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Imagine your routine life in one of the cities of Northern England. Biting cold, uncanny rains, football fever and running and cycling in the country park are some of the most common experiences that you would live by. The other commonalities will include your frequent visits to the local grocery stores, spending the evenings by the river that flows through the city and enjoying an after work beer in the neighbourhood pub on Fridays. While some may be interested in digging deep into the local history and heritage, some others are keen on drowning into the night life and yet feeling high. Most of you would agree that this pretty much looks like the highlight reel of a common man’s life in any of the cities that they may be residing in. But what takes me particularly to the “Northern” part of England is its proximity to the Scottish landscapes.
Analogically speaking, it is like having an urban life in Delhi and dreaming of Himalayas almost every alternate weekend. In my opinion, it is the holiday destinations around the establishment that makes any location unique.
For a city like New Castle, towards the Northern coast of England, planning a holiday in Scotland is the most obvious thing to do. The summer of 2016 shaped some of my imaginations to reality. During my stay in New Castle, I spent a week amidst the gorgeous glens, lustrous lochs and the wanderous woodlands of Scotland. My ideal holiday was recreated, though very far from my own home and yet close to my home stay in Europe. I lost myself on the spectacular streets of a Scottish village, raged on the road to Fort William, the dream drive that should have never ended, posed for a ‘pretty’ and ‘touristy’ pictures on the banks of Loch Lomond and strolled onto some of the many nature-trails that attracts the explorers to Scotland.
Unlike the weather which always remains unpredictable, the enthusiasm to explore remains a constant here. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned traveller, whether you are a nature lover, adventure lover or culture lover, there is a bit of every taste on the platter. And though five days would never feel enough, I could gladly sweep through some of the popular spots in the centre of this coastal country. During my stay in Scotland I mostly belonged to the clan of nature lovers adding only a flavour of cultural and touristy activities.
Here are a few things that you may be keen on doing depending on the permit granted by the Weather Gods.
Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is one of the most popular and easily accessible travel destinations in Scotland. We pre-decided the driving route, crossed the English-Scottish borders in style; received a musical welcome from a Scottish piper as we officially entered Scotland but it was miles to go before we reached our destination.
After a six hours long drive, we reached at a holiday park in Rowardenann, where we had our cottage booked. A word of caution for the travellers, it is advisable to reach here before it gets dark as you would drive amidst a dense forest and the road tends to be tricky towards the end. No, it is not the lochness monster but the tipsy topsy roads, some of which lead nowhere. We ended up on one of these roads, it was nothing less than an adventure, with the water body on the left and a fierce forest on the right, we were almost frozen with fear inside the car. Dark is a dangerous hour to drive, yet somehow we managed to find ‘The Hoot’.
The Hoot, our home for the next five days, on the banks of Loch Lomond, was a wooden cottage owned by Fiona, a Scottish lady who we did not actually meet. Very similar to caravan holiday, this felt more like a complete home to ourselves. As I cuddled myself up in the blanket, I thought of the next five days, they were going to be exciting. I was at one end of the forest, there was a loch outside the cottage adjoining the hills, a broken internet connection, a pub outside the cottage that plays live music, a cute village at the other end of the forest and the zillion of walks that I could do to explore the greeny side. Not to forget, I was sitting at the foot of Ben Lomond, one of the most popular highland walks in the region. But here I was, engulfed inside the velvety blanket, two pegs down, still thinking of what all should I be doing. There was so much to do that I did not want to rush myself into everything. After all, I was on a holiday and the idea was also to chill along with exploring.
Day two, I lazily woke up to the view of a tall tree behind which was the loch widely spread. The wooden deck was wet but the Robins visited us quite often. As I stepped outside the glass door on the wooden deck, I was mesmerized with the dusky clouds that were settled onto the hills. The sun light made sure it pierced through the clouds making the hills even more noticeable. I was absorbed into the view for a while, a screenshot was placed before me and I did not want any icons on my screen.
