One morning in July this year the city centre of Manchester woke up to an invasion.
No it wasn’t some form of alien threat or menace but an awesome swarm of multi-coloured bees all part of a major art installation – “Bee in the City” that saw 101 large bees and 131 smaller bees on display right across the city and beyond – in libraries, art galleries, shop windows and even in a hospital, all forming a unique art trail.
Working in the city and it being a regular destination for various visits we are used to seeing street art of all shapes, sizes and colours – anyone wandering through the Northern Quarter for example will have to work hard not to see the famous graffiti spots, however the bees were different and on a whole new level to anything else we can remember seeing.
After being trailed for a number of months – giving time for local businesses to sponsor bees and to allow a series of gifted artists to finish final designs the bees arrived literally overnight at the end of July.
The first weekend coincided with our visit to the Manchester Jazz Festival and a couple of nights stayover in the city centre which gave us an early opportunity to take advantage of a glorious summer evening (remember those?) to have a wander around some of the bees on display across the squares in the city centre. It was clear then that the bees were causing a real buzz of excitement (couldn’t resist that) with dozens of people all taking photos and a corresponding boom on Instagram and Twitter of all sorts of images of the city’s latest residents.
There were apps and maps and all sorts of ways that people celebrated the bees with some very creative photos and some straightforward selfies too.
With holidays and other things we didn’t get as much time as we wanted to get in all of the bees so we topped up our photos over a series of visits.
With them creating such a level of interest it was difficult to come up with something different taking advantage of some outstanding artwork and some great and not-so-great positioning. It was also great to do a bit of reading up into the artists and designers and also look at how the various designs wove in the city – it’s landmarks, people, sport, music, history and culture.
There’s no doubt many people first registered the bee as synonymous with Manchester following the tragic events in May 2017. However the history of the bee and Manchester goes further back than that – way back to 1842 when it was first officially incorporated into the coat of arms and represented formally for the first time the industrious and collaborative nature of Manchester, its workers and entrepreneurs, in kick-starting and promoting the Industrial Revolution. Since then it’s become part of the city’s DNA and it’s a fitting symbol for the resilience of the city too – something that has been tested over the years.
So altogether a great subject for a massive art installation and also one that offered a myriad of different designs and ingenious creativity. Some were ornate, some made you think, some seemed alive but each one had it’s own personality and characteristics – almost impossible you may think but it just worked.
Like all good things though everything comes to an end, well sort of.
On 23rd September the bees disappeared overnight as quickly as they had appeared. The next time they’ll be on show will be in October when they’ll be auctioned off for charity and they’ll all be together at the Velodrome (or should that be Velodrone?) for one last time. The community sponsored ones such as the LGBTQ+ Queen Bee will stay in situ and the smaller bees will all go back to the schools and organisations that designed them.
The Summer of 2018 will be remembered for all sorts of things – the weather, the world cup, moorland fires, but I’m sure for many people it will be the year they remember that the bees came to the city for a unique two months of accessible public art representing the very best of the past, present and future of Manchester.
To everyone connected with this – thank you!
Have you seen the film ‘Inception’? A superb and complex film from Christopher Nolan that was a wonderful tale of a dream, within a dream, within a dream, within a dream… which ends with you still unsure which dream you are in! Our recent holiday had an ‘inception-ish’ feel to it – an island off an island off an island off an island…
Living in the UK you sometimes forget that we are an island nation with a coastline dotted with more islands – islands of great beauty, islands full of tourists and places to visit, islands frozen in time, secluded islands and even abandoned islands. We have them all.
2018 bought us our first taste of island hopping using the ever reliable Calmac Ferries to island hop on a very small scale but one that certainly whetted our appetite for more.
