After the last of the holiday get-togethers with friends, we now faced the long trek home. We were tired of the crowds and the rubbish-strewn streets of England's towns. We had met with friendliness everywhere, but of a less immediate and more reserved sort than in our part of the world.
We found that we were almost always the first to say good afternoon or whatever when paths crossed on a country lane. In the towns, even Ramsgate, one could not but notice that everyone avoided eye contact. Yet it was at the railway station, while we waited for Katya to arrive from London, in that same Ramsgate, that we had a lovely conversation with the exasperated station master who was having to deal with altered timetables and total operational confusion caused by some sporting event. A friendly hello was all it took for us to have a mutually informative chat about anything and everything as he took a smoke break. It was as if everyone was afraid of aggression and so avoided contact. A touch of friendliness was all it took to return to English niceness, fun and banter.
We did have a rather good conversation openener, though, which we used several times. To the question 'Are you down here on holiday?', we would say—à la Blues Brothers—'Actually no, we're here on a mission and bet you can't guess'. 'What mission?' 'We're delivering a gravestone which we have driven down from Orkney..." Guaranteed to get things going!
Dundee (no photos)
But now we were heading home and there was a long drive ahead. So long that we would be overnighting in Dundee. The town was not a destination per se, just a roadside stop, so we were booked into another purple hotel in a shopping/industrial estate just off the main road rather than in the centre. We had been warned by lots of people that Dundee was not a very pleasant town.
It was as hot as hell, so as soon as we had dumped our bags in our rooms, we headed for the pub next door. Only to discover that covidiocy reigned supreme—and with some hysteria—in Dundee. (As indeed it did all over Scotland, which felt more police-state-like than England with its illuminated signs on motorways saying your are entering a Covil Level 1 (or 2) area, take steps, its innumerable speed cameras, and ubiquitous covidiocy.)
For the whole of our trip up until now, the covid rules had been treated very casually. Restaurants etc would ask if we had checked in with the NHS app for the track-and-trace effort. We quickly learnt to say yes (although none of us has it, of course) because otherwise one was asked to fill in a paper slip with contact details. (I have to say it did not look like anyone bothered to collect these and it has simply become a ritualised activity. It's my understanding that most people fill these slips in with fake names and addresses in order to avoid being bothered later should it happen that you were in a premises where someone turned out at a later date to have been tested as positive for covid on one of those machines that spits out positive while being wrong 90% of the time.)
Anyway, this Dundee pub gave us so much hassle over have you done this? have you done that? that we walked out without ordering rather than submit to the ritual humiliation.
We then found that there was a Lebanese restaurant in central Dundee, booked that, and set off. Having parked, we had to walk past a pub where a bouncer was in the process of preventing a seriously drunk man from re-entering the premises from which he had evidently just been thrown out. The drunk asked me to thunp the bouncer and I politely declined, saying that the bouncer looked somewhat larger and stronger than me.
The Lebanese meal was good (not excellent). Afterwards, we went straight back to our purple rooms to sleep off the drive.
The event over which we glow with pride to this day occurred the next morning. We were thrown out of a MacDonalds! Yes, we are such awful people that a MacDonalds, empty of customers at 7am, refused to serve us! All for nothing much. We went in and started looking through the ordering screens so as to decide what to buy. We were then approached by a lassie who wanted to be told we had logged in with the NHS Track and Trace app. We said we had. No, only one person was to stand at the screen, the others must step away. We're all one family. No, step away. Then Arthur wanted to change something on the screen. Stop! Only one person may touch the screen. We all guffawed. The manager, who had meanwhile sidled up, threw us out for finding the rules funny. You are not welcome here, he said. Only too happy to leave, we replied. (Although I would have liked a cup of coffee, but one does have to make sacrifices to uphold one's principles.)
So, Dundee, here we don't come again.
After that, it was an easy drive up to Gill's Bay, giving us time to make stops en route.
We passed some lovely views. We stopped here fore a coffee. This is just outside Inverness...
...en route to Wick, where we wanted to refuel the car and have a late picnic lunch. Having shopped, we belatedly remembered that there is a rather wonderful roadside café just outside the town. This serves true, old-fashioned British cafe food and is very friendly too. It's called The Rumbling' Tum; see reviews via the link.
Of course I bought some of their books and have read one.
After that, we had a little walk through Wick, a town which has evidently seen better days but is still rather pretty. The port is lovely.
Wick has a pedestrianised main street. It was Sunday and not very lively
However, I really do have to wonder about how great a time can be had in the town's night club:
After Wick, it was still too early for our evening ferry home. We had wanted Arthur to see the Castle of Mey (both William and I had visited but it would have been fun to do so again). This castle was one of the Queen Mother's favourite 'dachas' and makes for a fascinating visit. Prince Charles still uses it on occasion. Unfortunately, it closes too early so we had to think of something else.
Wanting to avoid the unavoidable John o'Groats tourist trap, I suggested we go and make good an omission of mine from a previous trip, when I regretted not having taken a photo of a primary school near Dunnet head. I looked it up after that trip and discovered that a) it is the island of Britain's most northerly primary school and b) saw that it had a truly crap photo of itself on its website. We went and found it and took some photos. Here is one of them.
I actually took three photos to send to the school for their website. However, on getting back to the Hope, I find that they have given up having a website altogether! I emailed the pics to them anyway, just in case they find a use for them, but they have not (yet?) responded.
While driving to the school, we had seen a road sign pointing to Harrow Harbour. So we decided to take a look. We had to drive down the narrowest of single track roads to reach it. It was beautiful...
...and came with a real surprise. A plaque on the harbour wall. Look who opened it!
Caithness clearly rocks!
After that, there was still a little time to kill before the ferry so we were no longer able to avoid that which should be avoided: a wander around the tourist trap of John o'Groats. We went and watched the constant flow of walkers and cyclists reaching the signpost marking our end of the world for those who had done the Land's End to John o'Groats route. Claps, photos, proud relatives standing by. Even a table with glasses of cheap champagne for an organised crowd of cyclists.
We walked out onto the pier to get away from the gaggle. A mum, dad, and young boy were walking there. Mutual good afternoons. Chat with the boy. Help him see a seal which at that moment pops its head out of the sea. Mum has slight accent and I ask. She's Ukrainian! With a Scottish husband. They live in Inverness. We are all greatly amused to have a nice long talk in Russian in a very unexpected place. It really pays to say hello to people.
I also take a standard postcard shot of John o'Groats. It turns out very Leica-like.
And that's the end of trip.
PS Brother Steve said to me before we left that I should try to ensure the boys see some of their British heritage during the trip. I hope he thinks that was accomplished.
PS2 The route. 3,300 kilometres to which should be added all the side excursions.