Wednesday, 30 September 2009

By popular demand

It's tricky getting photos of yourself surfing. If I was a hot, young pro (surfer, that is), I would have sponsorhip, a dedicated photographer and enough cash to buy a board-mounted camera. And however big it feels when you're surfing, the camera always seems to lie and make the biggest, critical monster look like small, gutless slop.

So until I make it as a hot, young pro, these are proof that I have indeed got into a wetsuit and entered the water holding a board, photos courtesy of Karen. Not conclusive evidence of actually surfing, I realise, but you'll just have to make the leap of faith. (This is pretty much what you have to do when you're surfing, because logic and reason suggest there's no way that small lump of fibre-glass and foam is going to let you stand upright on that big expanse of vertical water).

This is on-shore, windblown slop at Westport, on the Mull of Kintyre.

And this is me wandering through the golf course and down to the beach at Macrahainish in search of seal-infested waves (see surf report passim).
The North Coast is fantastic... when the sun's out. When it rains, as it did continuously on Sunday and Monday, it's miserable. I've been surfing Melvich, with reasonably good, head-high, clean waves but occasional close-outs (no photos, pending an update of my status to hot, young pro).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Spot the Difference Competition

You didn’t do too well on the Caption Competition. Which bit of interactive don't you understand? INTER. ACTIVE. What it says on the tin. See if you do better with Spot the Difference? Photo A shows Ullapool as I left it two weeks ago.

Photo B shows Ullapool as I found it on my return.

(Clue: Autumn)

Blown by strong winds (30-40 mph) I appear to have been washed up on the North coast somewhat ahead of schedule, missing out the unmissable Sandwood Bay. There's a brief window between Monday evening and Tuesday morning when the wind drops a little. And the small matter of a four-mile hike to get to the beach from the nearest road. Apparently it's a four-mile hike back again. With the added bonus of a wet wetsuit to weigh you down.

The North coast is fabulous. It really feels like being on the roof of the country (that's Scotland, of course). And looking North out to sea feels different to looking West for some reason.

Three surf sessions here:

A sunset session at Melvich in fast, hollow, low tide waves. I cannot surf fast, hollow, low-tide waves. Managed a couple to restore my dignity, reputation and sang froid (very froid, once the sun disappeared).

A rubbish session in Durness (this is where Dourness is manufactured, and exported all over Scotland.) Strong cross-shore/off-shore winds, but glorious sunshine.

And today Strathy, big and clean, with a strong-ish off-shore wind and eight or nine other surfers in the water. Still not surfing particularly well (why does it take so long to get to your feet when you're sliding down a wave).

This is Melvich. The waves I managed to catch in no way resembled this one. The ones I fell off, struggled under or pulled out of, mostly did.

This morning bumped into a friend of mine, Ruth, and her boyfriend. Almost literally (single-lane road), though not entirely unexpectedly.

Curiously, this was less than a mile from the place where yesterday I ran out of petrol. Had to wait 15 minutes for a lift to the nearest petrol station. But that's because I had to wait 15 minutes for a car to pass. There are worse places to be stranded.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Technical difficulties resolved

After a brief digression south to sunny London, then to the Mull of Kintyre, I am back on the road. In the meantime, I have grown idle, run to fat and become accustomed to life as a laird. Mostly thanks to the fabulous Moira. This is Moira, in the grounds of her castle.

Well, ok, it’s not strictly her castle. But it felt like it, as she hosted the most superb birthday, with the most lovely people. And me.

Near Campbelltown, I managed a rubbish surf at Westport Beach: on-shore slop, for the cognoscenti. The wrong sort of wind, for the ignoroscenti.

But then an excellent surf at Machrihanish: shoulder high, clean, peeling rollers (whether you’re cognoscenti or ignoroscenti, you’ll realise this is a good thing). Mostly alone, apart from a startled seal who was just idling around in the water when I paddled past. It woke up, slipped under the water, then eyed me up from a safe distance to work out whether to eat me, fuck me or avoid me. It did the latter, I am relieved to say.

Then no surf at all at Sanna, the most westerly beach on the British mainland, at the end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Even the most resolute cartophile can afford to give the place a miss: two hours down a winding, single-track road (admittedly along a very beautiful loch), over a desolate, blasted moor to find half a dozen scowling houses huddled along some sheep-nibbled dunes. And no waves. Was going to fill up on petrol at nearby Kilchoan. Until I discovered it costs 1.22 a litre. Plus a pound service charge for anything less than 20 quid. So I crossed my fingers and free-wheeled down the millions of hills until I reached civilisation. Well, Fort William, anyway.

