Friday, 30 October 2009

Thursday 15 October 2009

I’m a bit bemused as to why someone should want to thump Leona Lewis. I can only imagine it’s because Celine Dion wasn’t available.

Monday 5 October 2009

This morning after the usual breakfast (toast, sausages, bacon, egg, black pudding and baked beans, with coffee) we checked out of the hotel, waved off by its genial and eccentric host, Robert, and set off for the Scottish Folk Museum, since no one wanted to sign up for a trip to see the dolphins in the Firth of Moray.
I haven’t really mentioned our fellow travellers much. On the whole, they are a friendly bunch. There are two who look like the couple in the painting ‘American Gothic’. I suspect the husband is a retired army man and is always very neatly and properly turned out. He is also very fond of his red wine.
Every day we’ve had breakfast and dinner with a couple called Ted and Jean. Despite their ages, they are both very fit. Until now Ted has done only backpacking holidays, which isn’t something I can imagine pensioners doing on a regular basis. He has let his garden run fallow ‘to encourage wildlife’ he says, although Jean rolls her eyes at this. Ted and Jean are my favourites although I also like John and Margaret. They are couple who fell over independently in the reindeer enclosure. Margaret is quite chubby and jolly while John is taller and thinner with a wry sense of humour. He carries a dated Nikon SLR camera which uses real film and looks on digital photography as ‘point and click’ blasphemy.
I showed him my Olympus E420 but he wasn’t impressed.
There are two couples from Bristol and Yorkshire who have commandeered the back seat of the coach and talk interminably about memory foam mattresses and terminal diseases.
When we arrived at the Folk Museum our tour guide was planning to show us round, but while we were waiting for someone to fix the projector in the introductory video room, we decided to show ourselves around.
It’s basically a large area where bygone buildings have either been recreated or dismantled on site and reassembled here, so one can see original sheep shearer’s cottages, an original village post-office, a sweet shop, a farm etc. etc.
The farm features real animals and the UO was treated to the bizarre spectacle of a cat catching a mouse and eating the whole thing, apart from one piece, which appeared to be a blue-green section of intestine.
We then ended up in Dingwall, a very dour town where the locals seemed to be angry at having been forced to live there. The UO and I went to The Viking Bar where a Scots version of Hurley from Lost was working behind the bar. We comprised of half the pub’s customers, the other two being a nice old lady and a man playing a ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ slot machine.
We only went in to use the toilet. Outside we’d seen two signs, more or less pointing at each other saying ‘Toilets’ but we could find none in the area between them. I suspect that angry locals had moved the signs around in order to punish non-locals for having the good sense to live somewhere else.
Then we drove up to the top of a mountain so that people could take photos of the view. There should have been more of that sort of thing.
Finally we were returned to Inverness where the UO and I went back to ‘Pyramid’, a shop we’d seen on our first arrival, but which hadn’t been open. It sells gothic objet d’art and we were keen on a figure of Death holding a sign that says ‘Welcome’. We also bought a figure of a dragon, ‘Luminax’ which holds a T-light in each outstretched clawed hand. I could well imagine Mo, the Blair Athol tour guide, pointing these out and explaining their origins and significance to interested visitors to our home.
We found a Chinese Restaurant, ‘The Mandarin Palace’, boasting itself as ‘The Only Real Chinese Restaurant in Inverness.’ Above the urinals in the gents a sign had been put up which read ‘Please stand closer. Your Big John is not as big as you like to think it is.!’
The food was excellent. I also particularly liked the crazy Chinese waitress who asked us if we were OK with chopsticks.
‘If you make a mess.’ she said, ‘we will have to ask you to do some washing up.’
Finally we tried out a sixteen year old Glen Roth single malt whisky in the Royal Highland Hotel outside the station before collecting our bags and finding our bunks on the allnight train, where I am now. The UO has banished me to the top bunk.
I don’t care. I just want to sleep the sleep of the just can’t be bothered to stay awake.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Today we went off to The Reindeer Centre which is less a centre than a vast area in which reindeer are allowed to roam and multiply, like retired maths teachers. I had thought reindeer to be alien to the UK, but apparently they were plentiful here until about 2000 years ago when they disappeared for unknown reasons, but which was no doubt connected with early venison burgers.
They were reintroduced fairly recently in millennial terms and now there are around a couple of hundred roaming around.
After negotiating a tortuous series of stone steps we emerged onto a mountain plain to meet the reindeer which we were allowed to feed by hand.
It was a day of minor casualties. Two of our party fell over and a woman who bent down to get some feed was summarily mounted by a short-sighted stag. She leapt up with a squeal and the reindeer fled, leaving not only hoofprints on her shoulders, but a sinister glistening stain on the back of her skirt.
The Ugly One was similarly mounted as we left the enclosure. The last thing we expected when we embarked on this holiday was to be sexually assaulted by reindeer. I’d have preferred the kilted prison officers, but as I have discovered in life, one can’t have everything in this world. Not straightaway anyway.
After a pleasant and very filling lunch in Aviemore, not even spoiled by the screaming presence of several annoying children, we took the steam train trip to Glenbogle (which somehow has stuck in my head as being called Benfogle) from whence we headed back to the hotel for an early dinner.
The ME & D tonight was a very good performer with an electric accordion although we did not see much of him. We went upstairs to find out who the finalists of X-Factor were.
Louis Walsh has picked those eejit Irish twins, Famine and Pestilence or whatever their names are. I’m with Simon Cowell, unusually, on this. ‘Hate them! Hate them! Hate them!’
I pointedly push my finger onto a flat surface with each repetition.