Home base was the Isle of Mull - an island renowned for its wildlife with a population of just 2500 people and a tiny network of single track roads to get you around. Grass growing through the B roads and some hair raising but memorable journeys round sheer cliff faces (well that’s what it felt like)! Plenty of passing places but plenty of people either selfish or unaware of the etiquette of driving round the island – we had more than one ‘stand off’ with motorhome drivers with no desire to allow you to pass.
But as with a lot of similar locations on the wild Scottish West Coast and its islands there are huge opportunities to use these as jumping off points for taking your explorations further with other islands and remote destinations in easy reach.
The first place we aimed for was the world renowned island of Iona – tucked away just off the southern most peninsula on Mull’s west coast and a short 10 minute sailing from Fionnphort using (you may have guessed) one of Cal Mac’s regular services. For those that haven’t been anywhere on the Scottish isles if your image of these ferry ports is like Dover then you may be a bit disappointed (or surprised). With one street , about a dozen properties, a café and a cow inhabited car park it certainly isn’t a major centre of attention (or so we thought!)
Ferry tickets bought we duly got onboard – the ferry here is passenger only though the post van was coming off before we got on board – and waited to set sail. Then the fun started as 5 coaches pulled in one after the other and disgorged their occupants who all made their way en masse to board the ferry. If you’ve watched the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds film the similarities to the ferry scene in that was uncanny. We assumed and imagined that these were tourist trips from the mainland having sailed from Oban and then made the dash along the single track roads to Fionnphort. The thought of the mad dash from the ferry made us chuckle (and thankful we hadn’t met them in the opposite direction!)
Anyway, a gloriously smooth sailing later and we landed on Iona. Within minutes we were lost in a world of tranquillity, seclusion and genuine wilderness with some of the best beaches and views we’d ever seen (the glorious weather probably helped too!). Where the passengers all went we aren’t sure but despite its peaceful setting the island is prepared for the tourist onslaught.
So our first trip from an island to an island to an island and we felt like Robinson Crusoe – sat on a white sandy beach in the sun with no-one else in sight. However we did have a return ticket so very little chance of being stranded.
We had to wait for the following day for that and our second island off an island venture to the even more remote Island of Ulva – careful with the pronunciation!
Ulva really is a step back in time from the unique way that you signal for the ferry - by sliding a small white door on a board on the wall to show a red square and then wait for the ferry to come across from the island (definitely not Cal Mac!) to the history of the island and its fall from a home for over 600 people, the desperate plight following the clearances to a small community owned venture of just 6 hardy residents.
Once on the island (off an island, off an island) the remote wilderness and beauty was breath taking from basalt columns, to Golden Eagles and abandoned cottages. It was so wild that we ended up getting a little unsure of the path we were walking so decided to backtrack a few miles rather than run the risk of missing the last ferry back at 5.00pm!
With ourselves to ourselves and some stunning cloudy weather it did feel like we were at the end of the earth despite at some points actually being able to pick out our own little cottage half way up a mountain on the far side of Loch Na Keal on Mull itself.
Again though despite its remoteness there was a great café/restaurant - The Boathouse - with fresh caught fish and some great cakes. It was so good we did ponder coming back just for the food later in the week – we didn’t, so maybe another time?
The ferry back took longer than the journey across – not because of any technical issues - it was just that the ferryman had spotted the resident Otters in the water so he stopped for a few minutes so we could have a good look at them!
And that was it – we could have gone to several other destinations – including Gometra (an island off Ulva itself connected by a bridge – getting very deep now) or Staffa, Lungha and the rest, all served by a variety of vessels of all sizes but we ran out of time.
So no sea-faring adventures to put Nelson to shame but certainly enough to spark something that we will definitely come back to in years to come and continue our journeys to some genuinely remote parts of these glorious British Isles.
There’s nothing that typifies the type of holiday we love more than single track roads - especially ones with grass in the middle of them - running through stunning scenery with a new vista at every corner and , of course, plenty passing places just in case you meet a fellow traveller coming in the opposite direction!
