All posts by A Scotsman in Suburbia

I am not a Grumpy Old Man I am a middle aged man who occasionally gets slightly hacked off with things. My politics are greenish and to the left of centre. I am widowed. I own four bikes, one car, and no pets. I love cycling (hence four bikes) and cycle sport especially road racing. During the winter I enjoy watching football (soccer if you are North American). I sometimes paint and enjoy cooking and eating.

Campervan Adventures #7 Going Home

Today was the day when I had to head south with a purpose.

Day 1 to An Gearisdan (Fort William)

There is no direct road due south (unless you want to walk) so I set off in the direction of Loch Maree and Torridon.

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Loch Maree

The weather was a bit overcast and drizzly, which made heading home a little bit easier. It also meant that the photographs were a bit on the grey side.

As I arrived into Torridon (an area where mobile phone signals exist) I received a text from my bike shop telling me that my Brompton (which should have been there in plenty of time for my trip) had finally arrived, and would I like to come and collect it. If I had had the bike it would have enhanced my trip, but I couldn’t really say that not having it spoiled my trip. It meant that I went for a walk where I would have gone for a ride.

From Torridon the Starlight Express and I headed on along the southern shore of Loch Torridon until we reached Sheildaig where a decision had to be made. The coastal route via Applecross and the Bealach na Bá (Pass of the Cattle) is supposed to be spectacular. It is also on a narrow single track road which climbs to a height of around five hundred and fifty metres with hairpin bends and a few unguarded drop offs. The cloud base was about three hundred metres so I would be driving the trickiest bit of the road in the clouds with next to no visibility. So, no views and the chance of accidentally driving of the edge of a cliff; I chickened out and decided to take the valley road. Next time if the weather is clear we will take it.

The valley road to Lochcarron was attractive enough though.

I stopped in Lochcarron for lunch at the Waterside Cafe. Like all the places I ate at during my trip it did simple things really well. Excellent soup and a sandwich to go with it.

Moving on after lunch I didn’t get very far. There were major road works on the other side of the loch. I think there had been a landslip. This necessitated a convoy system, which was complicated by the fact that the road was diverted onto the railway for about a quarter of a mile. Naturally the trains had priority.

So there I was, stuck. Anyhow as I said earlier, in a camper van you can always make a pot of coffee whenever you feel like it. So I decided to do that. As Sod’s law dictates, just as the coffee pot came to the boil the traffic decided to start moving. I manged to pour it into my travel mug while ignoring the toots from the cars behind me and set off with a mug of good coffee to keep me going.

The Starlight Express, or at least her sat-nav was making a case for diverting through the Isle of Skye. It would have been less distance, but any time saved would have been dependent on the ferry to Mallaig being exactly synchronised with my schedule. I decided to stick to the mainland route.

A few miles further on I stumbled across something that I wasn’t expecting; Eilean Donan Castle. I must admit that I didn’t really know exactly where it was. But having found it I thought it would have been rude not to stop and take a few photographs at least. (Besides I did need to go to the toilet)

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Eilean Donan Castle

I don’t know very much about the history of the castle beyond the fact that it is a compulsory stop for every coach tour of the Highlands. but a click on the link will take you to an informative Wikipedia page. Feeling suitably relieved I pressed on to Fort William.

The weather was beginning to deteriorate and by the time I arrived at the foot of Ben Nevis it was blowing a full gale with horizontal rain.

There is supposed to be a good pub/restaurant about ten minutes walk from the campsite I was staying at, but I whether it is or not I still don’t know. I didn’t fancy arriving there looking and feeling like a drowned rat so I decided that it was a night for cooking in the van. Some pasta in a tomato and basil sauce washed down with a chilled red (the only place I could find to keep a half full bottle of wine upright was in the fridge) did the trick.

I also found a travelling companion today, Kylie the Campervan Coo.

Day 2 Back to England

The following day dawned grey, but not quite as wet and miserable as the night before. “Dreich” summed it up. The plan was to get as far south as I could, while remembering that I was still on holiday. The route more or less planned itself.  Down Loch Linnie to Ballachulish, through Glencoe to Crianlarich, then down Loch Lomond to Glasgow where I would pick up the M74 for the dash south. Kylie thought the plan was OK as well, or at least she didn’t object.

The grey, dull misty weather didn’t make for great driving conditions, but It did lead to some very evocative photos, especially of Glencoe.

I didn’t have the time, and given the weather, the inclination, to do more than take a few photographs. Glencoe is a place of spectacular scenery and not a little history. The Glencoe massacre of 1692 is infamous.

Onwards and southwards, The Starlight Express, Kylie and I went, passing through Bridge of Orchy, Tyndrum and Crianlarich before arriving “By Yon Bonnie Banks” in time for morning coffee. The weather was still pretty miserable but the sun was making a vague attempt to find its way through the clouds.

Loch Lomond spat me out into the outskirts of Glasgow and traffic and dual-carriageway roads. Things that I had forgotten about in the last week or so. I coped, managed to find my way over the Erskine Bridge, onto the motorway network and eventually onto the M74 south. I stopped for lunch at a service station somewhere south of Glasgow and north of the border.

I also managed to find a bottle of raspberry wine for my friend Toby. We have a competition to see who can bring the most horrible local hooch back from holiday. There was no way that it was going to be as vile as the coffee flavoured ouzo that he brought me back from Greece. The important thing is the taking part not the winning. (It did turn out to be reasonably vile though, probably more strange than actually undrinkable.)

