Well it wasn’t quite coast to coast. In the morning I left Tunbridge Wells at the usual ridiculous hour. But my friend Karen had woken up that morning on a school field trip in Dorset. So that counts as she was part of the intrepid trio, hell bent on defying the bank holiday weekend traffic on our regular adventure north. The three of us met up in North London by my first school, Winchmore Hill. It was a warm calm day. I’d already had dreams of slipping into the Orange Tree for a refreshing pint but they had to go on hold.
I feel sad for the M1 and the M6. The tarmac is grey and rutted with the traction of millions of vehicles. They charge along there, regardless of the history of these ground-breaking (literally) revolutionary roads. These two motorways have been instrumental in shaping modern society. The men who built them may now be deceased or advanced in age. I feel that I owe it to them to remember what they did. Can you imagine if we only had the A41 and the A5? As usual, there was a hunger stop at Newport Pagnel.
The services were heaving. People were desperate. In the car park I saw a van that said “Drake’s Servicing. Aberdeen.” He or she had a long way to go. At least we were just aiming for Bolton. After clambering onto the M6 the usual jams began to drag us down to a crawl. Then we stopped; regularly. I can honestly say that despite never spending a night there, I know the West Midlands very well. I’ve sat behind the wheel staring at Fort Dunlop and the RAC control centre many times.
I just know that the junction with the M5 is the biggest cause of the Friday night angst. Then, after an hour and a half of nose to tail, we had a little piece of peace.
My mate Gary’s parents live nearby. An hour of gentle tea and conversation made such a difference before the mad dash up to Bolton. It’s always re-assuring to meet people who are content and calm.
Bolton arrived just before nine fort-five. The only thing to do was find a pub. There is something about a busy motorway; the constant thrum, the grey mottled surface, the sense of insecurity and the antics of the occasional dickhead which gradually grinds away at the core of your soul. A pint of keg beer in an urban pub on a Friday Karaoke night becomes heaven.
Karen’s parents are warm friendly, life-loving practical people. I have vague memories of her younger brother arriving late and under the influence, laden with a feast of Indian takeaway. The early start the next day (or the same day if you want to be technical) ensured an empty motorway.
Once Glasgow had gone by we were in amongst the glory of rural Scotland. It’s only then you realise how big Loch Lomond is.
Flashing between gaps in the hedgerows, you look down to a mass of blue water, dancing in the late spring sunlight. Sometimes we seemed on it and sometimes it appeared floating away in the distance. But for ages it was a loyal friend giving promise of riches yet to come. And they did come. The rich verdant foliage of the west coast bounced all around us in our little Fiesta crammed with the luxuries of makeshift camping.
This was not my first time in this part of the world. I’d visited Aberdeen in 1986. The journey was a long drive through the stark treeless mountains.
It was moving and passionate. I thought of the wild winters that had savaged its brutal beauty.
Seven years later however I was being moved in different ways. It was a calm May morning when we reached the banks of Loch Ness. Like many of the famous sports and concert venues I’d visited, I’d seen pictures and read accounts. But to actually be there takes you higher. The loch was silky smooth. The road hugged its bank.
We stopped for a while to take in its sheer size and beauty. Apart from the shuffle of passing cars it was silent. It was the stuff of legends. I thought of all it had generated. Years of debate and monster conjecture. But it hadn’t prepared me to be blown away by this silent giant. It was passive and strong, peaceful and stirring, misty yet colourful.
Inverness was the next stopping point. It was time to do the necessary stocking up at Safeways before holding our breath and venturing across the very north of this garden of delights. There were long straight roads, passing falling cliffs and sparkling seas. We had to stop to just breathe in the new air.
Fifty miles short of Durness we found the single track roads. On this stop start winding path the trees had finished to reveal cold combinations of shiny rock and dark rich moss. We were on the moon. Even with our slow speed the landscape was merging into a lumpy mess of rise and dip. It took two and a half hours to do those fifty miles.
We arrived at a small camping community. A fresh breeze was marauding in from the north. It was a cold. Fleece weather. At the edge of the site, I looked down to a beach of golden virgin sand.
It was up there with all the exotic places I’d ever seen before; but it was cold. The beauty of this coast comes at a price. Then after a good hearty meal; we actually boiled the potatoes on a little gas ring in the back of my car, it was time to hit the bar.
The camp site was popular by dint of its extreme location. It was busy. We slipped into pub mode and at about eleven thirty I needed the loo. It was still light outside. That was so special.
But the night was windy. I lay in my tent with just a few millimetres of fabric between me and the elements. It was not soporific. I was tired but I wanted to walk along the beach in the half light and shout into the growing wind. It was calmer in the morning. We had a full breakfast. The breakfast was a huge compensation for a night of turbulence and torment. It made us heroes.
That afternoon we went to Tongue. It was along the coast and involved the most glorious causeway you are ever likely to see. It was not just how it looked but it spoke of times long gone when the country was untamed. Whether it is tamed now is open to debate.
The demon weather with its punishing rain and secretive mist hides these places away for most of the year. But we saw it in its full powerful grey majesty.
By the time we arrived back at Durness the wind was rampant again. Where was my tent? The nice man from the camp site told us the whole drama. He’d rescued my little tent from scampering over the cliff and put it inside my mate’s big tent. Fortunately this camp site was prepared. It had a laundry with a few big tumble dryers.
So it was back down the coast. We needed proper beds. In amongst the anxiety of the drenched tents and the doubt of the encroaching evening the Scottish coast became sober and magnificent. It was at this time I decided the most expressive colour was grey. We came upon Ullapool. It offered us a hotel room and a friendly pub. But this was the most beautiful port I have ever seen. Along this tiny seafront the bright colours of the little upright cottages sneered defiantly at the deep looming skies.
The next morning was a delight. We revisited Inverness and the great Loch. There was even time to go round the Dalwhinnie Distillery. Now Karen is not a fan of whisky. She gained great mileage from the fact that were being shown round a dormant distillery. It was actually closed for refurbishment. The mocking laughter echoed around the empty brewing room. That night we stayed on the Solway Firth. There was a big sky smiling on the carpet of silt and saltmarsh.
It was only three days. But can you see how much I’ve remembered? Epic journeys give epic memories.
Thank you for reading.