Skye: The Perfect Spring Holiday

DSC_0074 (800x533) Tom and I visited the Isle of Skye last August, but everyone we met told us we’d visited at the wrong time. A whole week of blazing sunshine seemed to say otherwise to me, but apparently the best time of year to visit for both weather and wildlife is mid-April to mid-June.

So I thought I’d tell you about it now, when everyone is thinking about planning their next holiday.

In case you’ve not encountered it before, Skye is a large island located on the West coast of Scotland. It’s covered in mountains, waterfalls and whisky distilleries, and the waters are rich in dolphins, seals, whales and otters. What more could you want?! Reaching it isn’t the easiest, but that challenge puts off the lazier tourists who swarm over the rest of the UK, so it’s something to be grateful for. Isle of Skye map We had spent a couple of days in Edinburgh beforehand, so got the train to Inverness, then a connecting train to the Kyle of Lochalsh (the nearest village on the mainland to Skye), and finally a taxi across the sea-bridge to Portree; the largest town on the island (it’s not particularly large). Seven hours that took. Alternatives would be getting the sleeper train to Inverness or driving of course, but I like being able to observe the view. I’m rarely happier than when staring through a train window as the countryside rolls and billows past, getting lost in my imagination for a couple of hours.

Seven hours was pushing it a bit though.

We arrived at Viewfield House in the middle of the night, just as the storm clouds that had been following us broke. The house seemed deserted, but we were soon discovered and led into the dining room, where Tom had requested a meal for when we arrived, knowing we would be too tired to go out again. We were then ushered into the drawing room, and spent the evening exploring the extensive list of scotches in front of a crackling open fire.

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Viewfield House

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The Drawing Room

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The view from the front door

Set in twenty acres of woodland just outside Portree, it’s nevertheless only a ten minute walk into the town, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops selling all the basics. We spent a couple of days here, walking the coastline and eagle spotting.

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The mountains you can see in the distance above are called the Cuillins.

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Cruise ships often anchor off Portree, and ship parties on shore for daytrips.

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Though convenient, we’d soon had our fill of Portree after a couple of days. We wanted better walking and fewer people, and were craving a bit of privacy after staying in hotels for so long, so we made our way South to Elgol. Public transport is limited on Skye so we had another taxi journey, this one taking nearly an hour.

Tom really is very, very good at finding accommodation though, and when we arrived at our thatched cottage I literally ran around in delight. There are four of these restored crofters’ cottages vaguely grouped together, but we were there for a whole week and hardly saw the people renting the other three. They’re managed by the owners who live just around the corner, so any problems and they’ll pop round to fix them personally. Heated stone floors and wifi bring a comforting modern touch, but they’re otherwise cosy with traditional details.

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Link here to the website

Conveniently, they’re also next door to Coruisk House, the only restaurant in Elgol. They have just six tables so you must book in advance, but the atmosphere is cosy and informal, and the food incredible. Seafood is purchased daily from the harbour nearby, and we sampled huge hand-dived scallops and bowls full of squat lobster tails.

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Coruisk House, seen from our front door

Elgol harbour drew us to it nearly every day, and we would trot down to the sea (a forty five minute walk) every morning to see what boat tours were going out. Some take you to the nearby islands of Rum, Eigg and Canna where there are cafes and castles to explore, some tear about searching for wildlife and attracting pods of dolphins, and some take you past rocks covered in sunbathing seals to Loch Coruisk, where you walk across solidified magma and can scramble around the loch in around two hours if you’re brave. The whole environment is absolutely stunning, and the boats are very accommodating – they can drop you off and pick you up pretty much any time you want as long as you’re ready and waiting when they have a landing scheduled.

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A waterfall we found on the way down to the harbour

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View across the bay from Elgol harbour. Loch Coruisk is hidden amongst the jagged hills ahead.

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Some of the many, many photos I took of seals as we drifted past them on our way to Loch Coruisk.

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The Misty Isle boat trips take you out to Loch Coruisk, diligent collie Finn keeping a close eye on those pesky seals for you. You need to book them from the kiosk just above the harbour, and they cost from £12.50-£28, depending on whether you want to stay half an hour or all day, or somewhere in between.

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Standing on a magma field. Black rock appears to have been poured like molasses from the surrounding peaks, the remnants of a distant eruption that created the crater now filled with water.

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Every time you turn a corner the terrain and light changes, completely altering the landscape. The recent hoof-prints of a stag marked the meandering path we followed around the loch, though we didn’t see him unfortunately. We did see a golden eagle silently riding the updrafts above us, soaring backwards and forwards in large sweeping arcs. We watched it for a while then pressed on, aware that we had requested two hours to walk the loch and the captain’s assistant had declared it would take more like three or four.

He was wrong, luckily!

