Nowhere conjures up the spooky mood of Dartmoor more than Wistman’s Wood.
Legends abound about how this small remote wood of dwarf, stunted oak trees hanging with beards of lichen and moss have attracted ‘Wisht Hounds’ – a “pack of huge black dogs with blood red eyes, huge yellow fangs and an insatiable hunger for human flesh and souls” according to Legendary Dartmoor.
On a more down to earth level Wistman’s Wood is one of the highest oakwoods in Britain and is pretty difficult to walk through due to the clitter (granite boulders) that is scattered amongst the trees.
Although the wood is in a remote location it can be easily reached from Two Bridges via a well designated footpath which shouldn’t take any longer than half an hour.
On a summer’s day it’s a pleasant walk alongside the West Dart River, but even at this time of the year you need to keep your eyes open for adders (Britain’s only poisonous snake).
Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.
From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.
Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.
Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.
People who come to Torbay don’t think of it as somewhere with much history, and it’s true in some respects, but search a bit deeper and you’ll find that the area’s history goes back a long way – about 400 million years in fact – give or take a few million.
Explaining the planet’s history is really best left to the experts, but as one of the geological time periods is named after the county of Devon, I think it’s worth knowing how this occurred and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things.
To put it into some sort of perspective, geologists tell us that the earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, with the oldest rocks in Britain being about 3,000 million years old (and found in North-Western Scotland).
From this we can see that Devon’s beginnings don’t go back quite as far back as they might first appear, so why was the Devonian Period so named?
We only need to go back to the 1830s to find the answer. Up until that point, scientists from the early 18th century onwards were trying to map and categorize different geological time periods, and Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, two eminent members of the Geographical Society in London, had identified two separate eras which they called the Silurian and Carboniferous Periods.
This neat classification was thrown into some disarray when a colleague, Henry De la Beche, who was categorizing rocks himself in Devon, suggested there was also likely to be an intermediate period: The disagreement between the two parties led to the debate becoming known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’.
Paradoxically, it was Murchison who made the discoveries to prove that De la Beche was right all along. This intermediate era was determined to be between 359 and 419 million years ago, and was subsequently called the Devonian Period. (See the chart below).
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.
Sandwiched between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Scotland.
The Torridon Hills may not make it onto the list of the world’s highest mountains, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they rise up virtually from sea level to over 3,000ft, and as far as I’m concerned that makes them mountains rather than hills.
Overlooking the tiny village of Torridon are three mountains that form the bulk of the high landscape – Beinn Alligin (3,230ft), Liathach (3,456ft), and Beinn Eighe (3,310ft), all of which are a magnet for climbers. Not being a climber myself, I can only imagine what the views must be like for those that are.
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.
According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.
Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.
Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.
For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.
Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.
Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.
Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.
Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.
If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.
Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.
Northumberland, being next to the Scottish border, is castle country. Apparently, it has more castles than any other English county – and I can quite believe it. One of these castles is perched on top of a mound of volcanic rock, known as Beblowe Crag (or Craig), here on Holy Island.
As the Vikings proved, Lindisfarne was vulnerable. The natural harbour provided protection for ships, but the island itself wasn’t safe from invaders: The Vikings may have gone, but there was still a threat from the Scots, and when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including Lindisfarne Priory, an opportunity presented itself to put the priory’s remains to good use.
Initially, the Priory church was used as a naval storehouse, but as the need for reinforcing Beblowe Crag as a defensive fort became more important, then the stone from the Priory was used to build a new fortress.
However, the need for strong defences against the Scots became virtually unnecessary with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and consequently uniting the two kingdoms together:
Apart from the Royalist castle surviving a six-week siege during the Civil War and a short-lived Jacobite takeover in 1715, in truth, the castle didn’t really see that much action.
Bamburgh - Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location
Bamburgh Castle can be seen for miles, and as you get closer to it you can see that it sits on top of an outcrop of igneous rock which forms part of the Great Whin Sill – a geological formation that for anyone who has been along Hadrian’s Wall will probably recognise.
The site was occupied by Ancient Britons even before the Romans arrived, and when the Romans left in the early 5th century the Celts were back in control – but not for long.
The Dark Ages brought an influx of invaders from the continent which resulted in the land the Romans called Britannia being carved up into various kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon Northumbria being one of them.
The first Anglo-Saxon King to rule from Bamburgh was King Ida who took control from the Din Guarie tribe in 547, and even though there must have been a fortress here before, it was from this time that we have the first written record of one.
The castle was of wooden construction and, according to that great early historian the Venerable Bede, it didn’t get its name of ‘Bebbanburgh’ until King Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, passed it on to his wife Bebba.
The original wooden fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993, but William the Conqueror could see that he would have the same trouble as the Romans if he didn’t build another one to keep the Scots at bay and the northerners in check, but this time it was built in stone.
