2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon- Part 4: Peak District National Park to Dumfries-shire

 

The trip north from Wales, via the M5 and M6, was never going to be hassle-free, or take the allotted time of 4 hours.  After checking the traffic and finding the ‘very long delays’ on the M6 and queues at the end of the M5 we deviated from the plan and headed off to Kidderminster for something to eat.  A passable Italian restaurant did the job and we were soon on our way again with rush-hour traffic abating and the roads a lot quieter –for the midlands.  We pushed on to Northampton on A roads and joined the M6 before Stafford to leave again at Stoke.  Not at all the route we had planned.  As we climbed across the moors in the Peak District National Park we were starting to lose light.  We finally arrived in Taddington, 6 miles from Buxton, at 9:30; 6 hours after starting out.

All we wanted was a comfy bed and a good night’s sleep.  Despite the generally well-equipped nature of the cottage, a comfy bed was not something on offer.  It was the smallest bed we’d tried to sleep in thus far, and possibly the smallest double I’ve ever seen.  We did sleep eventually, but not comfortably.

We woke to a forecast of rain – only our second day of it in the last 12 – and headed to Bakewell for breakfast, and tart of course.  Breakfast was disappointing: badly microwaved scrambled and poached eggs, the latter of which I sent back. The tart was better – bought from a deli and half the price of the ones in the Pudding Shop. We browsed a craft fare, with not much crafty about it, although there was some local cheese.  Most had weird flavours – curry sauce, Guinness – but the mature local cheddar was tangy and creamy and we took a punt.  Outside it was still raining so we decided to head over to Chatsworth Farm Shop and peruse some local delicacies.

Rant warning.  Skip this section if you can’t cope.

The shop has expanded into a mini-supermarket, with deli prices.  It looks lovely, with lots of fresh fruit and veg, much of it sourced locally, or at least from the UK Looks can be deceiving.  The bread was part bought in and part made on the premises.  The in-store bakery had all the usual suspects listed in terms of additives.  We enquired about the local ‘artisan’ bakery, and what their loaves might contain, but no one could tell us.  Some of the fancy goods had palm oil in, one of my bug-bears, and they had no idea if the loaves might have too.

The midlands is about as far away from the sea as you can get and I’m always suspicious of how old fish might be if it’s not come directly from a boat to my door.  Looking around the fish counter I was alarmed to see ‘Wild Sea Trout (farmed)’ on one of the labels.  Suspiciously contradictory.  It’s either wild sea trout or it’s farmed sea trout, surely it can’t be both.  We queried this with the assistant serving fish, and he seemed equally perplexed.  He promised to raise it with his boss.  We had a similar issue with the meat counter where sausages were labelled ‘free range’ and bacon wasn’t.  We tried to find out where the bacon came from.  It was clear that some came from their own pigs and was free range, and some was bought in and might, or might not be free range.  I suppose the labelling was erring on the side of caution.  It didn’t stop it being confusing.

All in all we were not impressed.  This establishment had the opportunity to sell real food from local suppliers; slow food, authentic food, and here they were trying to pull the wool over, looking the part but not standing up to scrutiny.  I am perhaps over critical, but I feel compelled to take people to task where food is concerned.  OK, folks, I’m getting down from the soapbox now.

We set off for Buxton, picking up a nail and a flat tyre along the way.  The local tyre place was helpful and efficient and we were on our way in short order.  The weather had improved by the time we got to Buxton, but the place did nothing to improve my mood.  The pavilion was under wraps for renovation and the dome was closed to the public because of a wedding.  We had a desultory wander about the town and the gardens, rescuing a wet bee along the way, and ending up in a tea shop to finish the day on a positive note.

A friend suggested that as we’d visited so many tea shops on the trip we might like to tour the country writing reviews of them.  If anyone out there is prepared to foot the bill, I’d be quite happy to oblige.

