It was the start of the first full week of Mum’s visit, and the first time since her arrival that we would leave Cambridge. Our plan was to head down to London for the day, for a bit of sightseeing, and a bit of cultural experience. We walked to the train station; not having a bike in Cambridge is a little more difficult. There, we took the train down to London, and took the Victoria line across London from Tottenham Hale. Having just spent the last 6 months of her life on a remote island, the hustle and bustle of the tube seemed to overwhelm Mum a little, but she coped well.
We got out at Vauxhall to get the South West Trains train to Hampton Court. I had booked an hour to play tennis, which meant that both Mum and I could go in the back way to the palace. I had played here before, some months ago, and so I knew the way in. The guard saw my tennis racquet and let us go through, no identification checks required. As it turns out, we had arrived an hour too early, which gave us some time to check out the palace and gardens, and to get a bit of lunch. I didn’t play my best tennis, but really enjoyed that a court that is nearing 500 years old still manages to play consistently. Throughout the match, there were groups of schoolchildren walking through the viewing galleries. Fortunately, the glass wall helped keep some of there sound out, but they seemed greatly excited whenever I acknowledge their presence when changing ends.
Mum and I left the palace and caught a pair of buses to another famous west-London Landmark: Kew Gardens. Coming from a family steeped in horticulture, it was a place that I would figure she would enjoy. It was near the end of the visiting day when we arrived, so we didn’t have quite as long as we would have liked to fully explore, but we nonetheless made the most of it, wandering in and out of the greenhouse galleries, and heading up to the treetop walk in the latter moments of the opening times. Together, we recounted which plants were familiar from home; either because they were Australian natives or that they had been introduced from Europe. It was mid-autumn, so there was still plenty of colour about as the leaves were falling.
We took a District Line train from Kew Gardens all the way across London to Tower Hill. There, we met up at a Lebanese restaruant with Annalise and some of her friends from New Zealand. Over a year ago, she had put in an application for tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. This ancient ceremony closes the Tower for the evening and has been running uninterrupted for roughly some seven centuries. The ceremony is open to the public, the price is only notional, but only a limited number are allowed in. When it transpired that Annalise’s ticket dates corresponded to my mother’s visit, we agreed that she should come along as well. All told, there were six of us: Jacqueline, Annalise, Jake, Steven, my mother and I. We met at the designated time outside the front of the gates, and were met there by a Yeomen Warder who directed us inside. A quick bag check later, and we were standing by the Traitor’s Gate ready for the ceremony. The Warder instructed us on what was about to happen, and then left us to join the ceremony himself, under strict instruction not to take any photographs.
The ceremony proceeded as it had for the last few hundred years. A military escort came marching along and was joined by the Chief Yeoman Warder, who go together and lock each of the gates in turn. As they marched back, they were challenged by a sentry, who aggressively pointed his rifle at the escort, yelling the refrain: “Halt! Who goes there”, to which the response “The Keys” is met with a query “Whose keys?”. After declaring “Queen Elizabeth’s keys”, the sentry allows the escort to pass, stating “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s keys. All’s well”. We followed the escort up through to the base of the White Tower, where a bugle played the Last Post, before the escort marched back off to the barracks. Afterwards, our Yeoman Warder stayed behind for several minutes to answer our questions about the Tower, the Ceremony and the Yeoman Warders themselves. We thanked him for the experience and left, heading back to the train station for a late night train back to Cambridge.
On the Tuesday and Wednesday of Mum’s visit, I still had to go to work and continue my usual routine. She went off and explored part of the city on her own, making use of the cafes and city library to do some private study and reading herself. We did meet up for lunch and dinner where we could, and enjoyed each others company in the evenings. On Tuesday, we went to the GSCR, where Mum gave a short presentation on what it was like living in a lighthouse.
On Thursday morning, Mum, Jacqueline and I joined Annalise and headed to Stansted airport. We were heading to Scotland for a weekend away from the craziness of Cambridge and London, on the hopefully peaceful Isle of Skye. Our flight took us to Edinburgh, where we went and picked up our hire car. The airport is on the outskirts of the city, so we headed straight onto the motorway and out into the country. For much of the day, we were retracing the steps of our first Scottish road trip a year ago with Krittika.
Our first stop again was at the Falkirk Wheel. This is Britain’s only rotating boat lift: it lifts canal boats much higher than any lock could. We arrived to see it much the same as it had been last year, and wandered around a little to explore it. We were just about to leave when finally a boat came into the lift, and we did get to show Mum a full rotation of the wheel.
