Scotland & The Lake District
Brewster Scholarship 2018 Travel Diary – Hannah Lee
Originally the plan was to make a non-stop tour, weaving through Scotland and National Trust areas. But given the time constraints of moving in and out of the UK for the summer, the trip was split into two legs. June provided time to travel up to Scotland and spend a good amount of time on the Isle of Skye before moving out of Oxford. I was then able to see out the rest of my travel plan in September. For the trip to Scotland, I also had the pleasant surprise of being accompanied by my sister who always had a mind to visit the Isle of Skye. Pairing up made for a richer experience since I was better equipped to navigate the area. Thanks to her resourcefulness, we were able to rent a car at a discount, which provided some more flexibility and better access to sights.
After a short morning flight from London to Glasgow, we picked up the car and headed straight for Portree, which would become more or less a touchpoint for the rest of the time on the island. On the way up, we took a brief pause at Fort William. After realizing we missed the time to see the Jacobite steam train cross the Glennfinan Viaduct, we continued northward. Since I had neither read nor seen any of the Harry Potter series, this wasn’t too much of a disappointment to me. Six to seven hours passed swiftly enough, since both of us are used to that length of car travel after rounds of driving up and down the I-5 highway from Berkeley to Los Angeles. We arrived in Portree by early evening, found the youth hostel and mostly wandered around the salt marshes since we would be leaving early the next morning for a day of hiking. We enjoyed some fish and chips at Stuart’s fry stand, which, for all my reluctance towards stereotypical fare, was actually pretty good and fresh. A kind man seated next to us on the picnic bench offered to let us try his Irn Bru and lamented Skye’s uncharacteristic dryness. After dinner, the small Co-op was luckily still open and we grabbed some snacks for the road. While endless summer light could have kept us up late into the night, the shared hostel room was well shuttered and falling asleep was not an issue.
Around 6am the next morning, we first set out for Quiraing. Getting to the site a bit earlier paid off as there were less tourists and the trail was relatively loose with people before the 10am influx. We admittedly felt a bit smug on the way back down to the parking lot seeing a line of cars trying to edge their way in. The sunlight glinting through the thin gray clouds was an auspicious sign and soon enough we were shedding jumpers and windbreakers. Quiraing was a good way to start a walking day: a moderate hike with the instant gratification of photo-worthy views and just enough incline to feel somewhat accomplished. Some ridges around the ‘Prison’ provided a nice viewpoint to pause and capture what our backs had been turned to. We were able to bypass scrambling up the steeper, gravelly paths adjacent to the ‘Prison’ or the ‘Needle’ by continuing along the broad slope to their side. This eventually brought us down to a turn that led up the cliff’s edge. The height from the cliff provided aerial views for more than enough pictures of the velvety green range of escarpments, the coastline and nearby islands. I would have happily lingered for a bit longer but after a short break we headed back down to get to the Old Man of Storr.
On the way south, we stopped by Mealt Falls. It was a convenient stop on the drive down the shoreline, but it was a bit difficult to see the falls, due to the angle of the viewing point and position of the railing. Unsurprisingly by the time we got to the Old Man of Storr, the trail was pretty busy. As the man the night before had commented, the sun was only good for so much. We were expecting changeability of weather and a little more dampness being so far north. While we were grateful that we didn’t have to tramp around with soggy feet, the sky was almost a little too clear. There were a lot of people. It was a relatively sweaty uphill ascent through dry, shaved woodland, weaving around slower walkers. Perhaps it was just determination to get past the busyness and reach the ‘Old Man’ but it was a pretty silent trek save for some panting. Satisfied after seeing the unique rock spindle, we turned around pretty quickly and headed back down.
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to Portree. We had guiltily subsisted on Haribo to power through our walks so were ready for something at least slightly more nutritious. After speeding through the Co-op (not by necessity but due to its small size), we hopped back in the car and drove slightly North-west to Borve. Next to Cnoc Ard cottage, there are a few very lovely and reasonably priced pods especially when split between multiple people. It felt quite luxurious settling into the mini house, fully equipped with kitchen, bathroom and pull-out bed. To add to that, we had green fields for backyard patio view and a few cows and sheep for neighbors. We were so looking forward to lounging outside with our dinner of beans and toast to enjoy the quiet evening and stretch out our legs. While the pod is amazingly efficient with space, it wasn’t our intention to stay inside it. But the midges were something terrible. We had been alerted to the midges beforehand, but it was my fault. I had been tasked with ordering Smidge the Midge before the trip but had completely forgotten before it was too late. We had a chance to hunt down some repellent whilst in Portree but deliberated against it since they had then seemed non-existent. Wrong. After some time of swatting this way and that we had enough, went into the pod and shut the door.