The following day dawned brighter, although the forecast was for heavy rain later on.  We’d planned to tour the Hope valley; visiting somewhere I used to live, the damns and the caverns in Castleton.  We changed our itinerary to see the damns whilst it was still dry and the caves later in the day when it was supposed to rain.  Nothing is guaranteed with the British weather and it had started to rain before we reached Hathersage.

I was pleased to see that the village was pretty much as I’d remembered it from the 80’s and delighted that not only is the outdoor pool still at the end of Oddfellows Road, it is still open!  After a brief visit to memory lane we headed up to the dams:  Ladybower, Derwent and Howden.  The Derwent Valley Waterboard built Ladybower in the 1930’s and flooded 2 villages in the process.  Derwent dam is famous for being where the Lancaster bombers did their practice runs.  The dams’ setting in deep moorland valleys and their castellated towers, constructed by an army of navvies in the 1910s, closely resembled the Möhne and Eder dams in west Germany. So 617 Squadron flew practice runs over the “lakes near Sheffield”, practising their manoeuvres when flying low over the water whilst locals complained to the War Ministry about joy riding pilots!  The famous 1955 Dam Busters film was also shot there.  There’s a lot of hidden history in the area, although for me the draw, is the stunning scenery and walks.  We only had a short potter as it really was too wet for trekking.  Contrarily, the weather improved as we headed off towards the caverns.

There are 4 show caves open to the public in Castleton, all clustered around Winnats Pass on the old Mam Tor road, which is now closed. We avoided Peak Cavern – which locals call the Devil’s Arse- and Speedwell Cavern, which you go in a boat to view, as there can be tight areas to navigate and I suffer a little from claustrophobia.  Instead we wound our way round to the Blue John Cavern.

There are various myths about how the cavern got its name, but the one I like best is that samples of the stone were sent to French jewellers, as authorities of the time on gemstones, and they simply described it as ‘bleu et jaune’ which you can see easily turns itself into Blue John in the English language. It is a completely natural cave with the occasional remaining mine workings.  There are around 16 known veins where Blue John Stone is found in Castleton, and half of these are located in the Blue John Cavern. The semi-precious stone is found nowhere else in the world. The mineral is still worked here during the winter months, away from public view and the miners who work the remaining seams act as tour guides in the summer.  We were led by one such guide.

We started with a drop of a short set of steps through a man-made passageway, arriving immediately into the beginning of the natural caverns. The first explorers were lowered on a rope into the caves down an old pothole high in the room which you can see when you reach the first chamber. This was the original entrance and the action of water is visible everywhere in the cavern.

There are six predominant natural chambers all with their own distinguishable features. The first is called Bull Beef, which is a working mine and produces some of the most spectacularly large pieces of Blue John Stone ever mined.  The second chamber is the grand crystallised cavern shaped like a dome, with a type of Blue John Stone that looks like a tree trunk sawn in half.   We were also introduced to the delights of ‘snot rock’.  One of the highlights of my trip.  You don’t see any stalactites or stalagmites in this chamber, although there are some lower down, but here there is snot rock.  Caused when water seeps through the stone, but doesn’t drip, it looks like the rock is plastered in snot, although when you touch it, the rock is hard and not at all snotty.  I didn’t find out what the correct term is, but as you can tell I was taken with snot rock!

The waterfall cavern is next cavern downwards into the stalactite cavern where the formations that give it its name hang high from the roof which bears a resemblance to an upside down riverbed.

The fifth chamber is Lord Mulgrave’s dining room, formed when two underground rivers collided creating a whirlpool, which is responsible for forming the circular shape. The name comes from various stories of the Lord entertaining dinner guests down there – either the miners, or the aristocracy, depending on which story you believe. The last chamber is the Variegated Cavern, named because of the variety of the etchings on the walls and in the room. Standing at 200 feet high it is spectacular.  It’s hard to imagine the full force of nature and the power of the water which formed it.

