More Scottish travels

At the Duke of Gordon Hotel in Kingussie, a brassy and friendly Scots lady presides over the buffet breakfast. She is the queen of ’em all, having a nice word for all comers and a likeable banter. She is everybody’s friend.

Later, I drive past the ruins of Ruthen Barracks, built on a commanding ancient mound much used for castles over the centuries. John Comyn was here in the time of the Wars of Independence. But these barracks remind us of a much more recent conflict. Here in the Highlands, a blunt and brutal reminder of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 does not sit well to this day.

Past the Insh Marshes, which to my eye as someone who studied geology, is the bed of a huge dried up ribbon lake. Only Loch Insh remains, and the Spey meandering through, rather like the ruined barracks, a misfit in this landscape.

To the top of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s second highest mountain. The little funicular train discounted to £5 return during November. Cheap at three times the price. It is a spectacular mountain railway, but I found it oddly saddening to go be able to go so easily to the summit of a 1200m mountain. All I have written only yesterday about the wild, pure heart of the Cairngorms is arguably undone, at least to a degree, by this development. Yet, it is not crass, not evil, not insensitive. Or at least not too insensitive.

At the top, a sprinkling of early Autumn snow can be seen in the distance. Grey squalls are chasing across the mountains, splashing rain and hail. Far below, Loch Morlich changes in an instant from welcoming cobalt blue to a menacing slate grey, as the rain clouds sweep in. A violently coloured rainbow stops everyone, and everyone peers out, phones ready for that picture. We ought not under-estimate the capricious nature of the weather in these mountains.

Reflections on old coaching inns – II

Southward over the brown hills, under grey skies, to Pitlochry, where there was light drizzle, and picturesque clouds drifting across the mountainsides.  After lunch in a little cafe, onwards again along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.  Why? Because I can.

Brown and gold, red and orange, the leaves of Autumn.  Mountain and lake vista, and the peace of the empty road through the woods.  The changing scenery: woods of birch and glorious splash of autumn colour, then avenues of oak trees on either side of the road, then English-looking farm land with cows and farmhouses.  Still more lakeside and rolling hills and then still later on, the land rises.  There’s that beautiful, sooth, deep and rich brown of late Autumn, lovely under blue skies or grey.  The winding road climbs up onto the Moor of Rannoch.  I arrived at Rannoch Station in drizzle. Worth the journey just to see this most remote of British railway stations. Here, Fort William is barely 35 miles away by rail – but by road,  more than a hundred.

On the run back I stopped by a B&B whose website said “www.middleofnowhere.com”. I wanted to stay but there were no vacancies. Seems everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere. I popped into the Kinloch Rannoch Hotel, a grandiose spa hotel, but they wanted £213 for a room.  I left, giggling.  If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it – never a truer word.

Tiring now, I motored back to the A9 and joined the treadmill at 57mph over the Pass of Drumochter.  Pedestrian motoring; no fun at all.  A twenty mile passage more tiring than all the country lane driving of the day so far. And on to Kingussie, another one of those compact Scottish small towns with a neat grey high street.  And I stopped in the first place I went into – the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  A lady called Fran sold me a single room for £40.

So I’ve journeyed along the silver ribbon of highways through the fading glory of Autumn gold.  But it’s not the road that has been important this time:  this November, it is the silence, the holy silence.

 

Reflections from old coaching inns – I

Last night I stayed at the Invercauld Arms Hotel in Braemar.  Driving there, in the gathering darkness of afternoon in late autumn, I found the “passing place” signs to be like bright oases against the encroaching night.

The Invercauld is one of those ancient, fading coaching inns, a giant hotel speaking of a bygone age of glory.  This one has reinvented itself as a holiday destination for English pensioners – the “grey pound”, so to speak.  The bar fills with grey-headed English folk, some walking very slowly; none under 60.  A range of Northern English accents can be heard, with perhaps the harsh vowels of the East Riding of Yorkshire, predominant.  Strangely enough I am not ired by the presence of this parade of Daily Mail readers, but  somehow oddly endeared to them.