Saturday 3 October 2009

After rising at an ungodly hour, we ate a hearty breakfast and set off for The Isle of Skye, breaking off only to visit Eilean Donan Castle to take some photographs. Apparently it’s featured in a lot of films and TV shows and is popular for weddings. The castle is closed this afternoon as there is a wedding going on. It’s likely to be a gothic ceremony as the sky is overcast and looking bleak in a particularly Scottish way.
As we approached the West Coast of Scotland the heavens opened and clouds descended to shroud the peaks of bleak scarred mountains, a phrase for which I apologise since I seemed to have been momentarily possessed by a Bronte sister.
I can’t help finding this scenery very beautiful, however. It appeals to my sense of the gothic. Brilliantly white foaming rivers were pouring down the sides of the mountains. The mountains themselves, when in sunlight, were a complex mixture of colours which ranged from a rusty salmon pink to a lovely shade of pistachio. I’m Ok there, as the Brontes would never have used the word ‘pistachio’.
By the time we got to Skye the rain had passed and we crossed the Skye bridge to be greeted by the sight of ‘A Taste of India’ emblazoned across the first restaurant we saw as we arrived on the island. Hoorah!
We had fish and chips in a sea-front restaurant in Portree, one which had apparently been frequented by Hugh Firmly-Wherewithall. A photograph of Hugh being firmly gripped by the manager lest Hugh escape before the photo was taken had been mounted and hung on the wall.
It seemed a popular place. Half of our coach party were there, as well as six well-dressed men conversing in gallic. At that point our tour guide waltzed in with his young friend and commandeered a table. He has a very loud and carrying voice, and either didn’t realise or didn’t care that the entire restaurant was privy to his conversation.
‘Oh! I didn’t tell you about the Thai girl my brother brought back from abroad!’ he announced to the young friend.
‘No! Thai girl! A girl from Thailand. I’m sure he bought her on the internet. Anyway, they came to London and stayed at my house, and when I got back I found she’d Feng Shuied right through. The walls had been repainted, half my furniture was in storage and the rest had all been shifted round.
‘I was livid!’
I ordered their recommended fish and chips, having toyed with the idea of the Cullen Skink, and made a visit to the toilet before it arrived.
Bizarrely, the mirror had been put in the toilet at a level where, unless one was six foot nine, one would have to stand on the toilet to use it.
This evening I had prawn and apple cocktail (surprisingly delicious), scampi (with vegetables rather than chips… odd) and mandarin cheesecake. We have now discovered that every dessert comes drizzled with the same red fruity sauce, although it has not as yet been properly identified.
The Blue Knights were in full kilt regalia tonight and very nice they looked too. A different musical duo (violin and accordion) were also trying to get people to do Scottish Country Dancing. Why don’t they just play the music? It’s nice enough as it is.
The angry barman, who for reasons of his own has decided that we are his new best friends, looked at me and nodded at the large lady playing the violin.
‘She’s got a right attitude problem,’ he said. ‘I’m tempted to smack her over the head with this!’ and brandished the empty wine bottle he was clutching with a desperate white-knuckled grip.
‘O…K…’ I said slowly, and decided that this might be a good moment to leave him and The Blue Knights and retire to my room. I might have been suspected of stealing hotel memorabilia and chased with a stick, and not in a nice way.

