Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The journey North

We left Fareham on the fifteenth as planned, but not as early as we’d have liked. It’s amazing how much you have to do even after all your stuff has supposedly been packed up and shipped off the day before. We found loads more of our gear that the removals guys didn’t take and consequently spent an age filling the garage with it all instead. This included all the practical stuff like gardening equipment and things you need for the car when undertaking a long journey, like a foot pump, WD40 and spanners. Pah! Who needs all that clutter, eh? All the space in the back was taken up with a huge cage, which the cat was hardly ever in!  
Poor old Smokey despises my driving, but after we’d let her curl up on Gail’s lap, she chilled and was not really a problem for the next three days. Bless her. Did the whole first leg to Cumbernauld with only one petrol stop at Gretna. That’s how far a three-pot Skoda gets you on a bellyful. We spent the night at the Travelodge there and phoned out for a fantastic Chinese from Pearl’s. Absolutely gorgeous, except for the banana fritter that was just that little bit too weird for me. Cosmopolitan, I am not. The huge bag of complementary prawn crackers made up for that. Smokey didn’t like the traffic outside in the hallway and tried to bury herself in the far corner of the room. It could be that the last residents of the room included a big dog or something, but she clearly wasn’t happy. When I piled all the bags in the corner to stop her, she slept on the bed with us in the end.
In the morning, I looked out of the window to see that it had snowed during the night. The weather forecast assured us that this was the Northern limit of the winter weather so I happily abandoned my alternative route. Had the storm that had been forecast hit, I knew that I would have been too much of a coward to risk the A9 over the Cairngorms and, instead, had plotted a circuitous route via Aberdeen, all the way around the East coast. But with the promise of a fine day, we hopped back in the car and set off for Aviemore. I am so glad that we did. The snow-capped peaks were pure eye-candy and it seemed as if everyone else had been overcautious and given the mountain pass a miss, because it was practically empty.  We came down the other side into Inverness for the second petrol stop. When we crossed the bridge over the Moray Firth, we left the civilised world that we had known behind us.
View back to the Dornoch Firth from the A9
The Northern Highlands

Just as we were losing the light, we skirted around Thurso and headed for Castletown. The hotel there is brilliant. It’s a tiny community but the place was rocking because it seemed that all of the local businesses were just finishing their Christmas lunches. Gail was reunited with her beloved Orkney beer, Smokey had an Empress size bed to monopolise and a windowsill to taunt the neighbour’s dog from. Fed and watered we retired and even the raucous Karaoke from the evening revellers failed to wake us.
If the weather had turned nasty, it would have been fabulous to have had to spend the whole weekend there, but alas we had a ferry to catch. Gail, in my experience, has been extraordinarily lucky with ferry crossings. The North and Irish Seas and even The Minch to Stornoway were mirror calm when we crossed them. The Pentland Firth, however, is a different proposition. The waves rolled in from a lumpy sea and I was concerned that the ferry had to turn around outside the harbour wall. The souvenirs in the gift shop clanked and banged and Gail sent me off to find her a barf-bag and a bottle of water to wash her medicinal Pringles down with. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride until we got into sheltered water toward Scapa Flow. We soon docked at Stromness and then had to drive to Kirkwall to catch the next ferry to Loth Pier on Sanday. We made it in plenty of time, so I was sent off to Scottish Hydro to buy a heater.
A miscalculation had meant our second boat of the day had to stop at two other islands, Eday and Stronsay, on its way to ours. Consequently, Smokey was left in the car for nearly three hours, but if anything seemed peeved when we finally got back to the car deck and woke her up.
We were on Sanday, albeit on the opposite side of it from the one we were headed to. It was dark. The huge, white windturbines turned lazily overhead as I raced after the row of tail-lights ahead of me that I was relying on to guide me. One by one, they reached the end of their journeys, leaving me to find my own way. They really don’t have much truck with roadmarkings and signposts so it really was trailblazing. Eventually I saw the dilapidated horsebox that stood beside our gate. We were home.
My first job was to inflate the two matresses on the bare concrete floor that would be our beds for the next couple of nights until our furniture arrived on Monday. The next was to unpack the heater. Six degrees centigrade is just plain not warm enough. Our sleeping bags were tiny and how the hell we didn’t die of exposure remains a mystery to me.
Over the weekend, two neighbours to the East of us dropped by with bottles of wine and warm welcomes. We took a walk around the garden, explored the dunes and Lopness Bay and then drove off to have Sunday Lunch at The Belsair in Kettletoft. The place was empty and it was just as if the owners had opened just for us. Perhaps they had. We also availed ourselves of their wi-fi connection afterwards, which allowed Gail a second bottle of Orkney beer.
Back at the shed, all we could do was twiddle our thumbs and wait until our stuff arrived. Now that’s a different story.

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