I crossed the border near Gretna Green. I was trying to work out how far south I could get before dark (it is easier to set the van up if it is daylight). Google said there was a campsite at Kendal, not far off the motorway, so I decided to stop there for the night.

I went for a walk into town to find something for dinner, but the only pub I found didn’t do food. I wandered back to the van. It was actually quite nice to cook one final dinner in the van.

Final dinner

Day 3 Home again

There isn’t that much to say about today. The Starlight Express’ Sat-Nav gave me a pleasant little tour around the foothills of the Cumbrian Fells because it thought that there was some kind of a hold up on the motorway. It eventually led me back on to the M6 somewhere around Morecombe and after that it was dive down the motorway to home. I stopped somewhere along the way for lunch and made one last pot of coffee.

I arrived home mid afternoon and I must admit the Starlight Express looked at home on the drive.

Day 4 Saying goodbye

I had to return the Starlight Express by ten o’clock, so I was up reasonably early and about nine I reluctantly set off for Forrest Hill to return her to Campervantastic. They asked me how the trip had gone, so I told them;
“I enjoyed it so much that you may have lost a customer”

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Campervan Adventures #6 Come Into the Garden Maud.

reluctantly decided that today was the day when I had best start to work my way south towards home. I wasn’t really all that sure how far south that I wanted to get. I think I had plans to get as far south as Fort William ( or An Gearasdan as it is shown on the bi-lingual road signs). A slight diversion. Road signs in Scotland now are generally bi-lingual. In the Gàidhealtachd the Gaelic name is given first, but as you move south into the English (or more properly Scottish speaking areas the English version is shown first.

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Bi-lingual Road sign

I got as far as Gairloch, which is about 30 miles further south, but because it is quite a bit further west, I’m not sure that it was much closer to home.

Altandhu is out on a limb, so I had to retrace a bit of yesterday’s route before picking up the main road south to Ullapool. It wasn’t too much of a hardship, the scenery is spectacular which ever direction you look at it.

I thought about stopping for a coffee in Ullapool, but didn’t for two reasons. I was slightly 20180925_083743.jpgbothered, given my tendency to be distracted, that I would end up on the ferry to Stornoway and a tour of the Outer Hebrides. Also when you are in a Campervan with a stove top espresso maker you can stop and make a coffee where and whenever you feel like it.

As I was driving down the east shore of Loch Broom I did become distracted by a ferry, or to be more exact the memory of a ferry. About thirty-five or possibly forty years ago I did a walking/hitch-hiking/public transport tour of the Highlands. I remembered taking a foot ferry across Loch Broom from Ullapool then walking over the peninsula between Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom. I then more or less followed the coast round for a few days until I eventually ended up in Torridon. I thought it might be an idea to try to replicate the journey. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do all of it as there was one section from Redpoint to Diabaig that could only be done on foot or Mountain Bike. So instead of carrying on south I turned right at Braemore onto The Destitution Road.

The road climbs over the moors, with An Teallach dominating the horizon, before dropping back down to Little Loch Broom at Dundonell, where I stopped for lunch. Moving on down Little Loch Broom as well as the obvious spectacular scenery 20180924_225809you come to a place called Gruinard and about a kilometer off the coast an island called Gruinard Island, which has an interesting, slightly sinister, history. The last time I was here there were notices up all along the shore warning you not to attempt to land on the island. During the Second World War it had been used for experiments in biological warfare and the soil was still contaminated with anthrax. It has since been decontaminated and returned to its original owners.

I carried on following the coast road until I reached the village of Poolewe. Poolewe is the home to a rather remarkable garden. Because of the effects of the Gulf Stream, a benign micro-climate allows plants to be grown on the north-west coast of Scotland that you might not think possible. (Plockton, for example, is famous for its palm trees). Inverewe Gardens were created in 1862 by Osgood MacKenzie and later after his death, his wife and daughter further developed them. His daughter gave the gardens to the National Trust for Scotland shortly before her death.

I had brought my National Trust membership card with me, and as it gave me free entry to the gardens I thought I might as well. I’m glad that I did. In late September, when I visited, the gardens were past their best, but still worthwhile seeing. I would guess that they are at their most spectacular in late spring when the Rhododendrons are in full flower. It is easier to post pictures than try to describe in words, so here are (some of) my photographs.

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After my walk around the gardens,  and buying a T-shirt from the gift shop, I decided that it was time to find somewhere for the night. It was nearly five o’clock and as the saying goes, “the nights were fair drawing in”. I decided to drive across to Gairloch rather than spend the night in Poolewe. It was on the way to Fort William (remember, where I was heading when I set out this morning) anyway.

 

Campervan Adventures #5 Go West!!

As The Pet Shop Boys said:

(Go West) Life is peaceful there

(Go West) In the open air

(Go West) Where the skies are blue

(Go West) This is what we’re gonna do.

The skies were distinctly grey as I set off, but the weather forecast was hopeful. By the time I stopped to make a coffee at Oykel Bridge the sun had come out.

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Starlight Express at Oykel Bridge

After my coffee break I carried on, heading north-west into the wilds of Assynt and Wester Ross. As I travelled west the scenery became more mountainous and spectacular. Passing through the village of Inchnadamph at the south end of Loch Assynt this was the view that greeted me.

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Ardvreck Castle and Quinag

The ruins were once Ardvreck Castle a stronghold of Clan MacLeod, who once held sway over the lands of Assynt. The original keep dates from around 1490. The mountain behind the castle is Quinag.

