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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Prior to the creation of William Jessop’s Floating Harbour in 1809, the River Avon flowed through where Underfall Yard now stands.
The construction of Cumberland Basin and the New Cut meant that an island was formed between where the river was diverted, to Bathurst Basin at Redcliffe. This island became known as Spike Island.
Jessop’s plan included an ‘Overfall’ Dam to allow excess water in the Floating Harbour to flow over into the New Cut, but by the 1830s the harbour was becoming badly silted up.
Although Jessop had included sluices with his Overfall Dam, the main method of clearing the silt out was to drain the harbour and remove it by hand, which was less than ideal to say the least.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to make improvements to both Cumberland Basin and the Overfall Dam, and for the Overfall Dam he recommended developing Jessop’s sluices further and using dredger boats to remove the silt.
He devised an Underfall system where three shallow sluices could be used in a way that would control the harbour water level according to the tide and weather conditions, and a fourth ‘deep scouring’ sluice which could be opened at low tide when a powerful undertow (undercurrent) would suck the silt into the New Cut to be carried away by the next tide.
This Underfall system is still in use today, although a more modern system of dredging is used.
I deliberately kept my previous article about Bristol’s FloatingHarbour short and sweet for two reasons: The first one being that I didn’t want people to immediately lose interest in a topic that is important to the city’s heritage, and the second one is because my name isn’t Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
All the same, I’ve decided to include some information about the Cumberland Basin for anybody who would like to know a bit more about how this important part of the system operates.
The Floating Harbour project was awarded to William Jessop, an engineer from Devonport, who started work on the scheme in 1804. It took 5 years to build and was officially opened on the 1st May 1809.
For the Cumberland Basin, his plans included two entrance locks from the river into the holding basin, and a junction lock between the basin and the Floating Harbour. Why it was called Cumberland Basin I’ve no idea, but it was used as a lock when there were a lot of ships sailing in and out of the harbour.
Bristol’s Floating Harbour doesn’t float, so why is it called that? It takes a bit of explaining, but to understand what the Floating Harbour is will help to explain why Bristol’s maritime history was so important to the city for so long.
The port developed approximately 8 miles from the mouth of the River Avon during the 11th century, which at the time would have had the distinct advantage of being in a very sheltered location. Not only that, the River Severn has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, which meant that the fast-flowing tide could bring ships swiftly up the Severn and the Avon to the protection of Bristol’s inland harbour.
For centuries it worked well, but as the ships got bigger things became a bit more complicated. Anyone who has witnessed the ebb and flow of these rivers will know only too well how quickly the tide can go out as well as come in, and the bigger the ships became, the more often they got stuck in the mud – and there’s plenty of that here.
I have to confess that I’m not one for lying around on a beach, but I also have to confess that I do like seeing them, and with all this good weather around at the moment it seems as good a time as any to mention a few.
St. Ives is one of those places that is blessed with some lovely sandy beaches, but for this article I’m excluding the large expanses of sand at Carbis Bay and Hayle and just concentrating on the town beaches.
There’s not a lot that can be written about them except to say that they are all ideal for just lying around on, and taking a casual dip every so often into the shallow turquoise sea; perfect for kids and sun-worshippers alike, weather permitting of course.
Consequently, this post is mainly a pictorial one to show where the beaches are and what they look like.
Situated in St. Austell Bay, just 2 miles south-east of St. Austell’s town centre, Charlestown boasts a harbour with a fleet of Tall Ships that can easily transport the receptive mind back to times gone by – and to complete the image of pirates and treasure it also has a Shipwreck and Heritage Centre.
West Polmeor, as it was originally called, was just a small fishing village until a harbour was constructed to fulfil the needs of the local mineral mines and clay pits.
A local businessman by the name of Charles Rashleigh was the man responsible for building the harbour, and in 1799 the village was re-named ‘Charles’ Town’ after him.
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.
East Looe is somewhere that needs to be explored, and as such this stroll around town isn’t meant to be a definitive trail, but a guide as to what can be seen when wandering around.