It wasn’t very cold and windy, the weather prediction of the day was pretty much suitable for a day out. In a jiffy, we decided to hit the road towards Ben Navis, Fort William. Fort William is one of the very popular towns in the Scottish highlands, towards the western coast. The road to Fort William takes you through the Glen Coe mountain ranges, the ones that cast their spell on you. At first, they seem lonely and barren, as if untouched and uninhabited. But they are not soulless. They proliferate through the highlands, standing erect and uniformly shaped; they do not go out of sight. Some make way for the seasonal rivulets that come to life during the monsoons and traverse a long distance. Many are covered with long grasses that make it challenging to climb them on wet days, nevertheless hold the gravel on the slope. It was a delight to see people hiking in random directions for reaching to the top was something very attractive here.
Some of these mountains were desolate, as if they never needed a company. The sun shone brightly on them as well, and they stood tall with pride. All throughout the way, the clouds darted a dark shadow on these mountains, they were varied in shape and intensified by the sunrays.
As I absorbed this gorgeous beauty of the journey, I also immersed myself in the music; there was no chattering and these hills whispered slowly to us. They diverged and converged, making enough space to embrace us. The awestruck expression flashing on our faces and the glittering eyes admiring the nature were the proof that we were grateful for this day in our lives. As a token of thanks and as a way of hugging these mountains back, we stepped down from our car and climbed one of these hills. They greeted us with warmth and we became unstoppable as we stepped down. The trail went up as far as the eyes could see; we were glued to the trail for as long as there were no stones to block our way. Once the way blacked out, we turned around to witness what we had gained – view and peace. Certainly we were not on top of the world, nevertheless we were still standing at a spot from where the world was visible. We were on a highland.
The day came to an end too soon. We were still in awe of what we saw when we reached home. What tempted us now were some freshly baked pizzas and a bottle of scotch.
Day three came soon; a little drippy and drowsy. The clouds populated the sky so intensely that we couldn’t muster up the courage to explore around the loch. It was best to bring out the board and card games while still stealing a glimpse of the Loch Lomond. After repeated failures to take a walk outside, we finally settled down with a cup of coffee on Uno. We enjoyed the drizzle from within the closed doors, without cold and without wet. Only the sound splattered on the wooden deck and the drops trickled down the glass windows. The old hills exhibited new colours; in some places new waterfalls sprung out and the clouds started to dissolve as it poured.
Once the sky was clearer, we decided to explore a few natural trails around the loch. International Youth Hostel was just outside of our holiday park, on the foothills of Ben Lomond. It is as peaceful as a forest and yet very close to the road. On one side the view opens to a loch with a dock for ferry taxis, and on the other side was the path to Ben Lomond. Up and up it went, for a few miles, as if touching the clouds, like the beard of a man in his fifties, slightly white and slightly grey, entangled into each other with no definite proportions.
The more I looked towards Ben Lomond, the more I got intrigued. I wanted to climb it and see what was beyond the clouds. Probably there was another milestone to reach for it was a long long walk to the top of Ben Lomond. I surely was curious but I did not have the right gear. Soon it was going to rain and I would be not ready to face the harshness. I cuddled it through my eyes and decided to walk back. It was a bit sad walk while going back but not a long one. I opened up another Beer on the dining table, along with some Punjabi beats to uplift my mood again. As the sun set further down, I rolled back through the day in my head. The Clansman bar must be full of Scotch lovers cosily sitting by the fireplace. The Rowardannan Hotel, by any chance do they serve Indian Food? I doubt them. How very exciting it would have been if I was in one of the caravan parks, along with a tent. It would have been perfect to pitch it under the stars now. But the clouds are being nasty again, so I guess Hoot is just perfectly warm for me. Besides, I have never stayed in a wooden lodge before. All the thoughts kept running through my mind like a fast speed bullet train. This is a place I would visit again in this life. Don’t know when but I am hopelessly optimistic about it. And what adds to my hope is the Youth Hostel in the vicinity. They only cost 20 Pounds per night for a dormitory accommodation (and 23 pounds for non members). Sadly they do not rent out bikes but they compensate by being located on the foot of Ben Lomond. And around next time, I am not stepping out without the trek gear, I whispered to myself before slipping into my sleep mode.
