An athletic afternoon at the Skye Highland Games, Portree

I’ve wanted to visit a Highland games for years. It was on my ‘must do’ list before I’d even written my UK bucket list. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I planned our trip to Skye to coincide with their Highland games.

Field events at Skye Highland Games
Field events at Skye Highland Games

What are Highland games?

Highland games take place throughout Scotland between May and October. Although each event is slightly different they usually encompass piping, dancing, field and track events. It’s thought the games originated as a way for clan chieftains to choose their best bodyguards and fighters. Seems logical, I wouldn’t mess with someone who could toss a tree trunk at me!

The Skye Highland Games are held at The Lump. This aptly named area is a wooded promontory with a natural amphitheatre overlooking Portree harbour. It’s a great location and, although busy, it was easy enough to find a space to watch. Those more organised than us bought along picnic blankets and camping chairs. Why didn’t I think of that?

Piping

Most of the piping competitions took place the day before the main games. A fortunate coincidence from my perspective as I’m not a huge fan of bagpipes. Despite this we somehow managed to position ourselves next to the remaining piping competition. Perhaps that’s why there was a space!

Band at the Skye Highland Games
Band at the Skye Highland Games

That said, I enjoyed the interludes when the Isle of Skye Pipe Band marched through the games field. I couldn’t fail to be moved by the spectacle of the band members dressed in traditional clothing, combined with the sound of massed pipes and drums, parading through the grounds.

Dance

The dance competitions took place on the opposite side of the arena. Children of all ages, and a few grown ups, danced the hornpipe, Irish jig and reel.

Dancers - and tug of war - at Skye Highland Games
Dancers – and tug of war – at Skye Highland Games

I have two left feet so feel unqualified to report on the dance competitions. Suffice to say there was lots of jumping up and down on the spot, pointed toes and outstretched arms. I can only apologise to the Highland dancers for this simplistic description of their celebrated dance.

Track events

The track events were a mix of running laps around the arena and a longer hill race.

Whilst some of the runners looked like they’d trained hard for the races there were a smattering of tourists too. I almost wished I’d brought my trainers. Instead I contented myself with working out who I’d have beaten. And who would have beaten me.

Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games
Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games

The main running event was the hill race. After leaving The Lump competitors ran down to the beach and up the hill opposite. Runners collected a token to prove they’d reached the marker flag before racing back to the arena. It’s just under three miles in total, assuming you take the direct route. The hill climb wouldn’t have bothered me; I’d be more worried about getting lost en route!

Field events

The quintessential Highland games events are the heavy ones. Hammers, tree trunks and stones are flung varying distances and heights. It’s rather ironic this display of manliness takes place in a kilt.

Indeed, Highland Garb is compulsory for these events. An understandable, albeit somewhat bizarre, requirement given that most of the open event competitors weren’t from Scotland!

Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games
Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games

There were some seriously impressive competitors in the field events. I couldn’t lift 56lb, let alone throw it several feet in the air. There must be some very sore backs after these events.

Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games
Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games

The penultimate field event was tossing the caber. Surprisingly it’s not the distance the trunk is thrown that counts. Instead, contestants have to toss a tree trunk so that it turns end over end.

Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games
Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games

One moment will remain engraved on my mind forever. The hill race runners returned for a final lap at exactly the same time as one of the caber competitors managed to lift and toss. As the tosser (yes, seriously) staggered towards the runners with his caber I had visions of it going seriously wrong. I could hardly bear to watch. Fortunately all ended well and no runners were impaled with a caber!

I’m glad to report that my first Highland games lived up to my high expectations. Have you been to the Highland games? If so, what did you think?

More info:

  • The Skye Highland Games are held in Portree at the start of August. Tickets cost £10 per adult for the main event day, there is a reduced fee for the earlier piping competitions.
Share this:

Top tips for visiting Edinburgh Festival Fringe with your family

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which takes place each August, is an incredible collection of over 30,000 performances ranging from comedy to music to theatre. There’s bound to be something to suit your tastes, however weird and wacky they are. Yet with so much on offer, knowing how to tackle the Fringe can be a little daunting for first timers. Our family has just returned so I’ve put together some top tips for enjoying your Fringe trip.

1. Don’t make this your first trip to Edinburgh. If you’ve never been before visit outside of festival season and get the tourist sights out of the way.

2. Book accommodation early as you’ll be competing with Fringe performers, festival goers and tourists. We found it cheaper to stay in an Airbnb house outside of Edinburgh and travel in via train each day. You’ll need at least a couple of days to experience the Fringe; ideally longer!

3. The Fringe programme is released in early June and it’s worth obtaining in advance of your visit.  It’s free from the Fringe website but postage and packing is extra. The programme is split into different types of performance and includes information on age suitability, timings etc. Alternatively you can download the brochure from the Edinburgh Fringe website or just pick up a copy when you’re in Edinburgh.

4. Book specific shows that you don’t want to miss in advance but wait until you arrive for the rest. The streets are full of performers andpeople handing out show flyers and you’ll regret not  having the flexibility to see some of these if you book everything beforehand. If you’re visiting halfway through the Fringe you can take advantage of the show reviews. The List publishes links to all reviews and categorises the shows with stars according to the reviews; definitely worth checking out before buying several tickets.

