Day 95-96 – Amber Road

Lithuania

Lithuania

One surprising thing we’ve learned during this short trip through the Baltic, is that, despite their tiny size and common history, the three countries are fairly easily distinguishable from each other. Estonia is wild and forested, Latvia is mostly rural and industrial; Lithuania, the largest of the three (though not by much) is also the most diverse.

It welcomes us with crowds of tourists: some 20km from the border we drive into the sea resort of Palanga, the “Amber capital” of the Baltic. Its beaches are bustling and over-crowded, and remain so for the entire length of the Lithuanian coast.

Amber is the most magical of gemstones, as anyone who’s ever held a piece of it in his hand must admit. It is a crystal of frozen time: not just because of the insects (and spiders; and plants; and small lizards, as we’ve learned) trapped within, but because it can sprout back to “life” – releasing the resin oils and acids when heated or treated chemically; it’s edible when melted, and, reputedly, has healing properties…

If it wasn’t for amber, Palanga would be barely worth a visit – there are small resort towns like this all over the Baltic. But amber is what makes it a must-see: the beaches of Lithuania are covered in the stuff, and Palangan artisans create literally tons of jewelry with it, from tiny earrings to massive necklaces. The stalls line the main pedestrian avenue, but if you want certified local craftwork, you should head for the gallery and workshop of the Palanga Guild of Amber Workers.

There is also, of course, a museum of amber in the city, housed in a lavish (and neglected) neo-renaissance palace of the Tyszkiewicz family. The palace itself stands in the midst of an attractive park, set upon the location of an ancient pagan temple, famous for the legend of priestess Birute, “the Mother of Dukes”.  it’s deceptively small, until you discover there are more and more rooms filled with amber, from rare inclusions to great examples of masterly craft from the past, as well as artifacts from the days of amber trade – Roman coins and tools found in the area. It’s well worth the small admission fee.

Inspired, we head to one of the nearby beaches, in Karkle, to hunt for amber. We find a lot of what looks like it, though we can’t really be sure until we get home and check; the strongest candidates were surprisingly easy to spot: in the water, real amber glows like gold.

There is very little left of the old port city of Klaipeda/Memel (most of the places in the Baltics have at least two historical names) and it’s hard to see why the Germans had fought so hard to retake it before and during WW2 – though, of course, it’s that very fight which ensured that the “old town” now consists of a few cobbled streets. Still, it’s refreshingly different from other old towns in the region: whatever is left of it, has a very “Prussian” appearance.

We drive through Central Lithuania towards Vilnius – and this is where Lithuania’s landscape becomes the most diverse and unique. Despite the ravages of collectivization, the countryside remains idyllic and, at times, quite beautiful: soft rolling hills, deep and dark river valleys, fields of amber wheat and red poppies. The further away from motorway, the more rustic it becomes, until we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious land of scythe-wielding peasants, horse-drawn wagons and buxom farm girls milking cows and goats out in the fields.

In a way, this is not surprising to us – indeed, it feels oddly familiar; this is because, through convoluted common history, Poles and Lithuanians share most of romantic literature, and so most of the poems we learned at school describe Lithuania’s “fair countryside” – which, it seems, changed little since the days of Mickiewicz and Slowacki. The combined effect can only be compared to an American, raised on Wordsworth and Coleridge, visiting England’s Lake District for the first time and seeing the daffodils in full bloom…

Sadly, as we approach Vilnius, the fields and forests gradually disappear, replaced by 70s pre-fab tower blocks, factories and power plants, which surround this ancient capital in a dense wreath of post-Soviet grimness.

Some of it HAS to be amber...

Some of it HAS to be amber…

Days 67-68 – The Beautiful People

Stockholm

Stockholm

Among many dangers of a trip around Scandinavia, one thing we weren’t quite prepared for was… melting in a 30 degree heat. Luckily, Stockholm turned out to be just the city to be when it’s hot.

A public beach in Stockholm in the middle of the summer represents the pinnacle of human society’s progress towards equality. There are people of all possible skin colours and ethnicities here; young and old; tattooed goths and spandex-clad jocks; fit and disabled; gay and straight; post-chemo kids, teens in wheelchairs and muscle-bound bodybuilders; expecting mothers and pram-daddies; all sharing the water without anyone batting an eyelid, without getting in each other’s way, without the least problem. All gorgeous and free in the sun. A liberal’s dream, a conservative’s nightmare.

After this summer, Stockholm is definitely our second favourite city in Europe. It has most of what makes London great, without many of its drawbacks: the longest commute by T-Ban is half an hour, the crowds are manageable, the traffic leisurely, the canals clean enough to swim, and there are no giant phalluses of glass and steel looming over the city centre, reminding everyone who’s the real master. Unlike other Scandinavian capitals, it is big and old enough so that you don’t feel you’re really in a swollen, overgrown town; and unlike Copenhagen, a close second favourite, it’s not as sterile and perfectly organized. There’s a bit of an edge here, just enough chaos to make a city work. Of course, all this comes at a price: Stockholm is horrendously expensive for a non-native, and it’s not that easy to settle down here unless you’ve already got a job or a place at a school.

Everything is young, vibrant – in the real sense, not estate agent sense -, full of life, and beautiful here in the summer: the streets, the parks, the sea, the people. We had visited Stockholm a few years ago, and saw most of the sights and attractions, so this time we could just wander about Sodermalm – the city’s hippiest, most happening district – and the Old Town, and soak in the atmosphere.

We’ve discovered a few things about the city we didn’t yet know. Swimming on city beaches was one thing; that Stockholm has some of the best urban furniture in Europe: everywhere you go there are benches, trees, fountains, playgrounds, street sculpture; that in the summer it gets as hot here as in the Mediterranean. But the most surprising discovery is that Stockholm is a multi-level city. Its islands are hilly and full of massive rocky outcrops, crags and canyons, and the urban planners took great advantage of it. There are viaducts, bridges, low streets, high streets, stairs and ramps; usually, the pedestrians occupy the bottom, with the cars zooming above – sometimes there’s even a third separate layer in between for cyclists! As the result, there is a LOT more of Stockholm to walk about – and the city is not only perfect to walk or cycle around, but many people also kayak between the islands – than could be guessed just from looking at the map.

