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Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh and Northern England

Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh and Northern England

Old Aug 24th, 2018, 12:20 PM
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Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh and Northern England

We just returned from a 10 day trip to Scotland and Northern England. Some places we knew well, and others were new. Here are the details, in the hopes someone else can find something useful!

We departed on a Thursday evening on Aer Lingus, so had a connection in Dublin before taking a propellor plane to Glasgow. I had been worried about a short connection (75 minutes) in Dublin. Of course they changed the times after I booked the tickets, which made the layover time shorter. However I had nothing to fear. We arrived in Dublin right on time and had a quick walk through the passport control. I think we even had time for a coffee before heading to our gate. The flight to Glasgow was equally smooth and we quickly picked up our car and scouted out a lunch spot in nearby Paisley before a 3 hour drive to Ballachulish.

We stopped at the Malatso Cafe in Paisley for a quick lunch. There were a lot of choices in Paisley and it was about 10 minutes from the airport. Then we set off for the Highlands. It was a lovely drive up the side of Loch Lomond. We were a little tired, so about halfway started looking for a nice place to stop. We like a good Italian coffee, so I am always trying to figure out where we can get an espresso or cappuccino. We struck gold with the Artisan Cafe in Tyndrum (also called Country Mumkins at the Artisan Cafe) which had excellent coffee and some of the best cakes we had ever tasted. It is very quaint, located in an old church just south of the village. We were all in a very good mood after that stop. From there the scenery got even more impressive as we drove up towards Glen Coe. There were several places to stop and take photos and it was gorgeous. We were lucky to have a sunny afternoon for our approach. The green hills were covered with heather and there were lakes and small waterfalls all around.

We passed Glen Coe and made our way to Craiglinnhe House in Ballachulish. This B&B has loch views and was exceedingly comfortable. We loved every minute of our stay there and the bed was so comfortable it was hard to get up. We were very pleased with our choice and if we go back we will return there and revisit this area because we absolutely loved it. We arrived at the B&B and unpacked, then had a shower and a quick look around before heading out for dinner. Since it was a Friday night and there aren't an overwhelming amount of restaurants in that area, we had booked the Laroch Restaurant in Ballachullish. It was a nice place, and very full. After dinner we were tired from the trip so ready for a good night's sleep.

We had a lovely breakfast at the B&B and headed off for our planned hike: the Pap of Glencoe. The B&B owner, Lawrence, advised us where to park, and then we walked to the beginning of the hike. It was helpful that we had some indications about where to go. I had looked up hikes between 3-4 hours. I had read that the Pap hike got steeper towards the top. It actually got steep fairly quickly and I would rate it as a strenuous hike. There were several parts on loose gravel, so you had to be very careful where you stepped. It was somewhat popular and we ran into a lot of other hikers. However it is probably not a hike for children, and I consider myself pretty active and fit and I actually gave up about 20 minutes before the summit. My husband and my daughter continued and then I sat and waited for them. The views are spectacular, even along the way, so I felt happy enough that I had lasted so long. Going down was quicker, but still very challenging because of the gravel. It took about 3 hours in all.

At that point we made our way back to the car. We had purchases sandwiches in the morning at the Coop in Ballachulish for a picnic lunch, so ate them at the car and then set out to find a cafe on the way back for a coffee. We stopped at the Crafts and Things cafe and had a nice coffee and a look around the gift shop. Then we returned to the B&B for a nice hot shower before our late afternoon adventure.

Up next: Monty Python and Castle Stalker!
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Old Aug 24th, 2018, 03:32 PM
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Castle Stalker Tour

The week before our departure I noticed a reference to Castle Stalker as a nearby place to visit. It looked intriguing - a historic Scottish castle that also was the setting for the Monty Python film. Since the castle is on an island and is privately owned, only 12 people at a time are permitted on a guided tour at a specific hour of the day to coincide with high tide. I found the schedule and luckily there was a tour Saturday at 5 pm. I emailed and booked four adults. On the Castle Stalker site they recommend eating at the Old Inn, right next to the boat launch, so I booked that too after reading great Tripadvisor Reviews. After messaging the reservation on Facebook I had to call them with a credit card number. They charged 10 pounds per person to hold the reservation, and the amount was credited toward dinner.