I carried on along the north shore of Loch Assynt, heading for Lochinver. The clouds, mountains and sun combined with a stiff breeze to create a constantly changing sky scape.

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Lochinver is one of the biggest villages in this part of the world. It is also one of the biggest fishing ports in Scotland. Because of its sheltered position at the top of Loch Inver it has always been an important port for landing fish. In the 1990’s the port area was extensively redeveloped.

One of the companies that transports the fish from Lochinver to its destination has some interesting looking trucks. The combination of Christian and Celtic imagery on the left hand trailer was particularly noticeable.

One other thing that struck me as I was wandering around Lochinver was the names on the War Memorial. It wasn’t quite so much the names (there were a lot of MacKenzies and MacLeods both Assynt names) as the regiments. Roughly a fifth of the Assynt men killed in World War 1 belonged to Canadian regiments. There must have been a major emigration in the years leading up to the war.

I traveled on from Lochinver over a wonderful, narrow, twisty single track road to Altandhu and the Port a Bhaigh Campsite. That part of Assynt is dominated by the peaks of Suilven and Cansip.

The view from the top of the ridge above Altandhu is spectacular.

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The Port a Baigh campsite was probably my favourite site of all the sites that I stayed at. The views were great, the facilities were modern and clean and across the road was a bar cum restaurant called the Am Fuaran (The Well) Bar which did great locally sourced food at a reasonable price. By the time I had wandered back from my meal the wind was beginning to pick up (again). It was rattling the canvas of the pop-top, and also rocking the van about a bit, so I decided to sleep downstairs, with the roof down so that it would be a bit quieter and with the pop-top no longer acting as a sail, less rocking about.

Campervan Adventures #4 North by Northwest

Once you are at John O’Groats you can go west or south*. Going south would have meant retracing my path, so west it was. Going west, the road runs along the north coast of Scotland, sometimest beside the Pentland Firth, but more often a mile or so inland. It passes through several villages and after about 25 miles comes to Thurso, which is (apart from Wick) the only town of any size in this part of the world. Perhaps it was the weather, it was a bit grey and fairly chilly when I arrived there, perhaps it was the fact that the town has a bit of a run down feel to it, but it did seem as if I had arrived at the “Ends of the Earth”

First impressions aren’t always completely accurate. Wandering round the town I found that it is quite a pleasant place (if a little run down) and it has a very interesting small museum/art gallery, Caithness Horizons. Which also has, as you would probably expect a rather good café attached. You can tell that it is good as soon as you enter, because it seems to be the place where, if she had lived in Thurso, my mum and her friends would have met for coffee, cake and a blether. There is no way that mum would have put up with inferior coffee or cakes. So after a look round the museum I had my lunch there.

Caithness from Annemarie Gibson on Vimeo.

Moving on after lunch I carried on along the coast road to Dounreay . This was the site of an experimental semi-commercial nuclear reactor known as a Fast Breeder Reactor. (There is a good section in the museum on the history of Dounreay. It also has a reconstructed control room from one of the reactors.)
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There was a reason that it was built in this remote part of Scotland. It wasn’t to bring jobs to a depressed area (although it did that to an extent). With most nuclear reactors if things go badly wrong you will have what is known as a meltdown, as happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Meltdowns are serious enough, but if things had gone seriously wrong at Dounreay a fully fledged nuclear explosion was possible. The last reactor was taken off-line in 1994 (though the Royal Navy continued to run a smaller reactor for nuclear submarine research until 2015). The plant is currently being decommissioned, a process that might be complete by about 2118, though it is thought that It will be about 300 years until the site is fully decontaminated.

 

After Dounreay the roads became single track with passing places, even the roads designated as “A” roads. They continued as single track with a few exceptions for the next three days. Further along the coast I came to Farr Bay, near the village of Bettyhill. I stopped to make myself a cup of coffee, then the sun came out so I went for a walk along a pristine deserted beach.

Looking at the surf made me think that this is the real North Shore, who needs that one in Hawaii.

Continuing along the coast to Tounge I had a decision to make, whether to continue on to the North West corner, though it wouldn’t be possible to get to Cape Wrath except on foot, or to turn south. Because I had for some unaccountable reason always wanted to visit the village of Altnaharra I decided to turn south. It should be noted that villages in this part of Scotland are not like villages in the rest of the world. Houses tend to be spread out and a village is deemed to exist when the houses get a bit closer to each other.

I set off south in the direction of Altnaharra and Lairg through an almost deserted, bleak but rather beautiful landscape of peat bogs, lochs, heather and hills.

Road to Altnaharra

Altnaharra came and went and to be honest I would have missed it if I hadn’t noticed a sign for the Altnaharra hotel. I thought about heading west again, but as I had decided that while I was in the remoter parts of the Highlands not to let the fuel tank get much lower than half full, and I was slightly below that, the best plan would be to carry on down Loch Shin to Lairg, where I was fairly sure that I would be able to find a petrol station. When I arrived there it was about 18:30 so I ended up spending the night there. There was also a hotel with a restaurant just at the entrance to the campsite, so I let someone else do the cooking and washing up tonight.

*Not strictly true, Duncansby Head is slightly further east and Dunnet Head is a bit further north, and of course, you can always get the ferry north to the Orkneys.

Campervan Adventures#3 To the Ends of the Earth

Storm ‘Ali’ had passed over and all was relatively quiet and peaceful. It was time to move on in search of places and adventures new. I had decided the night before that John O’Groats was the next destination. I set off with the intention of getting there by sometime in the late afternoon.
However…. Strangely enough I got distracted. By Inverness.

