Now you may have a particular passion in life – one that you like to read about, browse websites, discuss with your friends… Apart from photography (there’s a surprise!) we have a shared love of (wait for it!) …stationery!
The Staples superstore (super in every way!) was a favourite place for many years until the Wigan shop sadly met its demise, as so many of our high street brands do. Their catalogue was favourite reading for many years as we browsed pages of pens and paper, fancy envelopes, labels – even getting excited about staplers and don’t start me on the label machines!
So, October half term in Keswick, what would be top of your list of things to do? Mountains, lakes, bracing fell walks in beautiful autumn scenery, maybe fish and chips at the Old Keswickian, definitely some mint cake and, if there’s time, a trip to Grasmere for the gingerbread.
What about us? Well… Keswick has a pencil museum! A whole museum dedicated to pencils! No prizes for guessing whether we visited or not (prizes for answering their quiz questions all correctly though!).
The fun (sorry – we really do love stationery!) started at the entrance when having paid a very reasonable £4.95 for entrance we were handed a clipboard with the aforementioned quiz and a genuine, beautiful, stylish, wonderful Derwent Pencil Museum HB pencil – so lovely I definitely didn’t want to spoil it by writing with it!
The museum, on first viewing, seems very small, but thanks in a big part to the quiz, you will discover all sorts of interesting pencil facts and figures; history; special creations; meet the world’s biggest colour pencil and so much more.
But perhaps the most interesting and truly inspiring story, is tucked away in the top corner of the museum. The story of the wartime ‘secret agent’ pencils, which were brought to life from the mind of M19 agent Charles Fraser Smith by the skills of the Derwent workers. A story kept hidden (thanks to the Official Secret Act) for more than 30 years. The pencils, which probably saved the lives of many an airman in WW2 , were created by workers from the museum after hours in complete secrecy - designed to hold a potentially lifesaving map and compass inside, away from enemy detection, a vital part of the wartime escape networks. A fascinating story to learn about and even more fascinating when you watch the video of how they tried and struggled to recreate the pencils using modern technology.
Time flew in the museum (did I tell you we love pencils!) and our reward for our completed correct quiz sheets (100% correct! Did I tell you we love pencils…) was three more pencils to take home – including the very beautiful Derwent Academy Watercolour Raw Umber – perfect colour for autumn.
Time for a browse around the shop and a few purchases for ourselves and some early Christmas gifts. What next? Oh I know let’s get the studio out and photograph them!
People visit Scotland for many reasons. Some only get as far as Edinburgh or Glasgow, whilst the more adventurous travellers go much further - right to the top of the country or out to the east or west via some of the best roads (for views!) in the country – the NC500, the new North East 250, the A83 to Kintyre and the breathtaking snow route across the Cairngorms.
The beautiful islands of the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney with their stunning white sand and crystal clear blue water, oil rigs in Cromarty, dolphin watching at Chanonry Point, Royal castles, mountains, lochs and, of course, the newly, almost, confirmed inhabitant of Loch Ness, Nessie.
But probably one of the biggest draws for many people, and a whole tourism industry of its own, is whisky. Visitors to the 128 distilleries continue to climb every year breaking the 2 million mark back in 2018. People travel from across the world to taste the Scottish whiskys –each distillery different – proudly guarding their recipes, which are passed down through the generations.
Scotch whisky tourists bring in more than £60million every year - increasing each year as the number of visitors continues to grow.
We’ve visited many a distillery and followed the fascinating process of turning the Scottish water into whisky. End of tour tastings are a particular favourite of ours as only one member of the family actually likes the drink and he is always the designated driver! Thankfully, many of the distilleries now offer miniature samples of their drink for the designated driver to take home.
Hidden away in the heart of the Speyside Whisky Trail is one of the most important and fascinating elements of the whisky story, which you definitely won’t want to miss.
If you are a true whisky connoisseur then you probably make the effort to study the types of cask each whisky rests in. Vital to the taste of the finished beverage, which rests in the cask for many years, the art of creating and repairing these casks is a skill, which has also been passed down through the generations.
Speyside Cooperage, situated in Craigellachie, Scotland, is the only working cooperage in the UK with a visitor centre, running tours around the workshop followed by samples of their own label 10 year old single malt whisky.
Recommended by a friend, we decided to add the cooperage to our 2019 roadtrip. Travelling up from Ballater, we chose to stay overnight at Thistle Dhu B&B in nearby Glenlivet (yes there’s a distillery there!). Beautiful luxurious accommodation with stunning views and owners who cannot do enough for you. Breakfast was spectacular – all hand cooked by Andy & Pat whilst you sit at their kitchen table! Here we met a Dutch family, who come over every year just for the love of whisky!