The whole northern side of Sodermalm, perched on the edge of a tall rock beyond the massive red-brick facade of the Munchen Brewery, is a stunning, perfectly preserved 18th century garden town – for my money, much more attractive than the tourist-filled Gamla Stan; in the summer it is drowning in flowers, plus it’s within walking distance of some of the finest cafes, bakeries and cheap eateries of Northern Europe, and bounded by a fine park to the west. If we could afford it, this is where we’d want to live for at least a few years…

Filled up on coffee, cinnamon buns, fried herring and positive vibe, we are now almost finished with Sweden – only one more day left – and make ready for the last stage of the journey: Finland!

Once a coal shute, now - air conditioning

Once a coal shute, now – air conditioning

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Johan&Nystrom - One of the great cafes of Sodermalm

Johan&Nystrom – One of the great cafes of Sodermalm

Days 34-37 – Songs from the Past

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North Jutland

From Copenhagen we head on in a zig-zagging fashion across Zealand and Jutland, from sea to sea. It’s a route filled with Denmark’s history. We start with Helsinborg, or – as the English speaking world knows it, Elsinore. “Hamlet’s Castle” is actually Castle Kronborg, a mighty fortress guarding the narrowest passage through the Danish Straits – the connection between Baltic and Atlantic is no bigger than a large river, with Sweden seemingly a stone’s throw away.

We speed on to Roskilde, to the first Viking site on our way: the Viking Ship Museum, holding not only remains of five different vikings ships (built all over the Viking world – from Ireland to Norway – and then deposited at the mouth of Roskilde fjord as blockade) but also their accurate, working reconstructions and a small “viking village”. The temporary exhibition at the museum is worth the ticket alone, an inspiring true story of three 9th century travelers, whose interlocking paths trace the early Medieval globalisation, and an emerging common market ranging from Suzhou in China to Lofoten in Norway and beyond.

A ferry takes us to Aarhus; a fairly big city (by Scandinavian standards) and pretty-looking, which we pass by, not wanting this trip to be all just about sightseeing cities. Our destination for the night is Danish Lakeland – not terribly impressive as lake districts go, a couple of small ponds and a few 100m tall hills. But like everything else in Denmark, it’s compact, convenient and very pretty – and very crowded on (yet another! Do Danes ever work?) bank holiday weekend.

Continuing the north-westerly zig towards Vorupor – a small fishing village lost among the North Sea dunes, and the farthest point from Copenhagen on mainland Denmark – we pass through barrow mound country. There are more barrow mounds in Jutland than we’ve seen anywhere in England; small clusters, big clusters, tall, low, single person burials, group burials… the mounds are perhaps the most common and distinct feature of this otherwise featureless, flat landscape, apart from the Tuscany-reminding white-washed church towers. It’s as if, for the lack of natural hills, the ancient Danes decided they would more than enough of their own.

Vorupor is in Thy, a region (and a national park) we’re now familiar with as the one whence the best Danish dairy comes from. Indeed, we pass herds of healthy-looking cows roaming freely on salty marshland – which no doubt gives their milk the distinct flavour. Thy coast is wind-swept, desolate, full of small fishing boats and Germans. Always flocking together, the Germans chose Vorupor and its neighbouring villages as their favourite spot on Denmark’s coast, and we get by with out smattering of German far better than with English.

The Danes, uniquely, can choose two seas to holiday on – Baltic and Atlantic – and so do we; our north-easterly zag from Vorupor passes by the bird-watcher’s paradise of Limfjord. We stop at a random hide, chosen because of its thatched roof; it’s right on the highway, between two lakes, and we don’t expect to see much other than Greylag Geese that come here to breed. Spotting a couple of avocets is reward enough (we haven’t seen even one all last year), but then a flock of what we dismissed as egrets turns out to be… EIGHT spoonbills.

You’d have to be a UK birdwatcher to understand the flutter of our hearts. We’ve seen ONE in all our years in UK, an accidental tourist in the Norfolk marshes. Here there were eight of them, wading unperturbed no more than a hundred meters from the edge of a busy motorway. Really, life’s too good for the Danes.

We pass two more remnants of the past Viking glories as we approach the eastern coast: the largest of Harald Bluetooth‘s round forts (Ring Castles) at Aggersborg, and an immense burial ground of Lindholm Hoje, near Aalborg, where for nearly 600 years men were buried in ship-shape stone graves. The remains track the line of Limfjord’s natural canal, linking the two seas: these were important waters in Viking days, allowing the ships to pass safely from Baltic to Atlantic and beyond.

We reach the eastern coast near Fredrikshavn, for our last night in Denmark. The beach here is formed of debris and detritus thrown across the straits from both seas. Half of it is golden sand, half – heaps of tiny, crushed seashells, foot-deep. Walking on it barefoot is the oddest sensation.

There’s one more stop to make tomorrow before we board the overnight ferry to Norway – but that’s for another post.

Seashell Beach

Seashell Beach

lindholm

Lindholm Hoje

vorupor

Vorupor Beach

kronborg

Kronborg Castle

Day 4-8 – Chilling Out

Zuid Holland

Zuid Holland

We’ve spent one whole day in Hamburg, partly to soak in the mood of the city in the rain, partly to try and find the one piece of camping gear we failed to obtain beforehand – a CEE electric plug, which we could use on continental sites. We eventually found it the next day near Bremen, but by Sod’s Law, of course, we never had to use it again all the way to England. Hopefully it will come useful when we get back on the main land 🙂

From there we drove south-west, towards Holland, through Saxony, which looks just like rural Southern England. Flat, green, fertile, with fair country houses of red brick or half-timber, thatched or neatly tiled. It seems, just like the Vikings in Scotland, and Frisians in East Anglia, the Saxons were searching for a land most like the one they had come from. I can only assume Denmark will look like Yorkshire.

Dummer See is a large, almost perfectly round lake in the middle of all this green and pleasant land, roughly half-way between Hamburg and Amsterdam, so we make our stop there. The season is still far away, so with most facilities closed shut, and with the weather more suitable for November, it feels we’ve come here in the middle of winter. The only sign of it being May are the maypoles, decorated with flowers and ribbons, standing in every village and even in the middle of the campsite, and the fresh strawberries and white asparagus being at the roadside stalls.