By the time I had driven up to Inverness it was about 11:30, my original plan was to bypass the town and carry on north over the Kessock Bridge. Then I thought Inverness would offer a greater choice of places to have lunch than some of the smaller towns and villages further north. So I might as well stop there for lunch and have a look round.

What did I have for lunch, I can’t remember, so probably a sandwich or similar. Then I went for a wander and found the River Ness, which is the river that flows out of Loch Ness to the sea. No sign of Nessie making a break for freedom though.

Inverness is a very attractive town (city? it has a cathedral), especially down by the river, as can be seen from the photos. As I was walking along the river I came across Inverness Cathedral. I quite like mooching around old churches (although dating from the mid c19th it’s not that old by European standards) so I decided to have a look around. What I found really made my day. There was a concert by the students of Sgoil Chiuil na Gaidhealtachd (translates as Music school for the Highlands). It is based at Plockton High School on the west coast. There were some seriously talented young traditional musicians on display. I loved the concert and bought their CD, which became the soundtrack for the rest of the trip.

Image result for brick by brick Sgoil Chiuil na Gaidhealtachd

If you would like to hear some of their music click on the picture of the CD above and it will take you to their Spotify page.

This left me about three or four hours behind schedule, not that it mattered, but it did mean that I wasn’t going to make John O’ Groats today.

I took the scenic route round the Beauly Firth and stopped for the night in Beauly.

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The “Starlight Express” in Beauly

The next morning I was up bright and early, I discovered that the van had a built-in alarm clock, which you had to get out of bed to switch off. Which worked better than setting an alarm on my phone, that I could cancel while still in bed. The objective today was to make John O’ Groats.

Again I decided to take the scenic route following the coast rather than just hammering straight up the A9.

I decided to take a bit of a detour to take a look at Nigg Bay.

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Cromarty to Nigg Ferry

If I had known that this ferry existed I would possibly have driven along to Cromarty to catch it

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Nigg Bay

Nigg Bay used to be the main centre for building and repairing the various rigs and other sub sea structures used in the Scottish North Sea oil fields. That still comprises a fair bit of the work carried out there, but construction of offshore wind turbines is becoming increasingly important.

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Nigg Bay

After my detour I found my way back to the A9 and followed it round the coast.

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The view from the A9

It eventually led me to Golspie in time for lunch. I found a coffee shop with the marvelous name of “The Coffee Bothy”.  They do a rather nice butternut squash and chilli soup as well as coffee (obviously) and sandwiches. A big bowl of soup and a sandwich was, if I remember correctly, £4.50.

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Golspie High Street

Standing above Golspie on the summit of Ben Bhraggie is a gigantic statue, known locally as “The Mannie”. It is of George Leveson-Gower, Marquis of Stafford and First Duke of Sutherland. He was a controversial figure, responsible for “The Clearances”. Some could interpret his actions as a those of a social reformer, others see him as a monster. The link above gives some information. The land was cleared of the subsistence farmers, who had lived there for generations to make way for massive sheep farms, stocked with Cheviot sheep, largely shepherded by Border shepherds. My 3x great-grandfather Francis Renwick appears to have been one of the shepherds who went North.

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The “Mannie”

After lunch, a walk round Golspie and some food shopping, it was onwards and upwards to John O’ Groats. I thought about stopping at Dunrobin Castle – the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Sutherland – which is a few miles north of Golspie, but decided against it.

As you carry on northwards towards Wick and John O’ Groats the landscape becomes increasingly bleak. It is fairly flat with peat bogs and almost no trees. But it is also comparatively high up. All along the coast there are high cliffs. Pressing on and avoiding the temptation to stop in Wick (not that much of a temptation) I arrived at John O’ Groats about four in the afternoon.

Trying to get a half decent selfie in front of the John O’ Groats sign proved slightly problematic. Trying to avoid being blown away whilst taking it was also a problem.

I was a bit upset by the state of the sign post. Applying a sticker to it (a bit like a dog peeing on a lamp-post) to mark the fact that you have been there appears to have become a thing. All I have to say to any one who reads this blog is don’t do it.

I decided to stay the night at John O Groats. There is a decent campsite. Although I couldn’t find anywhere for an evening meal. It wasn’t really a problem. I cooked up some pasta and opened a bottle of wine. Problem solved.

 

Now that I had reached the ends of the Earth, all I had to do was find my way back.

Campervan Adventures #2 Aviemore.

Well the A9 is an awful lot easier and faster than I remember from the last time I drove up to Aviemore. That was about forty years ago. Storm “Ali” was the reason for the change of plan. I was originally heading for Oban on the West Coast, but the forecast was dire. 60mph winds and torrential rain. Aviemore however was supposed to miss the worst of the weather.

Because of much faffing around  – which I won’t go into – I ended up spending the morning in Dunbar, which I hadn’t planned to do. However Dunbar is a pleasant little town to visit. The harbour with the ruins of Dunbar Castle is attractive. The John Muir Country Park and the John Muir Way are also worth a look. (Though the full John Muir Way starts in Helensburgh, on the West Coast.)

It was lunch time before I made the decision to head for Aviemore rather than Oban.I suppose it is the beauty of your transport also being your bed and breakfast, it doesn’t matter where you decide to go, you will always have somewhere to sleep and, provided you have remembered to stock the fridge, something to eat.