It turned out that Castle Stalker was just a 20 minute drive south from our B&B, in the town of Appin, so that was perfect. We arrived at the boat launch (parked at the Old Inn as instructed) on time and it turned out it was just us and a French family with two small children. We left at 5 pm on a small boat with benches on either side. It was a short ride to the island - not more than 15 minutes. It was a fun, scenic approach. In fact Castle Stalker is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. We disembarked on the island. There were a few kids on the island. It turns out that Alasdair, the guide and owner's extended family was staying in the castle. It appears they are used to the occasional tour.

Alasdair's father purchased the castle in disrepair in the early 1970's I believe. The family then spent all their free time renovating the castle and making it habitable. It was quite special to visit a castle that was both historic and lived in.

First we entered the basement and first Alasdair told some stories about the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the castle in the 1970's. He was actually an extra in the film and had some very funny stories about the cast and the filming. Then we went upstairs and visited the whole castle. In each room Alasdair stopped and told some stories. He was a wealth of information and it was a very interesting tour. I'm not sure how much fun it was for the French family who didn't understand English very well, with the two small children. I would probably recommend it more for adults, and especially for Monty Python fans or if you enjoy castles. It was fun to hear about the local clan and the various disputes through the ages. The tour lasted about an hour and a half, and then we took the little boat back to the shore.

The Old Inn was delightful. Very quaint with old stone walls and candles in the alcoves. They don't have a huge menu but specialize in local Scottish beef, so we enjoyed our steaks and fish very much. It's more of a local flavor place than a high end restaurant. It definitely added to the experience.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening!

Fort William and Steall Falls.

The next morning we had planned a hike to the Steall Falls waterfall in the Nevis Gorge. I had found the waterfall on Tripadvisor, and it turns out it was the backdrop in one of the Harry Potter movies as well. Never mind that it was raining - we came prepared with our raingear and waterproof hiking boots. It was a short, scenic 25 minute drive to the falls up one side of the loch. The scenery really got impressive when we entered Glen Nevis. This is the area where Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland is. The mountains were green and beautiful with lots of sheep and waterfalls. There were plenty of walkers and hikers in the park - many with huge backpacks. We stopped at the visitor center for the restrooms, and luckily got some more information about parking and what to look out for from the info desk. Because I had read that the parking lot nearest the trailhead can be busy and there is a long one lane road to get there, we chose to park at the lower parking lot. I can't remember the name but it was near a bridge. At 10 am on a rainy Sunday there weren't too many people yet, but there was a tour bus of people who got out just to view the river at that point. They weren't doing the hike. Then we took a path that bordered the river and was very pretty. We crossed at Paddy's bridge and then walked along the one lane road for a bit to the upper car park. (I think the time estimate was 45 minutes to the upper parking lot and another 35 minutes to the falls). Then we joined the trail to Steall Falls. It was a gorgeous (no pun intended) hike through a gorge. Not too difficult - certainly much easier than the Pap of Glencoe! Despite the rain there were plenty of other hikers especially on our return trip - lots of children too. At the end of the walk you come into a big valley with the falls still a bit in the background. There is a wire cable bridge that supposedly gets you closer to the foot of the falls. My daughter and a few others braved the bridge, but by that time the rain was pouring and so the rest of us just watched. We wandered round enjoying the view and watching the people who were trying to cross, but it didn't really look like anyone was getting to the very bottom that day. So we headed back along the same route.

We then headed for a cafe in Fort William, which is only five minutes from the park! We parked and got some lunch and wandered round for a bit. Fort William was worth a brief stop, but not overly interesting. I'm glad we had the hikes lined up because it was a beautiful place to be outdoors, even with the weather.

Next up: the Edinburgh Fringe and the Forth Bridge
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Old Aug 25th, 2018, 06:57 PM
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After two and a half days in the Highlands it was time to move on. We had planned a stop in Edinburgh for two nights to see my husband's uncle.