With this in mind, the bridge that connects East and West Looe is still a good place to start, as it’s probably the first thing that visitors will see when entering the town for the first time, as well as being one of its most important historical features.
The first bridge to be built across the river was a wooden affair in 1411, but by 1436 a sturdier stone bridge was erected to join the two towns.
In a wall on the West Looe side of the bridge there’s a stone reminder of this bridge showing that it was repaired by the county in 1689. It sounds as though this medieval bridge was quite impressive, but of course time took its toll and the one we see today replaced it in 1853.
Dartmouth, without doubt, is one of my favourite Devon towns: A picturesque setting, old buildings, and a fascinating maritime history combine together to make this one of the gems of South Devon.
Lying along the western bank of the River Dart just before it reaches the sea, Dartmouth owes its very existence to the river. Primitive settlements were set up along the muddy banks as far back as Celtic times, but land reclamation over the centuries have seen the town develop into how it looks today.
During that time the deep natural harbour has seen many comings and goings: The 12th cent saw ships leave here for the Crusades, and Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine saw a lucrative wine trade flourish with Bordeaux, but the most influential person in Dartmouth’s history was a local man by the name of John Hawley.
As I mentioned in my introduction, fishing has always been the most important part of Brixham life, and even as far back as the Middle Ages it was the largest fishing port in South-West England, but by the 19th century the port was so influential that it became a victim of its own success.
Up until then, deep sea fishing had largely been done by long lining which, as its name suggests was a technique that used hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks. Although trawls had already been invented, a much better system was developed by Brixham boat builders and fishermen that allowed trawls to be towed from beams that not only caught more fish but could also do so in all kinds of weather.
These boats with their tall gaff rig had sails which were treated with a local red ochre dye to make them more durable, and a design that made them both fast and strong. Only a small number of these boats have survived, but six of them have been restored and at least two or three can usually be seen alongside the pontoon next to the Prince William pub on the far side of the harbour.
There were in excess of 200 of these boats that sailed from the harbour to places as far away as the North Sea, where demersal fish such as plaice, haddock, and cod were much more plentiful. To begin with they returned to Brixham with their catch but as time went on they started to put down roots in places like Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it wasn’t long before these ports became much bigger than Brixham itself.
Paignton may have only really come to life when the railway arrived in 1859, but it’s actually much older than people think. There was a settlement here during Anglo-Saxon times and was even referred to as Peintone in the Domesday Book.
In those days, the area just inland from the beach was backed by sand dunes and marshland, which meant that the settlement grew up on dry land at the foot of the hills behind, but also with a separate fishing harbour under the protection of Roundham Head.
The origins of Old Paignton village are located around Palace Avenue, Church St, and Winner St, the names of which give a clue as to what was here.
Around 1050, Peintona became an episcopal manor under Bishop Leofric of Exeter, but back then it would have taken the best part of a day to get here from Exeter, and so when Bishop Osbern succeeded Leofric, he decided to build a palace to help him administer this large manor.
Unsurprisingly, the harbour area is the main attraction in Torquay, and comprises of an Inner and Outer Harbour.
The Inner Harbour is the main focal point and is surrounded on three sides by shops, bars and restaurants of varying degrees of quality. Thanks to the pedestrian Millennium Footbridge that connects the South Pier with the Old Fish Quay, it’s possible to complete a circuit without re-tracing your steps, and underneath the bridge is a cill which allows water to remain inside the harbour regardless of the state of the tide.
During the day, seagulls permitting, wandering around the harbour makes for a pleasant pastime, and there is also the opportunity to catch the ferry over to Brixham if you fancy a different harbour to wander around.
If you’ve brought Aunt Maud with you, it’s probably best to pack her off back to the hotel before the clubbing crowd turn up, especially on weekend nights during the summer. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I would be joining them, but these days, like Aunt Maud, I find myself going home around the same time as I used to be going out.