Leaving Dummer See, the car splutters to a halt and refuses to move. A summoned mechanic discovers the reason for this – and most of our other engine troubles so far – to be a loose wire at the idle pressure valve. It never ceases to amaze (and slightly frustrate) me how almost all the problems with this car can be solved with pliers, a set of screwdrivers, some masking tape and a good wrench.

Rain, rain, wind, cold, drizzle, cold. That’s the succession of weather patterns over these four days. Everything in the car is soaked through, and fighting the headwinds on the motorway uses up all of our fuel and patience. It’s 10 degrees C when we drive into Amsterdam, and a furious, lashing rain. In the middle of May! The forecast for the next week is giving us some hope – there’s a warm front coming into England from Tuesday.

John Holt’s “Police in the Helicopter” playing in the campsite reception tells us we’re in the right place to finally relax and unwind 🙂 We spent another full day in Amsterdam, following our by now usual itinerary of “Amsterdam’s best”: a falafel in Maoz for lunch, pancakes for dinner, a smoke in a coffee shop, a glass of beer and jenever in a bar and a good cup of java in an indie cafe. Personally, I get a lot more relaxed from drinking the coffee than from the joint, but I put that down to lack of experience as a smoker 🙂 (also, it’s a damn good coffee)

Netherlands is where we start sight-seeing properly. We’ve never been outside Amsterdam/Schiphol area before. Heading for the Hook of Holland ferry, we stop first at Delft. As postcard-perfect doll-house quaint little Dutch town as you can imagine, criss-crossed, naturally, with a myriad of tree-lined canals, with the main square ensemble preserved in its entirety: the cathedral, the town hall and the weighing house are all in place, reflecting in each other’s stained glass windows. We drink another coffee – of course, the Dutch would have good coffee, having once owned the island of Java… what don’t they have…?

Rotterdam looks just like we imagined. A big, modern, vibrant harbour city. By luck we turn first into the district inhabited by immigrants from the former Dutch colonies: Suriname, Indonesia, India, the Antilles… Over half of Rotterdam’s inhabitants have “non-Dutch” origins – hardly surprising, considering the city’s sea history. The mix of peoples and cultures here is a completely new and different to that found in London – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Suriname or Aruba before – and here it’s also mingled with a nascent Chinatown. As a result, the supermarkets store every food imaginable and the bars and restaurants offer meals from every corner of the world.

We find the more central part of the city later, with the shops, the skyscrapers and the old harbour museum of antique ships and port gear. The area around the old docks is the one that’s suffered the most in the 1940 bombing – of which the anniversary is nearing – and here is where Zadkine’s famous “Destroyed City” monument stands, by the waterline.

Our last night before crossing the Channel we spend on the Hook of Holland. The causeway road leading to it passes through the greatest continuous expanse of greenhouses in the world. For a moment, I’m sure we’re driving through a fake village of model houses, scattered between garden centres, narrow canals and fields of glasshouses, but no, this is where actual people live. The houses and gardens of Westland are impossibly immaculate, even though they have to nestle sometimes on a tiny strip between a motorway and an agricultural equipment warehouse. It’s like a model train village built out of ready-made kits by somebody with severe ADHD.

The campsite is by the sea, and it’s the first beach we see this year. It still feels like November as we climb the wind-swept dunes between a closed beach bar and a shut-down marina. The beach here is another world-first: this is where the ever-industrious Dutch have constructed the Zand Motor: the Sand Engine, a way to build up the South Holland coast with sand using the power of waves and currents.

We may have driven around thousands of miles of British coast, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a beach like this one. A flock of sheep is grazing on the dunes (as everywhere else in Holland: sheep, cows, goats and horses roam freely around every empty piece of grassland); a couple of surfers and a group of horse-riders meet half-way in the waves; an Indonesian-style beach bar lies closed and half-covered in sand like some forgotten Bali ruin; the sand motor churns to the North, the refineries and harbour cranes labour to the South, tankers and coast guard ships pass along the horizon to the West.

And, as if all that was not enough excitement for one evening, as we head back to the campsite, six airplanes come roaring out of nowhere, pass over our heads in a tight formation and treat us to a free acrobatic spectacle against the setting sun.

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Day 101 – Summer’s End

Lothian

Lothian

The summer went out with a bang, offering us on its last day something we hadn’t dreamed of happening ever again on this trip: a warm, sunny day out on the beach, eating gelati.

It’s hard to tell at first what St. Andrews is more famous for: as home of golf, or as Scotland’s oldest, and the English speaking world’s third oldest university. But once you get into the town itself, it becomes pretty obvious: this is a town of students far more than the town of golfers. After all, golfers only visit here – the students are here to stay.

In the bright, amber light of the last summer sun, St Andrews is an exceptionally beautiful town; the South Street – linking the University grounds with the cathedral grounds – takes an air of a Provencal town, a bit Arles, a bit Aix-en-Provence; the cast iron gates, the pastel walls and the narrow passages with paint peeling off remind us unexpectedly of Warsaw Old Town; but most of all, St Andrews resembles Oxford – not in architecture as much as the atmosphere.

The town has its share of historical ruins – the ruined cathedral, with relics of Scotland’s patron, once the greatest in all of Scotland, now sprawls over an entire district to the east of town centre, almost as big as the ruin of Glastonbury, with a vast cemetary set on a downward hill which, in a strange way, resembles the streets around Kiyomizu in Kyoto; and the castle, a picturesque shell on a promontory, not unlike the Dunnottar from the day before. As if all of the above wasn’t enough, St Andrews is blessed with two wide, golden beaches within walking distance from the town centre; the North Sea is warmer than we expect, and we wade its waters barefoot, maybe for the last time this year – definitely the last time this summer.

And like a scene from Harry Potter (written just some 30 miles away, after all) a gaggle of students climbs the sea wall, all dressed in sumptuous red gowns; the students of St Andrews are expected to wear these wherever they go (except St Mary’s College, who wear black gowns); it does not half increase the magic of the town, and the deep scarlet of the outfit works wonderfully against the turquoise sky. Once again, I feel like I’m on a movie set.

