These days there is a bigger interest than ever in hitting the open road (roadworks and congestion permitting) in a camper van or as we do in our car and undertaking a road trip.
There are a number of routes now set up for people to follow – in Scotland there’s the North Coast 500, the East Coast 250 and in Ireland there’s the Wild Atlantic Way.
These are fantastic, the routes are done for you, just book a stopover, camp site or, in Scotland, search out your loch side layover courtesy of the wild camping laws and let the road guide you to interesting places and glorious sights.
We did the NC500 in 2016 and that was a brilliant experience – hotels every night and a self- catering stopover in John o’Groats – read about it here. The last few years we have revisited Scotland and generally stayed in one place but this year we did another road trip but one that we devised ourselves around parts of Scotland we hadn’t visited for a while and, in one case, a part neither of us had been to before.
Often on these holidays you come across a particular section of road that for a variety of reasons you just fall in love with.
This year though it was an entire road that really got to us and one we hadn’t been on before. Step forward the glorious A83 from Campbelltown in the south right up to Tarbet on the shores of Loch Lomond.
It’s around 97 miles long and on the way down toward Campbelltown it did feel as though it was the world’s longest cul-de-sac knowing that after a few days on the southern tip of Kintyre we would be driving back the same way. Maybe it was the weather and unfamiliarity on the way down but coming back in glorious sunshine and having time to make a few stops we really, really fell for it.
Leaving Campbelltown, heading north you hug the western coast you get views of Ireland – about 8 miles away and the distillery laden isles of Islay and Jura. If you’re in luck the famous Paps of Jura will be obvious. The nearer and smaller Gigha is just off the coast - all served by CalMac and yes we got some ferry spotting in too, mainly at the gloriously remote Tayinloan “terminal”. Tarbert is next, a glorious Scottish fishing village (and another ferry terminal) various towns and views sail past as you get nearer to Lochgilphead, the next largest town, followed by Inverary on the shores of Loch Fyne.
Inland then the road climbs up and up and enters mountains, glens and forests that to us is a landscape even more spectacular than the over-busy A82 through Glencoe.
Before you know it Tarbet is quickly in view – this one at the road’s end on the banks of the seemingly never ending Loch Lomond.
The road joins the A82 and the choice is south towards Glasgow or north to the highlands and the west coast islands.
It is a great road with snippets of Scotland everywhere. A genuine contender for “Scotland in miniature” taking you from golden sandy beaches on the west coast of the Kintyre peninsular to the sweeping glens around the wonderfully named “Rest and be Thankful” via lochs and fishing villages.
We’ve done quite a bit of driving in Scotland and this is our favourite road in all its entirety. It sounds a bit daft but when you are on it, the A83 does feel like a road taking you on a real journey to somewhere different with diverse views and landscapes along its route.
Do it in a day or take your time and explore this sometimes overlooked area of Scotland. We were surprised and we will also be back.
Scottish roadtrips – we love them. Miles and miles of empty roads (if you’re in the right places!), lochs, mountains, forests, the sea – almost perfect! Just make sure you put your food and toilet research in before you go!
Travelling the highlands in a motorhome ‘wild camping’ is starting to appear on people’s ‘bucket’ lists and who can blame them? Waking up at the side of a loch with otters playing outside, watching the sunset from your bed – all very appealing, but not for us. We prefer to visit local B&B’s and hotels, meeting new people and sampling the delights of a home cooked Scottish breakfast (more on that in our food section!).
We actively seek out unusual places to stay, usually off the beaten track and always with good reviews - hoping all the time that they are indeed genuine reviews!
The most interesting places to stay are buildings, which have led a former life from cow sheds to railway carriages, converted aeroplanes and lighthouses. If only we had enough free time…
Our Scottish roadtrip 2019 took us to one of the most architecturally interesting buildings we have stayed in so far. The Auld Kirk in Ballater in the heart of Royal Deeside; chosen by us for its proximity to royal residence Balmoral Castle (last on our tick list of royal houses which proved the most elusive of the royal properties for us to visit – we appear to always holiday at the same time as the Queen!).
