Driving the Scottish highlands from Fort William to Gairloch

I never envisaged writing about a car journey on this blog, but the trip we made from Fort William to Gairloch in the Scottish highlands changed my mind. I’m a sucker for scenic views and this journey provided plenty of them. It probably wasn’t the most exciting day out for the kids but they were happy enough, playing or reading in the back seat of the car.

There are a couple of route options between Fort William and Gairloch. We chose to go via Kyle of Lochalsh, a drive of 129 miles. Google maps suggested this would take just over 3 hours but our journey, with lunch and lots of photo stops, took the best part of a day.

Our route from Fort William to Gairloch
Our route from Fort William to Gairloch

After filling our petrol tank and dosing the kids up with travel sickness pills we took the road out towards Inverness, before turning left at Invergarry towards Kyle of Lochalsh.

We knew we were heading into tourist country when we spotted a lone bagpipe player, standing in a layby near a wood, no doubt waiting for the next tourist bus to arrive!

Cairns at Loch Garry
Cairns at Loch Garry

Our first stop was at Loch Garry viewpoint, where you get a great view of the loch, which is supposedly the same shape as Scotland. I think this was a rather fanciful claim from the tourist board but it is still an impressive view. Visitors have also built lots of small cairns.

Bridge over River Shiel
Bridge over River Shiel

At Glenshiel it’s hard to imagine this was the site of the last battle on UK soil involving foreign troops. Spanish troops were defeated during a Jacobite rebellion in 1719.

Eilean Donan castle
Eilean Donan castle

We stopped for lunch at Eilean Donan castle, the castle that used to appear on the BBC adverts. There’s no denying that it is in a spectacular position, on an island overlooking three lochs. Unfortunately it is also a magnet for every tour bus north of Edinburgh. We decided not to go into the castle but did make use of the onsite cafe, for lunch.

A890 towards Achnasheen
A890 towards Achnasheen

We left the tourist coaches behind after Eilean Donan, and took the A890 to Achnasheen. I’d been expecting a single track mountain road, and whilst it was initially one lane (albeit with plenty of passing places) it turned back to a two way road only a few miles in. It was very quiet, and a pleasure to drive with hardly another car on the road.

As we were driving in the middle of summer it was rather strange passing under an avalanche shelter and seeing the snow marker poles either side of the road. Roadworks were taking place to shore up part of the hillside – last winter a rockfall blocked the road and resulted in motorists having to take a 150 mile diversion!

Loch Maree from Glen Docherty
Loch Maree from Glen Docherty

From the small hamlet of Achnasheen (population 28) we took the road out to Kinlochewe. After driving up the pass you’re treated to a magnificent view of Loch Maree, which is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland.

There are a variety of stopping places and short walk options alongside Loch Maree. The Beinn Eighe visitor centre has several nature trails. White tailed sea eagles nested on one of the Loch Maree islands earlier this year, and the area also has pine martens, golden eagles and crossbills although you don’t see these whilst driving past at 50mph!

Just outside Gairloch
Just outside Gairloch

The final stretch is once again single track and the road is rather potted. Fortunately this doesn’t last long, and you soon reach the welcome tourist facilities of Gairloch.

More info:

  • Fill your petrol tank in Fort William (Morrisons is one of the cheapest garages).  We found petrol costs were up to 10p per litre more expensive in the highlands.
  • Check road conditions before you travel.  The road between Kinlochewe and Gairloch was shut a few days after we travelled due to a landslide caused by torrential rain.
  • Take a picnic, or work out where you’re going to stop for lunch in advance.  We only saw a couple of places to eat at, although I’m sure we could have found a few more if we’d checked out Trip Advisor beforehand.
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Ennerdale, Black Sail and Haystacks, Cumbria

Ennerdale, in the north west of the Lake District receives relatively few visitors compared to other parts of the Lakes.  It requires more of an effort to get to, but rewards walkers and cyclists with some outstanding mountain adventures.

Early morning view over Ennerdale lake
Early morning view over Ennerdale lake

We were spending one night at Ennerdale Youth Hostel, then walking to Black Sail Youth Hostel for the following night. Black Sail is the most remote hostel in England and inaccessible by car.  It’s a converted shepherd’s bothy, sleeping sixteen people in three bedrooms. Due to its location on the Coast to Coast path it’s popular with walkers so our stay was booked many months previously.

The drive to Ennerdale took longer than expected due to a very busy M6. Away from the motorway we had a straightforward trip to Ennerdale hostel, although the last couple of miles is on a forest track, adding to the remoteness of the location. We arrived pretty late so were in bed before long.

The next day dawned warm and sunny, not something that can always be guaranteed in the Lakes! After a relaxed breakfast, we made our pack lunches and set off for Black Sail.