For the last couple of years, with our regular trips up to Scotland, we’ve grown well used to driving on a variety of roads that in a map book are usually the ones indicated by a dotted line. Not that these are the only types of road up in the highlands – there are some fantastic “normal” roads – usually in really good condition – real blacktop stuff - and which, because of the lack of traffic, actually bring back some long forgotten memories of when driving was a pleasure - not the nose to tail bedlam it can be these days.
And don’t think single tracks are just B roads or unnamed roads – significant chunks of A road in the highlands – Sutherland and Caithness in particular are single track too – always interesting meeting a coach or truck coming the opposite direction midway through a deserted glen.
This may all sound a bit off putting, it can be, but with a bit of sense and patience it all becomes second nature and hugely enjoyable.
Go to anywhere with a lot of single track roads – take our holiday destination this year Mull as an example - and you usually find a lot of guidance for how to drive on single track roads. Don’t ignore it – it is a big thing.
There are some basic rules and etiquette.
Use the passing places – they are, in the main, sign posted and spaced frequently and unlike some of the horrendous and claustrophobic English country lanes penned in by stone walls, you can usually see far enough ahead to make a decision where to pull over.
Don’t park in them! They are there to be used as a passing place (the name is a bit of a giveaway) so, no matter if it’s the best view ever don’t park in one to take a photo as that will be the time when a truck is coming the other way and meets a bus or something and you’re in the middle being cursed at in Gaelic. This has never happened to us. We have however done some cursing (in English) at some idiots who thought that a passing place looked like a good spot for a picnic as a tractor bore down on us.
There are some places that are extended and will fit a few cars in, but the majority just won’t or can't so don’t!
Always take note of any passing places you’ve just passed. This is invaluable if you have to reverse into one especially if you meet something on a bend or the occasional drivers who use their own rules and make you reverse uphill whilst steadfastly refusing to back up about a meter to a passing place on their side of the road (a real life example from this year!).
Always use the places on your “side” of the road ie the left – you may get some people that swerve into places on the other side of the road – very confusing and dangerous. Often a driver will wait on the road near a place with enough room for you to drive into it and pass them. So don’t think no space on my side and keep bearing down on the other driver. Use your spatial awareness – and manners (and indicators too).
Also use passing places to let other drivers overtake you. If it’s a local they’ll be comfortable on the road so let them past. Indicate and pull into a passing place that has a clear view of the road ahead so they can see there’s nothing coming. They’ll thank you for this, usually the emergency indicator double blink. We had several coaches pull over for us this year as well as us pulling over for various vehicles – more often than not the postie!
Always say thanks – usually just by a wave of the hand and also acknowledge anyone thanking you. You don’t need to be too elaborate with this, just stick to the familiar hand up rather than some sort of elaborate hip-hop handshake routine. We noticed quite a lot of camper van passengers undertaking this duty whilst their partners focussed on keeping themselves on the road. Probably a wise option on some of the roads with eye boggling narrow widths.
Oh and if you’re using SatNav double the length of time it tells you to get somewhere. The roads all are 60mph however to be honest if you attempted this speed you’d either be in with a chance of being world rally champ or in intensive care. 60mph isn’t a target - drive safely and also enjoy taking your time with journeys through some of the greatest landscapes on earth, whatever the weather. Plus, as you will have picked up from some of our photos, some of the 4 legged "locals" also like the roads (and are hefty too - especially the coos!) and they definitely don't understand passing places!
Finally, there is a sense of driving comraderie that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s almost as though we’re all in the shared challenge of driving on the roads together so let’s look after each other. Weird but you can sense this. Maybe an extension of the lifestyle and pace of life up there?
So it is simple really and also the roads aren’t that tricky or challenging...... in the main. There is a well-documented exception though that we drove on in 2016 as part of the early stages of our North Coast 500 trip - the fearsome and rightly notorious Bealach Na Ba. Rising over 2000 feet, over a mountain, with hairpin bends a-plenty and gradients over 1 in 5 in many places. All single track and with many passing places. More on this unforgettable experience can be found on our NC500 pages.
Seriously, not for the faint-hearted but a stunning summit view and to be honest if you can do this you can do anything. Or so we thought until the day we took the coastal road around the north of Mull – but I’ll pass on that one till another time.
It’s odd how sometimes something just becomes “a thing”. If you think about activities, hobbies, interests or things you do it’s hard to recall how you started doing them or what the catalyst was.
This year on our Mull trip we suddenly realised we had a bit of “a thing” for CalMac ferries.
If you go anywhere with a port or a view of the sea or islands from Scotland’s West Coast chances are, if you haven’t been on one, you will at least probably have seen one of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet ploughing their way across and between the mainland and the numerous isles that make up one of the most unique landscapes in the world.
Up to August 17th this year we had never been on one but had thought about doing a bit of island hopping for a number of years – finally exploring some of the parts of Scotland we had never been to. We’d known and heard about Cal Mac for a number of years but it was in 2017 when we went to Ullapool that our interest was well and truly sparked.
Twice a day every day the ferry for Stornaway arrived and departed at the Ullapool terminal and it quickly became a part of our holiday up there taking photos of the ferry – “Loch Seaforth” - either on its journey or in port as we marvelled at the way that the vehicles were marshalled and loaded on board and wondered what awaited the passengers on the other side?
The hustle and bustle of Ullapool with a ferry in was a sharp contrast to its usual benign state. Plus the views of the evening sailing with the ship literally sailing into the sunset on its way to the Outer Hebrides really got the imagination going.
So this year we decided enough was enough and booked a week on Mull meaning at last we’d be able to set foot on one of the Cal Mac fleet.
Rather like long distance travel on a train there is something still a bit nostalgic and mysterious about sea travel in such beautiful surroundings as those on the Scottish West Coast.
Our first trip on a ferry was probably more eventful for what you couldn’t see rather than the anticipated glorious surroundings - as the sea mist rolled in, the waves got a bit choppy and the rain came down - if you want to see this for yourself see "Ferry in your Jersey".
Undeterred though during the week we used the fantastic ferry to Iona from Mull and also looked out for the various services that sailed through the Sound of Mull past the island.
We travelled back to the mainland via the Fishnish – Lochaline service and we headed up to Mallaig for our Saturday night stopover purely and simply as we’d never been! Mallaig is a transport dream as it is not only a port for Cal Mac services to Skye and the smaller islands – the delightfully named Eigg, Rum, Muck and Canna – but is also a terminus for the twice daily Jacobite steam trains from Fort William that go over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (more about that some other time!).
By this stage taking photos of ferries had become an integral part of our range of subjects – especially in dramatic settings or something different than a straightforward shot of the vessel itself. So imagine our delight when we found out on our evening walk that vessels are moored at Mallaig overnight - cue some sunset pictures of the ferries at rest.
We’re not sure that Cal Mac spotting is a thing, if it isn’t then it should be – it is for us! There’s a lot more to it than just “spotting” the ferries though (for the record we saw 11 of the 31 strong fleet on our travels – travelling on 3 of them). For us it’s trying to get photos of them in their “natural” surroundings – the sea lochs and ports in the west coast wilds.
But they are also much more than a tourist attraction - they are the lifeblood for and the only way that many communities can get access to the mainland or receive vital supplies, hence the ownership of the service by the Scottish Government.
Our appetites have been whetted and maybe some more adventurous routes will be travelled over the next few years - there’s more than enough options to keep us going. But whatever happens that sense of yearning for travel and adventure we got by watching the comings and goings of a Scottish port, marvelling at the ferries themselves and recognising the skill and hardwork of those that work on them has been well and truly ignited and not even a damp first ever crossing in howling wind and rain has put it out.
Full details and information on Caledonian MacBrayne can be found here.
Life and other