Today, I fancied a change of pace from the explosive misery of current affairs.
Last summer, whilst attempting to plan a holiday amidst the chaos, I realised an unprecedented (who else enjoyed the overuse of that word?) opportunity for a ‘staycation’, remaining in the British Isles. Contemplating a typical escape to the Mediterranean was fraught with unusual danger.
Instead, opting for a road trip, I wandering the various sights afforded by the British Isles. Ultimately having decided against flying altogether, I explored hidden gems too often neglected, accessible with only a short drive. Trying to optimise travel restrictions, I embarked upon a tour of the United Kingdom.
Beginning in Padstow, my ‘staycation’ extended towards Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, before a cross-country drive to Kirriemuir, and then finally heading south once more, towards the opposite coast from my start, in Aldeburgh. Here are the highlights (and some lowlights).
One key goal of ours (I was accompanied by my girlfriend) was wild camping, which is perhaps not so adventurous as the name might imply. In principle, you locate a viable and suitably attractive site to pitch your tent, without the glamorous resources of a typical campsite at your disposal. The caveats obviously being, you can’t be on private property, or utterly destroy the site during your stay. Simple enough. Wild camping is also permitted in many places, including the entirety of Scotland.
It can be spectacularly beautiful, relaxing and seclusive. Dartmoor was certainly one of those three. Sadly, as a first experience with wild camping, it was remarkably… rowdy. Effectively, exploiting the good weather with no official to monitor their behaviour, it appeared plenty of others agreed Dartmoor was the place to be, and wild camping the activity. Feeling considerably more like a collective, outdoor drinking session, it was unfortunately cluttered with litter and wanton campers flouting guidelines.
Unsurprisingly, wild camping has been temporarily banned, which is a great shame.
Enjoying an afternoon coffee in the beautiful city of Exeter, we sadly could not stay long enough. By the restrictions of our schedule, we were soon on the road to Bath. There, despite understandably muted nightlife, we enjoyed a fantastic meal out, concluding our night before Pulteney Bridge. The following morning, we briskly walked a section of Bath’s skyline route, which proved a surprisingly stimulating way to quickly break from the city, and enter surrounding fields. It was a lovely city, with both a quaint youthful atmosphere.
Next journeying to the Peak District for three nights, we opted to detour past Crickley Hill, a viewpoint affording a stunning panorama of the Malverns, holding up against the splendour of the Peaks themselves. Never having visited the Peak District before, I was amazed by the scale of beautiful, rolling hills nestled in the centre of England. Our campsite was a serene gem, generally noiseless, and neatly situated close to Stanage Edge, notable for Pride and Prejudice filming (though not why we went), and Hathersage Ridge, two spectacular, long walks.
The peaks also boast a network of caves which, had they been open to visitors, we might have explored. Whilst most are underground, and additionally secured behind costly entrance fees, the ‘Devil’s Anus’ is an impressive sight, visible from the exterior, fantastically nestled within a picturesque village.
We stayed two nights in Manchester, with sadly little to do, owing to COVID closures. The city itself was interesting to explore, boasting numerous chic independent shops and cafes. Overall, my impression was of a gentrifying steamroller having buried the industrial core under heaps of slightly forced bourgeois energy. It kinda works.
This preceded our excursion into the Lake District, and the trip’s first stumbling block for our enthusiasm. Parked at the base of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, our day had two aims: climb the summit, then descend and identify a location suitable for another wild camp. The day of my virtual graduation, which proceeded with an approximate 10% attendance, I indeed stood atop Scafell, peering through occasional breaks in the cloud at undeniably impressive views, whenever they were exposed. The climb is reasonably challenging, involving a river crossing that, yes, will get your shoes wet. But certainly nothing to baulk at. Which was good, because, unbeknownst to us, the day was far from over.
Completely foolishly, we had no concrete plans for the evening, or even any pre-prepared notion of where we would stay. By complete chance, in conversation with a local, we were directed to the elusive Sprinkling Tarn, assured it lay a short 45-minute walk through a corridor that traversed the lower flanks of Great Gable. It did not. After three hours of climbing, laden with all our camping equipment, we finally reached a body of water, which could have been Sprinkling Tarn, or somewhere else completely. Regardless, we pitched, ate, and climbed inside our thin, single-layered tent. As a gentle rain began, I ironically remarked how soothing that sound might be as we slept.
That night, we endured more rain than I have ever experienced in my entire life. It was a colossal downpour of biblical proportions, intermittently hailing, and hurling an onslaught of water surely unmatched by any hurricane. The howling winds threatened at every stage to genuinely uproot us, slapping saturated tent fabric against our faces. We could do nothing but sit, sleeplessly, in the centre and wish fervently for morning. After nearly twelve hours of unrelenting rain, we stepped outside to discover a fresh, new river, flowing through and under our tent, to complete our thorough drenching. We left with the earliest convenience of daylight.
Mercifully, our next night was indoors, and, whilst gratefully warming ourselves, we were forced to debate continuing with feeble resources. Our next day involved a short trip to the Isle of Arran, quickly restoring our moods for, overlooking the mild 20˚ temperatures, it almost seemed we had arrived in Greece after all. Brodick captured an utterly surreal beauty, of long, sandy beaches caressed by sparkling, clear waters that was to be characteristic of all the islands. The terrain quickly launching into rolling hills, we were flanked by deep forest glades.
