Monday, 29 August 2016

10 Tips for Surviving the Edinburgh Festival

I know it's all just finished for another year but, trust me, if you're thinking of tackling the Edinburgh Festival it's good to plan in advance.  This is our third festival - we even honeymooned there - and each time we approached it a little differently.  Here's what we've learned...

1. Pace yourself - it's a marathon not a sprint.  Everywhere you look there are exciting things to see and do and you really can't do everything.  Don't blow your party wad on day 1 and spend the rest of your time playing catch up.

2.  Check your venue timings and locations carefully when you book.  The worst thing to see at the festival is people leaving a gig 5 minutes before the end because they have another gig to get to.  Not all the venues are next to each other so check them out on a map beforehand and allow yourself time to get between sites.

3.  Take chances.  We all know what we like but this is the perfect time to try something different and it doesn't have to cost the earth - check out the half price hut where you can buy tickets for that day and take a punt on something you wouldn't normally consider seeing.  We've discovered some amazing performances this way and have only had one or two let downs.

4. Check out the Free Fringe.  There is TONS of free stuff to see - most of it is on a "put something into the hat at the end" arrangement.  Some is indoors and there's loads of free street theatre - it's a great place to spot potential stars of the future or just enjoy the colour and banter of the street performers.

5. Drink responsibly.  No, I'm not coming over all sanctimonious - just think where you drink.  The drinks are eye wateringly expensive (over £5 per pint!) at the main venues so stick to smaller local pubs or pack a hip flask.  

6. Go sightseeing.  Edinburgh isn't just about the festival, there are tons of other amazing things to see there too.  Take a walk around Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat, explore the castle or go on a ghost walk.  There are lots of tourist traps but it's still a beautiful old city with loads of hidden corners to discover.

Greyfriars Bobby

7. Think about your accommodation and book WELL in advance.  Seriously, it's worse than Bethlehem at Christmas.  We've done a B&B, a privately rented flat on the outskirts and this time we took Delores and stayed at Mortonhall campsite.Don't feel you have to pay through the nose to stay in the city centre - there are much cheaper places a little way out which brings me to...

Mortonhall Campsite
8.  Use the buses.  Honestly, they're brilliant.  Check out the Lothian Buses website for all the info you need.  They also have a superb app allowing you to plan your routes around the city.  We were there for a week so bought a Ridacard which saved us tons.  They run all through the night too so you can get home after even the latest of gigs.

View from our bus stop
9. Dress appropriately.  We were so lucky this year, it was warm and sunny for the entire week of the festival, but it's not always that way so make sure you're ready for anything. Also get something decent on your feet - there's a LOT of walking involved and, basically, Edinburgh is one giant cobbled hill (though it was rather fun watching a few of the drunk ladies trying to walk across cobbles in stilettos...)  I was trying out a pair of sports shoes from Columbia Sportswear and they were excellent - light, bright and waterproof!

Utterly brilliant wherever they went
10.  Pack a rucksack.  Yeah, I know this one maybe sounds a bit dull, but the rucksack allowed us to take drinks and snacks (we weren't on a mega tight budget but 7 days of eating out would have put a serious dent in the bank balance!)  We packed snacks and waterproofs - I was using a bright and breezy Columbia jacket which was soft and light and easily packed into the bottom of my bag.  I didn't need it to keep the rain off but it was handy for keeping me warm on the night bus "home".

Hope those have helped in some small way - we'll definitely be back again - I just need to sleep this one off first - cheers!

Cool shades, cool tent, cool beer and very cool Tshirt from Columbia.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The 7 Deadly Sins of Campsites

It could have been so lovely...
After a couple of nights in rather lovely hotels our journey continued with 4 nights at a campsite in Fife.  I had high hopes for this site, it’s located right on the coast with stunning views out to sea and the pretty village of Crail is right next door - perfect for walks to the shops, cafes or pubs. 

The problem is that although the site (Sauchope Links Park in case you were wondering) is in an ideal location, it is far from an ideal site and, as with most things, it’s not one big thing that’s the problem but rather a collection of little things, things like...

