Wednesday, December 15, 2010

UK Trip

Mind the gap! WAY OUT.

We find ourselves in London, using at last the round trip tickets we won a year and a half ago in a raffle at the St. George’s Ball in Beirut. We were delayed 45 minutes leaving Beirut due to “mist” on the ground in London, then another 40 minutes circling outside London, another 15 minutes on the ground waiting to pull in, then 30 minutes in the passport line. Civilisation.

At last, navigating the Tube to the hotel, and back to the Tube, we made it to Westminster Abbey in time for Evensong: fabulous! An all male choir, sopranos about 10 years old, and in a church where services have been held for 1,000 years!

The next day, news of Kate and Wills’ engagement breaks and she visits Westminster to scope it out as a wedding venue.

We visit the Tower of London, where in its chapel lie the headless bodies of Thomas More (1535) and Lady Jane Gray (1554) among others. We see the crown jewels. And on to the British Museum. Here is T admiring some Etruscan art.

Aside from the more obvious sights, pub life is high on our list of “to-dos” during our short visit. T wants to try "pulled ale". Hand pumping produces a more fragile, less fizzy brew from a barrel that must be used within 24 hours or pitched. And then there is single malt scotch for the lady J. I had looked into visiting a distillery in Scotland to learn how it is made, but the timing didn’t work out. Ah well.

Off to Glasgow, a little colder and windier but still no rain. T eats sausages and we buy shortbread in an effort to grow a layer of protective winter fat…

On a train northward toward the family home of the McCallum clan and Tom’s great-grandfather, we whiz by the indeed bonny banks of Loch Lomond. The land starts to grow hilly.

I remark how, after Lebanon, the UK appears so orderly, efficient, clean. There is lots of signage as in the US (though not as much) but signs and warnings don’t treat one as a complete idiot, or perhaps one ready to sue.

The highlands of central Scotland are lovely. Sparsely populated, punctuated by large and small lochs (lakes) and commanding hills, a few with hints of snow on top this mid-November. From the train we spot a stag along the hillside near the track, then a doe. A stag features prominently in the McCallum crest, and T takes the sighting as a good sign.

Indeed, the next day was magical. Sunny skies, little wind. We met the Laird of the McCallum clan, who spoke to us of his journey in 1940 at age 6 by ship to the US. The boat behind his was torpedoed by the Germans, in error as it was the one carrying German POWs.

His mother was serving in British Army intelligence and his father in the Middle East as part of the Argyll Southern Highland regiment. He lived in California for the duration of the war.

The castle is striking, though not large. In a stunning setting, on a loch, around the bend from the Bay of Tears where thousands of crofters were cleared from their lands in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tom’s ancestors left during the late 1800s for Australia for a generation, then his grandfather set off to Kentucky to attend seminary.

We see another McCallum family home, large, stone, abandoned earlier this century when the roof needed major repair. Keeping up the castle is costly. The room where the laird chatted with us was warm and stuffed with antiques.

After leaving the laird we visited a church in the middle of, well, nowhere, built with “Jamaica money” (money earned from the slave trade) by some Malcolm or other . A Scottish Episcopal church, it still holds services today—you have to pass through two cattle/sheep gates to reach it.

Nearby is the village of Kilmarten Glen. The area is known for its ancient standing stone circles and cairns dating from 3000 BC. It is not known why they were carved or what they represent. As we leave the area the next day we visit Achinabreac with its 5000 year old concentric circles carved in stone on a hilltop with a sweeping view, a sea loch in the distance.

A sign: “Oncoming traffic in middle of road”. There is no shoulder at all in these parts, and in fact stone walls lie just alongside the narrow, hilly roadway. Quite challenging driving—T does well. Plus the countryside is so scenic, one does want to let the eye wander.

Next, a wonderful brief interlude at Crianlarich (I know how to pronounce these places now!). We had an hour between trains and no warm place to wait at the station, so we asked a guy in a passing truck if there is a place to get a “real ale” and he promptly offered to drive us to the nearby Crianlarich Hotel. Alas, no pulled ale, but K, after expressing enthusiasm for single malt scotch, gets talked into trying a 30 year old limited edition variety. The waiter was so enthusiastic… It actually didn’t seem all that wonderful to me, but we made the lad’s day. Crianlarich seemed a lovely little town, but we are back on the train heading to Ft. William and a one night stop there.

On the menu in Ft. William, in the fine print: “Game dishes may contain buckshot.” T orders haggis, neeps and tatties, which he enjoys. K notes that every restaurant seems to have at least one imaginative veggie dish; vegetarianism seems to be taken quite seriously here. E.g. at the Ben Nevis in Ft. William: goat’s cheese butternut squash spinach and tomato lasagna.

In a bus to Inverness next day, we pass along Loch Ness. It is not yet 2 pm but seems to be near sunset. The Loch is long and narrow. We drive along it at some speed for nearly 30 minutes. The secenery is lovely, few houses, hills on either side of the water, rocky, remains of a castle, some vacation houses, B&Bs, black faced sheep.

Inverness is our last stop. I am sad! The next morning we stand in the dark morning quiet in the village of Ardesier outside Inverness, waiting for the first bus of the day, which will take us to Inverness airport. There is a Church of Scotland across the street. The village sleeps. Bonny, bonny Scotland.