Day four arrived with sunshine, accompanied with a lot of wind. We were yet to decide our plan of action for the day. It was a bright day to explore the vicinity; we could have taken a walk on one of the few natural trails in the forests. There was one besides the loch; another one was into the forest reserve and a few more circular trails which were long. I surely wanted to be in the jungle but I also longed to witness the city around. Since, there was no major town in our vicinity we decided to touch upon the local culture by driving to the nearest village. Drymen, a local town, twelve miles away from Rowardannan is a cute little thing that exists on the outskirts of the forest reserve. We parked our car in one of the local car parks and started to walk around. It was a weekday and so the children were busy at school. The walls of this primary school were not high, they were bricked to a level where the little ones could simply lean against and gaze at the outside world. Their smiles attracted us to them; we moved forward and exchanged greetings. Soon the lunch break got over and they had to run back to fall in queues. There is never an enough site of happy children, full of energy and freedom. While the kids were having a busy day at school, the nannies and the grannies were enjoying the sunlit day with their pets. It is one of the most common sights to see people walking with their pets, looks like a moment of de-stress in their lives. The happy heart is extended to the pets and also to the oldies of the town here. As I walked forward I came across the public community hall where there are held weekly meetings for fighting against dementia and depression. People are encouraged to spend time with the oldies by making it a part time profession. Young blood can bring the positive energies to the lives of the others, they feel.
On walking a little further down the road, I saw the cutest bicycle shop ever. It was a shop painted red, with some really groovy bicycles hanging around. There were merchandise too, like coffee mugs with bicycle handles on the sides, the dry fit jerseys and many other things. But it was mainly the bikes that were sturdy. Across the road there was a garden where we sat on the bench and ate our sandwiches. Suddenly we were in the picnic mode, but with a lot of quiet. We maintained the quiet ourselves and focussed just on our sandwiches and juice followed by the chocolates. No one seemed to take notice of us. There were hardly any humans seen around, most of them kept busy with their work. And then we saw a few backpackers walking around, giving a touristy feel to the place. At first, they seemed to have lost their way but soon they picked up bicycles from the red shop and made their way. I was astonished to see that the shop did anything and everything related to biking, even rent some of them. And when I took my eyes off this shop, suddenly my eyes fell upon the Drymen Village Shop. I took no time to see what was inside a village shop. It was quite clear to me by now that villages in India and villages in Europe have a totally different outlook. Inside the Drymen Village Shop, there were souvenirs and other cultural nuggets that reflected Scotland in every ounce. Scottish bread, scotch blends, picture postcards with yak on them, the red cheque hats; every little thing there said to us – Take home a little bit of Scotland, with you! And I could not resist buying the postcards from there. It was the best place to send memories home. And with a bag full of memories myself, we drove back to the Hoot. On the way back, we took a break in the Sallochy car park and fed bread to the ducks.
The energies of the forest and the whispering of the winds in my ears convinced me to enter the green tunnel. The trees were dancing to the tunes of the wind, the water of the loch was singing along with the wind, and I was the witness to this mesmerizing show of the nature. I along with my silence took that path, the one that was visible only for a mile. And the rest of it was a hunt for a treasure. The hidden treasure that was glorious, the one that is found again and again and again, but only on these paths, in the fragrance of the loch, in the fall of the leaves, in the chirping of the birds and above all in the silence of the nature. I decided to get lost into the divine and fearlessly walked in. In no time, I had lost the network zone, any human sight or contact and was all by myself. There was some sort of curiosity as I climbed up, and slowly some fear also peeped in, what if this is not the way. The arrows helped but they were only a few. The sun was going down, adding more to my anxiety. The natural surroundings were calming me down but being alone was making me freak a bit. I took a deep breath and poured all my senses into what was around me. There came a moment, when it felt beautiful and in that very moment I knew there is nothing to be scared of. There were no assumptions, no hypothesis as to what would happen. I left myself on the mercy of nature and I know someone up there had a close watch on me. For the next two hours I walked on the path, a few drops of rain also fell on me. On one of the turns I found myself closer to the loch. I could see a larger part of loch from this edge and it was here that I took a sigh, Bingo! I was on the right path. But it was miles to go before I would be back to the human settlements. I crossed a bereft old hay factory, which was now a part of the forest. It belonged to old Mr Bill, he who did not seem to be bothered about it anymore. As I crossed it, I met an American couple hiking into the forest. We exchanged glances and for a moment wondered as to why are we the only ones here. It was quite a popular trail but none to be found here. That is probably the beauty of Scottish forests, there are people around but they do not bump into you so easily. There are enough routes and channels to get lost and then be found again. We never met again and yet reassured each other of the presence. Soon after I hit the main road and left the forest behind me. It was a long and tiresome walk, once I was back on the road, I took charge of my senses again to be careful on the road. Rowardannan was just around the corner, a few steps away from the exit. I gladly paved my way towards the Hoot and with a big smile on my face, entered in.
