Between Monday and Thursday, we stay at Inverness, waiting for parts for the wheel. Spoiler: the parts we get are for the wrong model, so we’ll need to find another garage soon.
Inverness is a city that grows on you, but very, very slowly. Our first impression, five years ago, was that of a terrible, sad, grim, grey place you simply pass through on the way to the Highlands. Our second impression, the first time we arrived this year, was no better.
As we were pinned down at a local campsite (15 minutes walk from the city centre, by the river), we were forced to get to know the city better. After all, this was supposed to be our home for the next three days…
Our first major surprise were the Ness Islands, our route from the campsite to city, which turned out to be a swathe of urban forest park set on islands scattered about the fast-flowing Ness River, connected with dainty foot bridges. The park is beautiful in early autumn, all ornamental pines, ancient larches and birch. And the area next to the park, on the riverside, is equally pretty – a line of rich villas descending to the river, that would not be out of place in Richmond or Kingston. The riverside continues along the two banks, and it’s Inverness’s finest area, a gem of Victorian revival, with a red sandstone cathedral on one side and a 19th century folly of a grand castle on the other.
From the Young Street Bridge starts the Inverness high street, and the old town – now largely pedestrianised. It’s not as pretty as the river district, but once you get to know it better, it has its quirky, late 19th century, grey stone charm – or maybe we just got used to it… anyway, past usual row of high street chains and souvenir shops, past M&S and shopping mall, past even the well-stocked Victorian Market, the streets climb up into steep “braes”, linking the downhill commercial centre with uphill residential zone. Where the two meet, at Stephen’s Brae, is a small indie cafe-cum-bicycle repair shop, Velocity, where we found ourselves spending most of the afternoons.
The language most heard on the streets of Inverness was Polish. 10% of the population is Polish – some of them from the older generation, brought into Scotland by the war (many army camps in the area), but most seeking fortune in what after some investigation turned out to be Western Europe’s fastest growing city – in the last decade it grew by 20%, and is now a small, but busy hub of commerce and industry.
That’s about as many good things as I can say about Inverness. Despite its all unexpected advantages, we were rather sick of the place by Thursday, and wanted nothing else than to leave it behind. We wobbled up to the garage and waited…
The crew at Inverness Halfords is an amazing bunch of characters; a sitcom waiting to be written. The grumpy, but kind-hearted boss with a strong Highland accent and a grim sense of humour, who hates all cars with equal passion; an old Afrikaaner, born in Scotland but growing up in South Africa, who likes to ramble a lot about his friends and relatives, but in the end can fix pretty much anything; a receptionist in the vein of young Sheridan Smith, and young apprentices she flirts with. It would be funnier than Phone Shop, that’s for sure. The boss is a master of dead-pan one-liners, here are a few of his gems:
“The French are not making any motorcycles. That’s all I’m saying. So what business do they have making four wheels, when they can’t make two wheels?”
“Ah, a VW keyring. The local dealer used to sell them for two quid a piece. The only thing he ever sold that worked.”
“I should charge you a fine. I should charge you for marring the door of this garage with your car. Go now, and never come back to Inverness again.”
The last one was about our van 🙂 Despite the grumpiness, in the end he charged us nothing, since the underlying problem was not fixed – even though they’ve spent some three hours dismantling the wheel and putting it back together, and the car now drives well enough to give us confidence to reach Edinburgh, at least. (by comparison, the garage in Ullapool charged us £70 for half us much work). So despite the bad press that Halfords usually gets as a chain, if you ever find yourself in Inverness area and need a garage – look no further!
The long delay meant we had to start hurrying to make up the time, so as soon as we left the garage we drove on towards Aberdeen until it got dark; we passed the Culloden Moor, and the Cawdor Castle, and a few other things we’d normally stop and see. The campsites in this area are few and far between, and it’s well past sunset by the time we reach a grim caravan park by the beach in a small harbour town of Burghead.
The less said about the Burghead Caravan Park, the better – it cost a whopping £22, and the toilets were fully carpeted, if you can imagine such a thing. We couldn’t leave it soon enough.
Much better was the Bught campsite we lived at in Inverness – another Leisure Centre attachment, near nice parks, with free WiFi, and very close to the city centre, which probably explained the steep £20 price per night, in what is now a low season.