Its not difficult to guess the previous use of the Auld Kirk – if the name doesn’t give it away then not many buildings feature a granite spire towering over the houses around them! Once inside the B&B, which also operates as a coffee lounge during the day, the features and fittings of the early Victorian Scottish Free Church are readily apparent. Dark corridors, stained glass windows, original chairs. In the breakfast room you will find the original font, you may be lucky enough to breakfast in one of the original priests’ thrones and the guest lounge still has the curtained ‘confessional’! Just don’t be tempted to offload your guilty secrets in there though as it currently provides storage space!
Thanks to the friendly and knowledgeable owners, Kevin and Helen, who have only recently taken over the Auld Kirk and have some very big and exciting plans, we had a fascinating tour of the building and its history. Learning all about the ‘Disruption’ in 1843 when members of the local Kirk had a disagreement with the rest of the congregation and began to hold separate worship in a sheepcote outside of the village. The ‘dissenters’ soon established and built their own Free Kirk, the beautiful building which now houses the Auld Kirk. The congregation worshipped there for many years until eventually combining congregations once more in a brand new church in the centre of Ballater.
Sadly, at this point, many churches were allowed to fall into disrepair and ruin and once beautiful buildings providing service to their local communities began to disappear as nature regained the area around them.
The Auld Kirk is a fine example of a building, which thankfully was not allowed to suffer this fate and now offers a fine place to spend the night in lovely Ballater.
We loved all the original features - it felt like a very gothic, atmospheric place to stay but warm and friendly with owners who will make this a huge success thanks to their attention to detail and friendly personalities. Comfy beds, special little extras including delicious home made shortbread and glass bottles of local water ( it’s a constant source of irritation to me as a none tea/coffee drinker that most hotels don’t offer quality drinking water in their rooms) breakfast was delicious with a wide range of choices on the buffet in addition to the home cooked selection – fried potato scones and haggis the best way to start the day! Plentiful parking in a beautiful area with just a short walk into the centre of Ballater. With hosts who cannot do enough for you from their excellent knowledge of places to eat and visit, to the constant attention they offer you at breakfast and beyond.
Thank you Kevin and Helen for answering all of our many questions whilst cooking and feeding the other guests! We found your building fascinating! Particularly loved the angel currently watching over the guest lounge – a giant version of the famous ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ which graces many a Rolls Royce car. One of the many unusual fixtures and fitting which came along the with building.
Collectors! Kevin is open to offers to find her a new home! Contact him through their website
And Ballater? What did we think? With the River Dee flowing through looking as though a bear would appear at any moment, spectacular mountains and forests surrounding it, some very exclusive shops with royal warrants, probably the best ice cream we’ve ever tasted at Shortys Ice Cream Parlour and picnic benches in the small town centre to eat your picnic or your chips! How could we not love it?
But the part we loved the most was another building having a new lease of life, the old railway station built in 1866 and used by the Royal Family until Beeching closed it down in 1966 (happened to our local station too – must be time to get them all reopened?). As you stand in the courtyard it is hard not to see it full of coaches and soldiers with Victoria and Albert coming through the doors as they made their way to Balmoral.
If only the trainline was still there – what a journey that would be…
Travelling up to the top of Scotland (somewhere that's seems to have become our standard these days for our Summer holidays) is a long journey from home, so we like to start early and tag a few overnights on. We opted to stay in or around Falkirk on the way up this year mainly because we had seen the spectacular Kelpie sculptures on a previous journey and wanted to visit them.
Before then however we arrived at the Falkirk Wheel, which had been recommended by Dad via a Fred Dibnah TV show! We’d done a small amount of research into it and knew all about the reason it had been built and its purpose as a rotating boat lift, connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Surprisingly modern, it only opened in 2002, reconnecting the two canals for the first time since the 1930s. I didn’t realise we undertook such building these days and had thought it was Victorian! Personally, I thought we would be there for ten minutes take some photos and then move on. How wrong was I?! It is the sort of structure you stand underneath, next to, across from and just stare at open mouthed. What an incredible thing (not sure what to call it!) to look at and to watch - we arrived as it began a rotation and we all went camera crazy. We ended up seeing it operate a further two times as well as taking a walk around the park which has lots to see and do particularly for children. Scottish Canals have done a great job it is an interesting and exciting thing to visit and even more importantly you only pay to park (lots to spend in the shop and cafes though).
