I don’t suppose that when the British Fisheries Society commissioned Thomas Telford to create a purpose-built fishing village on the shores of Loch Broom in 1788, that they envisaged a design which would appeal to tourists as well – but that’s what they got.
Having said that, I don’t suppose there were many tourists around in those days either, but as the fishing stocks declined, then the number of tourists increased, and when I first came here back in the early 1980s there were both plenty of tourists – and fish.
I can remember seeing the ‘Klondykers’ anchored in Loch Broom. Up to seventy Soviet and East European factory ships were regularly seen in the loch processing the fish, even though the UK and the Eastern Bloc were at each other’s throats politically. The Cold War prevented many people from both sides of the Iron Curtain travelling across the borders, but here in Ullapool there were many instances of ‘fraternising with the enemy’ including a football match between Russian fishermen and locals.
This coast road is part of the Wester Ross section of the North Coast 500 (NC500) route.
For those unfamiliar with the NC500 it was a concept dreamt up by the tourism marketing people to provide some joined-up thinking to promote all areas of the North Highlands and was launched in 2015.
It was an immediate success and featured as one of the Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World by Now Travel Magazine.
Having covered the full 516 miles in stages over a period of time (most of it before the NC500 was conceived) I would have to say that some parts of the route deserve more time to cover than others, and Wester Ross warrants more time than the area around John O’ Groats for example.
The full route starts out from Inverness, crosses over to the West Coast, and then follows the road north, across the top, and back down the east coast.
The Wester Ross section includes Applecross, Torridon and Loch Maree, and the coast road to Ullapool, and here I’m covering the section between Gairloch and Loch Broom, so pack a picnic, put some Celtic music on, and join me for a leisurely drive around some fabulous coastal and mountain scenery.
Situated between the Torridon Hills and the Isle of Raasay, the Applecross Peninsula isn’t the easiest place to get to but getting here is all part of the enjoyment.
As long as you don’t have a large motorhome or caravan, the scenic route will take you over the infamous Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) from Tornapress near Loch Kishorn to Applecross village. This road, which was built in 1822, climbs over 2,000ft in 5 miles around hairpin bends before descending into the village and is frequently cut off by snow in the winter months, just as it was for us in March 2016.
The alternative option involves taking the coastal route via Shieldaig, which obviously takes longer, but if you had come here before the 1970’s it wouldn’t have even been an option at all, and at least it gives you the opportunity to visit the picturesque village of Shieldaig.
‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.
Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.
If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.
A half-hour train journey from Waverley along the East Lothian coast will bring you to the smashing little seaside town of North Berwick.
The first time I came here I immediately fell in love with it. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the most expensive seaside towns to live in Scotland.
It doesn’t have an outward appearance of wealth or anything like that, in fact it’s quite an unassuming sort of place in many ways.
It doesn’t have much in the way of seaside attractions in the conventional sense, but more in the way of natural attractions. A conical volcanic hill known as North Berwick Law overlooks the town, its beaches and small harbour, but its location overlooking a handful of small islands in the Firth of Forth is what makes it a bit special.
Six miles or so north of Bude, is the parish of Morwenstow, and its northern boundary at Marsland Mouth is where Cornwall meets Devon.
It consists of about half a dozen small hamlets, but it’s the location of the parish church near to the rugged North Cornish coast and its connection with the rather eccentric Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker that people mainly come here for.
R.S. Hawker was born on 3rd December 1803 at Charles Church vicarage in Plymouth, and by the age of 19 was married to Charlotte Eliza I’ans, a 41 year old woman from Cornwall.
It was his ambition to become an Anglican priest and spent 5 years studying at Pembroke College Oxford, where he also wrote several pieces of poetry including his famous adaptation of ‘Song of the Western Men’.
He was ordained in 1831 and by 1835 was vicar of Morwenstow, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Prior to Hawker’s appointment at Morwenstow, the remote parish had been left pretty much to its own devices. Vicars came and went with a great deal of regularity, and those that did stay were absent most of the time, leaving the mostly poor people to fend for themselves in the best way they could. Consequently, the rugged coastline attracted smugglers, wreckers and non-conformers, and the new ‘Parson’, as he became known, regarded his task as “the effort to do good against their will to our fellow men”.