Arriving early the following day at the Cooperage, we booked on the next available tour, priced at just £4 per person. We chose the 'Classic Tour', as the cooperage was at the beginning of a long stretch of driving (one of the drawbacks of roadtripping – you’re always on your way to somewhere else!).
After an interesting and very informative 4d video ( I actually listened so it must have been good!) we were taken onto a viewing platform high above the workshop. Thanks to a very knowledgeable guide, we saw the apprentices learning their craft by creating casks whilst the longer serving coopers repaired casks in need of some love.
Working on piece rate and paid for each cask repaired and ready to go back into service, the coopers work at unbelievable speeds moving the huge and very heavy barrels around the workshop with ease.
In 2017 four of the Speyside coopers competed for the Guinness World Records ‘Fastest time to build a 190 litre barrel’. They had a time of 7 minutes 30 seconds to beat whilst ensuring the casks were still watertight and industry fit for use. Under the watchful gaze of an official Guinness adjudicator and almost 300 visitors, cooper David McKenzie completed a barrel in a breathtaking 3 minutes 3.18 seconds securing him the record, which remains his. You can watch the record attempt on Youtube.
Now, if you’re a regular reader (hi Mum!), you’ll know for us it's always about the photos and I’m pleased to report that despite the viewing platform being behind perspex (probably due to the noise and potential dust) it didn’t stop us being able to get photos we really loved of the work going on below us. Luckily for us during the visit, the sun shone through the rear doors of the workshop lighting up the barrels and casting shadows and giving me my favourite photos of this year's roadtrip.
The tour was a very relaxed and enjoyable activity – we were able to wander around the viewing platform and the guide we had was happy to answer all our questions (we had loads!). It was a fascinating process and there was even the opportunity to put a mini cask of your own together! Sadly, as usual, we were too busy videoing and photographing to try this activity!
Inside and outside all you see are casks. As you drive up to the cooperage you see the ‘pyramids’ of casks in beautiful scenery waiting to either be repaired or to be shipped. Casks in the entrance, casks on the tour, casks in the gift shop (and lots of whisky!), unusual gifts made of oak from old casks and a tea room full of furniture made from (go on guess!) more casks! Casks to eat your picnic on, casks for the children to play on, casks everywhere!
Justifiably proud of their skills and making every effort to repair and re-use the casks, Speyside Cooperage are true masters of their industry. We were delighted to discover that the industry still attracts young people wishing to undertake apprenticeships and learn the skill. Must be a lesson there for other industries?
So, if you find yourself taking the Speyside Whisky Trail or, like us, just driving past on your way to somewhere else, take the time to visit the Cooperage and watch true craftsmen working on a traditional process, which has been taking place for over 5000 years. The workers use traditional methods and tools to repair and create almost 150,00 oak casks each year which are then used around the world (and of course in Scotland!).
Oh! and when we go back ( and we will be going back!) we will be taking the more expensive 'VIP tour', which takes you out onto the shop floor! Can’t wait!
One of the real delights of touring around and sometimes going off the beaten track is stumbling across a place that is a real gem.
In 2015 we stayed on the Black Isle and exploring the area we paid a visit to Cromarty. I had in mind some faint recollection about oil rigs and gas platforms but nothing could prepare us for that first visit and the amazing view that greeted us.
Our appetites whetted we said we’d be back and in 2019 we returned, this time fully focussed on the photographic opportunities this quiet little village offered.
Cromarty sits on the eastern end of the Black Isle and sits on one side of a channel that leads out to the open sea (it also gives its name to one of the zones used in the shipping forecast). It seems reasonably sheltered and overlooks the Cromarty Firth – a large body of water with various industrial sites and the Port of Invergordon at one end. And this is where the rigs and platforms come in that gives the village a unique twist, not just an interesting place to visit but one with a truly unique photographic backdrop.
Since the early 1970’s this has been a place for the repair and manufacture of oil rigs and gas platforms with half a dozen or so usually lined up awaiting their turn - mainly for repair these days. It’s this unique waiting line that makes Cromarty a definite must-visit place, especially with your camera. The sight of heavyweight industrial structures in a glorious natural setting really is an awe inspiring sight.
In addition to the rigs there is always the chance of a liner coming close through the channel either sailing to or leaving the Port of Invergordon plus, along with nearby Chanonry Point, this is a great place, amongst the best in Europe, to spot Dolphins and Porpoises. There is a lot to see.