We set out in the morning and managed a coffee stop at the charming cafe in Tyndrum en route. We decided to stop in Stirling since we had never visited that castle. It was easy enough to find and we parked in the castle parking lot. Stirling Castle was pretty on the outside, but the inside felt a bit empty and less impressive for me. After visiting the various parts we headed for a light lunch at Lord Darnley's Coffee shop down the street and then had a quick look around the town. I had imagined Stirling would be a bit more interesting, from the blurbs I had read about it. But then again we were only there a couple of hours. Then on to Edinburgh.

Although we had visited Edinburgh previously, this was our first time during the Fringe. I wasn't sure what to expect. On the way there I looked up the program for that evening, and despite the fact that the pdf of the day's performances was 140 pages long, I did manage to identify a comedy show I thought we would like called "Siblings". I tried to buy tickets with my cell phone, but it didn't work. Luckily we were able to get tickets on arrival in Edinburgh.

In Edinburgh we had booked a two bedroom apartment at Oakhill Apartments in Leith, a little outside of the city center. When we checked in, I asked the rep about the Fringe and how to get into town to see the show, where to pick up tickets, etc. It turned out to be quite easy. There are box offices all over town and you can walk right up and get the tickets. They have lists of the shows too. The key is to know what location. Our show was at George Square. Since we were on a timeline, we decided to uber, which cost about 10 pounds.

At first I thought it was a George Square was a venue, but when we arrived I saw it was really a square with a lot of pop up tents with food and drinks, and several tents that were venues for the shows. There were also restrooms that were much nicer than American porta potties. There were also lots of food trucks. It was very pleasant with a lot of space to sit around and have food or drinks. We picked up our tickets and then grabbed a bite to eat. They didn't want us to line up for the show until about 10 minutes prior. At the appointed time, they let us in the tent. It was very intimate and only seated about 60 people. The folding chairs were very close to the small stage. The show was a lot of fun - we laughed a lot. The comedians were two sisters who were actually the daughters of Ruby Wax, an American comedian who was on a British TV in the 80's and 90's. It lasted about an hour and was perfect. After the show we walked around the city before ubering back.

The next morning we headed for the castle with our Scottish Explorer passes that we had purchased at Stirling Castle. The passes are good for three days, and each day you can visit multiple attractions. We waited for the bus for about five minutes, and then decided it was a nice day and we would walk. It took about 40 minutes and it was a pleasant walk with views of Arthur's Seat, a big hill, the Parliament, and government buildings. We stopped for a coffee just before we reached the Royal Mile. Once we got to the Royal Mile it got very crowded. In fact, when we reached the castle they were not letting anyone into the courtyard - whether or not you had tickets. We waited about 10 minutes and then they decided to let more people in. It was a bit of a mob scene there, but once in it was manageable. However we decided to skip the crown jewels. we enjoyed wandering around with Rick Steve's notes to guide us, and ended up at the Scottish War museum, which I don't think we had seen on prior visits. I am glad we saw it - it definitely got more interesting as we progressed and it was a deceptively big museum. It was fun to see the uniforms of the Highlander units. Little by little more of the history sunk in.

After the castle we wandered around the city some more. It was crowded but lively. We eventually walked back to our apartment by Holyrood Palace and rested a little before setting out for our evening adventure. We had planned to meet Uncle Andrew in South Queensferry for dinner. Given that it was a Monday at 5 pm, we chose to take the local train rather than try to drive. We ubered back to Waverley Station and found the train. It was a pleasant 20 minute ride across the iconic Forth Bridge to South Queensferry, a town at the foot of the bridge. After getting off the train we spent a few minutes taking photos of the bridge. It was very picturesque with its big red semi circles. We met up with Uncle Andrew and had a lovely dinner at the Wee restaurant. Then we took the train back to Edinburgh. My daughter headed off to a late show because she knew one of the actors (started at 10:50 pm!) but the rest of us opted for bed.

The next morning it was time to move on to the main event: five nights in Northern England, not far from where my husband grew up.