In my introduction to Bude I mentioned that the opening of the canal was the first big thing to happen to this tiny, nondescript village at the mouth of the equally nondescript River Neet.
The reason that I’m calling it nondescript is because there was nothing here; no harbour to land fish, no minerals to mine, and it didn’t even lead to anywhere. All that was here were rocks, sand and water, so why build a canal? The answer was because of all three.
The rocks and sea cliffs around Bude are unique for Cornwall in as much as that they are made up of carboniferous limestone. Nowhere else in the county has rocks like these, and geologists have even found a special name for them – the Bude Formation. To mere mortals like me it makes for an interesting coastline and a nice sandy beach, but to people interested in making a living it meant that these cliffs produced sand containing calcium carbonate which could be used to neutralise the acidic land of the inland farms.
The first person to dream up the idea of transporting this sand inland by canal was a Cornishman who went by the name of John Edyvean back in 1774. His idea was to build a 95 mile waterway from Bude to the navigable part of the River Tamar, thereby connecting the Bristol Channel with the English Channel. This would have allowed, not just the transportation of sand, but other goods as well, such as coal, slate and timber. It also meant that ships didn’t have to take the hazardous journey around Land’s End.
From Newquay Harbour the town has spread inland and along the coastline northwards, but the River Gannel has at least contained the expansion southwards.
On the opposite side of the river is the small and attractive village of Crantock, which because of its access to the nearby beach can become busy at peak times, but the good news for people who enjoy a more natural environment is that the National Trust (NT) has been able to purchase significant parts of the estuary and southern coastline, including the headland at West Pentire.
Whilst many are drawn to the beach at Crantock, some venture a bit further along the minor road to West Pentire where the Bowgie Inn offers some exceptional views from its pub garden and access to an easy wander around the peninsula.
The views take in the Gannel and the headland of Pentire Point East opposite, and it might not come as any great surprise to learn that the mouth of the estuary has another headland on the West Pentire side called Pentire Point West.
If you prefer the less hedonistic attractions of North Cornwall that lie outside of Newquay, then you may be thinking of giving the town a miss altogether, but this short trail out to Towan Head will at least give you an understanding of how and why the town developed.
I’m starting the trail at Killacourt which is the grassy area overlooking Towan Beach, and which can be reached from East Street. Ahead of you is Jago’s Island, one of the town’s most photographed images. There’s been a house on the island since the turn of the 20th century when it was probably somewhere nice and peaceful. Previous residents include Alexander Lodge, who has been credited with inventing the spark plug, but not at Newquay I hasten to add.
The area around Towan Beach was more used to seeing a different type of industry such as boat building and processing pilchards that were landed at the nearby harbour. To get to the harbour, walk up Beach Rd and turn right into Fore St. Hopefully you’ve chosen to do this trail at a time when people who prefer a pub crawl are still in bed because this is the centre of Newquay’s nightlife.
It never ceases to amaze me how saints of old had powers that would put David Blaine and Uri Geller to shame, and St Ia is yet another one.
St. Ia was a 5th century Irish princess who, after being converted to Christianity, decided that it was her duty to join a missionary party that was planning to cross the Celtic Sea in order to convert the good people of Cerniw.
The story goes that the boat left without her, but undeterred, she set about making her own arrangements – so what did she do? she sailed over on a leaf of course! Now, I have to admit I am partaking in a glass of fruit cider while I’m writing this, but I can assure you that the story is true, it must be, I’ve read the same story from several different sources just to confirm that I haven’t been hallucinating.
Call me an old cynic if you like, but I don’t believe a word of it. Having said that, it seems pretty likely that the Irish princess did make it across to the shores of Cornwall one way or another, and it also seems likely that she landed at Pendinas, or ‘The Island’ as it’s called today.