Thursday 13 July 2023

The Cairngorms and Scottish Borders

Thursday 13 July 2023

Nido's parked up at another Forest and Land Scotland park-up, this time at Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders.  It's another nice quiet one with great views over the hills.  The adjacent hilly forest is said to have some of the best mountain biking trails in Europe; certainly the youngsters there today seem to be having lots of fun.  This is the final night park-up of this trip as we decided to head home from here, rather than stay on a temporary holiday site in Lancashire tomorrow night, which was our original plan.

On Tuesday our plan was to stay on at Rosehearty for one more night.  But we decided to move on.  We drove down to the Burn o' Vat visitor centre, where we can park up for the night and they have fresh water and a toilet disposal point. They ask for a donation to the Park Scotland charity, which we were very happy to make.  After a quick lunch we started a circular walk in the forest of the Muir of Dinnet, which also took in the Vat, an amazing natural amphitheatre accessed through a narrow gap in the rocks across the burn.  The Vat was carved from the stone by action of raging glacial meltwaters at the end of the last ice age.  The burn level was low, so it wasn't a difficult climb in - even for an old git like me!  The view inside the Vat was incredible and the waterfall, although quite gentle when we visited, must be something to see when in spate.  We carried on, ascending through pine forests before passing through open heather-clad ground before dropping back through a large birchwood.  We had glimpses of Loch Davan to our left.  It just started to rain as we walked the last 400m to the van. I cooked dinner and we spent the rest of the evening chilling out.

Yesterday morning we both slept until 0900. After breakfast we drove the 5 miles into Ballater and parked in the free car park in the middle of the village.  We left Salty in the van and had a quick walk around to get our bearings and doing a bit of shopping in the butchers (Haggis), bakery (pasty and pie) and Co-op, before going back, packing a rucksack with coats, water and some snacks and heading out for a walk.  We did the Seven Bridges circular walk, which is very well marked with blue arrows and way marker posts.  Taking us first along the edge of the river Dee through oak forest, we crossed the river again at Polhollick Bridge, an elegant white suspension bridge with a warning sign that only 4 people should be on it at any one time!  It took us into Dalliefour Wood, a Scots pine plantation with good views to Craigendarroch, the oak-clad hill above Ballater.  The path widened and flattened off and after 1k we turned onto a road (with short sections moving off the road onto a separate path) which took us back to Ballater via the Royal Bridge, opened by Queen Victoria in 1885; it had several predecessors, all of which succumbed to the might of the Dee in full flood.  Back in the van, the pie and pasty were heated up and enjoyed with a cup of tea.

It was an 18 mile drive to the Linn of Quoich car park, mainly because the single track road follows the Dee for 9 miles from Braemar, before crossing the river and doubling back on itself. The Linn of Quoich, is on the Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve, run by National Trust Scotland.  Braemar's about 9 miles away by road, but only a few miles as the crow flies and I could just make out the top of Braemar castle over to our left.  Although we're not NTS members, it only costs £3 to park here for 24 hours.  We're were the only van there.  Supper was a simple meal of toasted Ballater traditional breaded with a ratatouille bruschetta topping and some pork steaks.  We had a quick walk with Salty down to the river before returning to the van for the evening.  It was very still and quiet and Salty is going bonkers because I think there are rabbits - or maybe haggis - running outside the van!

This morning we were up early and had a longer walk along the Linn.  It is absolutely stunning, with the river cascading across flat rocks and through narrow gorges, with a few deeper areas that would be ideal for a swim. On both sides are Scots pines in what is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest.  It's by far the most beautiful place we've visited on this trip.  We walked for about an hour, stopping to soak up the atmosphere and watch the white water and the dippers doing their thing on the water's edge. Back at the van, breakfasted and showered we were just preparing the van to leave when the Ranger turned up.  I had a chat with her and thanked her for allowing us to stay.  She said a few vans had been breaching the one night stay rule and leaving litter, so the Estate was considering whether they want to continue to allow vans to stay overnight.  If the few ruined it for the many, it would be a great shame.  If you're in the area do visit - you won't be disappointed.

