Wednesday, July 27, 2016

To the North

By modern day standards I'm not particularly well travelled, but I have seen a little of the world and visited some unusual places. However, I've been pretty useless at exploring my own country. I wasn't fully aware of this until a couple of months ago, when I worked out that I had spent less than two weeks of my adult life on the northern side of the Watford Gap.

It came as a shock to realise that I'd spent more time in Chile, Spain or France than the upper two thirds of Great Britain, so I resolved to do something about it.

I'd wanted to explore the north for quite a few years, but my older son couldn't cope with any car journey over three hours and after a disastrous trip to Spain, we decided to give up on family holidays. 

However, my son has made so much progress during the last year, we felt that it was worth trying again, so I got out a map and worked out how far we could travel over ten days.

I checked distances on Google Maps and came up with the following intinerary: Lewes-Knaresborough-Whitby-Alnwick-Lindisfarne-Edinburgh-Inverness-Fort William-Glasgow-Lake Windemere-Yorkshire Dales-Haworth-Lewes. It would be a whistlestop tour of northern England and Scotland.

After confirming that our trip would include visits to Scottish relatives and a detour to the Lake District, my wife gave her royal ascent and I booked family rooms in a succession of hotels and b&bs. Then, two weeks ago, we got in the car and looked for a road sign that pointed to 'The North'.

For many years, I assumed that the North began somewhere slightly beyond Northampton, where people began to rhyme 'luck' with 'push' and many placenames ended in 'by' or 'thwaite'. There would be drystone walls instead of hedgerows and wild, windswept moorlands. But I was wrong. Before the North there is a place called the Midlands and everything looks quite similar for a long time.

I also noticed that even when I reached Yorkshire, it didn't look particularly northern until I'd driven right up to the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, at which point the landscape dramtically changed and became more interesting.

But rather than bore you with a blow by blow account, here is a brief summary of the highs and lows of the trip:

  • The landscape of the Scottish Highlands.
  • The accents, all of which were music to my ears compared to our local one.
  • Knaresborough - one of the most beautiful towns I've visited, anywhere.
  • North Yorkshire, which fulfilled my dreams of wild and windy moors.
  • Whitby - a beautiful fishing town with the best fish and chips in Britain.
  • The B&Bs we stayed at - a far cry from their grim predecessors.
  • The museums and galleries of Edinburgh - all within walking distance, unlike London.
  • Visiting my wife's Scottish relatives.
  • The awful chain hotels we stayed at - soulless and expensive, with suprisingly bad food.
  • Glasgow - I enoyed exploring the city, but my sons hated it and refused to leave the hotel.
  • 11 days of UHT milk pods - you can't make a decent cup of tea with it.
  • The eternal struggle of finding somewhere to park.
  • Holy Island - It had always looked impressive from a distance. Up close, it has bungalows.
  • The cost of even the most basic evening meal.
  • The drive home, which went on and on and on.
Here are some photos:

Knaresborough was beautiful and civilised. I would like to go back for longer and also explore nearby Harrowgate.

I was also a big fan of Whitby, which is a very picturesque fishing port, but also a traditional working class holiday resort, which saves it from being too twee. I particularly liked the famed Yorkshire 'plain speaking' as displayed by a rather taciturn waiter who simply looked at our plates and said "All done?"

My wife took a while to adjust: "They don't seem to have a wine list. Is that a northern thing?"

I'd wanted to visited Whitby ever since I'd watched a BBC Play for Today called The Fishing Party.


The ruined Whitby Abbey is the town's main attraction and the connection with Dracula draws many people with dyed black hair and unfortunate tattoos. I also noticed a lot of older men with shaved heads and large, slightly menacing dogs.

I don't normally long for bad weather, but I felt that the Abbey had lost some of its mystery in the bright sunshine, so in the evening I climbed the famous 199 steps and took some more atmopsheric shots, like this one:

This is the Falling Foss - one of the many beautiful rivers and falls in North Yorkshire. My sons loved clambering over the rocks.

Edinburgh was a big hit with everyone. We booked an apartment just off the Royal Mile, which I can warmly recommend if you like non-stop bagpipe playing. Sometimes two pipers were playing different pieces at the same time, like a Charles Ives composition.

An octogenrian relative offered to drive us around the city and out of politeness we assented, but it turned out to be one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had, like a very slow but deadly James Bond car chase.

This photo above is of a very attractive Edinburgh cafe that serves haggis sausages.

What better way to start a visit to the Highlands than a cruise on Loch Ness? Sadly, we were acommpanied by several dozen Chinese tourists, all armed with selfie sticks, who seemed rather over-excited and kept shouting over the commentary on the boat. At first I thought it was a one-off, but we witnessed the same behaviour on several occasions and our b&b owner confirmed that this was a common phenomenon.