We continued driving, stopping for lunch in the town of Callander, the same as last time too. We even parked in the same place. However, we opted for a different restaurant, getting our first real taste of Scottish food, though Mum didn’t really want to try the haggis. And so on we drove, through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The road between the Bridge of Orchy and Glencoe was stunning, and a pleasure to drive. Our next stop was in Fort William, to stretch our legs, and we arrived with perfect timing to see the Jacobite steam train pulling into the station.
The train ran between Fort William and our ultimate destination for the day, at Mallaig, but we were in a car and not on the railway tracks. Halfway between the two is the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, which curves across a valley overlooking Loch Shiel. It has been made famous by featuring prominently in the Harry Potter films and on some Scottish banknotes. We got out of our car and walked up to the viaduct, and we were timed well enough that we got to see not one, but two trains crossing the viaduct; one in each direction. The view from up near the viaduct was unenviable; Scotland looks picturesque from every angle, so long as there isn’t fog.
We drove on to Morar, where our hotel was for the night, and checked in. It was an old hotel, just opposite the railway line, that seemed too big for its current usage. We drove on a little further to Mallaig to get food from one of the local pubs.
The next day, we got up early and ate our few items of food we had obtained from the supermarket, before driving down to the ferry terminal in Mallaig. We were going to go by ferry the five miles across to the Isle of Skye. The lower deck of the ferry was for the cars, and there was an observation deck above. We set sail, but the day was very foggy, and we could not see much more than a few hundred metres. There was also a lot of cold wind and swell, so we were all blown and rocked about. A few times, the swell was so great that the wave came up onto the car deck. It was a lot of wild fun.
Once on the Isle of Skye, we drove the short distance to the Armadale Castle, the historic, yet burnt out castle that was the home to the former clans on the island. There was also a museum there that told the story of the history of the clans and people on the island, that Mum in particular found interesting. From there, we drove deeper into the island, stopping at the town of Broadford for lunch at a cafe. Then we drove on through the town of Sligachan and headed for the Fairy Pools. This was a series of rock pools that ran in a stream down from the tops of the mountains in the south of the Isle that reflected pretty blues and greens. We found a park in the undeveloped car park, where a volunteer was collecting donations for a new car park, and headed out to the pools. However, the first section of the pools required fording a stream, for which we took off our shoes and walked barefoot. From here up, the stream followed a narrow gorge, with a series of waterfalls, rock pools and gorges. All of it was fantastic to look at, but far too cold to swim in. It was set with a great backdrop of the mountains above and a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
We headed up the east coast of the island to our B&B, just outside the town of Staffin. There wasn’t much to see in the town, except our little B&B, a few houses dotted around, and a recreation centre that served food in the evenings.
We would spend the next day mostly in the northern part of the island. After a Scottish breakfast in the B&B, we headed for a rock feature known as the Old Man of Storr. The rock stood out from the escarpment, and was meant to over-look the sea, but it was very foggy. We climbed up the mountainside, firstly along a path, but it became more of a scramble near the top. There probably was a right way to go, but we didn’t find it. It was wet and windy up there, and we eventually reached the base of the rock, but couldn’t even see its top. Cold and wet, we made our way back down, and drove back towards Sligachan to check out a nice old bridge and maybe see some otters. Needless to say, we were out of luck, so drove back up towards Staffin.
Our final stop for the day was at Kilt Rock and the Mealt Falls. This was a waterfall on the edge of the cliff face, where the water simply fell off the land and straight into the sea. It was a really strange sight to see, but still absolutely mesmerising. We spent most of that evening in our B&B, relaxing, and watching the coverage of the local shinty on the TV. Again, we had dinner at the local rec centre.
On our final full day on the Isle of Skye, we wanted to go and see the Point Neist Lighthouse. This was on the far western point of the island, so we would have some driving to do. Firstly, we climbed the road that lead to the Quiraing, a beautiful climb on a narrow road with hairpins near the top and picturesque views all around. We took the inland road, and above most else, were just enjoying the road trip. After an hours driving, we finally arrived at the lighthouse car park, though the lighthouse itself was a short walk further, down the cliff face and around a hill. It really felt like the edge of the world, even though we could see the Outer Hebredies beyond the seas. Though the lighthouse was great, the location was amazing. We explored the cable haulway and boat crane, before heading back to the car and drove back to Portree for a late meal.
Annalise had found one last place to check out before heading home: the Fairy Glen near the town of Uig. The glen was a small section of rolling hills and a lake, which had a sharp, narrow hill in the middle that looked like it had just been designed for a photo album. We stopped and ran around for a while, Annalise taking great delight in the dogs that were hanging around. Mostly, we just played with the camera and enjoyed the great scenery, before driving back over the island to our B&B one final time.