Our journey south took us via Perth and over the new bridge that spans the Firth of Forth.  I spent about 15 months in Rosyth when HMS WESTMINSTER - the last RN warship I served in - was in refit there. Looking across I could just make out HMS PRINCE OF WALES in the dockyard, which is in repair after mechanical issues.  Further down the road I saw we would pass Rosslyn Chapel.  This is somewhere I've wanted to visit for some time, as I have a interest in the history of the Knights Templar, both in their bases in Europe and, in the latter stages of their existence, in Scotland.  We arrived but the parking was rammed, strangely with lots of EU motorhomes, so we turned away and carried on.  I think it's popular with vans of the Da Vinci Code (book and film) as it appears in the final chapters.

Arriving at Innerliethen we took Salty for a quick walk before sitting outside with a cup of tea, soaking up the sunshine and the views and listening to the pipe bands and brass bands as they played in the distance.  I'm not sure if this was a show or practice for the Highland Games, but it was lovely to listen to. It's quiet now, the sun has just set behind the hills and there's only one other motorhome here....plus lots of rabbits that Salty is taking a great interest in!  I found another tick on him this morning (that makes it a total of three) and then found one on my left calf!  We carry the tools to remove them so all was sorted, but it was a reminder to pay more attention when doing the post-walk tick check in the future.

Tomorrow we head home.  We'll stop somewhere for lunch and a leg stretch and then face the horrors of IKEA again in Warrington, as Cathy wants another memory foam pillow plus a towel rail for the van.  We've had an excellent two weeks in Scotland with some outstanding weather and have seen and stayed in some lovely places.  The final stage of the trip - the Cairngorms - was absolutely stunning.  We only saw a small part of it so will definitely return to see more of it.  Next up is France, a 6-week trip starting later next month.  So there's some time to sort out a few niggling issues with the van and hopefully get the Thetford fridge checked and fixed.  Weirdly, since I reported the issued to CMS, it's been working fine!  Debbie and Paul at CMS have been excellent and we've swapped a few emails to discuss and gather information on the issue.  The current thinking is it might be a 12V DC power supply issue, rather than a PCB replacement, but I'm confident Paul will diagnose the fault.

Until we check in to the Eurotunnel....catch you on the other side!

Entrance to the Vat












Excellent haggis and sausages

Chinese takeway - by Royal Appointment!


Seven Bridges walk from Ballater




Linn of Quoich park up



Abandoned but what a view!

Wild swimming spot

Staying back from the edge!


Final park-up of the trip



Monday 10 July 2023

My 60th Birthday - a reflection on life

Monday 10 July 2023

Nido's still parked up at the Rosehearty Community Boat Club.  This place - its friendly community and the beautiful sea and scenery have won us over.  The original plan was to stay one night then move on. When we arrived yesterday we decided to stay two nights and were told by Peter (the boat club manager) - with a twinkle in his eye - if we pay for two nights the third night's free. Well, we're taking that third night. He must have seen this happen so often.  This lovely village with it's quiet, typically straight streets of granite single storey houses has stolen our hearts; I could live here. Our plans have therefore been adapted to allow for this; we'll miss out on a night in Tomintoul, but we'll visit there another time on a future trip north.

After a little rain in the night, I woke at about 7.45am. It felt warm in the van and opening the skylight blinds displayed another blue sky day. The forecast had changed from all day thunderstorms to sunshine then rain from about 3pm.  Breakfast - haggis slice and fried egg in a soft bread roll (very Scottish!) - was taken outside with two cups of tea.  The sun was hot but there was a gentle breeze to just take the edge off it. I'd walked Salty before breakfast and had a wander down to the harbour. It's still a working fishing harbour, which is great to see.  I watched the port come alive, with fishing boat owners shouting across to each other as they headed out to sea.  Most of them seem to be long-lining - I guess for pollack or mackerel.  There were three benches around a rectangular granite-topped table. Each bench was dedicated to a deceased fisherman and his boat's name.  I would imagine it's a popular place for the old boys to meet up, to reminisce about the past and pass tutting judgement (but begrudging pride) on the youngsters who've taken their place!