Parking is easy, the village has a few shops, the Royal Hotel and is linked to the other side of the Firth by a small one vehicle ferry.
So a real mixture of nature, history, industry and an unmistakeable small highland village all-in-one. Time it right weather wise for sunset and sunrise and you are in for a real treat.
Oh, and if you’re doing the North Coast 500 take a small detour off the A9 – a couple of hours spent here will add that little bit extra to your trip.
One final tip, if you are going for the Dolphins at nearby Chanonry do your research on the tide times. Time your visit for an hour after low tide for your best chance of getting stunning close up views from the beach. Chances are if you just turn up you’ll probably be disappointed. There’s always an off chance of seeing something but the incoming tide will increase your chances.
To see a gallery of photos from Cromarty click here and our "sailing by" video too click here.
For anyone (like us) that has a bit of a thing for bridges there can probably no better place in the UK to visit than the Firth of Forth with its 3 bridges (all different examples) crossing the mighty waterway South Queensferry to North Queensferry (or vice versa depending which way you’re going!).
Remembering a time when it was just the rail and road bridge, and not having been there for a few years, in 2015 we had a pleasant surprise when we got our first glimpse of the construction work going on with the new Queensferry Crossing.
Fast forward 3 years and we drove across it for the first time. All the time though having stopped at several places around North Queensferry we’d always got OK views and photos of the bridges. But we always felt we wanted to do better.
Roll up Port Edgar Marina and South Queensferry which we stopped at for the first time this July. It may have been the weather (UK’s hottest ever day) but for the first time we came away with what we feel are our best efforts ever - certainly of the two road bridges.
What dawned on us is that these bridges are big, really big (bigger the better for us) but they also extend over a wide piece of waterfront too. Being on a bit of a timetable meant we couldn’t quite fit everything in however now we have our location sorted we’ll be back!
So great views but what about Port Edgar? It's a great place to recharge your batteries food and drink wise especially at "Down the Hatch" a North American themed diner where we had our first ever maple bacon doughnut (read more about that here) There are shops, a restaurant and most importantly if you're there as long as we were...toilets!
Oh and as a bonus you can get some nice views of the Royal Navy’s latest Carrier being built across at Rosyth and a nice little Common Tern colony too. What’s not to like?
A bigger gallery of our photos from the day can be found here> photography.
If you’ve ever watched a wildlife documentary or any of the various Springwatch/Autumnwatch type programmes you may well have marvelled at the scenes and maybe wished you too could experience some of this?
Well you can and without leaving the UK. This country is still home to some wildlife spectacles that are unique and which offer an experience second to none. Obviously a visit to a nature reserve is usually a good starting point however like a lot of things there’s a huge variety of reserves and habitats on offer and which will dictate what you see and when. A reserve which is busy in Spring and Summer with breeding birds may not be the same in Winter or Autumn.
One great example of this is the RSPB reserve at Fowlsheugh on the east coast of Scotland just south of Stonehaven. In the Summer months these 300 foot cliffs teem with tens of thousands of birds – a genuine seabird city but away from these months it’s a different experience – a lot quieter (and less smelly!)
On our recent roadtrip we planned a stop to search for the star bird here – the Puffin - which in late July is really at the end of its breeding cycle and ready to fly off to sea for the Winter.
After eventually finding the small car park – it isn’t signposted but the sat nav directions work and getting some info from a very kind lady on the current location of the Puffins we set off for a mile walk along the cliff top paths. It didn’t take long to get to the heart of the action with Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes by the thousand, clinging on to the cliff face, many still with chicks clinging on even harder.
The sound of Kittiwake calls in particular filled the air, the smell of tons of guano (bird poo!) assaulted our noses but the sight of row upon row of birds interacting with one another as a community and hundreds in the air at any one time was spectacular.
We did find our star bird - in fact we saw about a dozen Puffins – exactly where we were told they’d be - and enjoyed watching them for a good half hour or so. If there are birds with more character than these tiny auks we’ve yet to see one.
So, a genuine wildlife spectacle a mile or so off a busy main route in Scotland and one that wouldn’t look out of place on something like Life on Earth.
Tips – always do your homework, find the best times both seasonal and time of day, tidetimes especially can be crucial at some sites. Visit websites and use the internet – there’s a lot of info out there from the various wildlife organisations to, well, people like us! Also, when you’re there ask people too. We’ll always put people onto birds or other animals if we can see them and they may be struggling. Most of all though enjoy the spectacle in front of you – the sight, sound and size of nature.
More info at RSPB.org.uk .