The unexpected highlight of our day was arrival at the little stopover hotel Chris has chosen, Arden House in Linlithgow. What an absolute hidden treasure of a hotel with lovely owners who can’t do enough for you and the best breakfast we have ever had. I hadn’t expected much of the Falkirk area but I was very pleasantly surprised. Lovely countryside, some very special features and halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. A great place to stay.
Arden House has just 3 rooms and the night we stayed we were the only guests in 2 of them. Greeted by the owner with a tray full of freshly baked cakes as she took us to our rooms, we felt like we were staying in our own country house. After a good night’s sleep nothing could prepare us for the home cooked feast that awaited us at breakfast. All cooked to order with a story behind every addition we were fed and fed again with freshly cooked pancakes, the best haggis I have ever tasted and my personal favourite cinnamon poached pears. We all overate and spent the rest of the day feeling very full but very satisfied as we hit the road to travel further north onwards to Aviemore and eventually Ullapool - but that's another story.
Certain parts of the country are so linked with legends they draw tourists from all over the world. Strangely the ones you live nearest too are the ones you tend to forget about. We live within 60 miles of Sherwood Forest – not a great distance but one we have never undertaken. Time to remedy this with a family weekend in the Forestry commission holiday lodges.
Robin Hood and Maid Marian are figures of history everyone will have heard of but whether they actually existed – who knows? Still, visiting the church where they allegedly married, having your photograph taken with their statues and visiting the majestic Major Oak, rumoured to be their sleeping place, it is hard to have any doubts about their existence. The village of Edinstowe is a pretty very ‘English’ place with tea rooms and souvenir shops and of course St Mary’s Church which is rumoured to be the wedding venue for Robin Hood and Maid Marian. The Church from the outside is very photogenic but sadly wasn’t open. Without the loose link to the Robin Hood story I doubt it would attract any special attention.
The Major Oak, on the other hand, cannot be described as anything other than majestic. Approximately 10 metres wide and 28 metres of ‘branches’ it is supported by metal poles and other structures and kept safely behind a fence to ensure it survives intact for another 1000 years. Voted ‘England’s tree of the year in 2014 – would you know any other tree to vote for?! – it is well worth a visit and an attempt at fitting the whole tree on any shot you can successfully take. Selfies of the family with the tree behind were a particular challenge! The whole of the Sherwood Forest Country Park was a lovely place to visit – thankfully the weather was good and the park was full of families walking, eating ice creams and spending time together. Over by the visitor centre and shop they were even setting up for a wedding later that day.
We spent the whole weekend in and around Sherwood Forest only venturing out once to visit Newark Air Museum. A lovely place and we even bought a Robin Hood teddy back for Nanna!
In May for our first "proper" trip of the year we chose to spend a week down in East Anglia, flipping between Norfolk and Suffolk in the Brecks.
Over the space of several days we visited loads of great places and experienced what really is a unique place with some unusual habitats found only in that part of the country along with some glorious weather too.
As ever in our usual leisurely fashion we took a few days to journey down stopping off at a few places along the way. We hope you enjoy our visit to the Fens and Forests of East Anglia.
We stayed at a fantastic place the "Old Boot Garden Cottages" in Long Whatton just outside Loughborough. The accommodation is a great mix of luxury and quirky with a fantastic breakfast room which really is help yourself and set us up great for Saturday. Full details of "Old Boot Garden Cottages" can be found here.
Refreshed on Saturday we set course for Ely our base for the next two nights but first decided we'd take a small detour via Melton Mowbray - home of Pork Pies and Stilton cheese.
Yes we did go in the Pork Pie Shoppe - in fact there are several in the town that are certified to sell the official Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. We stayed away from the Stilton though as we didn't think that was very wise picnic food? Away from the gastronomic choice the town has a great park and a fascinating piece of sculpture as well as a handful of great looking buildings.
However our destination called and we set off again hoping to stop for lunch somewhere to enjoy our newly acquired and historic baked goods.