Climbing back up the 250 steps, I could see why the notices warned people with heart issues and asthma not to go down.  It’s a shame they didn’t have warnings for persons of unfit physique as well.  It was a huge effort to climb back up to through the chambers after the descent of nearly 300 feet, but certainly worthwhile.   If you’re in the area, give one of the caves a visit.

The sun shone as we exited from the deep and gasped the fresh air.  The momentary glimpse of the fabulous valley was short-lived as the rain started to come down heavily.  After a picnic lunch in the car, we made the decision to head over to Cheshire, for a pre-arranged rendezvous with family, ahead of our planned departure time.  It was as well we did.  It took us over 2 hours to drive the 40 or so miles.  The drive started in delightful moors scenery and ended in a traffic jam.  The evening was worth the trip, with good food and good conversation.  At the end of the evening we took a more major route back to the cottage managing it in a little over an hour.

Friday 28th July, technically the last day of our holiday; everything now was about heading north and getting home.  We headed towards the M6 calling at a friends to say hello and see their new born baby son Georgie.  We were treated to homemade cake as well as cuddles, which set us up well for the trek northwards.

We stopped at Teabay, one of the UK’s only independent motorway service stations, for a comfort stop and another car picnic and then carried on up to our overnight stop in Dumfries with the lovely Emma and her beau, Iain, whom we’d only met at our Big Day 8 weeks earlier.  It was a brave move on Emma’s part to host us as she’d not met Tony before the Big Day, and we hadn’t seen each other for nearly 30 years.  We gate crashed her ‘Friday Night Wine Club’ and her man made us a lovely veggie dinner.  It was a joy to chill and chatter and laugh.

The following day, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed off for ice-cream, as you do, and then for a short walk by the river.  The weather was a bit blustery, but ideal for blethering and walking.  It’s so nice when you can relax and be real with people, and Emma and Iain were such people.  Warm, generous and real.  The fact that Iain is a chef and they both like food is neither here nor there…well, maybe….

One cheesy lunch and lots of generosity later, we reluctantly set off again for ever more northerly climes.  Other than passing through, neither of us had seen anything much of Dumfries and Galloway before.  We added it to the list as yet another part of the world worth a re-visit.

Loch Lomond was our final stopping place.  We could have carried on home, but home was still several hundred miles and 6 hours away, so we’d decided to break up the journey with a peaceful retreat part way between Balloch – the village at the bottom of Loch Lomond – and Stirling.  We ate in Balloch on what must be one of its busiest nights of the year as a result of the folk festival.  We were entertained by a too-loud band in a flashy looking pub that was serving bought-in food.  ‘Beggars and choosers’ I suppose.  It was nearly nine by the time we tried to find our accommodation which turned out to be so remote that we couldn’t find it, and nowhere near the village in its address.  Failed by Satnav and my navigation skills we arrived late and tired.  This was the only B&B we stayed at during our break, and not one we’d venture back to.  Old-fashioned, prissy, and with a shared bathroom, it was not my idea of an ideal place to stay.  Nothing was terrible, but nothing was particularly good either.  The scrambled egg was over cooked, the bread, supermarket’s best, the conversation stilted, bordering towards argumentative.  We’re always looking for nice places to stay around Loch Lomond as Tony does the Great Scottish Swim every year at the end of August.  I guess we’ll keep looking.

The trip back up the road was uneventful.  A shop in Waitrose for groceries.  A stop at Ralia for stretching the legs, and a Sunday lunch at Storehouse – not it’s best- and we landed home at teatime with happy hearts and full tummies.

Our trip was not the sort of exotic, romantic break you might envisage, however, it was filled with laughter and beauty and relaxation.  Time spent with each other and with good friends and good food.  We were humbled by how kind, generous and gracious everyone we stayed with was.  Friends and family, you’re amazing.  Thanks for making our road trip a honeymoon and a holiday.

 

The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.