SCOTLAND, AUGUST 2012
How are you getting on with your Thousand Places To See Before You Die? My list is dwindling slowly but I realised that, despite being the veteran of fifty eight summers I had never seen John O’Groats. I knew it would be tacky and awful but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t see it. What we used to call ‘a chance’ and now call ‘a window of opportunity’ presented itself last week, so Christine and I jumped into the Alfa on Monday morning and zoomed off up the M74 in search of adventure.
It made sense to drop into the Edinburgh Fringe, so we stopped close to the Castle and worked our way along the Royal Mile and into the action. First we saw a street performer from Hackney who managed to balance an eight rug aluminium ladder on the cobbles and perform most of his act perched on the top of it – ultimately juggling three machetes having stripped to his Y-fronts.
Here’s a little tip for you if you want to thrill a crowd (and it doesn’t involve pants). Instead of letting people go ‘Wow!’ or ‘Woh!’ when you draw your machete from its scabbard, tell them all to breathe in simultaneously as the blade appears. Believe me, when you get two hundred people doing that in a confined space the effect is electrifying. I suspect you need a big threatening knife for this to really work well, otherwise you might have to improvise.
After that Chris spent an hour in an excellent embroidery exhibition, where among other things we saw the full size design (or cartoon) for a huge heraldic tapestry made for the late Queen Mother in 1952. The cartoon wasn’t very funny by the way, except for one little pun. TQM’s maiden family name was Bowes-Lyon, and her family coat of arms consists of three bows and a lion. Tres amusant, non?
I soon sloped off and did what is considered compulsory at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is to go and listen to a not especially good stand-up comedian doing his set in front of a handful of people in a dingy cellar. I have to tell you the coat of arms was funnier.
We saw a poster for an afternoon show and rolled up at a temporary theatre space inside a church just on the fringe of the Fringe action. The show was entitled ‘Machine For Living’ and was a dance and drama piece all about how Brutalist architects betrayed their ideals, and about the ordinary people for whom multi-storey living turned from dream to nightmare. I kid you not, it was brilliant. Two chaps and two girls did a lot of avant garde moves and played various parts. When one of the girls, playing an architect, looked straight at me whilst eulogising over the merits of reinforced concrete I felt she was looking right into my soul. My concrete was certainly reinforced, I can tell you.
After so much fun we headed off to St Andrews, another place I was curious to see. Getting there involves driving through the kingdom of Fife, which is a beautiful and fertile area with many square miles of oat fields. It definitely looked like Porridge Central, complete with a big Quaker Oats factory tucked between the farms. St Andrews sits on the coast and is famous for two things – golf and Will and Kate.
Not being a golfer the spell of the place did not capture me, but what did strike me was that the home of golf is a lot more democratic than your average course. You can walk around the courses (which are public) and there are no snooty notices telling you not to walk on the fairways or disturb the play. No-one needs telling. To do so would be like swearing in church. There is the Old Course, but also a quartet of full size courses all squeezed together beside it. Not a place to slice your tee shot; it could cause havoc in four other games. Naturally our B&B was bedecked with golfing paintings, photos, cartoons, statuettes, whatnots and knickknacks.
The university is very much intertwined with the rest of this very historic town, and up the road from us was a little café that claimed in the window to be where Will and Kate met for coffee. I wonder if they will get a By Royal Appointment, Purveyors of Romantic Coffee Interludes.
We actually stayed during the annual and ancient Lammas Market which used to be where the local tradesmen hired their labour for the year. These days it involves the main street being filled up with extremely scary rides. I trust Alton Towers, but I don’t trust something that gets towed around on a lorry and is bolted together like a portable barbecue every couple of weeks.
My list of places to see goes on. On Tuesday morning we headed for the one time capital of jute, jam and journalism – Dundee. You arrive by crossing a mile and a half long viaduct across the River Tay. It has a wonderful location and should be a handsome and attractive city. But it isn’t. Worst of all is the river front. Lots of money has been spent over the last thirty years or so putting up a ghastly leisure centre, the ugliest office block, and various other eyesores, to create a vast wasted opportunity.
Away from the centre we spent a bit of time in the Verdant Mill, which is a museum of the erstwhile jute industry that dominated the city until the 1970s. You couldn’t help thinking that the jute barons should have invested a bit more in the city and a bit less in their mansions.
We hit the A9 and headed north, pulling into the pretty little Dunkeld for our picnic. In spite of its charm and pleasant demeanour it has the most draconian parking rules I have ever seen. Staying one minute over your pay and display time could land you with a bill for a thousand pounds.
The A9 is the big road through the Highlands and the drive is more reminiscent of road trips through America or New Zealand than Britain. You get into a sort of Zen space as the miles roll by and it’s not surprising the road has more than its fair share of big accidents. At Inverness we pulled in for a leg stretch and to book somewhere to stay at the top. Good job too, as everywhere seemed full. Everywhere that is except the Royal Hotel, Thurso. On and on we drove. The far north east coast of Scotland was truly beautiful in the early evening light – a mixture of farmland and more open country to the left, crashing waves and sparkling blue sea to the right.