Day five, I woke up with the thought of soon saying good bye to this place. It has been going pretty well till now but as they say all good things have to come to an end. Nevertheless, today was not the end. Today was another unplanned day which we did not want to spend inside the lodge. The weather was unpredictable but still left some hope for us. Hope for no rains. By now, we had become well versed with the kitchen and breakfast skills came in like a quickie. The eggs and bacon were ready, all we had to do was toast some bread with butter. On the breakfast table, the discussion was all about the rest of the day.
The important question to ask was if we wanted a long drive or a shorter one would suffice. Some of us still wanted to walk more and explore on foot. Internet was reaching out to us in bits and pieces and we were making judicious use of it. A safari park nearby popped up on doing a closer research. The public reviews of it also seemed very positive. For us, it meant a perfect blend of driving and walking. Till the park, it wasn’t a very long drive, suited us aptly for the day and within the park we walked around quite a bit. Located in the Stirling area, it was a one hour drive from the Hoot. We didn’t pack much food along, except for the munchies. Rains distorted us for quite some time but as we purchased the tickets, the day gradually started to brighten up. I was astonished to see that they handed us the map of the park, it was the first time ever that I was going for a safari. To call it a zoo would definitely be an understatement. The natural stance was maintained here by a huge team, making it a grand show in itself. From Asian to African, all sorts of animals and birds, big or small are stationed here. There are wild animals, calm animals, never moving animals (rhino), always busy eating animals(elephants), show presenting animals(sea lion show), animals across the river(apes), free spirited animals, anything that you may think of, is found here. The only drawback is that each time you have to park the car to visit the bay. Though it was a good walk, it was a bit too tedious at times. It would have been a little bit more fun had it been possible to take the car a bit closer, we could just roll down the window and say hello.
But never mind the walking, I had not seen so many animals in one place before. The drive from Stirling to Rowardennan is a straight one. It feels like put your favourite music on and put the car on cruise control. Enjoy the view on the sides and munch your muffin while looking at the odd shapes of the clouds. As we reached back to our cottage, we were slightly tired and slightly sad. Tired from the day’s walking and sad about this being the last day of our holiday. Tomorrow will be the last sunrise that I will see over the loch, I said to myself. Without much a thought, I put myself to sleep, cuddled under the blanket.
As we started our journey on Saturday, some jolly good thoughts hovered over my mind. Past few days were really the days that I always dreamt of while sitting back in India. The Scottish hills are one of the firsts that I have seen, apart from Himalayas, though they are more comparable to the Western Ghats of India. They are stout and dry but the monsoonal rains fill them up. They do not hold any of the mythological or warrior stories within themselves but they do hold the spirit of climbers, walkers, lovers, and the tiny feet who would run to reach to the top. The feeling of being an achiever remains strong, irrespective of the continental plate that we stand upon. The mountain chest always welcomes the human feet. The color of the hay fields change every few miles. From light golden to dark brown their expanse is huge. But they are rolled up uniform, they are placed equidistant. They are sturdy, they are cute. The end of the field meets the blue end of the sky and they make for a perfect background for a portrait picture. Hence, we stopped the car and posed. With the glares and without the glares, with pouts and big eyes, of smiles and curiosity, candid and perfected, individual and family picture; everything happened on this trip. After all it was a holiday, the one with regular stuff made excited with our stories.