Before we knew it we were in Cambridgeshire and looking for a good place to stop. Following the sat nav we ended up on some pretty remote roads right in the middle of the flatest landscape in the Uk - the Fens. A quick look at the map and we found out we were literally a few miles from the WWT reserve at Welney. As you'll know we are members of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust but never been beyond our local reserve at Martin Mere so it was too good an opportunity to miss. 15 minutes later we were parked up in glorious sunshine, eating our picnic and then set off to explore Welney.
After a few hours welcome rest and a coffee and cake we set off for our base for the next few nights a self catering treat - Stable Cottage in Little Downham just outside Ely. Further details here.
Ely is a great place - a medieval town, a huge cathedral, a river, set in great countryside and loads of unique sights.
Over the next few days we visited the cathedral, used our National Trust membership for our first ever visit to Wicken Fen nature reserve (now one of our favourite places) where we heard our first Cuckoos of the year and spent time getting to know the area.
Monday came and it was time to move on but not until after another stop over for a more in depth visit to the majestic Ely Cathedral -one of the most impressive we've ever seen and a good mooch around Ely including a great pulled pork baguette from the food market.
Our base for the rest of the week wasn't a huge drive away bit in the 20 or so miles we drove the scenery changed from the flat undulating Fens to the forests and heathlands of the Brecks, straddling the Suffolk and Norfolk border.
Our destination was the Forest Retreat's site at Thorpe Forest just outside Thetford.
We went for the "retreat" option which had a hot tub, hammock and all sorts of things just for two in a more secluded cabin.
Over the next few days we explored the area in car and on foot and really fell in love with the area.
Some highlights: going to see the early morning training on the Gallops at Newmarket, worth getting up for; visiting the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen not only great for wildlife yes more Cuckoos but Eagles too - OK they were overflying F15s from the nearby airbase; some great woodland walks around the site which is really secluded including Nightjar spotting - worth staying up for and a host of other great places to visit including Bury St Edmunds home to Greene King brewery and a cathedral that has only just been finished being built!
All too soon it was Friday and a 4 hour drive home.
We will be back though. It's a good few years since either of us had been to the area but if anything it was better than we could remember and the great thing - it is so big and so much to do we feel like we've only scratched the surface. Roll on our next visit to the land of fens and Forests.
We often stay in Manchester for business or family reasons and try to sample as many of the hotels as we can, but we recently realised we are being drawn back to the same one each time. So, what has become our favourite and why?
Innside, part of the Melia group, may not be everyone’s immediate first choice. Situated in the First Street area -it’s about 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre, close to Deansgate train station and Deansgate/Castlefield Metrolink stop, adjacent to the entertainment venue Home and next to the site of the world famous Hacienda (that’s now an apartment block). It’s relatively new to the Manchester Hotel scene having just celebrated its 2nd birthday.
It is clean and modern, with good sized rooms, comfy beds, a great restaurant and bar, but lots of the Manchester hotels have these things so what is it that makes Innside special?
The one thing which makes them stand head and shoulders above the others is the standard of their customer service and the friendliness and helpfulness of all their staff. Not one member of staff ever passes you without enquiring how are you and can they help you. They are friendly and approachable and have obviously been very well trained. From the waitress at breakfast who offers to get your coffees – the buffet is serve yourself including the drinks – to the check in and out staff, the bar staff, in fact in all the times we have stayed with them we have never encountered any member of staff who did not display their obviously high standards of customer service.
We're members of a number of various organisations two of which - the National Trust and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust have two great places not too far away from home and virtually next door to each other.
Rufford Old Hall isn't the biggest of properties, in fact apart from the Beatles' homes in Liverpool I would think this may be the most compact of NT properties but what it may lack in size it makes up for in having some spectacular gardens and at this time of year some outstanding Bluebell woods.
Situated right at the side of the Leeds Liverpool canal it is a unique mix of over 3 centuries worth of building from the great hall dating back to 1530 through to more "modern" rooms - if the 1820's could be called modern.
We spent a good few hours meandering through the grounds and the hall itself - as ever welcomed by the friendly and knowledgable staff and volunteers. As NT members and this being about 20 minutes down the road we will obviously be back and this time we'll try the tea room too!
So after finishing here we nipped 4 miles down the road to go to another of our favourite haunts - the WWT centre at Martin Mere.