This blog is not intended to be an in-depth historical account of the most important Roman monument in Britain, but if, like me, you have an interest, but not a degree in Roman history, and want to explore some of the more fascinating parts of this remarkable feat of engineering, then perhaps this tour will be a good starting point.
To put things in perspective, Hadrian’s Wall marks the extent of the Roman Empire in North-Western Europe, but unlike most of the other Roman borders, which used natural features, a man-made structure was needed to protect Roman Britannia from the ‘barbarians of Caledonia’.
Work started on building the wall in 122 AD and finished 10 years later. It ran for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne and Bowness-on-Solway and did what it was meant to do for nigh on the next 300 years.
The wall also consisted of protected gates every mile (known as milecastles) with two observation towers in between (turrets), and at least 13 forts (the exact number depends on different factors).
Those people who walk the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path will get to know it intimately, but for those who can’t or don’t want to, then it has to be worth knowing where to start.
I think even the experts would agree that the Northumberland section of the wall offers the most interest, and for this post this will be the area I’m going to cover.
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.
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.
Porthcurno lies in a valley that reaches down to the sea on the south coast of the Penwith Peninsula.
For such a small village it attracts many visitors, some would say too many at times, but it’s understandable why people find Porthcurno such a magnet.
Lying about half way between Lamorna Cove and Land’s End, Porthcurno would be an obvious stopping off point for people walking along this section of the South-West Coast Path without its own attractions.
The white shell beach sits in a small bay that is sometimes called Porthcurno Bay. The colour of the sea depends on the weather, state of the tide and the time of the day, but when the sun’s shining the white sand is reflected by the sun to make the sea a perfect aquamarine colour.
The bay is protected to the east by a headland that is renowned for its ‘Logan Rock’ and to the west by Pedn-men-an-mere, or WirelessPoint as it’s sometimes called.
It gets its name of Wireless Point from the receiving station that was set up here to eavesdrop on Marconi’s successful wireless telegraphy operation which was in direct competition with Porthcurno’s underground and submarine cable communications.
As I mentioned in my article about Minions, the village was built for the industrial activities that occurred here during the 19th century – namely copper mining and quarrying, both of which were transported down to the port of Looe via the Liskeard and Caradon Railway.
Both of these activities can be seen on a walk from the village to Stowe’s Hill along the old railway track, but my preferred route is a circular one which also includes some ancient archaeology too.
I’m not going to describe a detailed walk here, but instead I just want to discuss the landscape which provided the reason for all this ancient and industrial activity, and even if you have no interest in any of these things, I’m confident that you will enjoy the stark beauty of this corner of Bodmin Moor.
Walking from Minions in the opposite direction to Caradon Hill is Stowe’s Hill. It’s quite unmistakeable because it’s topped with granite tors, much like those of Dartmoor. These tors are the most obvious signs of granite weathering which has been taking place for tens of thousands of years.
If someone unfamiliar with Cornwall were to ask me to take them to a picturesque Cornish fishing village, I would have to take them to Polperro. It has everything you would expect – from a lovely harbour, narrow streets with quaint cottages, coastal walks and some great pubs to finish off with; what more could you ask for?
The only problem is that I’m not the only one who thinks it has everything, and so if you choose to come at the same time as everyone else then Polperro might not live up to expectations. I know this applies to any popular destination, but if you can come on a pleasant day out of season (preferably with an overnight stop) then you will be rewarded with a much better experience.
You can reach Polperro from Looe by a bus service that suits the company more than it does the passengers (remember everything down here operates on Cornish Mean Time), but if you have your own transport you will have to park at the top of the village near the Crumplehorn Inn where the local highwayman used to masquerade as the car park attendant. These days he’s been replaced by his metal mickey equivalent whose advanced technology doesn’t seem to stretch as far as being able to dish out any change.
Iddesleigh is one of those delightful little cob and thatch villages that lies hidden amongst the rolling hills of the West Devon countryside.
It’s not somewhere that you just stumble across, and even in this modern age where everywhere is near somewhere, thanks to the ever-increasing ability of motorists to seek out the most obscure places, it still takes a bit of finding – but it’s worth the effort.
The home of less than 200 people, Iddesleigh has a church and a pub but not much else, and were it not for a nearby farm I don’t suppose too many people would bother to seek it out at all.
Between 1830 and 1836 Parsonage Farm was the home of the Reverend ‘Jack’ Russell, the curate of St James’ Church. He was the first breeder of the terriers to which he gave his name, but this isn’t the reason why people come to take a look around the farm. They come here to find out more about another animal – Joey the War Horse.
Mention Lympstone to anyone, and they automatically think of the Commando Training Centre for the Royal Marines – but this small, attractive village on the River Exe is worth a butchers if you fancy a change of scenery on the journey between Exeter and Exmouth.
If you’re travelling by car it’s just a short detour off of the A376, but you can also travel by train using the single-track Avocet Line, which will give you the option of stopping in The Swan or The Globe for a drink and a bite to eat without worrying about the breathalyser.