We would soon by thwarted by our lack of preparation once more. Looking to Loch Lomond for wild camping accommodation, consults on the internet assured us that, whilst the East bank does not welcome campers, it was perfectly possible on the West side. The reality was less certain, largely because no ground seemed suitable. Conceding defeat after several hours of searching, we ventured alongside the shores of Loch Awe, an equally impressive expanse of water. Here, we were even promised a series of short walks after searching online, though again, discovered website suggestions did not correspond with reality, thus beginning a common theme. Much of the blame was on us, but online assistance frequently proved inconceivably and frustratingly misleading.
The Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides are a series of remote islands situated off the North-West Scottish coast – embarrassingly, before I visit, I probably couldn’t locate them on a map. At times spectacular, occasionally bleak, always subject to volatile weather conditions, I ultimately possess mixed feelings. They were the original inspiration for our trip, after we saw incredible pictures from the Isle of Lewis, and in most instances the landscape did not disappoint.
Generally, each island is characterised by expansive, rocky terrain morphing into rolling hills, encircled by gorgeous, long sandy beaches, with each seemingly exhibiting a unique flair: Barra had remarkable beaches, South Uist was low-lying, North Uist was forested. Harris and Lewis were distinctly more population, but every island affords incredible solitude.
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Why wild camping? If you’re wondering, why wild camping? In a tent? Stay tuned – I promise it redeems itself. As with mainland Scotland, the Outer Hebrides permit wild camping anywhere you might desire (that’s not private or specifically excluded). This generates fantastic opportunities for a truly unforgettable holiday! In the volatile wilderness of the… Continue Reading →
The land is blissfully untamed, acres of soggy scrubland making for spectacular viewing. It notably, however, means available activities are limited. Even way-marked or pathed walks are elusive, but its within that undisturbed nature that the unique charm of the Outer Hebrides can be found.
Oban to Castlebay, Barra, was our first connection, rough five hours by ferry. We had one night, spend camping on Vatersay Beach. A lovely stretch of sand overlooking astoundingly clear (and almost warm!) water, it made for a convenient and beautiful location. It was also close to the town hall, which offers shower facilities, should they be required. We drove a lap of the island in under an hour, which was fun, and caught the last rays of an impressive sunset.
The Uists, conjoined by causeways, were our next destination after Barra. Our first night, we enjoyed the luxuries of a campsite to break a wild camping streak, which was increasingly becoming a necessity… Quiet, and again wrapped by sparkling sea, the Uists were an enjoyable stop on the trip.
In the South, Loch Druidibeag is the site of a very pretty nature reserve, with an accessible and way-marked walking route. Later that day, we detoured to the Isle of Flodaigh, a small outcrop attached by bridge. Whilst the entire island is inhabited by a gamut of wildlife species, it was here we first encountered, very close, Grey and Common seals. Had they been operating, we might have also taken one of the many ‘marine life’ boat trips available from any of the Hebridean islands.
Perhaps my favourite evening of the entire trip was spent the following night on the shores of Loch Langais, close to Langass Lodge. A pocket of mercifully midge-free tranquillity, the loch was gorgeous, reflecting the entire universe in its silky sheen, and gifted us a stunning sunrise the subsequent morning.
Dozing in the cool air whilst the light grew stronger, we eventually journeyed into the surrounding hills, and stumbled upon Hercules the Bear, in Langass community woodland. Fans of Bond’s ‘Octopussy’ might recognise Hercules, who briefly escaped captivity and freely roamed the Hebrides for three weeks in the 1980’s.
Exploring the romantic side of North Uist also took us to Traigh Lingeigh Beach, a lovely expanse of white beach reaching round the coast for miles. On a raised platform, there also stands an informal campsite, which proved fantastically convenient.
Our Outer Hebridean excursion was concluded by the Isles of Harris and Lewis, home to a vast array of incredible beaches, many of which enjoyed the pleasure of our company as we wild camped. First, we had another campsite-bound night, off Loch Stockinish in Harris, in the beautifully secluded Lickisto Blackhouse Campsite – highly recommended. Following the 14-mile Coffin Trail from it was an interesting walk, with a depth of morbid history: occupants of this rocky side of the island were forced to make this arduous pilgrimage burdened with deceased love ones in order to bury them.
Having already caught snatched glimpses of eagles during our trip, we hiked to the Eagle Observatory in Harris, located in the heart of a breeding pair’s territory. Though we couldn’t sight them, plenty of records in the observatory hut confirmed they were active!
The famous Callinish stones, assumed to be ancient tombs dating back to the Bronze Age, can be found on the Isle of Lewis. Alongside visiting Dun Carloway Broch, we spent a morning exploring the lore of these old rocks. Honestly, a bit underwhelming, but then I thought the same of Stonehenge.
Our last destination of note on the Isle of Lewis was Stornoway, the most major town, more populated than the entire rest of the Outer Hebrides. Here, the Stornoway Castle grounds are worth a visit, offering fantastic walking opportunities. Be warned that, on Sundays, the entire town of Stornoway shuts.
We completed our road trip with a cross-country visit to the Cairngorms, before finally embarking upon a major journey south, to reach Aldeburgh on the east English coast. I was very thankful to be able to travel this summer, and gain a considerably greater appreciation for the geography of my own country. The Outer Hebrides are certainly not without their attractions, feeling quintessentially unexplored and exciting. This trip has undeniably reignited my love of camping, and developed a renewed love for the British countryside.
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