I remember a time when, along with the Japanese and the Scandinavians, the Chinese were the most well-behaved and self-effacing of travellers. What has happened?

I'd always assumed that Inverness was a small, charming Highland town and part of it still is, but it is also now one of Europe's fastest-growing cities, with Sim City-like industrial zones and suburbs. It also has a very large secondhand bookshop called Leakey's, which is well worth a visit.

After what my wife's great-uncle described as a 'dreich' day, we were rewarded with some glorious weather when we drove to the west coast. I noticed that nearly half of the cars on the road were from the Netherlands. I've no idea why, but perhaps they were seeking relief from the relentless flatness of their own country.

Plockton is one of the most beautiful places on the west coast - a small fishing village that, due to some geographical quirk, faces east. Its location in a protected bay and the Gulf Stream give it a surprisingly mild climate. Palm trees can be found by the harbour.

I had been to Plockton once before and met an interesting woman who was a very keen member of the SNP. She very kindly drove me around the Isle of Skye and gave me a map showing a route that took me on a path up into hills above Plockton. When I reached the top, the view was breathtaking. I vowed I would return as soon as I could.

That was 13 years ago.

Glencoe - a stunning place with a tragic history. I intended to go for a long walk, but when my sons found a stream and started building a dam, I didn't have the heart to stop them:

Parents can spend so much money on keeping their children entertained, but the greatest pleasures in life usually cost nothing (fuel, food and accommodation excepted). If we go back, I think I'll look for somewhere where my sons can just mess around in the water, preferably without drowning,

Later we stopped by a loch and my sons ruined two pairs of shoes, but had one of the happiest afternoons of their lives.

After the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands, Glasgow was an huge disappointment, as far as my sons were concerned. I thought it was it little like London - not beautiful, but full of interesting buildings and hidden gems, so I took a train to Partick and began exploring. I'd like to see more of Glasgow, but I suspect it will be a solo trip.

Glasgow's reputation as a tough city is neatly encapsulated in the 'No Spitting' signs in their old subway carriages, which can be seen in the excellent Riverside Museum. The sign wasn't simply an attempt to improve the manners of Glasgow's more uncouth inhabitants, but also a vital measure in the fight against TB, which claimed blighted the lives of many Glaswegians.

Although TB no longer ravages the tenements of Glasgow, the city still has many public health problems and I noticed many people who were not only morbidly obese, but also keen smokers. Glasgow is officially the sickest city in the United Kingdom and one in four men don't reach their 65th birthday.

After Glasgow, we drove down to the Lake District and hired a boat on Lake Windemere. Like Loch Ness, it was full of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks, but I managed to find a self-drive boat and we escaped from the madding crowd. Apart from a near collision with a paddle steamer, we had a very pleasant time.

On the final day, we visited the Bronte Museum in Haworth, which was well worth the additional two hours journey time. On the dining table, where the sisters wrote their novels, there is a small E carved by Emily, who died on the couch in the background. The other rooms are full of interest, containing childhood ephemera, Bramwell's paintings and Charlotte's wedding dress.

I was particularly struck by a display of locks of hair - Emily was very blonde - and wondered if it would be possible to recreate the Bronte family using Jurassic Park-style technology.

I said I wouldn't bore you with a blow by blow account, but I seem to have done exactly that. To conclude, the holiday was a success and my older son, who once refused to leave the house, seems energised by the experience. Like so many children with his issues, he loved the most remote parts of the Highlands and hated anywhere that was full of tourists.

As for me, in the same way that some middle aged men realise that they're gay after years of denial, I have discovered that I am a closet Northerner. I suppose all the signs were there - a fondness for mushy peas, an aversion to direct sunlight and a preference for plain speaking.

Perhaps I've been living in the wrong part of England all this time.


Dale said...

I finished reading this with a big smile on my dial.
You'll be dropping in on the Edinburgh Festival next (big tip: get lodgings as close to the centre as possible, the taxi situation is DIRE).
And the photos are lovely. You've saved us the climb up to the castle.
Here's to your next family holiday!

M. Denise C. said...

What a wonderful journey you took us on! Thank you. I love the pictures, especially the ones with the beautiful clouds. Knaresborough looks beautiful. Cheers, MDC

Anonymous said...

Glad you had a good holiday Steerforth, I enjoyed reading about it, Natalie

Martin Hodges said...

As ever, you have taken me on a trip on that magic swirling ship that carries you through life. You'd make a great travelogue writer. The photos are fab, too.

joan.kyler said...