There’s just one last thing we need to try before leaving St Andrews – the ice cream; “world famous” is much bandied about when it comes to ice cream in Britain, for some reason (not what you’d normally think of English ice cream), but the Jannettas parlour in St Andrews might just be the only one deserving the praise, considering the numbers of foreign tourists passing through South Street. It certainly is a big one, and an old one – four generations of Italian gelati makers are shown on the walls – and it has plenty of flavours, but nothing exactly breath-taking; the green tea is disappointingly sweet.

It’s a weird place, St Andrews. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Scotland, if not in Britain, but we’re quite sure we couldn’t move here: it would remind us too much of other places we’d rather be.

This being the day of the equinox, we are setting off in search of an appropriate stone circle; it would be a great shame if, having visited so many of them in the past months, we’d miss out on a stone circle visit during one of the four most important days in their builders’ calendar.

There is one easily accessible stone circle in Fife, part of a larger landscape near Glenrothes (the one in Fife, not in Speyside), with the rest of it hidden in the nearby forests; there’s not much of it left – just two stones, a henge and some wooden post markings – but the setting makes the journey all worth it. It’s the only stone circle that I know of that has a modern housing estate built around it. With tightly packed bungalows all around the circle, the locals – celebrating the equinox in their own special way, by blasting reggae out of the windows – have a unique claim to fame: their village green is at least 6000 years old!

From the centre of the circle, we hail the departing summer sun, and get back into the van. There’s just one more place we need to visit today, before crossing the Forth; and it ties in neatly with what we had seen a few weeks ago, on the other side of Scotland.

The sanctuary of Iona had been Scotland’s first royal mausoleum, and it had served many generations of the Pictish kings, who died one after another in fighting the Viking invaders; but after it was finally taken over, a need for a new mausoleum arose: and the choice was the Dunfermline Abbey.

With royal patronage, the abbey grew immensely; several Scottish kings were either buried in its crypt, or born in an adjacent palace. These days it’s mostly another vast ruin, having been abandoned and largely dismantled after the reformation. The abbey church itself remained, a fine and grand example of romanesque architecture – the column patterns similar to those of the Durham munster – and its most important burial is now prominently displayed in its centre, with a new brass plaque (and a sign carved in stone at the top of the church tower, pointing to it) – that of Robert the Bruce, that most famous of Scottish kings.

It’s a fine stroll around the abbey grounds, in that last of summer afternoons, with trees in the park turning gold and red; the horse chestnut trees grow crimson and deep pink, something we managed to forget about – it seems the chestnut-eating insect plague had not yet reached that far North. On our way back to the car we pass the Carnegie Museum, set in a cottage where the great 19th century philanthropist was born; we only enter it to make use of the toilet, but the people inside insist on us taking a short tour of the place. We try our politest to leave.

There are two ways to get across the Firth of Forth, both have their drawbacks; going through Queensferry means missing out on Falkirk Wheel; going through Falkirk means missing out on the Forth Bridge. With our van on its last wheels, we must choose the shorter way, and are treated to the magnificent view of the latter, the iconic rust red structure gleaming in the evening sun. As we enter Lothian, the last summer sunset falls beyond the Uplands.

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St. Andrews

Balfarg Henge

Balfarg Henge

Dunfermline Abbey

Dunfermline Abbey


Linwater Caravan Park is a surprising gem of a campsite; the location is its only fault – it’s set rather randomly in the middle of a non-descript field. But everything else is top notch; it’s small and well laid out (none of that “showers here, toilets half a mile away” nonsense), the facilities are modern and squeaky clean, with glassed-through hot showers, and the landlady has enough enthusiasm to spare for four campsites this size.
And despite being some 10 miles away from the centre of Edinburgh, it’s a fairly bargain £18 with hookup.

Day 36, part 1 – Birdwatching at the speed of flight

Starting mileage: 17502 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 22:00

Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire

What a day! Long before we usually leave a campsite we already had possibly the most fun so far, and the day did not end at that!

Our previous attempts at wildlife watching at sea were uniformly failures. On a whale watching tour few years ago all we saw was a single sunfish fin. On the puffin route in Pembrokeshire in 2008 we encountered a fog so thick that the only puffins we saw were the ones who flew directly overhead the boat.

We knew this time would have been a lot different, and not only because the weather was magnificent: hot, calm and clear; but the main difference was the Ramsey Island boat, waiting for us at St Justinian’s wharf at 9 am: a jet-powered RIB, not a rickety old fishing vessel, the kind of thing people pay good money for just to get into, not even thinking about actually getting somewhere. If this boat would not get us to where the animals were, nothing would.

The skipper had so far a 100% record of dolphins, which was encouraging to know. We were given thick coats (we had been warned to dress up warm, but not everyone listened – a common mistake made by people who’ve never been far out to sea) and life vests, and holding on for dear lives we were whooshed out past Ramsey Island into the Celtic Sea. Our destination was Grassholm, faintly shining white in the distance, but on the way we were already beginning to see the abundance of wildfowl these waters are so famous for. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills were scrambling away from the bow of our boat, and shearwaters decided to show us how little they thought of our feeble 40 knots by flying along us for a while and then cutting across the bow with no effort.

Shearwaters are fantastic flyers, and the only proper way to watch them is from a speeding boat: it’s the only time when they are not simply whizzing past you like swallows on crack. There’s about 30,000 of them in Pembrokeshire, and it seemed they were all around us. But neither shearwaters, nor puffins was what we had come to see. Everyone was looking for something else.

And then they appeared. ‘A seal!’ someone shouted; but it wasn’t a seal. It was a fin, and then another, and then a bluish-grey, perfectly streamlined body leapt out of the water. Common dolphins – a small pod, only a few, including a mother with a youngling, playing around the boat. The most amazing animals on the planet, graceful and playful. They soon grew bored of us and swam off, but it was a good sign, said the skipper: rarely did the dolphins appear so soon, before Grassholm.

Grassholm loomed closer; those of us who knew why the island is half-white, were preparing themselves for the enormity of the experience. The rest had no idea what awaited them, until we got close enough to discern the details.

Grassholm is white because of birds. Not even bird droppings: actual birds; a hundred thousand gannets gathered in one small place. Next to Shearwaters, the Gannets are our favourite birds: the largest of sea birds of Britain, marvelous in flight as well as in dive. They can dislocate their wings before plummeting into the water at 60 mph. Seeing a hundred thousand of them at the same time was a sight difficult to comprehend; the gannets need these great colonies to breed, and their “cities” – there are two more in UK, even larger than Grassholm – is the closest Britain, and indeed most of Europe, has to the great herds of Africa seen in the nature documentaries. The noise, the smell, the incessant swarm was overwhelming all senses. This was birdwatching at its most extreme; after Grassholm, no RSPB reserve would ever seem as exciting again.

On the rocks around Grassholm lay a couple dozens of grey seals – many pregnant – and among the gannets sat some auks – razorbills and guillemots, using the bigger birds company as perfect protection from predators. Slowly, we moved onwards, in search of more dolphins. We aimed for the Smalls Lighthouse – the most remote of Trinity House lighthouses, 20 miles off the coast, and almost half-way to Ireland. The lighthouse has a long and gruesome story – famously, one of the servicemen had to live with the corpse of his colleague for a few months, which turned him, understandably, mad. Ever since then, the lighthouses had to be serviced by three-man teams rather than two and these days it is wind- and solar-powered.

Not far off the lighthouse we spotted a vast pod of at least twenty if not more dolphins, rushing towards their fishing grounds. They were absorbed in reaching their prey, so they paid little attention to us; but that meant we could follow them closely for a long time, in good view.

The skipper was still not satisfied with this display, and veered north for one last time. His efforts were soon rewarded. A great fin emerged from the water for a brief moment, then again, and again – slowly, gently, in a wide circle.

It wasn’t exactly a whale, but a Risso dolphin, the largest of dolphins; it was asleep – or, as these animals do, half-asleep, swimming in the slow circle in the direction of the half of brain that was awake. Risso bodies have uniquely white colour – the white is not lack of pigment, but scarring from their fights with squids. The Risso are also the one of the species infamously slaughtered by the Japanese at Taiji, and seeing this majestic animal up close in the wild brought closer to home the awfulness of that custom.

That finally satisfied our skipper and we headed back home – at full speed, smashing the waves hard and fast; although even that was not enough to catch up to the restless shearwaters.

Common dolphin

Common dolphin

Gannets at Grassholm

Gannets at Grassholm

Smalls Lighthouse

Smalls Lighthouse

 

Day 35 – Wales, Painted Roughly

Starting mileage: 17402 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 22:00

Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire

Did I say Wales would not inspire a painter? I didn’t mean Pembrokeshire countryside in the summer!

The landscapes here are painted with broad strokes; vast swathes of basic, earthy colours, like from a cave artist’s pallette: deep ochre on empty, untilled fields, rusty gold on ripe wheat, burnt dirty green on sun-scorched pastures. All this can be glimpsed from the roads which are carved thinly into these fields like canals, walled by gorse hedge and tall grass.

We drove down these tunnel-like roads towards one of the two coastal walks we had planned for the day. The Pembrokeshire NP coast is a walker’s dream, and can be hiked comfortably throughout; we had chosen two small bits of the entire hundreds-of-miles-long path that we thought representative of the whole. The first one was on Marloes, the southern of two broad and long peninsulas that border St Brides Bay. There is a tiny village of the same name at the foot of the peninsula, but after that there are barely any human dwellings for several miles, until a youth hostel and NT car park mark the start of the long coastal walk.

Right past the hostel the path runs towards Marloes Meres – a pair of long ponds and marshes which are somewhat attractive to birdwatchers; there’s even a hide, from which we saw a small flock of lapwings and some ducks. The sightings notepad mentioned an ibis appearing every evening for the last month, but as we were in the middle of the hot day there was little point waiting for the elusive visitor.

South Wales possesses in abundance something that is dying out in England: a real meadow; there is a richness of butterflies, field birds and insects in the unmowed fields that puts the rest of Britain to shame. Perhaps if the owners of every single campsite we stayed at wouldn’t mow their lawns to an inch of height, there would be a bit more of those around.

We turned towards the sea, with the small tidal island of Gateholm right in front of us. The islands in these waters all have Viking names – Skomer, Skokholm, Gateholm – a mark of an enduring presence of these robber warriors; no church or abbey in the Pembrokeshire and Cardigan coast survived the Viking age unscathed, no town unpillaged.

The cliffs and rocks before Gateholm were mildly interesting and we spent a while watching a rather large male kestrel hovering above the field and sea; the bird would follow us for the most of our route. But it wasn’t until when we turned right and followed the path for a couple more minutes that the real wonder of this coast emerged before us. A string of striking angular rock formations, perfect triangles of slate pointing right out of the turquoise sea (the water in Wales is generally a far greener shade than anywhere else so far) like overturned pyramids. On these rocks we could clearly see a pair of adult choughs. We had seen these birds before this year, but not yet so close. They are striking and elegant birds, rightly chosen as a symbol of the Celtic coast from Cornwall to Wales: raven black, but with deeply crimson beaks, as if bloodied. They are the finest fliers out of all crow-like birds, and unmistakable once you see them up close.

From the clifftops we could see towards other islands of the Pembrokeshire coast: Skomer and Skokholm nearest, Ramsay in the north, and far off in the distance, a strangely two-coloured, grey and white islet of Grassholm; we would learn the reason for this odd discolouration the next day, but for now we returned towards the car park along the cliff path, past a beach which, though secluded and hard to get to, was full of people; we would see an even more striking example of the Welsh affinity for wild, secluded beaches later on in the day. The cool water lapping over seaweed-covered stones was a welcome relief to our weary feet.

After a short pit stop at Haverfordwest – we had been to this town a few years ago, and remembered little of interest, so there wasn’t much point of visiting it again – we headed for the northern peninsula for another brief walk. This region, with the “city” of St David’s at the end of the road, wasn’t as empty and desolate as the previous one. Our route started in an affluent village of Porthgain, once a thriving quarry harbour, now a cluster of holiday homes, art galleries and pubs. Of these the more popular was The Sloop, set in an unassuming white-washed building, which turned out to be a 18th century inn with good selection of local ales and meals at prices which made even us balk. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a lemon sole dinner for £20.

The major, easily spotted feature of Porthgain are massive red brick buildings of the old quarry, looming at sharp angles on the slopes over the harbour; this is where, at the beginning of the previous century, the slate and stone were carried on great conveyor belts from the quarries along the coast straight to the hauls of waiting ships. This was a high-tech, industrial scale mining, which scarred the coast leaving curious features in the rock which we were about to discover. The path climbs to the top of the cliff, over the conveyor belt base and past the ruins of quarry buildings. The rock face here is sheer, dropping straight into the sea in great gorges; with the bright sun in our faces and the turquoise water below, these deep coves would not be out of place in Mexico. All that was lacking were careless youths leaping from the cliff tops into the dark sea.

Fans of “tombstoning”, as this pastime is called, do frequent this coast, however, their favourite haunt was still before us. First we had to pass two more of these hidden beaches mentioned before. Miles away from anywhere, accessible only on foot, they were nevertheless full of people, sunbathing, swimming and diving.

Marked with a characteristic rectangular building on top of a bald hill was the target of our journey, the Blue Lagoon, or Pwll Glass; a great hole in the ground left over from a quarry operation, now filled with water the colour of amethyst. Being completely artificial, the Lagoon has perfectly straight walls and deep bottom, and this is where tombstoners gather. Depending on their skill and courage, they jumped from various shelves and levels, from a few feet high ledge to a twenty meter-tall wall. We watched them from a cliff above, which was so high that the sound of their splashes reached us a good half a second later than we saw them.

It was near 7 pm when we finally returned to Porthgain, and we still had to stop by St David’s to pick up tickets for the next day’s expedition. Tired and hungry, we searched for a campsite as near to the St Justinian’s quay as possible.

Marloes

Marloes

Porthgain's quarry

Porthgain’s quarry

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon


I don’t even remember the name of the campsite we stopped at. It was one of the C&CC-friendly sites near Caerfai Bay, but I have little good to say about it, and if we weren’t so tired, we would have searched further. It’s expensive, at £20, with only basic facilities. The view over the bay and towards Skomer was nice, but the next morning we discovered there were campsites right outside the quay we were going to sail from, and I wish we would have found out about those sooner.

Day 26 – Where the moor meets the sea

Starting mileage: 16548 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00

Somerset

Somerset

What started as another slow day, turns into a long trudging trek through Exmoor heights, as we finally leave Devon and for the first time in almost two weeks enter a shire we haven’t seen before.

The name of the small town of Woolacombe has a distinctly Australian sound – it’s the “Woola-” suffix that you’re much more likely to find near New South Wales rather than the old South Wales – and the beach looks Australian as well, two miles wide and at low tide stretching for hundreds of meters; the sea shallows stretch even further, making the conditions generally excellent for surfing; not today, though. The combination of ebbing tide and easterly winds made the waves flow sideways, almost parallel to the beach. The water was otherwise calm and good for swimming, but for some reason terribly cold, so we only managed a few minutes. There was a much more fun place to splash about on the beach though – a proper “rock pool” left over by the tide among the boulders, vast, full of seaweed, palm-sized crabs and in places chest-deep – and of course, much warmer than the sea itself.

Just to the east of the surfing “combes” of North Devon starts the Exmoor National Park; the second of Devon’s grim highlands, it has a distinct advantage over its southern counterpart, Dartmoor, in that the granite hills and heaths reach here all the way down to the ocean, making them not only more accessible for us, but also creating spectacular views over tall, massive, jagged cliffs. England’s tallest cliff, the Hangman, is here, as is the number of other grand summits. We stopped briefly at the gateway to Exmoor, Combe Martin; the town has little in the way of attractions, and the only beach is quite narrow and grey, but again it stretches far out at low tide, and is flanked by rugged granite edges on both sides, where a few fulmars nest in good view (it is always shrewd to keep away from the nests as fulmars can spit a foul-smelling oil). Despite it being famous for its strawberries, we could find none – only one last punnet in the nearby farm shop.

The A39, the “Atlantic Highway” as it’s called along the Cornish and Devon coast, is one of the most beautiful roads in England, but also one of the most difficult. It winds constantly up and down steep hills and buffs of Exmoor, straining the engines and breaks of older vehicles – like our poor van – to the limits. It’s a good test before any Alpine roads. In places there are toll roads allowing big trucks to bypass the particularly steep gradients – the worst hill is in Porlock, a sheer 25% drop. The views, however, are splendid: at times, there is nothing but a several hundred feet of sharply dropping heath between you and the muddy-blue waters of the Bristol Channel.

The entire Exmoor coast is dotted with sites of national importance and great natural beauty, and it’s a hard choice if you only have time to see one. We headed for the small town of Lynton, which promised us one of the finest, and easiest to get to, vistas of the entire National Park.

Whoever was naming geographical features in this part of the world, ran out of imagination when he got to Lynton. The place we were to visit was called simply The Valley of Rocks. It was undoubtedly a valley, and, fair enough, there was a lot of rocks, but for a place this magical you’d hope for something a bit more epic.

The Valley of Rocks is a deep glen, once carved by a river into the granite tors; the steep slopes are overgrown with fern and tall grass, and topped with sharp rocky outcrops. It’s one of those places that look like straight out of a fantasy movie, and something about the high summits and vast, flat grassland on the top makes you half expect Legolas to pop up from behind the rocks, shouting “they’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!“. And that’s even before you reach the coastal path, from which you can see clearly all the way towards southern Wales.

A special mention must be made of the café at the entrance to the valley, the Mother Meldrum’s – named after a witch from a 19th century historic romance taking place around Lynton – which not only is set idyllically among two gnarled, sprawling trees, but also serves some of the genuinely best cakes I’ve had since leaving London: proper huge slabs of luscious apple and cherry pies and big steaming bowls of rhubarb crumble – or crumble à la rhoubarbe as our friend from Ilfracombe would have called it.

Past Lynton we got back on the A39 and, making only the briefest of stops on top of one of the great Exmoor hills to watch a herd of grazing ponies, crossed into Somerset and embarked on the search of a campsite for the night. It wasn’t an easy task – this close to Weston-super-Mare, and on a day this beautiful, most of the places were full. In the end, with some trepidation, we found ourselves in a place called “Home Farm Holiday Park” in Watchett.

(Along the way we whizzed past the small town of Dunster, which we’d normally visit if we had more time – and I recommend anyone to make a detour towards it if you’re in the area; it has an abundance of memorable sites, including a fine castle (NT) on a clifftop and a medieval market hall).

Woolacombe Bay

Woolacombe Bay

Combe Martin

Combe Martin

The Valley of Rocks

The Valley of Rocks


Almost a small village, “Home Farm” is vast and full of static caravans and tourers, but it has two major advantages over other sites of this sort: it’s perfectly located, between a deep forest and the sea (it has a private beach) and it’s cheap. In fact, the nice landlady only took £10 from us due to late arrival (the normal cost is mere £15 with hook-up!).

NB it would be nice if more sites had the policy of late arrivals paying less. We are being ripped off every day, paying for a full day’s stay, electricity and water, despite us arriving late in the evening and departing early in the morning.

Day 25 – Kingdom of Heaven

Starting mileage: 16528 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 22:30

Devon

Devon

The day started early again, with us having to catch the ship from Ilfracombe to the island of Lundy, 10 miles off the Devon coast.

The MS Oldenburg is a 50-year old German vessel that has its own stamps, once used to ferry passengers to Heligoland; the sea conditions, according to the captain, were “slight”, which meant that even though it was a lot smaller and older than the Scillonian, the sailing in Bristol Channel was much smoother than the rough journey to Scillies. Before we got too bored with the sea and passing container ships, Lundy’s cliffs loomed on the horizon.

Lundy, although the largest in these seas, is a tiny island: three miles long, half a mile wide. Within the four hours available between Oldenburg’s landing and arrival it’s possible, in brisk pace, to walk the whole of it around. We chose a more leisurely pace, with our main target being Jenny’s Cove, exactly half-way along the western coast.

Of course, there had to be a climb: from the pier to the top of the island; Lundy is a 130-meter high plateau with no natural harbour – the one Oldenburg arrives at is cut into the rocks. The way up starts at a low gradient, winding along the granite cliff, but then turns land-wards and suddenly becomes a narrow path, and higher up – steps.

There are two distinct, unequal parts of Lundy. One is the inhabited part, which for the most part resembles a colonial, sub-tropical islet: the paths wind through the oak groves, abandoned fruit orchards, walled vegetable gardens. For an island that small, Lundy has a remarkable history and complex biology; it was owned by kings, Templar Knights, Cistercian monks, traitors, Barbary pirates, used as a prison, held a granite quarry and finally purchased by the Heaven family, which ruled it as an independent micro-nation, minting their own coins and printing their own stamps – the period known as the Kingdom of Heaven. Right now it’s in the ownership of National Trust, but all previous inhabitants had left their mark on the island, scattering ruins and remains of their dwellings all around it. The path from the quay reaches the “village” – a smattering of a few cottages, a tavern which is the office for everything going on at the island, and a small shop. The tavern also marks the cross-roads from which you can go either south to the 13th century castle and lighthouse, or north, towards the rest of the island.

The last vestige of civilization past the tavern is the Old Light, the tallest of Lundy’s three lighthouses, and the only one that doesn’t work. Just before it there’s a tiny, curious cemetary: a few of the stones are ancient, 1500 years old and inscribed in Latin; the rest are modern – it seems people of Lundy decided to reuse the ancient graveyard in recent years.

Past the lighthouse spreads the vast heath- and turf-land, wild and untamed, where the wild Soay sheep, wild goats and sika deer roam. The sheep – which are of the self-shearing variety – were just past the lambing season, and the tiny brown lambs crying for their mothers induced countless awwws and ooohs from passing tourists.

Jenny’s Cove is the place for birdwatching on Lundy, with thousands of auks: guillemots and razorbills nesting on the cliffs there, few hundred kittiwakes, and a few couples of puffins tumbling down from their holes. There used to be enough puffins on Lundy to give the island its name (Puffin Island in Norse), and they are being slowly reintroduced since the total eradication of rats and other predators.

We spend a long time above the cove, even dozing off in the sun for a bit; apart from the climb uphill, it was a relaxing, slow, lazy day. The sheep bleated, the birds cried, and the tourists oohed, but all of this was subdued and muffled by the vast emptiness of the heath. Eventually, it was time to go – across the island and down the east coast, past even more overgrown ruins and abandoned fields.

For some unfathomable reason, the Oldenburgsailed to Bideford and a coach carried us back to Ilfracombe, just in time for almost everything in the town close down. It was too late to try to make dinner, so we wandered for a bit looking for a place to eat. A word of advice if you’re ever in Ilfracombe: stay by the harbour; don’t get fooled by the signs leading you to the “Shops at High Street”. It’s a sham. If Ilfracombe was a man, I would recommend cutting the High Street off like a rotten limb. The harbour, marked since last October by a massive and obviously controversial Damien Hirst statue of a naked woman with half her skin torn off (“Verity”) is a fairly pleasant, affluent part of the town; the centre is tacky, impoverished and outdated.

The only restaurant in the harbour area that had any decent reviews was Take Thyme – an old-fashioned place with old-fashioned, but well made food. In there we’ve met that rarest of breeds: the nice Frenchman. Even more remarkable, he either really did enjoy his moules au cidre and crumble à la rhubarbe, or was even better behaved than we gave him credit. Obviously, having a Frenchman praise the food in an English restaurant is a sign of highest quality – especially if the dish he eats is of French origin.

Lundy Island

Lundy Old Lighthouse

Lundy Island

Soay sheep

MS Oldenburg

MS Oldenburg


We stayed at Damage Barton again. It’s even more crowded, and we could barely find a pitch among all the motorhomes and caravans. There are three very GoT-like crows here, which fly everywhere together, and do everything together. The sunset was wondrous.

Day 20-22 – Point Break

Starting mileage: 16279 km
Day started: 10:00 / 10:00
Day ended: 23:30 / 22:00

Cornwall

Cornwall

A laid-back couple of days, as we slowly head out of Cornwall, spent splashing about in the sea, playing with surf boards and body boards and being generally cool.

At the end of day 20 we returned to Sennen Cove for a two-hour lesson in surfing: the first time either of us even so much as held the full-size board. It is a measure of our newbishness that the names like Sennen Cove or Watergate Bay meant nothing to us: places which are among the most highly recommended surfing spots in England, especially for beginners. We only learned about the Sennen school by accident, as it was along the route from Land’s End; we found Watergate the next day trying to get to a restaurant.

Smart Surf is one of the tiny surfing schools that dot the coastline; Cornish surfing tradition is far older than it may seem: it was first tried by gentlemen returning from trips to Hawaii in the early 1900s, and the popularized by ANSAC soldiers stationed in Cornwall during WWI. Sennen Cove is a small harbour village, not as famous and crowded as St. Ives or Newquay, so the lessons are more intimate, and cost only £25 pp. The instructors are not only very good and charismatic teachers, they are also absurdly good-looking, which is always a bonus; the guy who taught us, Lew, is also a burgeoning actor.

I had imagined that learning to surf even in the most basic ways would take ages. In fact, two hours turned out enough for an averagely fit person to learn not only to catch a wave, but stand on the board and slide a few meters before spectacularly wiping out. M. managed the trick swiftly; it was a testament of my own lack of any physical fitness whatsoever that I failed to stand properly even once, and had to throw in the towel in the end, due to cramps and exhaustion. Looks like I need to grow a few more muscles than I’m used to; it was all tremendous fun, though.

The next day we headed for St. Ives, Cornwall’s capital of art. Any number of truisms has been said about this town’s light and colours, and they are all true: in the summer sun, the white-washed walls and pastel roofs of St. Ives make it look just like a bit of Provence; and if you can’t get to Arles or Cassis to get your fix of painting, St. Ives is your second best bet.

Famously, the town houses the only Tate Gallery outside London and Liverpool. At the moment, the place is slightly disappointing, holding only tiny, five-room big temporary exhibitions; the next phase is supposed to show off its larger collection of paintings (including ones by Peter Lanyon). It does have the most stunning location for an art gallery though, with the beach and the sea forming the backdrop for the works of art inspired by the local landscape.

A note on the Cornish place names is in order. St Ives is named after “Saint Ia”, a 5th century Cornish missionaress. Cornwall is full of these saints, who apart from a handful of regional patrons are not worshiped, not recognized and oftentimes not known at all outside their local parish churches. These saints – and there is a surprising number of women among their ranks, mostly foreign princesses – hail from the obscure, dark age of the Celtic church, between 5th and 7th centuries, of which so little is now known. Of some of these saints nothing at all can be said for certain, as was the case of Senara, the patron saint of Zennor, a small village we stopped at before Ives.

Zennor’s chief claim to fame these days is the Mermaid Chair, a 600-year old wooden carved bench end, and the accompanying legend of the Zennor Mermaid. According to the leaflet presented in the church, the mermaid image (re-interpreted as double nature of Christ), holding a mirror and comb, stems from the representation of Aphrodite – although I could find nothing to confirm that for certain; if so, it would be a remarkably ancient link to a small parish church in rural Cornwall.

There are a few more points of interest in the village, quite a lot in fact, considering its size: a folk museum, a working mill which sells its own flour, a backpackers hostel and an ice-cream making farm, The Moomaids of Zennor.

We spent most of the afternoon on the Porthmeor Beach under the Tate Gallery, playing with the bodyboard we’ve been carrying around since London (and almost lost hope of ever using). Not as exciting or cool as a surfboard, and allowing for only the briefest of rides unless you’re really skilled, it does make the usual splashing in the water a bit more challenging and it’s very popular among kids and adults alike.

From St Ives we took the long, straight and fast A30 (cyclists are advised to avoid it: a few days before our journey, two End-to-Enders were killed by a truck) to Newquay, or more precisely, to Fifteen at Newquay, a famed restaurant established on Jamie Oliver’s charity concept which had worked so well in London.

We were certain the GPS had fooled us again, as we drove into Newquay, through Newquay and past Newquay, back into the empty fields, with no building in sight. Two miles north of the town we finally descended into the deep valley of the Watergate Bay. The first thing we saw was the beach, the huge waves and dozens of surfers making the best of the weather. The restaurant we were searching for turned out to be hidden away at the end of the car park, overlooking the beach.

As we ate a selection of antipasti (the only thing we could afford this time; it is still a Jamie Oliver restaurant after all), watched the waves through the window and felt the muscles ache, we decided to stay one more day in Watergate Bay – as many before us must have, for as we have learned later, this place was one of England’s finest and most popular surfing beaches.

We divided the next day between chores, a shopping trip to Newquay (the town itself is a typical, crowded seaside resort smelling of chippies and surfwax, with nothing of interest in it apart from the mentioned beaches, surf shops and Aussie bars) and beach. M. hired a beginners surf board (£7,5 for 2-3 hours); I decided to stay with our bodyboard, and get the most out of it. It’s not as easy as it looks!

The Zennor Mermaid Chair

The Zennor Mermaid Chair

St Ives

St Ives

Watergate Bay

Watergate Bay


There are two campsites just above the Watergate Bay, in Tregurrian village; we stayed at one that belongs to C&CC. It’s quite expensive – £21 per night with hook-up – but it’s clean, well kept, in prime location (10 min walk down to the beach, 10 min bus ride to the town &  sea view), with all the facilities you may need (including wetsuit shower) and a fairly stocked shop.

The noise from the nearby Newquay Airport may be irritating to some, but having lived near Heathrow for several years I barely noticed it, and in fact I enjoyed a bit of plane-spotting on day two, as the airport is now home to Classic Air Force, Cornwall’s living air museum.

Fixed a wonky accelerator pedal by tightening a loose screw. Yay for simple repairs!