The next day we drove down to Elgol for a short boat trip to Loch Coruisk. Along the way, we were alerted to some caves, where Flora MacDonald had apparently hidden Charles Edward Stuart as he escaped to France. Near the mooring point, there were hoards of seals and some young pups, who seemed to wave as we sailed past. We then had a couple hours to explore the area around the Loch and take a dip in the cold water. After some walking, we planted ourselves on a rocky plateau. To memorialize the trip and get visual access to areas we couldn’t walk, my sister brought her drone. It seemed a shame to leave such a beautiful place without getting a more aerial view of the Cuillin Ridge. But at the same time, it was pretty clear that the incessant buzz of the drone was disturbing some tourists around us. And somehow the sound seemed to reverberate even more distinctly within the space of the Loch in contrast to places, where the type of terrain or wind seemed to absorb more of the sound. We felt a little less discomfited on the boat trip back. We were sat next to some friendly New Zealanders, who laughed when we teased that they were only leaving one beautiful green terrain for another. Was it at all similar? They claimed they were mostly in Scotland for the gin. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enjoy the gin on the Isle of Skye since we needed to drive back down to Glasgow.
After a night in Glasgow, my sister and I parted ways since I planned to take the train back down and she was flying back to London. My trusty hiking boots of ten years, which had been bought at an age when my feet were expected to grow, finally came apart. They simply needed to be thrown out and my sister was kind enough to give me hers since she was headed home and felt she could lighten her load. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to go up to St. Andrews. Hopefully I’ll get to visit and finally have a moment to run on the beach with the (in)famous Vangelis theme playing in my head. From Glasgow, it worked well to go East to Edinburgh before heading back down. Next time I pass along the Antonine Wall, I will try to walk some of it for a more palpable way of imagining the Roman experience. This time I took the luxury of riding a train to Linlithgow to follow along the general route of the wall. That gave me a more efficient way of getting to the Kinneil Estate to check out the fortlet remains in the adjacent fields. The post-holes and stone ditch were nothing grandiose. But it was still a way of feeling closer to an empire so distant in time and with such a reach beyond the Mediterranean basin. From Kinneil, it was a quick turn-around in Edinburgh to catch late train and coach connections back to Oxford.
Luckily, it was confirmed I would be returning to the UK to continue studies in the fall and was able to finish traveling before full term. After some visa delay, I got back in September with just enough time to make it up to the Lakes and Peak districts. After dropping off some luggage, I hopped on a train to Birmingham, where I found a cheap AirBnB to stay overnight before an early morning start to Windermere. Usually when on the road my food choices are pretty unremarkable. But per my dad’s recommendation, I got some balti to takeaway, since he couldn’t stop raving about the balti he had when he attended a conference in Birmingham. I still picked up some instant soup, produce, bars and other easy, to-go type food that I thought might be less available or more expensive around Windermere or Ambleside.
I got to Windermere by late morning the next day and took a short bus ride up to Ambleside. Past the Vicarage Road, I found the tiny bridge marking the start of the walk up to Loughrigg Fell. I didn’t plan to start with a less hilly walk. It was just a convenient way of looping from Ambleside to Rydal. But it was a nice way of warming up the legs before getting to some longer stretches. The path gave a fair view of the lakes and within two hours I was back down in Rydal to catch the bus up to Keswick. The double-decker 555 bus gave me about an hour to relax and zone out to the views of the hills and the Thirlmere. From Keswick I found that I could take the 77A bus to Cattle Grid to reach the base of the walk up Catbells. But since it seemed to come pretty infrequently I just decided to wander on down. It took less than an hour on the main road to reach the Catbells car park, where I found the north side trail. The initial climb was not bad at all, but after about twenty minutes I reached a bit of a rocky patch, where the mist made it slightly slippery. I have a slight fear of heights when there’s nothing to hem me in. The path felt particularly narrow at that moment since there was no hill face to lean on as psychological reassurance. From the top I got a pretty good view of Derwent Water and sat for a while since it surprisingly wasn’t that busy given the popularity of Catbells. Once some clouds started to move overhead, I took the same path down to Cattle Grid in order to get to Borrowdale before it got too dark. It was a straight shot down to Stonethwaite Road End and most of the road had a tiny gravel footpath along the side. There were just some narrow points in the road, where I felt the need to speed up and get out of the way of cars. I got to the YHA Borrowdale as it was starting to get dim. It was just such a relief to turn onto Longthwaite, get off the main road and slow down just as the shadows were setting in. I didn’t quite realize until then but I had been quite fixated throughout the day on getting from point A to B to C that I hadn’t fully been enjoying the scenery. Chilly autumn light is my favorite. I took my time walking down the road to the hostel, feeling the calm of the warm, incandescent light spreading out from a few cottage windows over the bluish green field. After a day of walking the instant soup came in very handy because after eating I knocked out.
