Monday, 28 May 2012

On holidays north of the border

A few weeks ago Subrosa had a post about the Scottish Tourist Board. Taken together with the recent non-stop wet drought weather conditions and now the switch to summer it had me thinking about holidays in Scotland. Unashamed personal nostalgia follows.

Growing up in the South East of England in the 50s anywhere north of about Cambridge, was a large unexplored area where the map legend said ‘here be dragons’ - or if it didn’t it might as well have done because it was beyond the range of the family transport. But in the very early 70s, having promoted my girlfriend into Mrs W42, she and I decided we would brave the barbarian hordes and aquatic loch monsters to see what this land of heather and whisky was all about.

Armed with the eternal optimism of youth, and the empty pockets of students, we bought an old 1950s Bedford Workabus. Anyone with a long memory will remember them. Rather like a slightly rounded brick with a short stubby bonnet that ensured you could only access the front end of the engine from outside, while the rear was accessed from inside the cab and all the essential twiddley bits that needed maintenance or adjustment were totally inaccessible somewhere up under the dashboard. It had sliding front doors designed to fall off if opened too vigorously and three forward gears selected (using the word in its very loosest sense) by waggling around a small stick on the steering column until something useful or exciting happened. It also had a considerable quantity of rust disguised under an excellent Dulux gloss hand painted finish (if I do say so myself). I had spent the early summer trying to get all four cylinders to cooperate and fire in synchronised regularity and had converted it into a sort of proto-camper van. We gamely set off for the wilderness. 500 miles of old A class roads enlivened only by the Doncaster by-pass, my first ever encounter with a motorway.

I don’t actually remember much of the holiday, I think the stress of driving with the vibration and noise of sitting inches from the engine probably addled my brain. I remember one incident near the west coast on a very wiggly and upsy-downsy roller coaster of a road where we were halted by road works. When it was time to go the van wouldn’t pull away, the steepness of the hill and the alpine camber of the road aided by the rain induced slickness of the surface and a clutch with only two settings – fully engaged or fully disengaged, free from any namby-pamby intermediate state - caused the rear drive wheels to spin, sliding the van sideways towards a large ditch conveniently positioned immediately adjacent to the road. We avoided it, but it was way too close for comfort. Coming back down that road was fun too, we had to park up and while Mrs W42, staying dry in the van, made a meal I jacked each van corner in turn, removed the road wheels and adjusted the primitive drum brakes to give us a sporting chance of survival during the next set of downhill bends.

We didn’t think of Scotland again for some good few years, not until some friends moved to the very north. By that time we were living in the midlands (note to London housing benefit claimants, real working people have to move to places like Stoke to find work and affordable houses). By then we had a couple of kiddies and just bought a ‘posh’ Rover, the newest car we had ever owned and one of the first mass produced cars with all electronic management. The plan was to take two tents and tour up the Scottish west coast eventually arriving at our friend’s place. 

We set out on an average sunny summer day, arriving that evening in gentle rain at a camp site somewhere on the Ayrshire coast where we were directed to put our tents in the camping area, some distance directly in front of the site shop and bar. We set up, decided on an early night and all went well - until just before midnight. About then a huge crowd of cheerfully inebriated demob-happy Glaswegians appeared from the site bar heading for the acres of fixed holiday caravans thoughtfully sited through a gate directly across the tent area from the bar. Had it not been tipping it down with rain and a pitch black night these Pictish hoards might well have taken the path safely around the edge of the tent area, thus avoiding guy ropes, pegs and other miscellaneous obstructions. But sadly it was both tipping it down and pitch black, so they headed in the shortest straight line direction. Fortunately the children were not severely traumatised because the thick accents and a certain amount of alcoholic slurring made the eloquence of the ensuing language unintelligible to their southern ears. We spent the next wet day in that area and another wet night there before deciding to head for somewhere with more circumspect night life.

Squidging our sodden tents into the car we travelled up to Fort William where we found a pretty campsite, with teetotal café only, for the following night. Putting up the tents in the cooling afternoon drizzle we settled for a more restful night and slept solidly, waking up to something that, to our untutored southern eye, looked surprisingly like a swamp or shallow loch. I had always imagined Scottish lochs stayed in one place, as directed by Ordinance Survey, but clearly I was wrong on that point, they are sentient. We carefully slithered the unladen car onto firm tarmac before packing our soggy tents and soggy people into it, and made our way further north. At this point a downside of electronic vehicle management became apparent. Although the engine started and the car drove, every part of the management system had given in to the elements. No dashboard lights, no indicators, no speedometer, and the engine running on some sort of limp home emergency settings. We headed for the Nessie exhibition along Loch Ness, on the basis it had a solid roof, was probably heated and was unlikely to have standing ground water over our shoes, and in any case we had promised the kids a visit there.

Arriving there I initiated our first serious discussion about the wisdom of tenting in Scotland. One of the few times I have issued a family ultimatum. It went something like; we can drive directly to our friends where there is a roof, warmth and dry beds and be there by evening. Or we can drive home to heating, roof and dry beds and be there in time for breakfast, or Mrs W42 could do whatever she liked provided she dropped me at a railway station, because I was not spending another wet night in an (expletive deleted)  tent! We headed for the friends and had a fantastic week, most of which I can’t remember because we were forced to spend so much of it indoors sampling the local produce from the drinks factory down the valley. There is a vague memory of going to see this wonderful picturesque west coast bay where we spent 5 minutes huddled, soaked and shivering on the path, clinging to the railings in the teeth of an Atlantic storm which had obviously been husbanding its energies while crossing the Atlantic with the specific intent of delivering its wrath to the first upright objects it encountered on the west coast of Europe. We were those objects. Some other intrepid holidaymakers explained that on a good day the water was blue and it looked and felt just like the Mediterranean. Maybe it did, who knows. We went to France for our holidays the following summer.

I suppose to be fair I should say we have since been to Scotland and enjoyed some incredible warm dry weather, and it does look beautiful in those conditions, I expect it has this last week.


  1. "It had sliding front doors designed to fall off if opened too vigorously"

    I remember watching my uncle loose one while trying to cross a very narrow little stone bridge in Wales. He just brushed against the stonework and off came the door.

  2. "brushed against the stonework and off came the door"

    Sounds about right! From memory there was a little stop piece on the runner which easily distorted. It wasn't so bad if you were inside when it happened, it was quite a lump of metal to land on your foot if you were outside.

  3. God's own country north of Watford Gap.