I arrived at Rothiemurchus Camping and Caravan site about six p.m. It took me about ten minutes to set the van up for the night. Then settled myself down with a beer while I decided what to cook for supper. While I was eating my supper I checked the weather and found that Aviemore was about the only place in the Highlands that was not going to have 60mph winds the next day, so I decided to stay an extra night.

I started what was to become my daily morning ritual today. If I was staying at a campsite with showers, get up, stick today’s clothes, my wash bag and a towel into a carrier bag, stick my hoodie on over my pyjamas ( or my rain jacket if it’s raining), walk to the shower block, have a shower and sometimes a shave, change into today’s clothes and come back to the van to cook breakfast. If you are friends with me on Facebook you will have seen my daily breakfast updates.

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After breakfast I had to decide what to do with my day. Using the magic of the internet I tried Google and typed “Things to do in Aviemore” It came back with a few suggestions that would have been great if I was ten years old, a few that might have been good if the forecast on the top of Cairngorm hadn’t been for wind gusts up to 100mph and the Strathspey Railway.

I like steam trains, in fact I like steam. It might be partially due to the fact that inspecting steam boilers has kept a roof over my head for the last thirty years. So I settled on a trip on the steam train.  I caught the 12:30 train from Aviemore, which also came with the option of having a light lunch (soup, sandwiches and a pot of tea or coffee) which cost £24 return (including the train fare). The standard train fare is £15 return, so if you are feeling a bit broke you could always take your own flask and sandwiches, like a true train spotter. The journey through the pleasant Strathspey countryside takes about an hour and three-quarters.

 

Walking back to the Starlight Express the heavens opened and although it was only about a couple of hundred metres at the most and even though I was wearing my new Goretex rain jacket (bought specially for the trip), I got soaked from the waist down. Again the beauty of a camper van revealed itself. All I had to do was pull the blinds across find some dry clothes and change. Brilliant. I did go and buy some waterproof over trousers as a future precaution. I never needed them.

After I had dried off and done my shopping, I decided to take a trip to Grantown-on-Spey, the centre of the Speyside Whisky Trail and salmon fishing. I didn’t do either but I did discover a lovely walk from the town down to the river.

 

 

After my walk I drove back to the campsite, made myself dinner and settled down to work out where to go the next day. I had bought my self a map of the highlands because I discovered SatNav’s are very good for guiding you to a destination, but absolutely useless at helping you decide where you might like to go.

It was decided, tomorrow it was onwards and upwards to John O’ Groats.

An aside: My spell checker suggests Satan’s as a replacement for SatNav’s.

Campervan Adventures. #1 Setting Out.

The “Starlight Express”

I have liked the idea of a Campervan for quite a while. Grace and I talked about getting one after I retired (though I have a feeling that Grace would probably have gone for a Motorhome the size of a small flat). Unfortunately we never got round to it. The idea never left me though. The only problem being that I wasn’t sure would like the actuality of a Campervan as much as I liked the idea. With that in mind I decided to hire a van for a fortnight to see how I got on with it.

I got in touch with a firm called Campervatastic who specialise in renting VW California camper vans. You can find cheaper (usually a mattress and a single burner gas stove in the back of a ten year old builders van) , but they have a good reputation, all their vans are this years models and top of the range. Being based in Forest Hill, they are reasonably local for me. I had everything I needed (I hoped) ready the night before. I was up early on Monday morning to get the train to Forest Hill to pick up the van. The depot is a pleasant 10 minute walk from the station. Pleasant, I’m not sure any walk along the South Circular can be described as pleasant. It is ten minutes though. The handover took about fifty minutes, because there is quite a bit that needs to be explained about how to use the van. As the guy said taking a little bit longer at the start saves a lot of panicked phone calls later.

Because camper vans are supposed to have names, mine has been dubbed “The Starlight Express”, because its colour is called Starlight Blue.

I travelled back home using the SatNav to make sure that I was happy with how it worked (I was), packed the van and set off, via Sutton, in the hope that my Brompton had arrived. Unfortunately it hadn’t, so I was going to have to do without a bike. The plan was to make it up to my sisters in time for supper. The journey up was surprisingly hassle free. The van proved very easy to drive. The automatic gearbox and the adaptive cruise control meant that all I really had to do, especially on the motorway was to steer. It was a lot more comfortable and relaxing to drive up than my Little Lilac Car. It’s not quite as economical though.

Supper was great as it always is at Betty’s. My brother Jim and his wife came down and joined us, so it was a bit of a family reunion. Although Betty offered me a bed, but I decided that I was going to sleep in the van. It was a bit windy and I was parked in a lay-by so I decided against putting the roof up and obviously had to sleep down stairs. After I got used to the van rocking around in the wind, I slept well.

Next morning wasn’t quite so successful. I had remembered to put beer and wine in the fridge, but forgot the milk. I had made a batch of granola especially for the trip, but without milk ….. Likewise my coffee had to be black. Breakfast consisted of a cup of black coffee. Betty dropped round before she set off for work and gave me some lentil soup for lunch, which was great.

I needed fuel so I stopped off at ASDA in Dunbar to get some. I also got some milk and some Scotch pies. Right next door is a McDonalds so I had a Sausage McMuffin for breakfast.

My next problem was where to go. The wind last night was caused by the tail end of Hurricane Helene, but coming up behind it was Storm Ali, promising 60mph winds and heavy rain in Oban where I had planned to be. The beauty of a Campervan is that you don’t have to stick to a schedule. A quick internet search showed that the region around Aviemore was forecast to miss the worst of it. So I set off for Aviemore.

Away Day No 3 – Reality Check?