It was beautifully quiet the next morning as I started to walk down Seathwaite. With virtually nobody on the road, I felt like I had the countryside to myself. I had estimated a couple hours to hike the Cumbria Way from Seatoller to Chapel Stile via Scafell Pike. It seemed like the best way to head south while getting some height for better views. I got to the junction at Stockley Bridge and veered slightly right. The ascent was fine for the next hour and a half but with the increase in elevation so did the fog. A kind of stream was running along the stone steps as well, making it even more slippery. I could see fine in front of me, but once I reached Scafell Pike, I started to feel a little disoriented. I am definitely an amateur walker and couldn’t quite tell whether I was facing East or West. In the end, I think I ended up heading more West towards Wasdale Head when what I wanted to do was keeping walking Southeast to reach Chapel Stile. After an hour more in the fog, I didn’t want to risk going any further and adding more hours of uncertainty, so I doubled back just to be safe. From Wythburn I found buses back down to Ambleside and Coniston. After circling around the Old Man of Coniston in light rain, I took the bus back to Hawkshead. It’s always a great feeling to peel off soggy layers and I was particularly grateful for the drying racks at the YHA. I joked to myself that maybe I was a more accomplished walker than Elizabeth Bennet since I had actually toured around the Lakes District and even managed to get muddy.
Since Hill Top wasn’t going to be open until 10am, I had some time to relax Sunday morning. It was nice to have time to sit with a cup of tea in the quiet communal kitchen without the group of foreign high school students bustling around. My clothes also probably benefited from a few extra hours in the drying room. Eventually I meandered down to Hill Top, which only took about a half hour. After touring Beatrix Potter’s cottage and garden, I sat down to wait for the bus on a bench, which I shared with a mop string bearded Mr. McGregor mannequin. From there, it was on with a five-hour transit by bus and train to get out of the Lakes District and south toward the Peak District. After a night at the Hathersage YHA, I had half a day to semi-sprint around Stanage Edge. But it was still enough to get a dose of hybridized Regency Romanticism and reminisce on scenes from various Brontë and Austen film adaptations. I got to have my own windy cliff-side moment before feeling a little ridiculous and then heading back to the train station.
While I was charging my phone on the train back home, I realized that I had downloaded a Naxos audiobook of Wordsworth poems through an app linked to my local library. I thought it would be useful to have some entertainment while walking alone for hours. Unfortunately, my phone was often low-battery so I wasn’t able to have that kind of kinetic reflection on the Lake Poets while I was actually in the Lakes District. I can at least claim I that walk pretty vigorously even if it probably just my gait or the way I pronate my feet – the toe cap is already coming off the new hiking shoes my sister gave me. I honestly was never really partial to poetry and am more drawn to visual art. But through the generosity of this travel grant, I had the chance to absorb some of the striking topography and scenery. And in learning how influential it was to various Romantic artists, I even gained some appreciation for poetry.
Tips-wise, I am so impressed with the price, cleanliness and amenities at YHA hostels that I would immediately suggest it to anybody. I felt so comfortable due to the fact that there were a lot of families staying there as well. Traveling by car in Scotland was lovely, but that was also partially because I wasn’t driving due to age constraints. I’m still curious about various coach systems around the Isle of Skye since I don’t think touring with greater flexibility should come at the cost of one person doing all the driving. Lastly, I would definitely suggest buying Smidge the Midge.
It was a great privilege to travel around the UK, see locations I had read about and experience color and light in new ways. My eyes are used to the yellow and brown of dry Californian expanses where most green patches swiftly change hue. Technicolor sunsets with purple and pink ombré are pretty spectacular. But there is a real charm to the way light, sometimes filtered gray or variegated through clouds, can fall on the green expanse, layering onto the textures of the hillocks, trees and grass.
I am so grateful to University College for providing this generous opportunity.