

Scottish industry: The Helix

I recently read an article in The Guardian that described The Kelpies - a sculpture of 30m-high horse heads in Falkirk - as bland, banal and obvious. My December visit to the sculpture in redeveloped area The Helix made me think the article's author had missed the point. As we approached Andy Scott's sculpture of two Clydesdale horse heads that tower above the M9, I couldn't take my eyes off them. The late-afternoon sun was shimmering upon and through the jigsaw pieces of steel, illuminating curves that captured lines from real horses. In Celtic mythology, Kelpies are water horses that oscillate between helpfulness and nastiness. One of the horses looks to be writhing, as if demonstrating their troublesome side. That they are situated in water beside the Forth and Clyde canal nods to the mythology, while their resemblance to Clydesdale horses represents the role of the horse in local industry. I thought the best view was from the motorway, but we did park and walk around the dramatic heads. Up close, as a horse lover, I saw that the expressions replicated those of horses I have known - something of a calculated intelligence. But the most striking thing about them is their size. As I stood beneath them, I was in awe - not wanting to reach out and touch, but simply look.
We continued our visit to the area at the nearby Falkirk Wheel. It was constructed to replace 11 lock gates that until 1933 connected the Forth and Clyde canal to the Union canal. The former is 115ft lower than the latter, so a boat lift was required to connect them. The result is the world's first rotating boat lift. It is shaped in graceful curves that seem to effortlessly transport 500,000 litres of water from top canal to bottom, while keeping it entirely flat. Perhaps the most remarkable fact I learned was that the wheel uses the equivalent of only 8 household kettles to turn!
The final part of our visit took us back to ancient industry - the Roman Antonine Wall. It was constructed in layers of turf, rather than stone, and has shaped the landscape. On a frosty morning, we followed the canal from Bonnybridge into woodland, ending up on the old military road beneath the wall. I'm guilty of having dismissed Falkirk as ugly and industrial (prejudice caused by never having visited) but I was utterly thrilled to discover all this history and culture in the area. It makes for a truly interesting weekend trip.

Christmas tour of the UK

Celebrating Christmas 2014 took me and Tim on a tour of the UK - from last-minute shopping and carols in Bristol to flying visits to the Peak District and West Yorkshire, and the days themselves at home in East Yorkshire. Christmas Eve was just as it should be: it started with tea and tea cakes with good friends at Drewton's Farm Shop and Cafe in South Cave, where the staff were clad in festive jumpers and the last few grouse were advertised for sale.

After an Italian lunch at The Gallery in the village centre, we saw out the day at Grandad and Pat's. Tim sampled his first taste of Frumity (a love or hate thing, and the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in our family - he liked it!) and we had a competitive round of Articulate. At home that evening, we decorated the Christmas tree while listening to carols. Christmas Day dawned bright and sunny, and tempted us out for a crisp walk.

It was our first Christmas without Grandad Mawson, and he was very much missed - especially his cheerfulness and jokes, his endless topping up of sherry glasses, and even the gruesome tales he enjoyed telling as soon as we had sat down for dinner! But it was a happy occasion with lots of smiles (as I think the photos show beautifully - especially the moment Will handed Nanna her 1500 tea bags; perhaps less so the moment Dad was handed his anti-ageing cream!).

Tim and I succeeded in cooking our first Christmas dinner - and apart from burning the mash, we think it went quite well.. Elsa prepared a tastier version for round two on Boxing Day. Luckily, after an energetic walk through the foggy forest in Elloughton Dale, we were ready for more indulgence. And you can never eat too much at Christmas, can you?

P.S. Note the cute tree decorations made by Tim's 3-year-old niece Charlotte
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