So far (two games in) this season, we (AFC Wimbledon) have looked decent. We were the better side against both Fleetwood and Coventry. All we needed to do was be a bit sharper in front of goal. The football we are playing is attractive to watch, and the intent seems to be to try and win games, where as last season the idea too often appeared to be not to lose.

We were all reasonably happy as we set off on another long trip up t’ north, to Barnsley this time. Barnsley had also made a good start to the season and were sitting on top of the league with a 100% record. They are one of the favourites for automatic promotion. So would today be a bit of a reality check?

Barnsley, is a surprisingly awkward, and expensive place to get to on the train, so we took the supporters coach . It was another early start. The coach was leaving the stadium at eight in the morning. So I was up at six to drive myself over and meet Stevie at Fat Boy’s for breakfast at seven. The consensus over breakfast was that if we carried on playing the way we had been then we should come away with a draw at least.

We had our normal toilet and coffee stop for at Watford Gap services. While we were stopped at Watford Gap this thing pulled in beside our coach.
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It was the official Watford FC team coach, with no one on it except the driver. His job was to drive the coach up to Manchester, pick the team up from the airport and take them to their hotel. Then presumably drive them to their game against Burnley tomorrow. How the other half live.

The Opposition

Last year Barnsley finished 22nd in the Championship and were relegated to League One. They kept most of their Championship team together, including Keifer Moore, who caused us all sorts of problems last year when he was playing for Rotherham. They also have new owners.  Barnsley’s long term Chairman Patrick Cryne died of cancer earlier this year. In the lead up to his death , the Cryne family agreed to sell 80% of their stake in the club to an American consortium. So far they do not appear to have gone daft by trying to bring in big name players on silly money. Perhaps they feel that what they have should be enough to get them back to the Championship, then they can start to build to see if they can make the Premiership.

The Ground

After a bit of a mystery tour we found a place to park the coach just outside the away end. Someone, I’m not sure who, suggested the local leisure centre The MetroDome as a good place to get a drink and something to eat before the match. It was all right, but the selection of beers was a bit limited. The burger I had was OK, better than McDonalds at least.
The ground (capacity about 24,000) itself has three fairly modern stands on the South, East and North sides, but the West stand looks as if it might have been there since the 19th century. I am guessing that the uncovered seats were until fairly recently uncovered terracing.
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We were accommodated in the North Stand. The sight lines were fine and there was enough leg room to sit comfortably. The attendance was about 12,000 with about 500 Wombles.

The Game

We made five changes from the team that won at Portsmouth on Tuesday. Will Nightingale replaced Rod McDonald, Liam Trotter replaced Anthony Wordsworth, Ben Purrington, replaced Tyler Garratt, Andy Barcham had recovered from his toe injury and took Mitch Pinnock’s place, and finally we started Kwesi Appiah instead of Joe Piggot. I think most of the changes were due to squad rotation rather than anything else. We have a lot of football to play in the next fortnight.
The game started with Barnsley pressing. They had a reasonable chance about five minutes in but put it high and wide. Shortly after that their keeper did well to keep a shot from Tom Soares out. For the rest of the first half it was fairly even. Our defence was solid against a lot of Barnsley pressure. We had another good chance about the thirty minute mark. Scott Wagstaff won a free kick on the edge of their area, unfortunately Kwesi Appiah’s kick was just over the bar.
The second half was similar. Our defence with, Deji Oshilaja and Will Nightingale outstanding, was still holding firm, but we were creating more chances. I was convinced that we had a goal half way through the half. Tom Soares played a lovely ball through to Kwesi Appiah who finished brilliantly, unfortunately the linesman thought it was offside. It must have been marginal. I thought he was level with their last man when the ball was played. Kwesi also should have had a penalty a few minutes later when he was held back after he had flicked the ball on for himself. Joe Pigott had a shot saved after he came on for Kwesi. We saw the game out comfortably. Tom King only had one save to make all match, and to be honest it was a catch rather than save.
There was an unusual occurrence for a League One match, no one on either side was booked. Possibly the referee, who I was not overly impressed by, left them in his car.

The Highlights

On the way back the consensus was that if Barnsley are one of the best teams in the league, then we probably don’t have too much to worry about this season. We matched them in all areas, and with a bit of luck could have won it.

Reality still hasn’t bitten.

Away Day No 2 -Searching for Unicorns

The EFL Cup, or the League Cup as it is usually known, has had many names in its time, The Milk Cup, The Rumbelow’s Cup, The Capital One Cup to name a few. It is currently known as the Carabao Cup. All these incarnations have had one thing in common. In the eight years that AFC Wimbledon have been a member of the Football League, AFC Wimbledon have never made it beyond the first round of the competition. One year we didn’t even make it to the first round. We had to play a preliminary round against Crawley and lost.
This year our search for a place in the Second Round (something that most Wombles are convinced is entirely mythical) took place at Fratton Park – home of Portsmouth FC.

I don’t normally go to mid-week away games. I usually have to work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Unless I take the Tuesday off it would not normally be possible to get to the game, and even if I did, I would probably arrive back home about three in the morning and have to get up again for work at six, so thanks but no thanks. I am on holiday this week and Portsmouth isn’t too far away, so I decided that I would join in the quest for this mythical beast.

As the coach left at four in the afternoon there was no pre-coach breakfast at Fat Boys, and I don’t think they do afternoon teas. (I’ll check when I’m in before the Barnsley game).  Two hours down the A3 and we were at Portsmouth.