We are regular visitors here and enjoy our visits especially like they were on this day with a glorious clear blue sky and a good mix of wildlife - though the "outbreak" of rats around the bird feeders was a little disconcerting especially when one took a flying leap at a Moorhen!
Theres no doubt though that Spring has sprung with trees budding, birds getting noisy and territorial and more warmer days than cold days now. So we'll be looking forward to more of the same over the rest of the year and making the most of our various memberships.
Our first trip out of the day was to the gorgeous surroundings of Fountains Abbey and as well as giving us a chance to stretch our legs (and paws) and take some great photos we also got to use our National Trust cards for the first time too.
Fountains Abbey is one of our favourite places and with the snowdrops out it was extra special - if a little busy with people, but it is such a large space it's quite easy to find some space for yourself.
After a few hours of enjoying the abbey and a quick lunch break we then headed into the nearby town of Harrogate for a mooch around.
It being a Saturday afternoon not surprisingly the town centre was busy with shoppers but again we managed to find out the quieter areas for a look around some of the more unique and quirky shops as opposed to the usual High Street offer.
It was then back to Carr Well Barn for tea, supper and another great night's sleep.
Sunday sunrise was even more spectacular and we took advantage of the fantastic light and the nearby pond for some awesome reflection photos.
Again we'd been to Brimham rocks before - just once ... and in the fog so it was great to visit again in the daylight so you could fully enjoy and marvel at the different formations as well as the superb views.
With Navi safely on a lead and Simon "walking her" we spent a great few hours here exploring what is quite a large area and also marvelling at how cavalier some parents were with their young children as they scrambled up some seriously steep formations!
Soon it was time to head back again for our Sunday night dinner of Chilli and a slop down in front of the TV.
Simon, Lucy and Navi headed home Sunday evening due to work commitments the day after, and with Adam , we headed back on the Monday after a great weekend.
We've stayed in a load of places but this was one of the best both from a location as well as a standard of fixtures and fittings. Jan the owner of Carr Well barn was great and made sure we felt completely at home.
We would thoroughly recommend Harrogate and its surrounding areas to anyone - theres loads to do but the problem is dragging yourself away from Carr Well Barn to do it!
More photos can be found on our photos page.
Carr Well Barn
Innside is a new hotel on the fantastic First street development in Manchester. It's part of the Melia group and there's no doubt it aims to be quite contemporary and fit right into the whole Manchester vibe.
However when we checked in we did wonder whether we had stepped into a giant Monopoly game looking at some fantastic decorations in the lobby. We think they were part of a conference going on that day but even so it certainly added something different.
Check in was smooth as we had priority status having joined the Melia Rewards scheme and we were soon in our room which I have to say is one of the smartest and largest we've been in recently - free soft drinks in the mini bar, a clever use of space for wardrobes and bathroom and one of the coolest headboards we've seen.I did feel like I should have had my colouring pencils with me when I looked at it though!
The next day saw us up early and enjoying a fantastic choice from the buffet breakfast at Innside. With the usual array of fruit, pastries, cooked breakfast, cereal juices and hot drinks. Plus some festive table decorations too - oh and some cake!
After checking out and dumping our bags at the car we walked across the city to start at the cathedral end and work our way back. As ever there is a wide variety of stalls selling a mixture of hand made goods, food and all sorts of very attractive looking gifts and potential presents.
The market coupled with the addition of the "regular" Christmas decorations really does make a fantastic festive setting and theres no surprise that it does get very busy.
So a quick tip - get there as early as possible and try and visit the Albert Square section first (in front of the town hall - the bit with Zippy Santa). This gets rammed as it is enclosed by fencing due to the licensing laws and controlling people taking alcohol away from the site. So by 11.00am at weekends, especially in good weather it can become a bit of physical test of stamina especially if you are wanting to actually buy anything!
There are loads of other sites with stalls throughout the city centre and loads to see so if it is a bit too crowded in one place just move on to the next.
Another great weekend in Manchester at Christmas market time. Definitely worth a visit if you havent been and if you do plan on going make sure you give yourself plenty time.
More details for Innside Manchester can be found here.
More info on Manchester's Christmas Markets can be found here.