We locked up and headed west along the coastal path.  Not long into the walk we passed Rosehearty Tower.  This used to be a RAF observation tower for bombing runs along the Moray Firth. The bombing range was established in the 1950s and closed in 2000.  The tower and buildings were built in 1994 at a cost of £750,000 and sold in 2017 for £75,000!  It's now a 4 bedroom property, with the most amazing tower with 360' views over the sea and surrounding hills. Our walk continued along the coast and we watched the myriad birdlife on the sea, cliffs and rocks.  After a couple of miles we reached a derelict house close to a small inlet.  It was a significant building and must have been a lovely comfortable home in its day, with a zig-zag track leading down to the rocky beach.  Reversing our route, we just made it back before the thundering clouds that had been building to the south all day opened to heavy rain.  We sat under the awning eating our lunch and soon the sun was shining again.  Later we took a walk along the white sandy beach that reminds us so much of the Caribbean.

Today has been significant for me - I turned 60 years of age!  How can this be?  My body is 60 but in my head I'm still in my early 20s. I stayed up last night past midnight, sat in the van's cab seat watching the light gradually fade, with a glass of Glenlivet in hand, reminiscing about my past life, but mainly aiming to fight off the Grim Reaper until I reached my 60s!  I've survived three wars, including in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, supporting the Mujahideen fighting the Russians (when we Brits weren't supposed to be there), but coming closest to death in the Falklands War of 1982 in HMS BRILLIANT, when I narrowly avoided serious injury from cannon shell from an Argentinian Skyhawk aircraft on 21 May - the day of the San Carlos landings. After those experiences life seems a lot worth living.

When I eventually went to bed at half past midnight this morning, there was still a little light in the sky and, waking at 0430 (I was still alive!!), the light in the east was already rising.  Summers are long in the north of Scotland, but I can imagine the long, dark, cold, stormy winter nights too. 

Age has never really bothered me until now.  Neither of us ever made a fuss over birthdays.  We've known people to take a whole week off just to celebrate their birthday - why? Our view is that a birthday is just another day.  Rather than trying to make it 'the' perfect day (a bit like Christmas), it's much better to treat ourselves throughout the year when the opportunity arises.

My 20th and 30th birthdays passed by without a second thought, as we brought up our young children (or at least Cathy did) and I went off to sea for several months on end.  My 40th was also spent at sea, so was a non-event. My 50th was relatively quiet.  I never really thought about it then, but the thought of turning 60 has really bugged me for many years - I almost feared it.  

It took a while to work out that it's because my parents died relatively young.  My Mum was 58 when she died (a sudden brain haemorrhage) - 2 years younger than I am now - and my Dad was my age when he buried his wife. I recall the day of my Mum's funeral on 4 September 2001 - exactly 22 years to the day that I left home to join the Royal Navy aged 16.  Relating that to my current age makes me feel incredibly sad.  She knew I had been selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander, but never saw me 'stripe up' less than a month after her death. My Dad - broken by his loss - only survived a few years longer; bowel cancer took him. He died 17 days after being diagnosed. They always talked about what they would do together when they retired - they had such great plans - but they didn't make it.  

So in my mind I didn't expect to get to this age, although I recognised that they were both heavy smokers for most of their lives (as most of their generation were) and they had hard physical jobs that took its toll.  In contrast, I've never smoked, I've kept fit and active and not had any serious illnesses (so far).  Their early deaths were a shocking realistic catalyst for Cathy and I.  We talked long and hard about what we wanted from our own retirement and when that should happen. It's then we decided we'd do all we can to retire early and enjoy life while we were fit enough to do so.  We ran old cars into the ground, had cheap UK holidays, ate at home rather than going out and saved hard, paying off chunks of our mortgage, managing to shave ten years off it.  When we made our final mortgage payment in August 2016, it was a moment to celebrate but also reflect and remember my parents and all their retirement hopes and dreams.  It's because of this that I'm grateful for every day of healthy living and hope to be around for a lot longer. It also explains why I'm sat typing this blog in our camper van, which gives us so much freedom and joy. 

We've never made much of a fuss over birthdays (except for our children when they were young), so today was pretty much the same as any other, although we did crack open a bottle of CrĂ©mant to quietly celebrate the day.  We enjoyed our coastal walk and the early evening beach stroll was magical. Witnessing nature and all it gives us is free.