So now I'm in Ullapool, salivating over the prospect of the BBC's best chips 2004. Hope they haven't gone cold in the interim.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Friday Caption Competition

I'm heading to the Mull of Kintyre this weekend. In the meantime, here is the inaugural caption competition. Interactive, innit.

First prize: a night in the van at the beach of your choice.
Second prize: two nights in the van. At the beach of my choice.

End of Part One

I sadly said goodbye to Stornoway at dawn on Monday

And hello to Paul, a friendly fisherman on the ferry who had been out drinking all night with a mate - no mean feat on Sunday in Lewis. He got home to find his wife still asleep, so decided to do a bunk to the mainland with two cans of Cider and a pocketful of banknotes which he cheerfully pulled out to show me. I fear he held on to this sizeable wad as long as he held on to the cider. It's ok, though, his wife is very understanding, apparently. And anyway, he was off to stay with his mother-in-law.

Technically, the next couple of days aren't part of the trip. Though I did see this as I walked up a hill above Loch Lomond:

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sunday in Stornoway

Sunday is a day of rest. Nothing moves, not even the oil slicks.

Everyone goes to church - usually twice, once in the morning, once in the evening - dressed in their Sunday best, which means dark suits for men, hats, sober but colourful jackets and black heels for women. Bibles obligatory. No shops open, and just a couple of hotel bars and restaurants. Closing time is a restrained 10pm.

Controversially, the ferry recently started a Sunday service to Stornoway. Which was fortunate, as Becca and Anne were heading home after their epic cycle up the Hebrides. Here they are, triumphant, if a little hung over. UPDATE - I realise this statement is possibly libellous, as Ann wasn't drinking. Sorry, Ann!

I headed North, first to Eorope, the Northernmost surfing beach in the Western Isles, and a great final surf in unruffled, chest-high, peeling waves.

And on to the Butt of Lewis (almost certainly the butt of many puns)

Then back via the tallest megalith in the Western Isles.

Saturday Night in Stornoway

It's a kicking, pumping place, Stornoway. From vibrant village to ghost town in the space of 20 minutes when the shops close at 5.30, then back to youth-filled drink-fest a few hours later.

With only six venues, each with six different single-malts, it's the ideal place for a post-dinner pub-crawl. You can have no music (McNeills and The Criterion), folk music (The Lewis and The Carlton Bar) or hard rock (The Clansman and the Sea Angler's club).

We started at The Criterion, an old man's pub where the old men (and young men) drink whisky chasers with their pints. Or in a couple of cases, rum-and-coke chasers. The whisky is a venemous-looking brand in a huge bottle, diluted with the same quantity of water.

This is the band at The Carlton Bar:

This is the audience:

This is the rest of the audience:

So not exactly kicking and pumping after all. The Lewis Bar was a bit more kicking and pumping, but not the place to take photos without being on the receiving end of the kicking. And just like every other small town in Britain, by 2am, the kicking and pumping has moved out on to the street.

Fortunately the youth of Stornoway receive excellent sexual health advice:

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Stoned in Stornoway

I almost missed the ferry from North Uist to Harris because I was stoned.

In Harris, I came across two employees of the Hebrides Tourist Board, just doing what they're paid to do.
The church in Rodel has interesting sculptures for the congregation to look at as they make their way to the service of a Sunday morning, a young lady displaying her charms to the four winds. A similar male figure on the adjacent wall is sadly not the man he used to be.

What about the waves, you ask? Harris was a bit frustrating - very windy, very choppy and very fast waves that were mostly interested in tossing me to the seabed as quickly as possible.

Then in Lewis, I came across Bru, a grim, bleak rock-strewn beach with water like a shark's skin and waves like mountain crags. Managed one screamer on Friday, a smooth, head high beast I somehow stumbled onto before being spat out.
Then on Saturday I had the good fortune to meet local surfer Stevie, who was just going in at the same place. He got there ahead of me, so I was able to watch him surf a monster. A monster which was twice as tall as he was (or double overhead, in surfspeak).