Friday 2 October 2009

The castle turned to out to be Castle Blair or Blair Athol, which is an ancient stately home. It boasts not only ballrooms and corridors filled with deer-skulls and antlers, but a private army, lots of wonderful furniture and paintings and a guide called Mo who was probably the best guide of any sort I have ever come across. I’m surprised that some TV company hasn’t snapped her up already. I loved her and wanted to take her home so that she could guide people round our flat and say witty things about the paintings and objets d’art.
We had lunch (a fish and chips tea for £6.95… Haddock, chips, tea, and bread and butter) in Pitlochry, having already been warned by the bus driver not to be late back, (‘When the big hand is on the two..’ he said.). We then set off for ‘The Queen’s View’ which is more or less a ledge with a railing which afforded a fabulous view of a river winding past a range of mountains.
Luckily for us, cloud was creeping around the mountain-tops which afforded opportunities for some nice photographs.
This evening, the ME & D consisted of a blind woman (plus dog) and an organist who were alternating between Karaoke and Scottish Country dancing. The blind woman was teaching the dancing. Luckily a large group of men and women (many of the men were sporting shirts that read ‘Blue Knights) arrived to take over the singing and dancing.
Who could have predicted that we would be staying in a Scottish hotel at the same time as a convention of Police and Prison Officer Bikers? We chatted to one called Ross, who was very nice and reminded me of someone but I haven’t worked out whom yet.
It turns out that our tour guide lives in Holland Park (literally). He said something about looking after the peacocks, but he’d had two pints of the local brew by then and was becoming slurred, so it could be that he actually looks after Peacocks which sells cut-price T-shirts in Shepherds Bush precinct.
The feisty barman seems determined to be angry about everyone and everything. He showed us a stick that he keeps behind the bar to threaten rowdy residents with. Last year, he told us, they had the army staying at Christmas and he had to employ the stick to stop the soldiers stealing hotel memorabilia. I somehow doubt this as the hotel has very little memorabilia that one would wish to steal and had this man threatened soldiers with a stick they would no doubt have squashed him like a small English gooseberry.
I think I would like to live here. It’s full of my kind of people.

Thursday 1 October 2009

We awoke just outside Inverness. I say ‘awoke’ as I had spent a somewhat restless night rattling across Britain in a train while lights occasionally flashed in. At about 5am I realised, while temporarily awake, that the lights were going in the wrong direction and that at some point the train had stopped and set off backwards, the way we had come.
There was a problem, it transpired, with the coach that should have been there to meet us. However, we were instructed to leave our luggage in the charge of Gary, and to go and explore Inverness, which we did. It’s a lovely place. What we thought was a castle, was a castle, but also turned out to be the local sheriff’s court office.
I took a photo of a seagull sitting happily on the head of a statue of man gazing meaningfully out over the River Ness.
Later, we had a Scottish breakfast in ‘The Filling Station’ which comprised of bacon, Lorn sausage, black pudding, haggis, beans, tomato, fried egg and a bit of flat potato bread. The waiter was, I think, Italian.
The coach duly turned up, but not before I had witnessed the heartening spectacle of an orderly queue of people forming in the station, waiting to board the train.
And so, we set off for Loch Ness, initially having a wander around Drumnadrochit, a village which appears to boast two rival Loch Ness Visitor Centres and a plethora of shops selling Loch Ness merchandise and the campest taxi office in the world, festooned with roses and sporting a life-size artificial heron guarding its doors.
As the Ugly One stayed way too long skulking round the kilt shop we were told off by Gary for being late back for the coach.
Our next voyage of discovery was a trip to castle Urquhart on the banks of the Loch and a trip across Loch Ness itself on one of the tourist transit boats. One company, it appears, has this lucrative franchise, and their boats are named after the Jacobites whose history is so closely tied in with Castle Urquhart and Loch Ness itself. I was hoping that we were going to be riding on the Jacobite Queen, but ultimately we ended up on the Jacobite Spirit, where we were given a taped lecture on the Loch itself, accompanied by an Enya-esque soundtrack.
At the far end were yet more cafes and Nessie-themed shops. The locals, obviously, have a vested interest in keeping the Nessie legend alive.
So far, we have seen two men in kilts, just going about their normal business.
By this time we were exhausted and relieved that we were finally heading off to our hotel.
‘We’ll be there in about an hour,’ said Gary.
Some time later we arrived at the Nethybridge Hotel and as we were disembarking, noted a hotel employee come storming out, stand for a moment looking very vexed, and then storm back in again.
We took in our bags and went to reception where a very flustered manager was trying to cope with the influx.
Dinner, we’d been told, was at seven, so we had about an hour and a half to freshen up, relax and revitalise.
I was grateful to discover a proper bath and began running it immediately.
One odd thing is that the key-fob – which bears the number of the room and the name of the hotel – seems to be about seven inches log and two inches wide. What is the need for that?
Back in reception, on the way to the bar for a quick snifter before dinner, I was entranced (if that is the right word) by the sound of bagpipes which I assumed was being played on CD from somewhere in the hotel. To my surprise, the music stopped for a moment and a bagpiper – in full regalia – walked in through the front door, checked something in his bag, and then fired up his pipes and carried on. Hoorah!
Dinner was salmon mousse, smoked haddock with mozzarella and tomato, and black forest gateaux, drizzled with some kind of strawberry syrup.
The Ugly One went back to our room to pick something up, and the rest of us were herded through to another room for coffee and ‘Musical Entertainment and Dancing.’
As the ‘ME & D’ was setting up, I asked Gary about the vexed employee who stormed out when we arrived.
‘Oh Her!’ said Gary, who had, I suspect, been at the scotch. ‘well, she’s a feisty queen. Apparently he wanted to come on the coach to talk to you all, which I’d have been fine with… had I been told!
‘As it was, everybody just piled off and he didn’t get to make his big speech…’
I discovered later that he was talking about the hotel manager, and not the disgruntled employee, who turned out to be a feisty English barman.
The UO, it appears, had been sick. I decided to forego the ‘ME & D’ and set off for bed also. I’m exhausted. How do these old people do it? I want those drugs.
Tomorrow it’s Pitlochry. I’m not sure what that is. I think there might be a castle involved.
Outside our window there’s a horse in a coat.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