Tomorrow I'll go out for a bike ride if the weather holds, then maybe we'll go to the local pub for lunch. I fancy Cullen Skink as it's a local dish.  Until then, it's time to stare out to sea and watch the light fade on a significant day for me. I'm so grateful to be alive, fit and well. Tonight I remember my loving parents who gave me so much unconditional love and a happy, carefree childhood.  I'm convinced these guardian angels brought us such a lovely day and an amazing sunset  - thank you Mum and Dad - Maureen and Barry. Love You. XXX

Rosehearty harbour

The fishermens' meeting place










Rosehearty Tower





Sunday 9 July 2023

Spey Bay, Cullen and a swim at Rosehearty

Sunday 9 July 2023

Nido's parked up at the Rosehearty Community Boat Club, right on the coast just a few miles west of Fraserburgh.  This is a lovely park-up with a great history.  Peter, who manages the boat club, decided a few years ago that they should take over this grassy field, which used to be a council run caravan park, but fell into disrepair.  His idea was to set it up as a motorhome aire to raise money for the boat club and local charities. He had quite a lot of opposition from local councillors (nothing new there!) but it was finally approved and just took off. Since that time they've raised thousands of pounds from the park-up fees, including £4,000 to teach the local children how to sail. There's full motorhome servicing facilities and all for just £10 for night.  EHU is extra but if you don't need it, you can park anywhere you want on the field which is about an acre. There are views of the harbour wall, the white sandy bay and sea and lovely sunsets.  If you visit this part of Scotland, I highly recommend staying here - you won't be disappointed.  Details including all the positive reviews are on Search for Sites.  I'd rung Peter a few days ago and he told me to just turn up and call him again so he could come and check us in.

We had a really peaceful night's sleep in the Torrieston Forest park up and woke early to walk Salty in the deciduous forest.  After a cup of tea sat at one of the picnic benches, we upped sticks and drove to Spey Bay.  This is a lovely day park up, right next to the point where the River Spey enters the sea.  It's also home to the Scottish Dolphin Centre.  As we arrived early we had the pick of the parking spots, so sat in the van eating soft-boiled eggs and toast and looking out over the nature reserve. We heard curlews and saw an Osprey fly off - amazing!  We took a walk along the riverbank before returning to check out the old ice house, where ice was taken from the local ponds and rivers and stored over the summer to keep the caught salmon and trout fresh.  The tide was out so we didn't see any dolphins.  Chatting to one of the locals - who visits every day with his camera and binoculars - coming up to high tide is the best time to see the dolphins, whales, otters, seals and osprey.  What an awesome nature spot.  We sat on the grassy bank by the van watching the nature with a cup of tea, but it was really hot - 26'C hot.  Salty was in his cooling coat and on this cool mat, but still it was a bit warm for him (and Cathy), so we left and spent a couple of hours in the shade of the pine trees in the Winding Walks forest, another Forest and Land Scotland park up.  

My original plan was to park up for the night at Portgordon Harbour, but soon realised it'd be too hot to stay there, so I found a nice basic quiet CL at Druim Heath only about 15 minutes drive from the forest.  I rang the owner - who was away in her caravan - and luckily there was a pitch available; £15 including EHU.  We arrived and parked up on flat and well-manicured grass.  The fridge had been playing up again so I wasn't in the best of moods, but after isolating the leisure battery for a while, I was able to switch the fridge on and it seemed to be working fine on electric hook-up (fingers crossed) - either there's an issue with the LPG supply or the PCB isn't playing fair when cooling on gas. It needs sorting!

The rest of the day was sat outside in the shade of the van.  I made halloumi burgers with a big salad and we sat outside eating until the flying ants drove us inside.  As we were on EHU, all the gadgets were charged up and we watched a couple of vanlifer YouTube videos.  By then the temperature had dropped a little and it started to rain.  We should sleep better tonight in the cooler air.

This morning I had the usual battle with the fridge, which now refuses to work even on 12V when driving.  Having said that, it's currently working OK on gas, but I know it'll eventually start to flash an error code at me, the PCB solenoid clicking away angrily as it tries to start up.  I did a bit of research and I suspect either the PCB needs replacing or there's an issue with the DC cabling or fusing - diagnosing and fixing the problem will be costly whichever route it takes.  To replace the fridge would be £900 plus the cost of installation.  Thetford Europe - if you read this blog you're sharks and your products are crap!