Edinburgh Fringe show flyers
Edinburgh Fringe show flyers

5. Check age restrictions on both shows and venues. Evening shows will generally be more risqué but that also applies to some of the daytime shows. We found there were plenty of family shows for young children but it was tricky finding the right shows for our older children. We ended up watching a couple of 14+ events; these included swearing but probably nothing more than they’re exposed to at school.

6. Even if you’re primarily visiting for the comedy it’s good to choose a variety of shows otherwise it might get a little repetitive. Aside from comedy we saw a musical about two serial killers, a slapstick Dutch group who played over 100 instruments and an improvised musical based on The Hobbit.

7. Our first port of call each day was the half price Virgin hut. The hut sells half price tickets for shows on the same day. After 5.30pm you can also book for shows up until 2pm following day. There’s a huge variety of shows available (although obviously not the well known names) but you need to know what you want to see before you get to the cashier. The Edinburgh Fringe app lists the half price shows which is useful for planning but you still need to buy the tickets in person.

Half price hut, Edinburgh Fringe
Half price hut, Edinburgh Fringe

8. Leave 30 minute travel time between shows as a minimum. There’s a map on the back page of the festival guide which lists the venues; some people advocate seeing all the shows in one place to save on travel time. Although many venues are relatively close together it takes longer than you expect to walk between them as the city is so busy. Most shows last for one hour but check timings as some are longer (indeed, some are much longer!). We saw three shows each day; you could see more if you’re staying in the city but remember to factor in time to eat, drink and use the loo too.

9. Shows are unreserved seating so get to the venue early if you want to sit at the front. If you’re booked for an evening show be aware some venues have security screening in place.

10. The Free Fringe, as it is aptly named, offers hundreds of free shows and can be a good way to see something more experimental. Although if you’ve enjoyed the show the performers expect a contribution in the hat afterwards. And remember that it’s not just the Fringe. There’s also the Military Tattoo, the Book Festival, the Art Festival and the International Festival. Did I mention Edinburgh is a tad busy in August?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of tips. Our family really enjoyed visiting the Fringe shows, and it’s another experience to tick off my UK bucket list. Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?

Share this:

Magical Lantern Festival 2017, Chiswick House, London

It’s the Chinese New Year this Saturday. And it was my birthday last weekend. What better way for us to celebrate both events than with a trip to the 2017 Magical Lantern Festival in London.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

This is the second year of the London festival. From my perspective it’s a much more relaxing way to celebrate the Chinese New Year than getting squished at the festivities in London’s Chinatown. Although a lot of other people have the same idea.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The 2017 festival theme is ‘Explore the Silk Road’. One of those exciting sounding places that I have always wanted to travel along. The marketing blurb promises a journey through Central Asia, India and China. Via Aladdin and the Houses of Parliament.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The trail, through the grounds of Chiswick House, took us about an hour to walk round. It’s flat and accessible for all but there were bottlenecks at some displays. Each lantern is accompanied by a couple of lines of explanatory text in Mandarin (I presume) and English.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

It sounds really obvious but remember to dress for the outdoors. It was freezing during our visit, although we’d probably not helped the situation by roaming the Richmond Park tundra until sunset. The upside of the weather was the frozen lake. I love how it blurred the reflections of the lanterns around it.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are not the floating fire starters that you imagine. In fact, impressive though they are, I wouldn’t think of them as lanterns. More like giant illuminated sculptures. I’d love to know more about they how they were made.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

One of the surprising highlights for me was Chiswick House. I’ve never visited in the daylight but loved the glimpses of statues, architectural details and the villa itself. I’m not usually one for historical houses but I am inspired to return.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are very well displayed and make the most of their setting. It’s hard to pick out favourites but I enjoyed these pandas. They weren’t the biggest or most intricate, I just like pandas!

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

At the end of the trail there’s a group of food and drink stalls, including an ice bar. There’s also an ice rink which looked much smaller than the advertised 600 square metres. As I had no desire to celebrate my birthday with a broken leg we didn’t try it out.

Magical Lantern Festival, London
Magical Lantern Festival, London

Overall we were really impressed. If you’re looking for something a little different to do in London over the next few weekends I’d definitely suggest checking this festival out.

More info:

  • The Magical Lantern Festival runs in London until 26 February. It’s open Thursday-Sunday evenings, and throughout half-term. Buy your ticket and book a timed entry slot in advance on the festival website. An advance purchase weekend family ticket costs £56.
  • Chiswick House is a 10 minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.
Share this:

What’s it like to run the London marathon?

Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (only 1 in 15 entrants secured a ballot place). I was even more excited and nervous six months later.

Getting to the start

I wasn’t the only one. The train to Blackheath was packed with runners discussing finish times, training plans and previous races. Chatting to each other helped settle the nerves but there was no getting away from the challenge of what we were about to do. As we disembarked a helicopter overhead was transmitting pictures of us streaming up to the start area. We were famous!