The opposition

20180814_182938Back in 2013 Portsmouth were on the brink of liquidation. The club was saved by their fans who through the Pompey Supporters Trust  raised the money required to buy the club. On the way from the coach to our entrance to the ground we passed a mural dedicated to all the people who contributed to the rescue. I was pleased to see my friend (and dedicated Pompey fan) John Elgie’s name amongst them. The Pompey Supporters Trust has since decided that the fan owned model won’t work for them and the sold the club to former Disney executive Michael Eisner. As an owner of AFC Wimbledon (we are a fan owned club) I was a bit saddened by the news, but I assume that the PST did what they thought was best for the club. To be fair he does seem to be a “Fit and Proper Person” which is more than can be said for some of Portsmouth’s previous owners.

The Ground

Fratton Park looks like a Premiership ground from the 1980’s, I think there have been a few improvements since then, but it still looks a bit dated. There are rumours of a new ground or a complete revamp of Fratton Park, but for the time being I think they are just rumours.

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Only two of the stands, The Fratton End and the South Stand were open for the game. The early rounds of the League Cup rarely sell out. The official attendance was given as 6588 including about 500 unicorn hunting Wombles. So just about one-third full.

The food at the ground was football ground food, not brilliant, but not actively harmful to health. The sausage roll filled a hole. and created a small one in my wallet.

The game.

The Pompey fans – or at least My friend John – were confident:

We are ready. Won’t be there but they can probably see the opposition off without our support.

We made five changes to the team that drew against Coventry on Saturday. Tyler Garrat replaced Ben Purrington at Left Back, Rod McDonald replaced Will Nightingale at Centre Back, in the midfield Anthony Wordsworth and Scott Wagstaff were in for Liam Trotter and Andy Barcham. Up front James Hanson got his first start, with Kwesi Appiah replacing him on the bench. Portsmouth apparently also made five changes.

The first half was a bit cagey. I thought we had the best of it. We had a few decent chances, which possibly we could have made more of. Scot Wagstaff had a lovely lob over their keeper cleared off the line at the last moment. Though to be fair Portsmouth had a couple of chances of their own. But neither of the keepers had too much to do. The team looked sound at the back, with Rod McDonald looking very solid, Tom Soares was breaking things up and linking very effectively with the attacking midfield players. Mitch Pinnock’s crosses and set piece plays were causing the Portsmouth defence all sorts of problems, with Hanson and Piggott getting on the end of them. Despite all that we went in at half-time 0-0.

Four minutes into the second half it looked as if our unicorn hunt was over. They won a corner and delivered a good ball into the back post area. No one picked up their centre-half’s run into the box, he had a free header and we were one – nil down. Last year that might have been it. We didn’t (generally) do comebacks last year. This years team is made of different stuff. Going a goal down seemed to galvanise them. I was essentially all Wimbledon from then on. There were three or four shots well saved by their keeper, a couple of reasonable shouts for penalties turned down, by that I mean that I thought they were reasonable, the referee obviously thought differently, but what do League 1 referee’s know about football.

With about 25 minutes to go Neil Ardley decided it was time to change things about and took Mitch Pinnock, who was beginning to tire, off and brought Kwesi Appiah on, changing from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, albeit with Appiah playing as a No 10 rather than 9 as he normally does. This caused Portsmouth even more problems. In addition to having to deal with the height and strength of Hanson and Piggott they now had to cope with Kwesi’s speed and skill. There was a goal coming. In the 75th minute Scot Wagstaff floated a sublime cross into the 6 yard area, Joe Piggott lost his marker and headed in the equalizer. What happened next, I think is indicative of the mindset of this team. Instead of celebrating, his first reaction was to wrestle the ball off their keeper to get it back to the half way line and get the game underway again.

The unicorn hunt was back on. Portsmouth did have one chance on the break, but I felt that if anyone was going to score it would be Wimbledon. In the 88th minute we did. Tom Soares put a floated ball into the area and Portsmouth’s right back, under pressure from Joe Piggott tried to clear the ball, but only succeed in clearing it into the back of his own net. You could say it was fortunate but it was the sort of own goal that is brought about by putting a player under pressure. I thought we overall we deserved the win. We were the better and more positive team on the night.

Highlights

 

The aftermath

So unicorns do exist, we are in the draw for the second round of the League Cup.

And “It only took eight years.”

Here is the proof.

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I wouldn’t mind Fulham, QPR, Brentford or West Ham either home or away, but we all know what is going to happen, we are going to be drawn against Newport away.

Away Day No 1 -First Game of the Season

Before a ball is kicked in anger anything is possible, we could win the league, and the F.A cup as well, we’ll be in Europe next season, we can dream. Reality normally sets in a few minutes after kick off, but on the journey up to Fleetwood the dreams were still alive.

Our dreams this season are fairly limited, mid-table mediocrity is the limit of most of our ambitions. Last season was a bit traumatic, we only secured our League One  status on the second last game of the season. Over the summer our squad was given a major refreshing. Nine players, including last years captain, were let go. A couple of players who we might have preferred to keep, including last years leading goal scorer,  were out of contract and decided not to renew, presumably because other clubs offered them wages that we couldn’t afford. Our second striker, who always carried a bit more weight than he should, apparently turned up for pre-season training looking as if he was planning to change sports to sumo wrestling. His contract was terminated “by mutual agreement”.

Against that the players that we brought in looked decent in the pre-season games.

