Monday, August 24, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 4

Part 4: A little hiccup in our plans 

On Wednesday, we slept late. We were exhausted from all of the travel and moving around and driving, so we took a lazy day. After breakfast, we did a little bit of shopping (Boots, Oxfam, and even a yarn shop) and took more photos. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have started talking about how we couldn't wait to go home. 

We had one thing on our calendar that had been scheduled since April - a tour of Castle Stalker, which was the castle out in the lake at the very end of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The castle is a private residence, so they only do one tour a day, for 12 people. We had reservations for Wednesday afternoon. We decided to go see Dunstaffnage Castle on the way to Stalker, since both are near Oban. 

Remember when we pissed off the faeries? Well, they were still mad. 

We were finally motivated enough to leave at 2:30pm, at which point we discovered a flat tire - the front driver's side tire was completely useless. [Unusual for tourists, usually it's the left side that gets run into curbs and such...] Sigh. We went back inside and called Hertz. They sent a roadside repair guy, who changed the tire to the donut, and gave us a card for the closest tire repair place. Of course, since Oban is a tiny town full of one way streets, we had to drive an extra mile in a big circle to get there. And it was clear from some online reviews that Hertz UK was not going to pay for the tire. We debated for a while, but in the end John chose the nicer tire, because we didn't want Hertz to come back and charge us again if we bought one that wasn't good enough. Sigh.

The Castle Stalker tour was scheduled for 5pm. Unfortunately, having spent the afternoon at the tire place, we were just parking the car at the hotel (at 5:15pm) when they called to see if we were still coming. Sigh. We went back to the hotel and had dinner, and went to bed early. We were glad to be done with that day!

Thursday, things were looking up. After breakfast, we decided to go to Dunstaffnage and to the Castle Stalker overlook. But when John went to get the car from the overflow lot, the NEW TIRE was about half flat. ARGH! So, back to the tire shop for us. They were very nice, and basically admitted that it could've been human error in not filling it 100% the day before. They pumped up the new one, and checked all the others, and then we were off! 

Since we missed Dunstaffnage on Wednesday, it was our first stop on Thursday. Yet another amazing castle built on a large rock! We climbed a tall flight of stairs to enter a large open courtyard. This castle was besieged by Robert the Bruce (a McAlpin descendant) in the 1300s, and the newest building is the gatehouse, built in 1500. The chapel is a few hundred yards off in the woods, much more deteriorated than the main buildings. We couldn't get over how thick the walls were for the chapel, and how narrow the window openings. The path through the woods looked like something out of a fairy tale - vibrant green ferns, thick trees, and a hushed whisper through the leaves. I started singing songs from Sondheim's "Into the Woods" as we walked back. 

Then we were off to Castle Stalker. While we couldn't go over to the little island or go into the castle, there is a lovely little cafe on a hill overlooking the site, so we stopped there and took some pictures and had lunch. (The zoom lens on my camera is awesome!) The tide was out, so we probably could have walked across the marshland, but we didn't think of it. The food was tasty, and we bought some scones for the road. 

After lunch, we decided to take the long way around to Callander, our last stop before going home (ahem, or so we thought). Driving through the Scottish Highlands was just breathtaking. We came around a bend and there was a pull-off for parking beside a mountain, and we could see a rocky outcropping with a waterfall about halfway up. Why not? The sun came out, and although it was windy, it was gorgeous. John took some amazing panoramas, and I started climbing the hill towards the waterfall. Here's a picture of me halfway up the hill. It was pretty steep, but it was so beautiful, I just kept climbing!

Even with the new tire, those faeries were still angry. As we were driving through the Highlands, marveling at the countryside, John's phone buzzed with a text message. There wasn't much cell signal out there, but there was just enough for a message to get through from British Airways that our flight home on Saturday was CANCELLED. Cue minor panic! But since we were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing we could do, we forced ourselves to continue enjoying the scenery and just kept going. 