We set off about 10 and in an hour we reached Dryburgh Abbey in Melrose, just north of Jedburgh. It was not easy to find, but luckily the GPS was a big help. Dryburgh is in a beautiful rural setting. It is a half ruined medieval abbey. It was very atmospheric and we all enjoyed the stop. Also we were able to use the Scottish Explorer Pass. From there we drove on 15 minutes to Jedburgh Abbey, which was also very impressive and a little more intact. After the abbey we set off for lunch in Jedburgh at the Caddy Mann. We had discovered the Caddy Mann about 10 years earlier when we had been looking for a restaurant halfway between Newcastle and Edinburgh. We still remembered the meal and were pleased to find it was still open, although they only serve dinner two nights a week. We had prebooked, but besides us there was only one other table occupied. Nonetheless the lunch was delicious - the best roast lamb and I had duck with celeriac puree and smoked duck arancini. And they definitely had the best sticky toffee pudding we have tasted.

After a quick stop at the border, we made our way one more hour south to the quaint town of Corbridge.
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Old Aug 26th, 2018, 07:39 AM
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Corbridge, the Lake District and Newcastle

We chose Corbridge for a base for this trip since it was close to our old home base. Also I was able to find a four bedroom house on Airbnb that suited our needs. Corbridge is a historic town about 15 miles or so west of Newcastle near the Roman Wall. It is a beautiful town with flower boxes everywhere, about six coffee shops, some restaurants and pubs and several gift shops, clothing stores, a grocery store open until 10 every night, a butcher, green grocer and a phenomenal pastry shop. There are fields with sheep and cows all around, and it is right next to the river Tyne. There is a nice path next to the river for walking or jogging.

We arrived and checked in and then went out to look around. The center of Corbridge is not very big so everything was only a 5-10 minute walk away. I had looked up a few things and was able to point out the Pele Tower pub. Pele Towers were structures in English towns used as watch towers. We went there a few times and it was very atmospheric with the old stone walls. By this time we were happy to stop eating out so just found some things for a simple dinner at the grocery store. It was very handy that the Coop was open 7 days a week until 10 pm. We also discovered that the butcher sold meat pies for about 1 pound 50 that were delicious if you like meat and pastry. There was also the Corbridge Larder, a specialty food and cheese shop with a cafe upstairs.

We settled into our house, did some laundry and enjoyed watching the Great British Bakeoff in country. The next day we had planned a day trip to the Lake District. It was about a two hour drive to Ambleside, in the heart of the Lakes, and I had chosen a popular hike called Loughrigg Fell.
We arrived in Ambleside and had a coffee and early lunch at Cafe Tref, which I can heartily recommend. Then we visited the book store next door to ask about maps, since there are several different paths for Loughrigg Fell. We bought a small book that had descriptions and set off. We parked at one of the general parking lots in town (there are also loads of stand alone lots by the side of the road in the Lake District), and then made our way to the park where the start of the hike was.

Immediately past the park the path started climbing and it was good exercise but not too difficult. It was a gorgeous path and we enjoyed seeing the sheep and the tarns - little mini ponds up on the hills. We tried to follow the directions but it wasn't completely clear, however we did get to the point where we had a lovely view of Windemere Lake. After that we kept going but at a certain point we weren't sure if we were going the way we wanted to. We met other hikers, some of whom had GPS's and were also unsure of their direction. There are many paths that criss cross in that area.
At any rate, after two hours we decided to just go down the way we came, which was fine. It was an enjoyable and scenic hike and we got some beautiful views.

After that we just made our way home and enjoyed hanging out and doing our things. It was great to have a house and town to spread out in so that everyone could go out on their own if they wanted.

On the next day we had booked an Owl Experience since my husband loves owls and it was one of the most popular things in Hexham, which is very close to Corbridge. It was expensive, so just two of us did it and the other two went to Hexham to look at the Abbey and do some shopping. The owl experience was about a 30 minute drive, much on a very small one lane road. Upon arrival they were offered tea and instant coffee and the facilitator spent about an hour introducing all the owls and different birds and explaining things. Then they were give gloves and the owls flew to them and sat on their arms. The trainer put some chicken in her hand and held it up to get the owls to fly over. My husband and daughter loved the experience, although on the website there are some complaints from people who didn't enjoy it so much. But if you are a serious birder it might well be your thing.