The route to Black Sail
The route to Black Sail

We were travelling with walking friends who had a big day in the mountains planned, ending at Black Sail, but this wasn’t feasible with the kids. Instead we took the straightforward route to Black Sail, walking a well defined track along the valley floor. It’s about 4 miles to the hostel via this route so we arrived mid-morning.

Black Sail hostel
Black Sail hostel

I’d seen plenty of pictures of Black Sail before as I’ve wanted to visit for sometime but the first glimpse of the building was still exciting. Lakeland peaks surround the hostel, which faces out onto an intense green panorama. Despite the number of photos I took it still remains hard to convey how stunning the location is.

View from Black Sail YHA
View from Black Sail YHA

The hostel kitchen, common room and a toilet remain open all day, providing passing walkers with the option to use its facilities in return for a small donation. The hostel reception opens at 5pm, so after a short break we headed up Haystacks, the hill directly behind the hostel.

Haystacks, at 1959ft above sea level, just misses out on the title of mountain. However it is a popular fell, and was Alfred Wainwright’s favourite hill, so much so that his ashes are scattered in the tarn on top. We took the path up to Scarth Gap, where we met large numbers of walkers coming from Buttermere.

View from Haystacks
View from Haystacks

From Scarth Gap we had an easy scramble to the summit. The kids loved this, although you do need a head for heights.

Scrambling on Haystacks
Scrambling on Haystacks

Innominate Tarn was a busy lunch spot. It also appeared to be the resting place of others apart from Wainwright if the bunch of carnations in the water was anything to go by. Whilst I can understand the sentiment they appeared completely out of place in the mountain landscape.

Continuing on, we passed Blackbeck Tarn, glad that the weather had been dry recently as the bog cotton signalled a rather marshy area. The next section went steeply downhill with stone steps much of the way down. I was happy we weren’t going in the opposite direction!

Walking past Blackbeck Tarn
Walking past Blackbeck Tarn

The final part to the hostel took us over grass covered moraines, and involved a couple of stream crossings.  With so little rain, the water was low and conveniently placed stepping stones helped us keep our feet dry.

Back at the hostel we waited for our friends to return from their walk. It was late afternoon when we spotted them coming off the peaks opposite. They’d all been excited walking down as they had mistaken the hostel generator for an ice cream freezer! Once the generator was turned on it was hard to mistake it for anything else, as it certainly shattered the peace. We couldn’t really complain though as it meant we got a cooked dinner.

Black Sail Youth Hostel (with generator/ice cream cart on far right)
Black Sail Youth Hostel (with generator/ice cream cart on far right)

We’d booked an evening meal at the hostel, which I was rather glad of as it saved us having to carry food in. Dinner was of the one pot variety – tomato and lentil soup, rice and beef curry or vegetable tagine, followed by apple crumble and custard. It wasn’t haute cuisine but after a day in the hills it was tasty and filling.  Like the hostels of old, we mucked in and after each course washed up our plates and cutlery.

Dinner was followed by an impromptu kids cricket match.  Not the easiest bowling or fielding conditions given the slopes, rough grass and boggy areas but the kids didn’t seem to mind.

We slept well that night. The bunk room was basic, and any trip to the toilet would have necessitated going outside to reach the facilities but fortunately they weren’t required. Next morning we again took advantage of the hostels catering facilities with fried breakfasts for all. We sang Happy Birthday to one of the other visitors at breakfast, who was celebrating his 50th with a trip to the hostel.

Our route out took us back along the valley floor, although for variety we walked on the opposite side of the river. Our night at Black Sail had been worth the wait, and I hope it’s one of the memories the kids remember in adulthood.

More info:

  • The walk up Haystacks takes you into mountain territory, for which you should be properly equipped and prepared for.
  • To book the Youth Hostels visit http://www.yha.org.uk/

Costs

  • A family bunk room at Ennerdale, sleeping 2 adults and 2 children, costs £50 per night.
  • A similar room at Black Sail costs from £45 per night, according to the website, although availability is very limited. An alternative option is a room in the shared dormitory (£20 per adult, reduced price for children).
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Cycling the Kennet and Avon cycle route, Berkshire

Looking for a flat family friendly cycle route in Berkshire? Then why not cycle from Newbury to Reading along the Kennet and Avon cycle route. This is part of Sustrans route 4, and for most of the way follows the canal towpath.  It’s a 19 mile stretch but easily shortened if you prefer a shorter ride.

Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path
Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path

Our journey started with a couple of train rides to reach Newbury. It was a little stressful getting four bikes on the trains, as despite it being a Sunday, they were packed with shoppers and there was no dedicated bike storage.  On the second train we were blessed with a helpful conductor who helped us organise a place for our bikes and find seating.

Once in Newbury we followed the signs to the Wharf to pick up the cycle trail.  We’d managed to coincide our ride with a waterways festival, so the first mile out of Newbury had plenty of walkers and families out for the afternoon.

Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks
Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks

After a couple of miles the Sustrans route leaves the canal towpath and takes you through Thatcham. Whilst you are still on a dedicated cycle path it is initially next to a very busy road, past houses and industrial units. Not the scenic and relaxing ride that I had in mind! An alternative is to stay on the towpath and walk (as it turns into a footpath only), or perhaps start the route from Thatcham railway station where it picks up the canal path again.

After rejoining the towpath you once again feel like you’re back in the countryside.  We stopped for a belated picnic, and hastily ate our sandwiches as it was already approaching mid-afternoon.

Picnic time
Picnic time

Back onto our bikes again, and a quiet stretch of the canal. It was a windy day so I was glad of the decision to ride west to east as it wouldn’t have been much fun cycling into the wind.  We saw quite a few birds, including grebes, coots and Canada geese but I didn’t spot the hoped for blue streak of a kingfisher at any point.

kennet4
Negotiating the gates

Some parts of the towpath lead directly onto roads, albeit quiet country ones.  It was easy to tell when road access was getting near as the number of people we’d see would increase.  A particularly busy spot was near a pub garden that backed onto the canal. I would have liked to stop there for  a refreshment break but we were already pushed for time so it was not to be. Fortunately we had our water bottles with us.

kennet5

Near Reading the track temporarily diverts away from the canal, past some fishing lakes, and then alongside the M4. You return once again to the towpath, with plenty of permanently moored houseboats lining the canal.

Away from the canal path
Away from the canal path

Arriving into the busy city of Reading is a shock, but the towpath held one last surprise.  Along the opposite side of the bank are houses with gardens leading directly onto the canal.  Every other house has a kayak or small boat ready for canal exploration.  It’s great to think that a row of suburban houses has a secret canal hidden behind them.

We felt a little out of place walking back through Reading centre, amongst all of the weekend shoppers. Nethertheless I was happy to have spent my afternoon cycling rather than stuck in shops!

If you fancy a walk instead you might be interested in a Cold War Greenham Common walk, a windmill walk at Bedwyn or viewing the Caen Hill locks. All of them include various stretches of the Kennet and Avon canal.

More info:

  • Sustrans map of the route: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/kennet-and-avon-cycle-route
  • The route is flat so suitable for family cycling.   The obvious danger is the canal itself, as in places it would be very easy to cycle off the towpath and into the canal!
  • We cycle regularly so the route length wasn’t an issue. If you’re not used to cycling you could easily shorten the route by doing an out and back cycle ride.
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Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford, East Sussex

Whilst visiting friends on the south coast we made a quick trip to the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford.

The park is easily accessible from the A259 and offers walking trails, canoeing on the Cuckmere River and a valley floor cycle route. Most visitors come here to see the Seven Sisters, the name given to the chalk cliffs.  If you’re hoping to photograph the classic postcard view of these, ensure you take the footpath to Seaford Head on the opposite side of the Cuckmere River.

As it was a sweltering hot day we decided to walk the 2 km easy access path down to the shingle beach at Cuckmere Haven.  This appears to be the most popular option, as there were many other families and groups of language students walking the same route.

Walking in the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford
Walking in the Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford

After reaching the beach, the lure of walking to the top of the first cliff was too great to ignore.  The kids had no intention of walking any further on such a hot day, and stayed on the beach (with a responsible adult of course).

Seven Sisters
Seven Sisters

The path up was straightforward, although rather steep in places. We took a short break half way up, supposedly to admire the view but really it was just a convenient excuse for a breather.  Looking back down we could see the artificially straightened River Cuckmere and the salt lagoon just north of the beach.

View back down over the beach
View back down over the beach

The view from the top of the cliff is one of the best in southern England. At this point I was very glad not to have bought youngest son up with me as the cliff edges are completely open and accessible to all. Visitors are, quite rightly, left to judge the safety themselves rather than be faced with fences or keep out signs.

From the top of the Seven Sisters
From the top of the Seven Sisters

We sat on top for a while, reluctant to leave such a magnificent view. Eventually the prospect of a cold drink at the cafe appealed and we headed back  towards the park entrance.  Despite it being late afternoon a bus deposited another large group of visitors just as we were leaving – I hope they enjoyed their visit as much as I did.

More info:

  • There is a seasonal visitor centre and cafe next to the car park.  You can pick up leaflets with walk routes and a map from the car park and bus stop.
  • The bus stop is opposite the visitor centre, with frequent buses from Brighton, Seaford and Eastbourne.
  • The trail to the beach is designated as easy access, and is suitable for wheelchairs and buggies.   Once you reach the beach you’ll have to contend with shingle.

Costs:

  • The park is free to enter, although you’ll need to pay to park your car. It costs £2.50 for up to 2 hours, £3.50 for more than 2 hours.

Further info: http://www.sevensisters.org.uk

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