We passed very few other walkers. A small party walking in the opposite direction who seemed alarmed to come upon us, and a father and son swimming in a sunny corner of the loch, but we otherwise had the place to ourselves. Most visitors sit on the rocks with their sandwiches, take a few pictures then get back on their boat and leave. There’s a fair bit of scrambling over rocks I suppose, and at one point the path disappears and you have to find your way through an actual bog, so in that respect the walk wouldn’t be possible if your mobility was limited or if the water level was higher (Tom had a small tantrum when he realised I’d led him into a bog that he was rapidly sinking into, but luckily I managed to find a route out hopping between tussocks of grass).

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A sea-plane landed on the loch as were wandering along its opposite side, and by the time we reached it the passengers we had observed pouring out and clambering across the beach and rocks behind had vanished. Possibly the group of perturbed walkers we had passed, worried that we were about to come upon and make off with their transport (there are no roads to Loch Coruisk, only a path from Elgol that necessitates crossing ‘The Bad Step’; a point where to continue you must reach around a rock and step down blindly. (Tom refused to risk life and limb, so we got the boat instead.)

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On another day we visited the island of Rum, which has a small cafe and post office, as well as shower facilities for campers. There’s also a 19th century-built castle and an otter hide, deer everywhere and abandoned crofts to explore.

DSC_1393 (800x533)The Isle of Rum

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The coastal path

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An abandoned croft overgrown with moss and ferns. It felt like being inside a Neolithic dwelling, like those re-discovered in 1850 at Skara Brae in the Orkney Isles.

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Tom in the otter hide. We didn’t get up early enough to see any otters unfortunately, but it was a very nice hide nonetheless. We did, however, see a lot of dolphins! They enjoy riding the bow wave created by the Bella Jane AquaXplore boats, large orange dinghies that tear across the bay and around nearby islands searching for wildlife. Again there’s a kiosk on the harbour where you can book boat trips, costing £16-£95 depending on how far you go.

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Almost close enough to touch, every time we went out on with the AquaXplore team a pod of dolphins would mob us, leaping out of the water beside the boat, swimming underneath us and surfing the bow wave we produced.

In spring there are whales to be seen, and also colonies of puffins (I would like a puffin). We had the most wonderful time possible though, even without puffin pleasures, and I can’t recommend Skye highly enough if you like the outdoors. You’ll need sturdy walking shoes and waterproof clothing, but if that sounds like your idea of a good time then prepare to be amazed.

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Best Books about the Countryside

This is by no means a definitive guide, rather a varied selection across all genres. Books to dip into when you’re missing the smell of damp loam and the sound of trickling streams. I’ve selected four favourites which draw me back, their images and anecdotes equally compelling but in very different ways. There are other greats that I haven’t mentioned, like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, and John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth, but I’ve focussed on books that you can dip in and out of – flashes of inspiration to illuminate your day, however you choose to spend it.

Wild Swimming – Daniel Start (£13.59, available here)

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This book is pure inspiration. How many of you swam in rivers or ponds when you were younger? Wriggled away from water-weed and slippery amphibians, squealing with pleasure, doggy-paddled around lilypads or back-stroked across plunge pools? Now, when was the last time you ventured in? If it wasn’t recently, then this book will entice you back to Britain’s wild waters. As the introduction points out, “being by and in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of our human condition”.

Wild Swimming details nearly 400 magical locations where you can swim in the wild, from rivers to lakes with hidden waterfalls along the way. There are tarns at the top of mountains, and natural pools in woodland clearings. Accompanied by tantalising photos and anecdotes, they’re organised by geography, and there are maps and grid references to help you on your way. There’s also an amusingly high-percentage of photos featuring scantily-clad young women enjoying the waters… but I wouldn’t level that as a criticism!

Wild Swimming 1Extract:

Tarns – or Llyns as they’re known in Wales – are those magical lakes that appear as you’re sweating your way to the top of the mountain. Swimming in them provides total immersion in the landscape and the ultimate sense of the wild. 

My favourite is Llyn Eiddew Bach, part of a series of wild mountain lakes that is very dear to me. It’s in the heart of the northern Rhinogs, Snowdonia’s least-visited region, close to a 3,000-year-old roadway that once linked Ireland with Stonehenge. I spent some time living in the farm close by and I would always leave a bottom of bubbly stashed and chilling on the lake bottom, tied to a secret piece of string, in preparation for weekend picnics.

Death of a Naturalist – Seamus Heaney (£7.49, available here)

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There are many poets who write about the natural world, but very few really understand it as Seamus Heaney does. When I first encountered Heaney I didn’t know he had garnered international fame, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature amongst many other awards and accolades, I just recognised the world as I also saw it in his poems. He lifted me out of my GCSE English classroom and back into the countryside, which was exactly where I wanted to be.