We found the Old Rectory (right next to St. Andrew's Church, amusingly enough) and checked into our little room. Our bathroom was right over the front door! First order of business, call BA. After an hour on the phone, we determined that the first time they could get us across the pond was Tuesday. Whee! But since our tickets back to London were booked separately, they couldn't change those without another £200+ fee, so we couldn't stay in Scotland for the weekend. ARGH. We went out to clear our heads and check out Callender, but by then it was close to 6pm, and things were closed. 

Dinner at the tiny restaurant in the hotel was actually really tasty - or maybe that was the cider talking. I found us a good deal on a hotel in Kensington for the weekend, and we resigned ourselves to spending three extra days in London. 

Friday - more castles!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK - Part 3

Part 3 - Eastern Scotland 

On Monday, we were at the point where we HAD to do laundry. We looked online and found a place in Lochee, near Dundee -- an hour away. We found the place, and the ladies were happy to help us with soap and change for the machines. It was a small town, and the Scottish accents were so thick we could hardly understand sometimes, but we got the job done. 

We left the laundromat and headed for our next castle, Dunnottar. This was the one day that we had "real" Scottish weather - chilly, drizzly, and grey. But we were also out on the east coast, looking out over the North Sea. To get to the castle, you walk down almost 200 steps, almost to sea level, and then you walk across a bridge and back up almost as many to get to the gates of the castle. It was exhausting!  The site has been inhabited since the Picts, so that's thousands of years. There's a space in the hillside where it's reported that the Earl Marischal kept a pet lion in the 14th Century. Some of the buildings are falling down, others were built later so they're still standing. Each of the castle ruins that we visited had at least one room that had been recreated in period style. At Dunnottar, it was a sitting room, with a beautiful fireplace. 

After we recovered from hiking back down and back up all those stairs to the car, we set off for the hotel. We had decided earlier not to have dinner at Kinloch, so we headed into the town of Blairgowrie. Driving around was a little bit eerie - everything was closed! Yet another place where the sidewalks roll up at 5pm. We ended up eating in the restaurant at the Royal Hotel Blairgowrie... we were the only ones in the place. They were having a special, "pint and a pie for £10" so we took them up on it. By the time we left the restaurant, there were people on the streets again. 

I will say that all that fresh air and hiking made for a good night's sleep. We had a lovely breakfast at the hotel on Tuesday, and then we were off driving west. We did want to take the scenic route, but the mapping software accidentally put us on a smaller, narrower road than we intended. [Scotland has M roads (big highways), A roads (2 lane wide roads) and B roads (1 1/2 lane narrow roads).] John had a heck of a time with the twists and turns and oncoming trucks! Eek! We rerouted ourselves to an A road as soon as possible. 

As we went past Loch Tay, we took a wrong turn (another B road), but this time it was a
good thing - we ended up at the Scottish Crannog Centre. We were just in time to catch the guided tour of the Crannog and try out the ancient tools. A crannog, we found out, is a dwelling that was built as far back as 2500 years ago, on wooden pilings out over the water of the Scottish Lochs. The crannogs were large enough to hold up to 20 people, and their animals! (Must have smelled great...) The Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology has studied the remnants of a few of the hundreds of crannogs that may have existed, and rebuilt this one in the style of the originals. We also tried out the primitive lathes, rock drilling and knitting tools, and took a turn through the museum. What an incredible accidental "find!" 

Then we were back on our way to Oban, which was still about 2 hours away. We drove through some lovely countryside -- the sun started to come out as we made our way west -- and stopped to take pictures at least once. We also apparently drove through a rut that would cause a problem later... but we didn't know it at the time. 

We found the lovely seaside town of Oban, checked into our hotel (dragging our luggage through a half-dozen fire doors and up two flights of stairs), and went for a walk. It was high season for tourists in Oban - there are boat trips to see otters, seals, and lots of nearby islands, advertised everywhere. After dinner, we wandered back through town and stopped at the War and Peace Museum. The museum started with a display for the 50th anniversary of WWII back in 1995, and grew from there. John spent a lot of time talking to some of the veterans who staff the museum. 
The sun didn't go down until almost 10pm, and we were in bed with our eye-shades on soon thereafter!  We didn't know it yet, but Wednesday would be the most sedentary day of the trip... and not just because we were exhausted.