Meanwhile I wandered round Hexham with my son and we found a small Mexican place for lunch. Hexham Abbey is very historic with events and items dating to Roman times. There is a small museum attached to the Abbey as well as a coffee shop, and entry is free. We also did some shopping since there were more shops than in Corbridge. Since we had been dropped off we found a local bus for the 10 minute ride back to Corbridge. Later that day my husband and I decided to go visit Prudhoe castle, about 15 minutes from Corbridge. It is a beautiful ruined castle with some interior rooms to walk around. There is also a path around the outside. It was apparently the only castle not captured by the Scots. It is part of English Heritage and worth a visit if you are in the area. Following that we found the Boat House Pub in Wylam, which has won awards for its beer, and stopped for a drink.

The next day we had another family member to pick up at Newcastle Airport, about a 20 minute drive from Corbridge. After the pick up and a quick lunch and luggage drop off, we set off for Warkworth Castle, one of our family favorites. We were hoping to recreate an old photo that we could possibly use for a Christmas card. Warkworth was about a 45 minute drive up the coast. Upon arrival we discovered that there was a festival that takes place just one day a year, and that was the day. So the town was full up and we did not see any parking places. At that point the kids said we should just go on to the other castle we wanted to see, Bamburgh, another 20 minutes north.

So we drove to Bamburgh, which is bigger than Warkworth and less of a ruin, and toured around. Bamburgh has a spectacular location overlooking a beautiful stretch of beach. It is however very windy there, and the temperatures were in the 60's, so it wasn't a day for swimming. The castle is nice with furniture, dishes, portraits in the rooms, and even a small torture chamber so you get a real sense of the history. There is even a room with photographs of the family that owns it. It is a privately run castle. Bamburgh is definitely a popular stop, and the town around it is quaint with a line of shops and a huge green. It would be a great place for families since there is a green space within the castle walls and the beach and the nice green with playing fields. There is a popular ice cream shop as well.

It's worth noting that Alnwick Castle (more popular now since it was in the Harry Potter films) is also right in this area. We didn't go this time, but it is a nice place to tour since it is where the family of the Dukes of Northumberland live, and there are also some nice gardens. And if you have children, there are boat rides to the Farne Islands from Seahouses. I always was impressed at how many excursions there were in the area when visiting the grandparents with the kids.

After Bamburgh, we thought we would just stop back by Warkworth and see what the situation was, since the Fair was ending at 4 and it was a bit later than that. We were able to drive into the parking lot at that point. They were dismantling whatever they had set up in the castle, and we were able to walk in the gate and get a few photos in the yard in front of the castle, where we had taken the previous picture about 18 years ago! The women in the ticket office/gift shop looked a little confused but no one bothered us since we didn't try to go any further. Mission accomplished! We took more photos from the outside. Warkworth is relatively compact and in my opinion is one of the prettiest castles to photograph. In the spring there are lots of daffodils all around. We always used to enjoy a day trip there with a visit to the castle and lunch in one of the restaurants.

Then it was back home and time to soak up the atmosphere with a drink outside in one of the pubs. Corbridge was definitely a destination for locals at the weekend. The town filled up with day trippers. We were very happy to be staying in such an attractive location with so many options.

On our last day of vacation we went into Newcastle to poke around. We parked by St James' Park, the soccer field. You can tour St James Park, which some of us had done on other trips.

I found a nice self guided walk from the Guardian newspaper which led us into some areas we hadn't previously seen, like an old courtyard with a historic monastery called Blackfriars, Chinatown, the old wall of the city, the train station, and at that point the family resisted and decided they just wanted to shop, so we split up. In the center by Eldon Square and Gray's monument, where the bulk of the stores are, there was actually a kind of green space (green carpets!) with chairs and a slide for the kids and food and shopping stalls. So there was a lot going on. Before hitting the shops we stopped for lunch in a burger restaurant called Byron. We actually all got salads, but were very happily surprised with the food.

Then we divided and shopped before meeting up for the ride home. The next day we were all setting off - four of us back to the States and the late arrival took the train down to London for more sightseeing. It was a satisfying trip seeing different types of places - countryside and cities.
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