It is my birthday today. To be honest, I had completely forgotten that it was my birthday until the Ugly One reminded me. My mind was elsewhere. I have been on medication which, though as efficacious as medicinal compound, has the side effect of causing me extreme anxiety and panic attacks.
Today, we are setting off for Scotland, so I hied away to Hammersmith to do some last minute emergency supply purchasing, namely diarrhoea tablets (mainly as a psychological buffer) Rennies and paracetamols.
I toyed with the idea of purchasing additional pants from Primark, but as I have already filled our suitcase with new trousers, I felt this wouldn’t go down well.
We are booked on an overnight sleeper train to Inverness and had to present ourselves at Euston Station Reception at 8.30 pm.
I had to share the weight of the bag with the UO on the walk from the Tube to the Railway Station, worried that the additional weight was comprised of Primark cargo pants. I resolved to abandon the medication, reasoning that this was not something of sufficient importance to cause me to worry. I also resolved that, should the pants prove to be too weighty, I would leave them in Inverness for the benefit of the Scottish homeless before I returned.
We were met at Euston Station reception by a chatty young man called (as I thought) Gary, who slapped lime-green labels on us and several elderly couples to distinguish us from the general riff-raff wandering about on the concourse.
‘I’ll collect you all in a while and take you to the train,’ he said.
It was likely to be a half-hour so I walked over to café Something-azza to get the UO and I a coffee.
I’m not sure when the concept of a plain coffee disappeared. The menu had a bewildering list of coffee titles. I’m familiar with cappuccino, but I do object to all these additional fresh coffee hells through whose froth I have to wade to get to an ordinary coffee. There’s frappuccinos and skinny lattes and long tall short variations.
A medium latte was £2.45 so I ordered two of these and gave the serving girl £4.90. Her eyes widened with a strange delight.
‘Oooh!’ she said, ‘How did you know how much it would be?’
I pointed to my lime-green label. ‘Some of us can work things out in our own heads,’ I replied.
She looked suitably impressed.
By the time I got back, the UO had snatched up a ten euro note floating around the station like tumbleweed and more of our fellow passengers had arrived and been lime-green labelled. We began to suspect that we were likely to be the youngest people on the trip. This is not necessarily a bad thing. At least there are no screaming children, at least not yet that is, as we are due to pick up more of our happy band at about 1am an undisclosed location.
Right now, we are ensconced in our two berth cabin on a Caledonian Sleeper with a bottle of Magners each.
The UO had made us chicken and bacon baguettes to eat on the train and which have been duly eaten.
The walls are thin. We could clearly hear the lady in the next cabin asking the steward if she could open the window.
‘The train goes at over a hundred miles an hour, madam,’ he replied in a suitably Scots brogue. ‘You’d just be sucked oot!’