The Royal Hotel stands on Thurso’s main street and, beyond the reasonably smart lobby, extends into a warren of corridors that spread like tentacles over the adjoining shops to drab rooms with dodgy plumbing and – in our case – a boot mark of frustration half way up the wall. The Royal obviously caters for coach parties, but I was still astonished at the size of the dining hall when we went into breakfast – a vast grim space with lines of communal tables. Chris ordered porridge. When it arrived it looked like a pool of warm snot.
Wednesday morning was shrouded in sea mist. I wanted to have a look at Dounreay, the site of the world’s first nuclear reactor, about five miles west of Thurso. We drove there through the fog and as we approached the Dounreay site appeared, the mist around it having mysteriously evaporated around it and nowhere else. It had all the accoutrements of a nineteen fifties science park: the giant globe housing the reactor, brick office buildings with big glass windows, wide desolate concrete roads punctuated by tall concrete streetlamps, a field of two headed cows (not really). Into the front gate swished a small and sensible car driven by a middle-aged man with a short grey beard and horn rim glasses, every inch a ‘scientist’.
Afterwards we drove up narrow lanes to reach Dunnet Head, which is truly the most northerly point in Britain. A view of crashing breakers, crumbling cliffs and puffins would have been nice but the dense mist gave the place a certain ethereal magic. From there we steered over into the grounds of the Castle of Mey. I got our bikes out of the back of the car and we peddled the eight miles to John O’Groats. This was Christine’s idea, the ploy being that we would turn up sweaty and exhausted and try to convince anyone we saw that we had slogged it all the way up from Lands End. No one was fooled.
John O’Groats is a little village at the top of a hill. Head down the lane and you arrive at the harbour. It is as tacky as you would expect. A car park. A couple of touristy shops. Two mileposts. One is attached to the harbour wall and tells you how far it is to the North Pole. The other is slightly better placed but a local chap charges you a tenner to have your picture taken. He will happily substitute ‘Stafford’ or whatever on one of the pointers, from his set of giant Scrabble letters. I fancied going up to him and saying I was from Winterbourne St Christopher in the Vale just to see the look on his face. We had a cup of coffee in the dreary café, which – despite the location – boasted one tiny window looking out on to the Tourist Information Centre and that was partially filled with an air extractor.
The ride back to Mey was more pleasant with the wind behind us. We passed Canisbay church where John O’Groat’s grave stone stands inside – although where he was buried it anyone’s guess. By the way, Jan de Groot was a sixteenth century Dutchman who laid on a ferry service between this tip of Scotland and Orkney. Perhaps one day Heathrow airport will be called Rick O’Brans for similar reasons.
The Castle of Mey sits on the far north coast and was bought by Queen Elizabeth soon after she was widowed, then done up to be a summer retreat. Wandering round the rooms you get told lots of little anecdotes about the place. The house is surprisingly informal, the parlour having rather battered sofas (why recover them when the corgis will only ruin them again?) and a hotchpotch of books, board games and a battered Grundig telly. A bottle of Gordon’s Gin and another of Schweppes Indian Tonic water were in evidence.
Entering the more formal dining room we found the tapestry made from the cartoon we had seen in Edinburgh – a very imposing backdrop to the nightly suppers. Here at least the rules were strict. Cocktails were served in the adjoining lounge and at a quarter to nine guests were summoned to dinner. The principal guests sat either side of the Queen Mother and a wall of flowers prevented people from talking across the table. Instead, if TQM spoke with the person on her right, everyone spoke with the person on their right. If she spoke to the person on her left, everyone spoke to the person on their left.
This must have required a great deal of verbal ambidexterity but at least no-one got left out. The food was served from an adjacent serving area, which had the walls and doors padded to prevent the noise of clanking plates and tinkling cutlery from disturbing the diners (or perhaps silence the screams).
We embarked on the long drive south and stayed over in the pleasant little town of Pitlochry. On Thursday morning, inspired a little by the ‘Machine for Living’ show at the Fringe, I insisted that we pull in to savour the architectural delights of Cumbernauld, a 1950s New Town just outside Glasgow. The grand idea was to have a long spine of a building along the ridge of a hill, containing shops, civic offices, the library, etc. Housing would stretch down the hill side. I expected it to be like the set of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but time and demolition had tempered Cumbernauld. Half of the dreadful central building had been torn down and replaced by a faceless Tesco Extra.
This raises questions about what people really, really want. Do they want groovy, hip, challenging spaces that force them to think deeply about the experience and context of urban living, or do they want somewhere where they can park easily, get everything they want under one roof and not worry about being jumped by a gang of thugs in white boiler suits and bowler hats? Discuss.
Last major stop was the new Riverside Museum by the Clyde in Glasgow. This striking building has been designed by Zaha Hadid (who recently did the Olympic Aquadrome) and is now the home of the city’s transport museum. It was very cool for a transport museum. Full size cars are perched on giant shelves up the walls, and a full size replica of a 1920s street you could walk down – calling into the shops, the pub, the cinema and the subway.
Rather curiously there was a surprising amount of fashion in there as well. Displays of 1950s party dresses and 1920s ball gowns stand next to elderly tramcars and steam locomotives. And there was a little film explaining the problems of negotiating the stairs of a double decker bus in high heels. That’s what you get when you have a woman designing a transport museum, eh lads?
Well that was a few places ticked off the Bucket List. We nearly moved to Grimsby when I was about seven. Never been there….
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