Subject: : Scotland Travelogue Part 1

My travelogues are more like memoirs, but here goes anyway!

Scotland May 12-25 2004

Ashby de la Zouche is an unlikely place to begin a trip to Scotland since it's not in Scotland, and in fact may be an unlikely beginning for any trip to the UK. But unlikely or not, it's where we began.

During the long, dark, scary nights of her battle with cancer, one of the thin hopes for my friend Donna was the prospect of many more travels. My promise to her was at least a trip every year if she survived, and so it has been for the last six years. This year, Scotland was her choice, and starting our journey in Ashby de la Zouche was mine. My favorite Scottish singer / songwriter from Dunkeld, Scotland, was performing in Sheffield, Ashby and Worcester about the time we planned to go, and with my only knowledge of these areas being of Sheffield (The Full Monty), I picked Ashby and built our itinerary from there.

Because we had less than two weeks, we planned our stops in advance, including prepaid rental car, hostel and B & B stays and car ferry reservations.

Picking up our Auto Europe car from National Car Rental at Manchester was quick and easy; Manchester Airport has improved services for inbound travelers dramatically since my last transit about 14 years ago. Within minutes we were headed southeast through the Peak District National Park for Ashby de la Zouche, which is located between Derby and Nottingham. After a quick nap and snack at a lovely park on the Derwent, I knew we were within an hour of Ashby, but our map gave us no joy. A friendly postmistress at Buxton-on-Trent put us right; in fact, several patrons at the post office chimed in with helpful suggestions as well. This was a wonderful theme repeated during our trip, maybe because we so closely resemble the somewhat befuddled grandmothers that we are!

Ashby is a wonderful surprise: located in what had been a blighted former coal mining area, Ashby has been reborn with a massive environmental clean up including establishment of the New National Forest. Replanting native beech and oak woods and cleaning up the toxic canals has brought the area back to the beauty of 300 years ago; when the forest matures, it will be stunning.

Our accommodations were at Holly Row House with Mrs Carter, a keen gardener who has managed to turn a boring acre of turf into a delightful garden in her 37 years at the house. She has added rough limestone walls which are tumbled with flowers, turned a sunken tennis court into a series of outdoor rooms, planted herbaceous borders which are primed to explode into bloom, and placed old chimney pots crammed with annuals along pathways. The vegetable garden behind the house was a small-plot gardener's dream. She had just returned from a garden club tour to Bournemouth, but complained that the weather had been foul.

Tucking into a huge breakfast in the lovely dining room the next morning, we asked what was best to see in the area. Mrs Carter's niece urged us not to miss Calke Abbey, where her grandfather had been in service, to look in on the ruins of Ashby Castle, and to try the Ferrers Center.

We started with Ashby de la Zouche Castle, the setting for Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, built after the Norman invasion and a stronghold for royalist factions during Cromwell's time. After a two-year siege, Cromwell's forces planted explosives under the corners of the castle, thereby ending the siege & destroying not only the castle but the extensive library it contained.

Next was the Ferrers Centre, located in the converted stable block of a Georgian manor, which houses small workshops for local artisans as well as a fine garden center & the ubiquitous tea room. Donna loves to shop & sip.

Finally we headed to the 640-acre Calke Abbey & Park. Well-signed on main roads, attractions like Calke Abbey are virtually unfindable without a fantastic map or input from a local resident. 640 acres is a fairly large park, but it still remained hidden till we stumbled on the un-signed entry. And it was closed on Friday, although the grounds were accessible to visitors as well as to the hundreds of sheep wandering willy-nilly over the park.

The Ashby area boasts a lively folk music scene, & local promoters Nina Szifris & Mike Scott had booked Dougie MacLean into the Miners Welfare Hall near Moira. We grabbed a picnic supper & found the venue, a hall & pub for a lawn bowl club. Nearby, the Moira Canal Festival was gearing up & a caravan club was esconced in a nearby field, making for lively action at the pub. We had a chance for a long pre-concert chat with Dougie sitting out on the wide verandah in the soft May twilight. The concert was a grand success, especially with our front-row seats. We also got the mention for the fans traveling the farthest for the concert. What a great beginning for a trip to Scotland!

