Tales from the British Isle

1 Jul

Hello friends,

We write to you from Reykjavik, Iceland’s tiny capital. We are in the middle of a phenomenal Icelandic tour, and will share these adventures with you in our next blog. For now, we’ll upload our long overdue entry about our fantastic time in the United Kingdom.

Our two weeks in the UK were some of the trip’s most special. We were lucky enough to travel with Alec’s aunt and uncle (Pauline and Byron) for an exciting fourteen days. Our time with them consisted of one week in England’s famed Lake District and one week in central Scotland. It was a very active and outdoor vacation, interspersed with good stories, food and ales!

Byron and Pauline generously rented a cottage for the four of us in the picturesque town of Ambleside, which served as an excellent base for exploring the surrounding lakes and mountains. Even though it rained almost every morning, we were able to go for great hikes every day. A mentionable hike was through the Langmere Valley, which we explored on a free guided tour. The hike afforded some great views, and our highly entertaining guides’ comedic interludes compensated for the drizzly weather. Our guides were both part of the Lake District’s Mountain Rescue team, a dedicated organization which is impressively all volunteer. Other hikes that week took us through fields of grazing sheep, to lush forests with enormous rhododendron plants, and up steep slopes that granted great vistas.

But certainly our most epic (and favourite!) hike of the week was our trek around Fairfield’s Horseshoe. This hike was an 18 kilometre jaunt over a mountain ridge that connected seven peaks (the tallest being 900 metres) in a horseshoe formation. We had fantastic weather and were able to see all the way out to the ocean, enjoying the mountains, lakes, and nestled towns in between. The wind at the top was roaring, and that energy added to the adrenaline of the day. The ascents and descents provided a great work out and after eight hours of hiking our legs had turned to jello! We stumbled into a pub on our way back to the cottage and (deciding we couldn’t go any further!) enjoyed a well earned pint of English cask ale. For the rest of our stay, whenever we looked up at the horseshoe perched over Ambleside we were repeatedly impressed with our accomplishments! If anyone ever comes to the Lake District we highly suggest this hike.

We can’t express how nice it was to have a “home” during our stay in Ambleside. After such a rainy time in Ireland, we felt especially needy for some creature comforts. The self-catering cottage we stayed in was lovely, and each day we relished in having a very comfortable bed, squeaky-clean shower, big kitchen, and a pair of sofas to relax on or play cards from! This “Roseberry Cottage” was in downtown Ambleside and we loved getting to explore the quaint streets lined with stone buildings that housed many cute cafes, restaurants and shops. We feel lucky to have spent so long in Ambleside.

In general, the Lake District was stunning; we will definitely try to return someday. This area is officially called the Cumbrian Glacial Mountains area, and this name is perhaps more indicative as the truly impressive part of the Lake District is the numerous peaks that rise up from the valleys. The lakes certainly add to the scenic charm, even though they are relatively small (Ambleside is just inland from the largest lake in England, Lake Windermere, which is ten kilometres long). People have been living amongst these hills for millennia; our visit to a stone circle emphasized the ancient and spiritual power of this place. Tourists have been coming here since the 1700s, as the Victorian elite were drawn to the district’s natural beauty. The Lake District prides itself on the poets and writers who found their inspiration amidst the mountains and lakes, two of the most notable authors being the poet William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, the imagination behind the Peter Rabbit stories.

After saying goodbye to England, we continued north by train to Glasgow to start the next part of our UK adventure. We arrived in Glasgow in the pouring rain but were warmly welcomed into the home of David. We connected with David through Warm Showers and we will always remember him as one of the most special people on our trip. With remarkable generosity, David lent Byron and Pauline two of his bicycles so that they could join us on a small tour through central Scotland. The four of us went out for a great dinner with David, and we were happy that he could show us a bit of the West End of Glasgow. He was an incredible source of knowledge! Our initial impressions of Glasgow were quite positive: even though it is certainly a bit “rough around the edges” and carries a post-industrial feel, the city boasts some very impressive architecture and seems to have great museums and a good amount of green space. Unfortunately, our time here was short, but we hope to return.

We left from Glasgow on the National Cycle Network Route 7, which we followed for almost 200 kilometres. The route took us out of the industrial lowlands of Glasgow and into a beautiful world of forests, mountains and lakes (or “lochs”).We didn’t have the greatest weather, but the skies thankfully cleared on our second day when we climbed Duke’s Pass through the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, and we were able to get an incredible view of the whole area. Route 7 took us in and out of small villages, and on to quiet roads where we hardly ever saw a car. But the route was a very challenging one, with lots of climbs (sometimes quite steep) and often over unpaved or potholed roads. We were certainly working hard and we were extremely impressed with the fitness level of Byron and Pauline!! They are a tough pair!