So with high hopes I was up at six o’clock to set off for Fleetwood and our first game of our third season in EFL League one. I was up but not particularly awake as I discovered later. We were getting the train, because Fleetwood is a long way up ‘t North. Stevie and I decided to meet at Morden Tube and have breakfast there. The Café isn’t quite up to Fat Boy’s standard, but it isn’t bad. There was only problem, it wasn’t open. We decided that we would get something when we got up to Euston. This was a mistake. Possibly we chose the wrong place to get a bacon and egg roll. However we do not recommend Leon’s at Euston as a suitable venue for a pre-away trip breakfast.

The train left on time, wasn’t too crowded, had a few fellow Wombles on board but I guess that most of them would have caught the later train. We did meet a guy from Kuwait and his son. They were on their way up to Preston to watch the Preston North End – Queens Park Rangers game. I don’t think he supported any team in particular (in the UK at least) but enjoyed football and liked to go to new grounds. I think it is his ambition to watch a game at every league ground in Scotland and England. He seemed genuinely pleased to bump into a pair of AFC Wimbledon fans. We had a good chat with him and told him that he needed to be sure to come to New Plough Lane when it opened.

After the local train from Preston to Blackpool and the tram to Fleetwood, we arrived about 12:30. Around this point I was fully awake, that was when I discovered that I had left my ticket at home. I wasn’t a disaster, because I knew that the game was far from sold out and I would be able to buy a replacement, but it was still an extra £22.00. I tried for the sympathy vote from the girl in the ticket booth, but she wasn’t having it, so I had to pay up.

If you are in Fleetwood for the football there is only one place to go for lunch. The Highbury Chippy. It is directly opposite the away turnstiles, and serves some of the best fish and chips that I have ever eaten.

Highbury ChippyWe had our fish and chips and decided that a beer or two before the match was in order. The clubhouse , known as Jim’s Sports Bar is behind the home end. Fleetwood are happy to allow away fans in. It is modern, comfortable and serves a decent selection of beers including a couple of real ales from the local Bowland Brewery. There were loads of screens showing Salford v Leyton Orient. After the end of the game we wandered round to the away end and went in.

I like Fleetwood’s ground.  It is called Highbury and the team play in red with white sleeves, so I assume that at some point in the past, they thought of themselves as a sort of Arsenal of the north. There is standing at both ends with the main stand down one side and some additional seating for about half the other side. The capacity is just over 5000, today it was probably about three-quarters full.20180804_143243

So to the match. Despite all the ins and outs of the close season, seven out of the eleven starters were with us last season, though Kwesi Appiah spent most of last season injured, so he was like a new signing.

Before the match it had been the Joey Barton show. He was announced as Fleetwood’s new manager towards the end of last season, and took up his post when his ban from football ran out. How he will do I have no idea. I got the impression that the Fleetwood fans are sceptical. He has no managerial experience, I don’t think he has done his coaching badges. He had no experience of playing at this level, so we will have to wait and see. I will be surprised if he is still there at the end of the season.

Last season there was a phase of opposition managers being sacked after they had either lost or drawn against us. Wimbledon being rightly known as party-poopers, we wondered if this might happen again.

We started off 4-4-2. Two new full-backs a new goalkeeper and a new right midfielder. I was slightly surprised that Neil Ardley decided to start Tom Soares in central midfield alongside Liam Trotter, because Anthony Hartigan and Trotter had looked pretty effective together in pre-season. Against that Soares on form and up for it (which he was today) is about as effective a holding midfielder as you will find in League 1. Last season he was apparently playing with an injury, which didn’t always help.

We started positively, looking to get the ball forward, taking the game to Fleetwood. Our new full backs looked solid in defence, and promising going forward. in fact the whole back four looked good, especially as they had never played together before, possibly not even on the training pitch. Mitch Pinnock our close season signing from Dover carried on as he had during the pre-season friendlies. He was taking players on, beating them and firing in accurate crosses. In addition to that is probably the best striker of a dead ball that I have seen at the club. Our strikers, Kwesi Appiah and Joe Piggott were a were bit profligate during the first half, at times it looked as if they had never played together before. That might actually have been the case. Kwesi was out injured most of last season. He was injured before Joe joined in January and towards the end of the season, when he was coming on for 20 minutes at the end of the game, it was normally The Pig who made way for him.

The first half ended 0-0 with us having had the best of the game. Fleetwood looked fine but never really threatened.

Second half was much the same, except that we scored. A cross from Ben Purrington, our new left back nodded on by Andy Barcham for the Pig to poke home. We could have had two or three more, but their ‘keeper was having an excellent game, he made one brilliant save to prevent Scott Wagstaff scoring, and we were a wee bit wasteful. When they hit the post and it spun out for a goal kick, we kind of felt that it was going to be our day.

We left Joey Barton with a chorus of “Your getting sacked in the morning”.

It felt much more positive than our visit to Fleetwood last season. The team looked as if they wanted to play together, they looked as if the system we were playing suited them and they looked as if they wanted to take the game to Fleetwood. It is too early to get (over) excited. If it is still looking like this ten games in, then maybe.

We shared the train back to London with the team (they were in First Class) and quite a few Queens Park Rangers fans, some of whom may have over hydrated due to the high temperature. They had been playing Preston, and the racket they were making you would have thought they had won. I mentioned that the team looked as if they wanted to play together, seeing them on the platform waiting for the train, I got the impression that they liked being together as well.

We met them again when we were waiting for the tube. I think they were going back to the training ground to pick up their cars. As Stevie said “You can’t really imagine bumping into Chelsea or Arsenal on the tube can you?”