As always, your photographs are exquisite. I'm glad your older son is enjoying his new freedom from his issues and that you now have more freedom, too. You weren't too detailed in your descriptions. They were just right. I enjoyed a virtual mini break with you.

Tororo said...

I greatly enjoyed the trip. Thanks!

Little Nell said...

You were visiting some of my old haunts, and although I haven’t been up there for years, it was good to be reminded of that beautiful scenery and those wonderful towns. We were in Plockton when it ‘Hamish Macbeth’ country - remember him?

I’m afraid the Chinese tourists make themselves known in this way all over the world now. We were in Venice three years ago and it was a similar experience.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

"My UHT milk pod hell!" Love it! (Just about to go to milk pod land..."

Lucille said...

Was so heartened to read any sentence with 'my sons' in it. Even more delighted by the pictures of them and everything else. Hope they don't read this!

sustainablemum said...

I emigrated to the North some time ago (having grown up down south), apart from a brief stint in Somerset I have been here for nearly twenty years. I would never move back now. As a Cumbrian resident Windermere is the last place I would visit at this time of year, it's full of all the people I actively try and avoid.......just saying ;)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful, wonderful trip, especially for your sons - fabulous!


Angela Lambert said...

What did you buy in Leakey's ?

Steerforth said...

Dale - I would have loved the Edinburgh Festival once, but that ship sailed a long time ago and these days, any form of street theatre or performance poetry makes me want to run for the hills.

MDC - Thank you. If you ever visit Knaresborough, it's worth visiting the cafe by the river.

Natalie - Thanks.

Martin - Your comments, as always, are much appreciated.

Joan - Thank you for indulging my ramblings.

Tororo - Thank you for reading it.

Little Nell - Yes, I loved Hamish Macbeth and it inspired my first visit to Plockton. I wasn't really aware of the Chinese tourist phenomenon, although I had read that people in Tokyo were complaining about them.

Lucy - I think Father Ted was spot-on about UHT milk:

Lucille - My older son has started to dip in occasionally, so I will have to call time on this blog in the near future. Thanks for your kind words.

Sustainablemum - I can see why you avoid Windemere in the summer - it was quite awful and I would have happily diven past and gone somewhere quieter. However, my sons were determined to hire a boat and I didn't want to let them down.

Kaggsy - Yes, my sons really loved it, which made me feel better about the absurd amount of money we spent.

Steerforth said...

Angela - I bought Dubin's Lives and Put Out More Flags. I didn't feel able to browse for long as I'd already subjected my sons to Barter Books in Alnwick.

Carol Lake said...

A really wonderful post. I'm so glad it all went well. And your photos are lovely, especially the two boys damming the creek or sitting on the rocky outcropping in the loch.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

You went to all my favourite places .
You'll have to go back to Glasgow sometime , though . Then you'll see that it's not about the buildings , the odd bit of Rennie Mackintosh apart , but the people . And the potato scones ...

Brett said...

So great to read another travelogue, with your beautiful pictures. I've been an armchair traveler there for a long time. Maybe some day...

Wasn't there a famous Synod in Whitby, 7th c.?

Colin said...

What a lovely post. I grew up in Norfolk, somewhere that wasn't the north, but not quite the south either (at least it wasn't in the sixties and seventies - it was becoming distinctly southern by the time I left). I fell in love with a Yorkshirewoman and have lived here now for nearly thirty years, and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. I love the accents, the plain speaking, the scenery, and the diversity of landscape, people and life. I'm glad you liked Whitby, one of my favourite places (although Robin Hood's Bay, just down the coast is even lovelier), and Haworth (as grim and forboding as Whitby is sunny and breezy). We can be in the Lakes in a couple of hours - and often are.
I'm sorry you seem to have suffered the bane of the modern tea-drinker's life, the wretched cartons of UHT milk. There are plenty of wonderful tea rooms in Yorkshire and the north which serve proper milk in proper jugs. Next time you head north, let me know and I'll let you have a list of the best!
A last point: the difference between the north and the south is summed up for me by the fact that in every tea room I've ever been in in the north a pot of tea has come to the table accompanied by a pot of hot water for topping up, but this doesn't seem to be the case in the south - in fact, when visiting a popular garden tea room with some friends in Oxfordshire last year, the tea came in a measly pot, barely large enough for a single cup, and when I asked for some hot water I was told that it would cost me £1.30! Talk about confirming regional prejudices!

Annabel Gaskell said...

Lovely. I'm glad you had a wonderful time. I've always really enjoyed holidays up north, as opposed to spending hours on the M6 visiting my ex's folks nr Wigan in years gone by. I'd love to revisit Alnwick/Bamburgh environs and do more of Yorkshire including managing to get a seat at the famous Magpie in Whitby, which we were too late for last time!