We popped into Buckie to do a quick Tesco food top-up then drove to Cullen.  The village is probably best known as the place where Cullen Skink originated.  If you've never had this, you've missed a treat.  It's a soup made with potatoes, cream and smoked haddock and it's delicious.  We parked up overlooking the beach and took Salty off for some beach and zoomie time, before walking up to the Ice Cream Shop.  We chatted to two locals yesterday and both recommended this ice cream shop.  It didn't disappoint.  Cathy had the Biscotti and I had the birthday cake flavour ice cream...more about that later.  We took a wander around the lovely little fishermen's cottages in the old part of Cullen, known as Seatown.  There was little space between the tiny single story cottages, many of them now holiday homes.  It was hard not to think we weren't in a seaside village in Portugal.  After another beach walk we left and drove to the next harbour village of Portsoy, with the intent of having fish and chips - or a 'fish supper' as it's called in Scotland.  We parked up overlooking the harbour and I walked up to the 'Hook, Line and Sinker' fish and chip shop, having checked online that it would be open (open from midday to 9pm on a Sunday).  But, you guessed, it was closed!  So we decided to return the 5 miles to Cullen, where we knew Linda's Fish and Chips was definitely open, as we passed it on the way to the ice cream shop.  I parked up and Cathy stayed in the van while I walked up and ordered 'two haddock suppers, curry sauce and mushy peas'. Supplied with these we drove down to the harbour and enjoyed the most delicious fish and chips - I mean haddock supper - overlooking the sea.  Da iawn Cullen!

The drive to Rosehearty took about an hour, along an undulating coastal road that in places was 20% steep, both up and down.  We drove into the field by the boat club and I rang Peter to let him know we'd arrived. He and his wife - and his lovely dog - came over and booked us in.  It's then that he told me the history of the aire.  Clearly proud of his community, he pointed out the local hotel/pub, the combined post office/butcher and the mini-mart.  Peter - you're a star and thanks for all you've done to support your community and us van lifers, who have benefitted from staying in this lovely place.

Having already eaten, we sat in the strong sunshine with a cup of tea.  I took Salty for a walk while Cathy had a snooze. About 7pm we left him in the van, and went down to the bay for a swim.  The curving bay is covered in fine white sand, with a very calm sea; it really did remind me of the Caribbean.  The only difference was the temperature of the water - man it was CHILLY!  We've become used to the effect of the Gulf Stream on our sea water temperature at home.  I'd forgotten how cold the North Sea can be.  A distant memory from holidays in Lincolnshire and Norfolk returned as I recalled the shock of entering such cold water.  But we waded in all the same.  Cathy was very quickly and bravely up to her neck and swimming off.  It took me a while longer to 'adjust'.  I love sea swimming but the cold really does hit me, particularly in my hands and feet.  But after about ten minutes it was 'fine' and we enjoyed our swim, fizzing and buzzing with the euphoria of swimming in the sea so far north; no wetsuits for us!  Back at the van, dried and changed, we sat outside with a cup of tea and watched the sun start to set over the harbour.  

It's now nearly 11pm and still light outside. The wind has dropped and the few clouds have turned various shades of purple.  I can hear the seagulls calling to each other. Salty's curled up next to me on the van bench, but I know he'll jump up once I'm done, ready for his final walkies of the evening.  Tomorrow forecasts thunderstorms most of the day.  If that happens - fine - we have a great viewpoint to watch it over the sea.  If there are any breaks in the weather, we'll have a wander around the harbour and village that Peter sold to us so well.  For the rest of this evening, I might just sit here a while and watch darkness descend.  Apparently this is a very popular place to park up in the winter and witness the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights.

As the day comes to an end I have a bit of a confession - I have a little secret to share with you.  If I live through the night, I'll be 60 years old tomorrow!!! More about how I feel about that in my next blog post.  Hopefully I'll see you on the other side!

Spey Bay


Respite from the 26'C heat

Cullen harbour

Salty learning to fly!



Cullen 'seatown'





We could live here!

Loved this tap sign outside the Cullen beach loos

Our fish and chips scoffing view

Rosehearty Community Boat Club

Looks like the Caribbean - feels like the Baltic!