They also had to bike through one of our trip’s rainiest days. It simply down-poured on our third afternoon! We hid for a few hours, warming ourselves by a pub’s fire and playing cards, but as we had already booked tickets to Edinburgh we had to keep pushing onward. To keep morale high the four of us sang show tunes and Christmas carols as the water tumbled onto us, and took no shame in eating multiple chocolate covered digestive cookies! And we should mention that this was June 21st… the first day of summer!

Another unfortunate, although humorous, part of the tour was the high number of flats! Temagami and Nootka both got a flat, but this week’s troublesome character was Byron’s bike, who managed to lose air in his tires on three separate occasions!

But come steep hills, flat tires or rain, we made it to the quaint town of Pithlochry with time to spare, enjoying the warmth and dryness of a Pauline-and-Byron-sponsored B&B (thanks!!), and some Scottish food. We should mention some of our meals over the past two weeks. In general, the food is very heavy and although every meal seems to consist of meat and potatoes, there lots of variance to that combination! Highlights included steak and ale pie, roast beef with Yorkshire Pudding, lamb chops, and of course haggis with neeps and tatties (minced meat cooked in a sheep’s stomach bag with turnips and potatoes). A favourite dessert was sticky toffee pudding! Yum. And British breakfasts are quite the event! A full morning meal includes: sausage, bacon, black pudding (essentially blood sausage), fried mushrooms, a fried tomato and a fried egg. It’s impressive anyone can move afterwards. It’s a good thing we had such an active holiday here so that we could properly enjoy this food without concern for extra pounds…. although we must admit that British people seemed on average the heaviest out of any other country we travelled through.

We arrived in Edinburgh by train and were immediately impressed with the downtown’s skyline… and subsequently UNimpressed by their hotel capacity! Byron and Pauline had not booked a hotel in Edinburgh and unfortunately, due to a Bon Jovi concert and a massive agricultural event, there wasn’t an available room in the city. After hours of phoning (with the assistance of very helpful Tourist Information staff) they decided to take a train back to Glasgow. Disappointing!

We stayed in Edinburgh with another pair of Warm Showers hosts, Ian and Liz. We absolutely loved Edinburgh! However, we did not spend much time exploring the city and instead opted to visit the aforementioned “massive agricultural event”: The Royal Highland Show that took place on the city limits and considers itself “The Greatest Show on Earth”! The RHS was really a trip highlight, an event that traditionally was for showing livestock and but has since expanded to a showcase of farm machinery, traditional music, crafts, equestrian competitions, renewable energies, sustainable living, rural/urban projects, food, and much, much, more! We walked for six hours straight and never repeated a section, and we learned a lot about Scotland, farming and sustainability! Totally worth the trip!

We spent the evening in Edinburgh on a “literary pub tour”, which was essentially comedic live theatre that (pseudo) explained the city’s literary heritage while exploring a few historic drinking establishments. It was a lot of fun, and although the admission was a bit steep, we didn’t feel guilty as that evening Alec found a 20 pound note on the ground! The literary gods were on our side. It was a great way to see Edinburgh and we loved what we saw: the city is small, with incredible architecture, wonderful little streets, and a very positive energy. We’ll be back.

Finally, we returned to Glasgow on Friday to bid farewell to Byron and Pauline. We are so thankful for the time we spent with them, as they are incredibly interesting and fun people who make very good travel companions. They certainly spoiled us while we were together, but ultimately the greatest gift they gave us was their company. We hope that the four of us can travel again in the future!

And speaking of people we hope to soon reconnect with, we have to again mention David (who we spent another night with in Glasgow). We were so impressed with how well David, and his wife Isabelle, treated us and we really admire the way the two of them live their life. A very special gift from David was a photo of a street lamp, with an excerpt from the Scottish “Canadian Boat Song” on the back:

“From the lone shieling, on the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the mist of seas,
But still the pull is strong, the heart is Highland,
As we in dreams behold the Hebrides”

The words fit our experience beautifully, for as we prepare for our return to Canada (albeit by plane, and with excitement) we know that a piece of every place we visited and each person we met will journey across the ocean with us.

And then, we packed the bikes, got in a plane, and arrived to the Icelandic isle for the final week of our epic journey! More details to follow!

With love,

Caitlin and Alec

P.s. Happy Canada Day!

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