I was way out of my depth, and bailed out of several waves, until Stevie called me into another monster, the biggest wave of the trip I've surfed so far. I couldn't really decline, so I paddled furiously, and somehow found myself standing on my board. The wave was well over head high, huge and brutish, with a choppy face that I bounced down, somehow managing to stay on my feet until the wave exploded into white foam, and I dived over the top to avoid getting swept onto the beach, some 200 metres from where I had started. To give you an idea of the size, this is Stevie's van, parked just in front of the breakwater.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

False Alarm

It was only Force 10, a slight breeze of 60 mph, that's all. So the buses were still running and the school kids still had to go to school. I made the obvious mistake of abandoning my van for the afternoon and following Becca and Ann on a bus out to the beach at Sollas (for research purposes, naturally). And no, I'm not going surfing in wind like that.

Great waves, if you don't mind 60 mph wind. It was a bit like walking on the moon. Up hill. Fortunately, we only got wet twice. All the way there, and then all the way back. With just enough of a lull to dry out in between.

Leaving Lochmaddy today to head up to Harris, now that the ferry should be working again. It's a shame, because it's a lovely place, with a really nice atmosphere, and hundreds of small fresh water and salt water lochs everywhere. But hopefully the storm will have thrown up some decent swell for this afternoon.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Hebridean Furry Dice

Barra is a small island. It only has one road.The Annual Show took place at Barra Community Hall on Saturday, when the locals show their produce, win prizes, then auction off the goods.

I was talking to the local physics teacher, Robert Ross, whose daughter Patricia gave me this die. Actually I was the only mug who would take it, after she tried to palm it off on her father and on her father's friend.
It now sits in my van, as a Hebridean tribute to furry dice. It turns out the Hebrides don't need a tribute to furry dice, as they still have plenty of real furry dice still. Photos to follow, if I see one that isn't moving.
Left Barra to drive up the Uists. Didn't see any Otters, despite the warnings.

I'm holed up in a hotel bar in Lochmaddy, North Uist, as a Force 12 gale rages outside. Even the locals are commenting on how windy it is. All the ferries have been cancelled, so I'm stuck here for the day.

Fabulous surf on the west side of North Uist yesterday, big Atlantic rollers with beautiful green walls. I know it was at least head high, as I surfed down the face of one great wave and looked up at the green wall of water looming above me.
Becca and Ann are following the same route as me by bike. They're mad.
So I shared my lobster with them. It was called Rita, after the Latvian woman who sold it to me.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Those Oyster-Catchers really know how to enjoy a meal

Stand in the middle and peck round the edges.

This is Barra, the Southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides. Utterly lovely on a sunny day like yesterday.
In spite of the dumped farm machinary

Not so lovely on a grey, wet, windy day like today. Camped here:

It was half way up the track to what the Ordnance Survey map laughably calls a museum. In a fit of enthusiasm, I thought I ought to make the trek. Perhaps I should have wondered why there is no sign to the museum. The rest of the trek is very boggy, and finally leads to this, a typical crofter's cottage. Still no sign. Perhaps I could get in for free.

Unfortunately the door is locked. But that's ok, because the window's are wide open, so you can appreciate the interior:

I knew a crofter's life was tough. But not this tough.

And by popular demand, last night's barbecued scallops in full:

Friday, 4 September 2009

Sealing wax (lyrical)

Saw my first and second seals yesterday (Thursday). The first one was disporting itself on a rock as I ate breakfast here:I suspect it was sent there by the tourist office, to look picturesque. It's that thing in the middle that looks slightly like a seal-shaped rock, sitting on a rock-shaped rock.

Yes, I know. But it was a long way away. I zoomed my camera and myself to get a better shot, but it slipped away.

Later I went for a surf here. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a big, grey blob disappear below the surface. A few minutes later, it reappeared. Another seal! I've never surfed with a seal before. I've never surfed with any wildlife, except Welshmen and discarded tampon strips in the Bristol Channel. It looked me up and down, decided I was as attractive as a discarded tampon strip (or a Welshman) and disappeared again.

After a rather disappointing session yesterday (1.5 hours in the water, 1.5 seconds standing on my board), I managed to reacquaint the soles of my feet with the top of my board. I'm hoping they'll become good friends, but for the moment they're maintaing a rather distant froideur.

Finally caught the mid-day ferry from Tiree to Barra, which is mountainous, windy and utterly beautiful. Photos later. The library has free internet access, but not wifi, so having downloaded various emails to my laptop and replied to them there, I can't send them. Apologies if you sent me a message. Also haven't worked out which phone company works here (my Spanish phone picks up Orange (or Naranja, I suppose) but I don't have an Orange SIM. So if it's urgent, text my Spanish mobile.

The library is part of the school. Break time has just finished, so there was a startling school bell, followed by a line of school kids aged 10 to 16 filing past. They're much better behaved than the school kids in South London.