The place is clean and does not smell of decay – always a start in a hotel of this sort.  The woodwork is thick with old paint.  The staff are polite and upright foreigners, as was ever likely in a place as small and remote as Braemar.   From my room there is a view of the road and the mountains you could look at for hours, even on a misty day, and learn much about the nature of God and man.

Breakfast was served in a ballroom with a dance floor, and a bay window larger than most people’s living rooms. The room is deserted, almost.  The dozens of pensioners of last night have all set off somewhere.  Three people come in; hikers.  A youth with the longest hair I’ve seen on a man in years, all down his back.  His hipster buddy with a neatly trimmed but very full beard, and a dark-haired woman with quiet in her face.

The views from the windows are stunning.  Fan heaters rumble to keep the place warm.  In the ceiling, there is modern lighting fitted – a subtle indicator that this hotel is successful in it’s quest to be more than just another old inn.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.

 

From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey

Day 1 – 13/8

An OK flight across the pond with friendly stewardesses, though I was a little put out to find ourselves on such a long-haul journey in a distinctly elderly 757 with little in the way of amenities. We got through NWC easily enough, picked up our luggage, and went outside. We found that a cab into town was the best and easiest bet, and were soon our way. The start of our American journey, from the airport to downtown New York, was marked by a transit of the Lincoln Tunnel.

We settled into our hotel, which was nice but not spacious, and then, tired, we went for a walk in Central Park and on to the Guggenheim. Then, back round the lake to Columbus Avenue, where we found ourselves a Tex-Mex restaurant for our evening meal. We retired tired and happy.

Day 2 – 14/8

Breakfast at a nice little diner – “Jackson Hole” – on Columbus Avenue. Weather fair but a little hazy. Then by Subway down to the Battery Park. Getting subway tickets was moderately stressful. In hot, hot weather, out by boat to the island on which the Statue of Liberty stands. We cannot go up it – one has to book months in advance for that privilege. Some pleasant moments sat in the shade on nice garden chairs, then a hot boat ride back to the city. Then we walked through streets to the Southport Museum, an entire historical area, and had a late lunch there. After that more walking, up to Chinatown. At this point we can see a storm developing.

We did some shopping in Chinatown as the storm brewed, and at last it broke. We hid from the pouring rain of late afternoon in an ice-cream parlour-cum-Tea shop in Chinattown. A local lady recommended a nearby restaurant but it was too early for dinner. After the rain we walked our legs to stumps round the Italian quarter, before retreating by subway to 34th Street – where as evening wore on, we found the rain returning,. We considered going up the Empire State Building, but the deck was closed owing to lightning.

Tired, very tired now, and not a little jet-lagged, we retreated to 81st and Broadway to go back to the hotel. Following the subway ride the rain returned with a vengeance, and we walked the blocks back to the hotel getting very wet. Later we went out briefly for pizza, but it tasted like cardboard, at that late stage – a long first day.

Day 3 – 15/8

Breakfast at the same nice little diner on Columbus Avenue. Thence to the Empire State Building, and up to the top. We noted that military personnel in uniform get a 100% discount – and rightly so. There were long hidden queues amidst the Art Deco architecture. At the top it was gloomy and there was not great visibility.

My wife went down again first and we could not find her. After some effort we found her  Then there was  Shopping in Macy’s, and a quick lunch of pretzels. Back to the hotel, we got our luggage and order ed another cab, which came late. We took this cab to Penn Station, and jumped on the LIRR out to Northport – a big double-decker diesel train with a guard who had a nice line in pleasant wit.

At Northport my wife’s close friend D was waiting for us. Once we were eatablished at their place with food and beer, we could relax, for we were tired. Later, to the motel for bed.

Day 4 – Saturday 16/8

J, D’s husband, picked us up from the motel and on the way to  their place bought a massive bag of bagels for breakfast. Then we relaxed, and after some while, myself and the male children went to the “private beach”, a mile or so from their house, on the North, Long Island Sound coast of the island. We combed and explored for a while. We walked through, over very hot sand, to the public part of the beach, and from there were picked up by J who by this time was out looking for us. We had some lunch, and then to Northport for a little shopping. It was very hot. Later we went for a pleasant two-families walk in the woods.  And later on the evening, good food, drink and chat. Can one ask for more of a holiday than good food, drink and chat?

Day 5 – Sunday 17/8

After another bagel breakfast we set off in two cars to “the ocean”, this time on the south (Atlantic) coast of Long Island. We went to Robert Moses State Park. There was very heavy traffic on the causeway owing to an accident; we arrived at the beach a good 45 minutes ahead of the females in the other car. We sunbathed and swam; it was a steeply shelving beach. However, there were jellyfish stings which kept us out of the water too much. We had a nice lunch of sandwiches and beer and crisps, and retreated mid-afternoon back to Northport. Supper at home was a huge buffet of everything. After supper, to Huntington in the cool of the evening for ice-cream and we all looked in a huge bookshop, and I bought a history book – “The Great West”.

Day 6 – 18/8

All our luggage back into the car and back to the station for our long train journey. It was a promising morning. At Penn we bought sandwiches for our lunch, and my son and I nearly caused us to miss the train as the deli stand took their time preparing ours – they were serious American sandwiches!

Once ensconced in first class we enjoyed our ride up the Hudson Valley, watching the glorious scenery slide by. As the journey progressed, we played cards, read and so forth, but a ten hour train journey will be subject to creeping boredom. A younger family should not contemplate such a train journey.

The train was running late, as was to be expected – on this railway the passenger trains are subordinate to the freight trains, and the whole affair feels rather like British Rail in the mid-70’s. The train reversed into Niagara, which was odd, as we became the front coach as it edged down the single track with the guard and driver standing in the end of the coach as the train backed down.

By cab to our B+B, which was lovely, although it was very late and mine hostess, a lady called Louise, was very talkative indeed.

Day 7 – 19/8

Today we did the tourist thing and visited Niagara, went on the Maid of the Mists, went to the Cave of the Winds. I have to say I was impressed with the power and grandeur of Niagara and would recommend it to anyone with 24 hours to spare on the East coast.

 Day 8 – 20/8

To the airport by cab. We accidently left a small knife in hand luggage; this was detected by the officials who took us to one side. My son – whose knife it was – was distraught. I filled in forms and made my apologies – it was a narrow escape. We’d not have got off so lightly at a big city airport.  I checked the bag in., and the flight was delayed; as a result we missed the connection to Phoenix by five minutes. We were all very cross. We got the Continental people to put us on another fight, after long delay, down to Charlotte. Then on with US Airways to Phoenix, whence we arrived 10pm, very tired and worn. Our luggage was ostensibly lost – but in fact it was “in another terminal” so that was a good aspect to a long and wearing day. Domestic aviation in the USA a -nightmare.

We obtained a rental vehicle – after a few changes, as the first one was not big enough – and set off on our long drive in the dark up to Flagstaff. We stayed at the Inn at 410, which was recommended by my boss  who had stayed there previously It was a wonderful place,  but it was very late – long after 1a.m – so we did the place no justice.

Day 9 – 21/8

A pleasant start with a nice breakfast and conversation with the owner of the Inn at 410 – an Englishman. Then a slightly more relaxing drive through some volcano country and on into the Grand Canyon national park to the South Rim. On the way we stopped at some Indian ruins, which  my oldest daughter thought were “uber cool”. All day, it was hot, damn hot, and it was an intensely dry heat that catches the nostrils.

At the canyon we found our hotel and went for a walk down into the canyon a little ways. A pleasant end to the day.

Day 10  – 22/8

Our trip to the Grand Canyon over, we checked out and started out on our long drive through to Moab, Utah, for which I had allowed two full days. We started with a  leisured drive back along the South Rim with frequent photo stops, before turning north through Tuba City into the lands of the Navajo nation. Interesting driving, but with some very tedious sections. Our day came to a fine climax with a visit to Monument Valley, which was glorious in late afternoon. Shame there was not time for a drive round the valley itself. Thence, onwards through remarkable scenery to a little village called Bluff, Utah. We stayed at the Decker House Inn, which was excellent and very cheap. Steak at a nice steakhouse on the main road. The steak, surprisingly enough, was indifferent.

Day 11  – Saturday 23/8

An excellent breakfast taken outside was followed by a leisurely onward drive through more astonishing scenery, and then gravel plains and tedium, to the area around Moab, Utah. We stopped at the Newspaper Rock, which was interesting enough, and a lady told us that there were “Bandidos” in Moab.

After lunch at a place called the “Hole in the Rock”, we rolled into Moab late afternoon, and sure enough the place was full of motorcycle gangsters. Also it was full of City, County and State police, even the FBI were there, all in heavy presence.

We checked in at the hotel, and with Tag-a-long tours, and then went to do some laundry, which was well overdue. We had some pleasant chats with various folk, including an amateur racing driver. We swung past at outdoor shop at my wife’s suggestion on the way back, and this proved to be the most remarkable place – we bought a brushed steel cafetiere for the Scout Group. Later we went for an Italian meal which was nice.

Day 12  – Sunday 24/8

After our concerns during the night about Bandidos (the internal phone system in the hotel was not working – the kids were effectively on their own – two teenage white girls at that!) we readied ourselves for setting off for the raft trip – an early start at 7a.m  from the offices of Tag-a-long which were next to the hotel.

We took an old school bus, painted white, down the river some miles, past a mine of some kind connected to the wider world by a railway line, and stopped at a wide beach, where it was announced that this was our last chance for a wee in a toilet.

Then we slid down the river pleasantly.

Day 13  – Monday 25/8

Rafting

Day 14  – 26/8

Rafting, with rapids from mid-afternoon.

My son, after my wife had got herself bounced around the raft in one of the early rapids, did not take well to the rapids and became completely hysterical, concerned primarily that his mum would be thrown from the raft to her premature and untimely doom. Our attempts to mollify his concern were not in any way successful, and I had to be quite hard on him to get him to calm down.

Day 15  – 27/8

More rapids, and then the cruise out into Lake Powell.

We left the rafts around 3pm, and set off in the heat for a monumental drive of hundreds of miles east to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We arrived at Glenwood Springs around 10pm, and only with some difficulty did we find the Red Rooster Inn, which was up in the hills some way up the Aspen valley. But what a place!

I found out the hard way (the experiment had to be done) what my dear wife thinks of five days growth of beard. It came off the following morning.

Day 16  – 28/8

What a view from the head of the bed – startling and beautiful. We had a relaxing day at the Red Rooster Inn and later in Glenwood Springs, and spent time in the hot springs swimming pool, which was rather expensive. Then, a scratch supper bought from a supermarket, and so to bed. My plan that we would need a relaxing day at the end of our busy holiday came to full fruition, and it was good.

Day 17  – 29/8

A pleasant drive up the valley, with a stop at expensive Aspen, and then up over Independence Pass. Some wonderful scenery as we motored through the Rocky Mountains and on down onto towards Denver. Here there was a tunnel that marked the end of our holiday, even as the start of the holiday was marked by the Lincoln Tunnel. We made our descent east to Denver through the Eisenhower Tunnel (strictly speaking the eastbound bore on I-70 is the Johnson Tunnel – but Eisenhower sounds better, because then the story of our American holiday can be said to be “From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey”.)

Day 18 – 30/8

We stopped that night at a Hyatt Place near the airport, and flew off to Houston and thence Gatwick the following day. I found myself reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand in the front seat of a 737, even as Democrat after Democrat walked past me boarding the plane (the Democrat annual conference finished the day before in Denver.) Personally I found that juxtaposition interesting, but no Democrats noticed my choice of reading material.