Our next stop was to be the Lake District, although not in Scotland either. On the way, however, I wanted to find the ancient stones of Arbor Low, which, after Stonehenge, is reputed to be the finest circle of megalithic Britain. My favorite guide for standing stones is Aubrey Burl's A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland & Brittany. The only challenge with the book is that the maps have no roads indicated, only ordnance map gridline marks. I had forgotten this, however, until we were well & truly lost. A stop at a petrol station yielded excellent directions, but to the wrong circle. I wasn't interested in the Nine Ladies Circle. Britain & Scotland are littered with stone sites, many on private lands, & the hunt for the site is part of the fun as is getting detailed but erroneous information. We bumbled into the Peak Village Shopping Center at Rowsley, bought an ordnance map & immediately found Arbor Low quite nearby.

Arbor Low (eordburgh-hlaw) is a monumental site dating to about 3000 BC, & contains 46 large stones up to 13 feet tall & 13 smaller stones. These massive stones appear to have been blown down by the howling north wind as they are all lying in a north-south direction. There's a layby on the road for parking, & the site is reached by walking up a farm track, leaving 50p in a tin box, going thru the farmer's yard & climbing two styles into the side of the cove & ring. It's a dramatic site, with sweeping 360 degree vistas, well worth trying to find.

Heading north later than we'd planned, we picked up the M60 ring road around Manchester, then the M6 north towards Kendal. The smaller roads are a delight as the wander thru villages, but the annoying traffic patterns in those same villages are trying. No place to park? No problem, just park in the street! The M roads are boring but faster & less stressful.

I expected bumper-to-bumper traffic as we left the M6 at Kendal, since it was Saturday afternoon, but I was pleasantly surprised. Our accommodations were at the hostel just outside Windermere, overlooking the Lake & fells. We had left behind the blustery cool overcast conditions of the Peak District to arrive at Windermere in full afternoon sun. Located near the village of Troutbeck in the hills above the lake, the hostel has outstanding views of the lake and surrounding countryside.

In May, the National Garden Scheme features private gardens opened to the public as a charity event, & nearby Troutbeck had two gardens featured on the tour. Walking thru the village at dusk it was possible to peek over fences & through gates to get an idea of the creative gardening required to maintain gardens on such steep fellsides. The clematis & wisteria blooms were especially magnificent, scrambling over stone fences & up house walls. In my garden, clematis & wisteria would never perform where lilacs thrive, but following my nose, I found lilacs bending over gardens & tucked into sunny corners, bloom to bloom with clematis & wisteria.

We were joined for dinner at the hostel by a lively group of walkers who were engaged in a Four-Peak Challenge, climbing four local peaks in two days. The hills are deceptive to eyes used to the steep & rocky peaks of Oregon's own Cascades, but just because they don't look like the South Sister, doesn't mean they're easy.

The next morning, we were off to Grasmere & Dove Cottage, which Donna had on her must-see list since she's a Wordsworth fan. How those literary types ever survived cooped up in that little house is beyond me. No wonder they escaped into their imaginations. And we found the bumper-to-bumper traffic I'd been expecting, with the additional fright of some behemoth motor coaches.

Brockhole National Park between Windermere & Ambleside makes a great stop. Visiting the park & garden is free although the carpark required payment. The gardens spill over the gentle hillside to the lake, featuring a formal area with paths & displays as well as a natural area with picnic sites and romping room for kids & dogs. There's a build-a-wall area, where visitors can try their hand at building one of the dry stone walls so common in the area. Ten minutes at this task quickly reveals the patience & skill required to build those walls! At the lakeside is a pier from which small launches provide lake service to Ambleside, about a 40-minute trip. One can get off at Ambleside, a much easier way to visit the village than trying to cope with traffic & parking, & return back to Brockhole on a later launch. The return trip is on the west side of the lake, with a stop near Low Wray. Again, passengers can get off there for a picnic or lakeside walk & the launchman will retrieve them on a later trip. The roundtrip launch is only 5 GBP (pounds), a good bargain. There are larger boats on the lake, but this is a nice experience. The lake was smooth as I'd only seen it in pictures, a sunburn kind of day.

We finished the day at the Beatrix Potter Experience in Bowness. That woman got around almost as much as George Washington! It seems every place north of the Cotswolds has some kind of Beatrix Potter draw. I can only take so much of bunny-& hedgehog-themed giftware, but Donna enjoyed her visit.

We fixed a light supper at the hostel, using up the last of our lovely bread from Ashby and watched the sunset, which happens at about 9:45pm at this time of year.