On the way to the blue start, Blackheath
On the way to the blue start, Blackheath

It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for the marathon but from my perspective it was seamless. Runners are split between three different starts; red, green and blue, which all join up by the third mile. Each colour has its own area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.

Ah the toilets. Female urinals. I have never seen so many perplexed women holding up bits of cardboard and wondering how to use them. And what to do with them when finished. (Note to organisers, next year put the rubbish container inside the urinal area).

Decisions, decisions!
Decisions, decisions!

Fortunately there were alternatives to the ladies urinals, as long as you didn’t mind queuing. The portaloos certainly seemed the more popular option.

The baggage drop took seconds, as did the pick up afterwards. With time to spare I decided on one last cup of coffee before the run. This wasn’t my wisest decision of the day but I never say no to coffee.

The baggage lorries
The baggage lorries

Although I’d arrived early the minutes flew by and it was soon time to find my starting pen. I was in pen nine, the final pen on the blue start. It took about ten minutes from the race start to the time I crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I stayed clear of the pacers as they were usually surrounded by crowds of runners.

So how did the race go?

London marathon miles 1-6

These were my novelty miles. Running past houses whose residents had come out to cheer us on. Hearing the race marshals shouting “Hump!” every few hundred metres to warn us of road humps. Spotting the Guinness World Record contenders and feeling relieved I didn’t have to run as a dinosaur or carry a boat. High-fiving the children beside the road and trying not to miss any of them out. I quickly learnt to avoid the plastic bottles in the road after the water stations and not to stand on sticky gel sachets.

The weather was perfect for running; cool, mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. I’d wavered at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt. I chose the warmer option. Although if it had warmed up much more I’d have been faffing around re-pinning my number onto my T- shirt whilst running.

Six miles in and the crowds were out in Greenwich town, drinking beer at 11am and making lots of noise around the Cutty Sark. I don’t think many people heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!

Waiting in the start pen
Waiting in the start pen

London marathon miles 6-13

These miles were great. I was still fresh enough to enjoy the experience and towards the end it included my race highlight, Tower Bridge.

However I was regretting my last minute cup of coffee. There were long queues at the first few toilet stops and I didn’t want to waste time. This didn’t appear to affect the men who were relieving themselves wherever there was a gap in spectators. I eventually took a break and queued for a few minutes but the relief was worth it.

As I ran one of my favourite diversion tactics was reading the spectator’s signs: “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run 26.2 miles” and “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear” (I was, but couldn’t help smiling anyway).

On to the best part of my race. Everything I’d read about Tower Bridge was true. It really is a fantastic experience to run across the bridge, cheered on by the crowds. I couldn’t resist another quick break, this time to take some photos.

Heading over Tower Bridge, London
Heading over Tower Bridge, London

London marathon miles 13-18

After Tower Bridge the route turns right along The Highway and you’re passed, on the opposite side of the road, by the fast runners approaching their 23rd mile. I looked over enviously. When it was my turn to run back I looked at those just passing their 13 mile mark and wondered if they had similar feelings. Particularly given they were being overtaken by the road sweepers and followed by coaches to pick up retiring runners.

Everyone who runs the London marathon talks about the support from the spectators and volunteer marshals. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But sometimes I relished the quieter parts of the route, away from the shouts and cheers.

Ben, the man running 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, and attempting to raise £250,000 for anti-bullying charities was running near me for some of the way. Wow, I could hardly walk the following day let alone run another marathon. I also ran beside a man with ‘Sexy’ printed on his top. The spectators loved supporting him!

Towards the end of this section I’d eaten most of the food I’d bought along. Most runners used energy gels, and spectators were handing out jelly babies and Haribos, but I relied on my stash of Nakd bars. I liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face one again.

London marathon miles 19-26

These miles were hard, very hard. I always knew I was going to finish but my running reduced to a shuffle, interspersed with bouts of walking. At around 19 miles I got stitch. I hardly ever get stitch! Added to this, my knees and shins were screaming with every step. Did I hit the dreaded wall? I don’t know, but my body had decided it was time to stop.

Almost finished
Almost finished

Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I wanted my medal. I let the last few miles pass in a blur. Head down and one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah running towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.

The finish

I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). It was such a relief to reach the finish line and receive my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those last few miles.

Finished!
Finished!

After the medal came the goody bag queue. I received a huge T-shirt, a bag full of snacks (mostly distributed to the family later) and a welcome bottle of water.

Fifteen minutes later I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. She let me know I’d run the London marathon in 4 hours 28 minutes and 2 seconds. I’d also raised almost £600 for Style Acre, an Oxfordshire based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.

So how do I sum up my London marathon experience? If I had to define it in just three words, they’d be noisy, inspirational and painful. But I cannot miss out the cheering spectators and helpful marshals, perfect weather and world-class sights. I don’t plan to run again though; my knees tell me it was a once in a lifetime experience. And it’s only fair to let someone else take a chance with the ballot.

If you fancy running the marathon next year then pop over to the Virgin London marathon website for more information on the ballot and other ways to enter.

Share this: