I promised there would be a bit more to this blog while we rest after the summer, and here it is – the first of a highly irregular feature of Greatest Hits of our journey.
This one is a list of cool things we’ve encountered along the way more or less by accident – either by literally driving past, or by finding out about them at the last minute from signs or local leaflets; the unfamiliar tourist attractions, or just quirky things worth noting.
10. BUDE GCHQ, CORNWALL
Not exactly a “hidden” gem, but something many people passing it daily on the busy road between Cornwall and North Devon give a little notice, and if they do, probably don’t bother to to check what the strange array of antennas and radar domes is all about – this is the main satellite intelligence and electronic spying site of UK’s equivalent (and close ally) of the NSA – GCHQ. A quiet and unassuming place most of the time, it’s become embroiled recently in the Snowden scandal, so it’s been mentioned in the news quite a lot over the last few years – though still few probably know where it is, or what it is if they see it.
9. VARYAG MONUMENT, AYRSHIRE
A mysterious cross raised on the Ayrshire shoreline in cold, blue brass, and signed entirely in Russian, this monument commemorates a Russian steam cruiser Varyag, built in 1899, which served the Tsar’s Navy in the Russo-Japanese War, was then captured by the Japanese, and finally, returned to Russia via Great Britain, ran aground in the most unlikely of places – on the rocks off Scottish coast.
8. DA PLINKY BOAT, SHETLAND
It is a long, cold and lonely wait for the ferry from Britain’s northernmost inhabited island to Britain’s second northernmost inhabited island. Luckily, the good people of Unst provided a diversion in the form of a fishing boat turned into a xylophone: da plinky boat.
7. GARLIC FARM, ISLE OF WIGHT
Isle of Wight is famous for many things – far too many for its size, I reckon – but garlic was never on the top list of its attractions. We stumbled onto the Garlic Farm by following a shortcut imagined by our GPS – and stayed for good few hours. Not only is visiting the big garlic field a quirky treat by itself, the farm shop is full of excellent garlic-based goods, from chutney and ketchup to surprisingly tasty ice cream.
6. WELSH LANGUAGE HERITAGE CENTRE
Situated at the very end of a long, winding, narrow and steep road, Nant Gwrtheyrn is not exactly something you stumble upon by accident, but it is a surprising and well worth seeing place. A one-time quarrymen village, now finely restored as a centre for learning Welsh in its native environment, it’s beautifully positioned between the sea and the mountains, a jewel hidden from sight until the very last moment.
5. T.E. LAWRENCE’S LAST (CAKE) STAND, MORETON
There are several mementos of the great Lawrence of Arabia scattered in and around Moreton, since this is the place where he had spent the last days of his life – and, eventually, found his death in a motorcycle accident. But none are as strange as the cake stand at the Moreton Tea Room – which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the authentic bier upon which Lawrence’s coffin lay at his funeral.
4. MERMAID OF ZENNOR
The small local churches of Cornwall, with their nowhere-else-known patron saints are often strange enough without involving mysterious Greek-mythology inspired legends, but the sea-side parish of Zennor easily takes the podium of peculiarity. The 600-year old Mermaid Chair, hidden away in the corner of the church, inspired not only a unique local mermaid legend and some dubious scholarship, linking it to pagan images of Aphrodite, but also a brand of local dairy ice cream – the Moomaids of Zennor.
3. CAIRN HOLY, GALLOWAY
Cairn Holy is a stone circle – one of hundreds in Britain. It is an impressive one – if the likes of Stonehenge and Brodgar’s Ring form the Premier League of stone circles, then Cairn Holy is easily at the top of First Division. It’s also easily missed, a mile off the less-travelled stretch of the A75. But that’s not what makes Cairn Holy a remarkable discovery: it’s the person of Joe, a fanatic amateur archaeologist obsessed with Cairn Holy’s secrets, who is present at the site almost every day, ready to entertain the visitors with wondrous tales and field experiments.
2. COCOA MOUNTAIN, BALNAKEIL
Driving through the frozen wasteland that is Sutherland in summer, we were lured first by the promise of freshly made hot chocolate, but the entire site of Balnakeil turned out to be a fantastic little place. A nuclear attack watch station in the 1950s, taken over by a commune of artists and hippies a decade later, Balnakeil is Scotland’s answer to Christiania, and a successful commercial venture to boot. And the chocolate, by the way, was delicious.
1. HONESTY CAFE, ISLE OF ISLAY
Another “end of the road” surprise, and best of them all; we found it looking for one of Islay’s finest ruins, the Kildalton church and the stone cross in its yard. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, miles from any civilization – except for this unmanned “cafe” consisting of a folding table, coffee and tea pots and a box of freshly baked cakes – and a honesty box. I can’t guarantee it’s still there, but regardless, it was easily one of the happiest and most humanity-affirming things we’ve seen on the entire journey.