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Wow, sounds like an amazing whistle-stop tour! I also love Whitby and Edinburgh, but haven't explored the rest. Yet.

Perhaps your elder son will plump for a career as a park ranger or conservationist if he loves nature but not people. It sounds like it was a real voyage of discovery for him too.

Great news that you managed to have a successful family holiday at last, despite the inevitable minor irritations like UHT and bad motel rooms. I have no idea why evening meals are so pricey either. Or why just about every cafe shuts at 5pm giving you no choice but pubs or restuarants.

Anonymous said...

Probably not a tactful thought, but have you considered that perhaps it isn't your son who is out of step, but the world? There are many introverts (myself included) who find the constant yak-yak-yak of human interaction very exhausting. I sometimes think that's why I like to read so much and why I spend so much time plinking away on the computer keys. We aren't all cut out to deal with the madding crowd and its vast numbers of jovial garrulous people, all day every day, and perhaps like me, your son is one of them. Carol Lake

Steerforth said...

SmitoniusandSonata - Yes, I liked the Glaswegians and found the city endlessly fascinating, but if it's been regenerated, what did it look like before? I think it's a pity that there are so many major roads and flyovers going through the heart of the city, along with some dodgy modern buildings. But the old Glasgow is lovely.

Brett - I'm afraid my knowledge of synods isn't what it should be.

Colin - We do get hot water, sometimes, but it's a hit and miss affair. I'll certainly make sure I visit Robin Hood's Bay next time. Reading your comment makes me wish I'd had the good sense to move north a long time ago.

Annabel - I don't know Wigan - does it have anything worth seeing?

Laura - The price of eating out has been a real eye-opener. We hadn't eaten out as a family for so long, it was shocking to find that even a run-of-the-mill meal at Pizza Express resulted in a bill for £70 to £80. As you say, if only the cafes didn't shut at 5.00.

Carol - You've touched a nerve, as this is one of my major bugbears. A century ago, being quiet, diligent and conscientious was seen as a virtue. These days, too many workplaces see introversion as a negative quality - you have to be 'bubbly', dynamic, enthusiastic, passionate and a good team player. It's quite sickening. It's no longer acceptable to have job adverts that specify gender, but apparently it's fine to discriminate against the shy and introverted. On the one hand, we live in a more inclusive society - there are policies about equal opportunities all over the place, but our definition of what is normal has become much narrower.

Taxmom said...

This was just lovely. Years ago when I was 14 my family did a loop through the lake district up to Skye and across the Highlands to Inverness and then down to Edinburgh. (I'm American but my family was living in London.) I loved it although I do recall that one of my main concerns was being close to a tv on Thursday nights because they were showing one of the Beatles movies each week for the four weeks were on vacation. I love the pictures of your boys occupying themselves in/near the water. Sometimes a certain spot, not a glamorous one, just reaches out and grabs you on a holiday and makes you want to stay there and not leave.

Unknown said...

The waiter was being polite. It is usually 'Have you done'.

Woodley said...

Thanks for the inspiring tour.

Please don't call time on the blog because your son is starting to read it, that would deprive us of your extremely interesting view of the world, maybe just edit him out if you are concerned how he might react.

Just came across this short documentary that might interest you and some of your readers:

Love his view - "It's sort of a hobby that turned into a business and became a little bit of an obsession".

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

I don't think regenerated's quite the word ...eviscerated would be better .
For me as a child , it was just where everyone's granny had been to school with my granny ,my uncle's father-in-law was the park-keeper , where everyone would come cycling back into the city from Sunday picnics with huge bunches of bluebells in Spring , where all the conductresses on the trams had their hair in pincurls under their caps on Fridays ready to go to the dancing and there were only conductors on Saturdays because of the drunks in the football season .

Steerforth said...

Taxmom - Ah, the days when we used to worry about missing something on the telly. These days it's the quality of the wifi signal that seems to be the main concern.

Unknown - I wish he'd said that. I'd rather have that than being asked if I've enjoyed my meal four times.

Woodley - Many thanks for posting that moving and inspiring video. My immediate response was to imagine doing something like that myself, before remembering that the local rents would get me something slightly larger than a broom cupboard. Re: the blog, I'm afraid that its days are numbered, literally (see the top right hand corner).

Smitonius - That's the impression I got. I saw a beautiful Victorian building with a flyover only metres away from it, ruining the view from within and without. The city has an excellent public transport network, so I don't understand why the roadbuilders have been allowed to ruin it. Also, most of the modern buildings were pretty awful. What a pity. Kelvingrove at least gave me a sense of the older city.