There is a power and precision to Heaney’s poetry, and a clarity of vision that is not marred by agenda. Although many of his poems have an autobiographical element, evoking memories of his rural childhood in Ireland, somehow it is often not Heaney we see as we turn the pages but ourselves. I make all my students study his work, whatever age they are. For them it is an alien-world he evokes, as few seem to venture outside of London unless they do so at 36,000 feet, but with a little guidance Heaney helps me to show them what they’re missing out on.

Extract:

Death of a Naturalist

 All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles.  

River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow – John Wright (£11.99, available here)

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The River Cottage brand began back in 1998, though Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first appeared on our screens in 1995 with A Cook on the Wild Side. Since then he and his team have become synonymous with the promotion of ethical, sustainable food production, and especially with food you’ve found yourself in the wild.

A walk in the autumn countryside so often turns into an all-consuming foraging expedition, with buckets overflowing with blackberries, pockets bulging with chestnuts, and even a trug full of wild mushrooms if you’re lucky. When Hugh’s pal John Wright began writing the River Cottage Handbooks, however, he opened up all the seasons.

I have a number of these little guides, and flicking through them – especially the recipes section – always make me glance longingly at my gumboots. The tantalising pictures are quite enough, but John also includes witty explanations of how best to eat your plunder, whether berries, nuts, seeds, roots, leaves or even tree sap.

Blackberry Whisky

Extract:

Crab Apple

A fully burdened Crab Apple tree is a wonderful sight in autumn, but chiefly from a distance. The apples themselves are, as one Edward Long put it in the eighteenth century, “never admired for loveliness of aspect”. Small, misshapen, spotty and scabby, and full of pips, they do not inspire the cook. Nor are they remotely edible raw – they must be cooked. Yet when prepared properly they are a treasure. 

Of course, the recipe for which this tart apple is best known is Crab Apple jelly. The very high pectin content means that it will always set well, and other fruits can be added to make a variety of jellies. Cooked, strained and with sugar added, Crab Apples also make a sharp apple sauce – just use extra sugar if it takes the roof of your mouth off.

P. S. I cannot resist passing on this medicinal recipe from the early 1800s; it is for a concoction called Black Drop:

Take half a pound of opium sliced, three parts of good verjuice (from crabapples), one and a half ounces of nutmeg, and half an ounce of saffron. Boil them to a proper thickness; then add a quarter of a pound of sugar, and two spoonfuls of yeast. Set the whole in a warm place near the fire for six or eight weeks, then place it in the open air, until it become a syrup; lastly, decant, filter, bottle it up, adding a little sugar to each bottle

I am not sure what it was supposed to cure. Everything perhaps.

Country – Jasper Conran (£20, available here)

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Jasper Conran is best known as a fashion designer, but in 2010 he published a photographic essay about the English countryside. It is whimsical and rose-tinted, portraying an idealised vision of the country where people make bread and butter very slowly by hand, but it’s a fairytale you will want to be a part of. Every image is absolutely beautiful, and woven into a narrative of the seasons that proves our halcyon past is very much still alive.

Conran spent a year exploring the UK, getting to know its villages and capturing our rural pastimes as well as occupations. There are flower festivals, morris dancers, surfers, fell runners, bell ringers, artists and artisans, foxhunters and even an old-fashioned travelling circus. The seasons take centre stage as often as the people he meets though, and each building is treated with equal curiosity and reverence whether farmhouse or manor house.

Every time I dip into this book I find something new that makes me smile or takes my breath away. For lovers of the countryside, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Conran 3Extract:

‘Country’ is an idea – a texture, a flavour, a state of mind. Close your eyes, and imagine the English countryside. What do you see or hear, smell, feel or taste? It might be a sweep of beautiful landscape or the warmth of a roaring pub fire; perhaps a porch filled with dripping coats and muddy wellingtons, the scent of ripe apples and freshly baked bread, or the hum of bees in a sleepy kitchen garden.

I wanted to celebrate that idea; to attempt to capture in words and photographs some of the many threads that, woven together, make up some of the fabric of the English countryside. To record the people and events I found during a year of exploration. The fact that I am a designer who has worked all his life with fabric, form and colour does not make me an expert on rural affairs but, when it comes to appreciating part of the texture of the English countryside, I think it may have helped.

Our world is being transformed, not only by globalisation but also by urbanisation. For the first time in history, more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside. Across the globe we are forgetting our rural roots, but country life, its values and people have never had more to offer. This is not about some imagined past, but life as it is lived today, in all its wonderful complexity. I worry these treasures can be all too easily lost. In some countries, grey urban landscapes merge from one city to the next. I hope something similar does not happen here.

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Let me know your own favourites – what books get you excited about the countryside?

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Cornwall beach   Lake District   NG tadpoles