  1. Being handed a printed list of rules as soon as you arrive.  Nothing says “welcome, relax and enjoy yourself” quite like a list of do’s and don’ts that look as if they were written by an overzealous Blackpool B&B landlady in the 1970s.
    Even Moses only had to deal with
    10 commandments.
  2.  A code for the toilet block because when I’m desperate for the loo I really want to try and remember the code, swear several times, turn the knob the wrong way, have to start again and then swear some more before finally cracking the code just in the nick of time.  Oh and if you could ensure the hinges on the toilet block door are ferocious enough to make it slam good and loud so the whole campsite can hear it banging throughout the night that would be great too.
    Krypton factor entry system
  3. Grotty showers.  The temperature will only ever be one of 2 things – hot enough to burn the flesh off your bones or cold enough to freeze your assets.  And there is a special level in hell reserved for whoever invented the push button water supply ensuring you spend half your shower freezing to death, dripping with water and shampoo while desperately prodding the wall with soap in your eyes and trying to locate the damn button again.
    I love the smell of a damp shower
    in the mornings.
  4.  Wedging us in like sardines.  This particular site has this down to a fine art.  The pitches are so small and closely spaced that caravan owners have nowhere else to park their cars apart from on the grass between the pitches and there’s only 1m clearance on most pitches between you and the site road either side.  We’re currently on a pitch that shouldn’t be a pitch at the end of a row with a road running around 3 sides of the van – rather like being parked in the middle of Hanger Lane Gyratory System.  The turning circle around the end is so tight that caravans, motorhomes and the local bin van generally need 2 or 3 goes to make it round – we’re thinking of holding up cards awarding people marks out of 10 for their attempts.
    Three goes for this one - only 6.5 marks awarded
  5.  Inadequate numbers of showers.  There are 44 touring pitches on the site plus 5 or so “pods” and there are just 3 unisex showers to keep us all clean.  Yup, just three.  Of course this could be a plan by the site to encourage us to chat more as we queue politely and admire each other’s PJs.
  6. The silent loo.  OK, I know this is probably an expensive and seemingly unnecessary fix, but it’s so nice when a site thinks to pipe music into the toilets – even if, as one site once did, all you get is 1 Enya album on a perpetual loop.  Maybe the gents is different but in the ladies there are a variety of methods employed to disguise the sound of our bathroom visits – the well timed cough, fiddling with the toilet role holder or the shuffling of feet.  A little Enya can go a long way.
  7. Allocated pitches.  I know I’m a woman that knows her own mind and hates being told what to do (just ask poor Steve), but my heart sinks when we arrive at an allocated pitches site like this one.  Plenty of other sites are able to treat you like a grown up and allow you to choose your own pitch so why can’t others?  We’ve basically paid good money for 4 nights on a pitch that is more like a traffic island than a campsite.  (When we arrived we both asked nicely if we could move onto one of the empty pitches, and there have been several available every night including one opposite us, but were repeatedly told no) and we can’t afford to just take off and pay to stay someplace else. It brings out the rebel in me and makes me want to park diagonally across 3 pitches...
    Note the wrap around road.

Of course it could be that I’m just getting grumpy as I get older, a sort of Victoria Meldrew if you will, but I’m sure we’re not the only ones with campsite peeves, are we? 

"Here's what you could've won" - all the pitches we weren't
allowed on

(If you read the blog regularly you’ll know I rarely have a bad word to say about the places we stay, and in 6 years of travelling the length and breadth of the UK this is only the second time we’ve been unlucky.  We tried to do the right thing and raise our concerns when we arrived rather than just bitch about it online but were both told that nothing could be done.  They did say they’d look into a refund but nothing ever materialised.)


This is my TripAdvisor review & the manger's, rather curt response - it's the same tone we were faced with when we tried talking to them.

Just to clear up a couple of things: I didn't demand a sea view - of course it would have been nice - I simply asked if it was possible for us to move to another pitch and explained why.  In fact one of the pitches they offered that I was quite happy to go and take a look at didn't have a sea view and the only reason we didn't move there was because their system was wrong and there was already someone one it.  

Secondly, there must be another issue with their system because the sea view pitch almost opposite ours remained vacant the entire time we were there. And I agree the bin lorry was only there for a few minutes, as was every other vehicle that drove within 1m of the van throughout the day.

Also, they didn't tell us about the other shower block when we arrived - that would have been useful to know.

Here are some other photos of vehicles passing...

I honestly never complain about things, take a look through the blog and you'll see, but this really hasn't been a great experience at all. (Even if I had been the most rude & demanding customer they had ever experienced, which I really wasn’t, that is still an inappropriate response, especially on a public forum).

Final update: We contacted head office who just forwarded our email back to the lovely Caroline and we received a similar response to the one above.  I'm just drawing a line now - life is too short to care about a place that clearly doesn't care about you. I've never had an experience quite like this one so time to move on to new & more fun things - none of which will ever involve Largo Leisure.  😀

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Polite Society

James Hogg
This week we learned about James Hogg.  For those of you who aren’t au fait with slightly obscure Scottish poets (really, you should have paid more attention at school!) let me tell you a little about him.  He was a shepherd who had a tough start in life. While he was tending his sheep he penned the odd poem or two which were so good that they caught the eye of Sir Walter Scott, with whom he became great friends.

Sir Walter tried to support his friend and introduced him to the right people in the right circles but, according to the monument we were sat next to, James found “polite society” a bit too much and opted instead to stick to the shepherding with occasional bits of poetry on the side.

The reason this struck a chord as we were sat there pondering life in the beautiful sunshine around St Mary’s Loch is because we knew we were heading up market that evening for dinner and a stay in the utterly fabulous Horsehoe Inn in Eddleston, just north of Peebles (yes we will get to Edinburgh eventually, I told you we weren’t in a hurry!)

There’s a large car park between St Mary’s Loch and Loch of the Lowes where you can pause for a drink or just slouch in the sun and watch the world go by.  We visited on one of the hottest days of the year so I was tempted by a dip until I heard the howls from those braving the chilly waters.  That’s when we took a wander around and instead encountered James Hogg and his poetry.

Loch of the Lowes

St Mary's Loch

I must admit I did feel a little self conscious when we pulled into the carpark of the Horseshoe Inn – Delores is far from inconspicuous and is currently spattered with the blood of a million midges – but we were welcomed warmly and immediately sat down with a huge complimentary pot of tea and a couple of slices of cake.

Becoming concerned that our dusty hiking attire was lowering the standards somewhat we scuttled off for a shower and dug out the nicest clothes we’d bought with us ready for dinner.

Now, here’s the thing – I wish I’d paid more attention to Master Chef because then I’d probably be able to give a review that properly does the food there justice.  We both decided on the taster menu to push us out of our comfort zones and ensure we tried things we wouldn’t normally eat.  The wine list is extensive but the wine waiter (am I meant to call him a sommelier?) was kind and helpful and recommended a bottle that would suit both the meal and our pockets.

The nicest thing about eating in a nice restaurant is the extra space between tables – nothing I hate more than being rammed in so close to every other diner that you could steal a chip from their plate if you wanted.  Not that there were chips here, oh no – here’s a few of the things we were treated to:

  • ·         Cured sea reared trout with cauliflower cous-cous and egg yolk
  • ·         Cured smoked duck with cucumber, beetroot and marinated tofu
  • ·         Mackerel and vegetable Escabeche
  • ·         Beef sirloin with carrot puree, broccoli and wild mushrooms
  • ·         Cashel blue with apricot and ginger chutney and celery
  • ·         Passion fruit and pink peppercorn arctic roll with raspberries

That wasn’t the whole thing – there was plenty more besides, but I do try to keep the blog short and punchy!

To our humble palates the whole thing tasted fabulous – I was particularly impressed by the smoked tofu which I absolutely expected to hate but which turned out to be a mouthful of tangy, smoky yummyness – see, that’s what I mean about pushing yourself to eat stuff you wouldn’t normally bother with, sometimes it can lead to wonderful surprises.

I’m not a puddings person but my favourite was the arctic roll – it was just so very pretty and tasted as good as it looked.  Again, I would never previously have ordered anything that combined ice cream with peppercorns but it really worked.  As Gregg Wallace might say “That’s banging on the door of divine that is

For us The Horseshoe Inn isn’t the sort of place we’d go to for “everyday” dining, but it is the perfect place for a romantic retreat.  It’s just a short drive from Edinburgh, or you can catch the bus, so if you’re visiting the city definitely take a detour out there to spoil yourself, and don’t just stay for food – the rooms are huge, smart, clean and contemporary (though we did consider knocking points off for the lack of bourbon creams in the bedroom, our usual measure of hotel greatness).

Pretty much all of the food is sourced from local farms which is a great way of small businesses supporting other small businesses.  Even the breakfasts were a work of art with local bacon, sausage and homemade blackpudding.

Replete, we headed down into Peebles for a pootle around; like Biggar they have an excellent Town Trail Guide which will tell you all you need to know and, if you’re of a shopping ilk, there are plenty of small interesting shops to nosey around in.

Things to do in Peebles

River Tweed, Peebles

I’d like to tell you we’re off to Edinburgh now, but we’re not.  Next stop is Crail for a bit of peace and quiet and a campsite with a heated outdoor pool.  You can’t say we’re not optimists...

Friday, 19 August 2016

Biggar and Bettar

Loch Skeen
From our house we can head north and be in Edinburgh in a little over 3 hours thanks to the modern wonders of the M6 & M74 but life isn’t always about how fast you can get from A to B (though you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you saw some of the lunatic overtaking manoeuvres we’ve witnessed over the past few days...).  We are heading for Edinburgh, eventually, but thought we’d take a few detours along the way.

Instead of racing up the M74 we headed off at J15, took a quick look at Moffat, which was OK but a bit touristy, and continued on to Biggar.  As it was our wedding anniversary (13 years – that romantic “textiles and furs” anniversary of which everyone speaks...) we thought we’d treat ourselves to a night or two in a nice hotel and were booked into the lovely Elphinstone Hotel in the middle of the town. 

I am absolutely convinced that wherever you go you can always find something interesting to see and do, so here are my top 5 things for Biggar

  • 1.        The Town Trail – at the top end of town is the smart & modern museum where you can buy a town trail for £2.50.  This fabulous wee guide will take you on a stroll through the town, pointing out the things to watch for along the way – the sorts of things that require you to peer around the backs of buildings and spot things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.  I love stuff like that!
  • 2.       Cadger’s Brig – the pretty bridge at the bottom end of town is reputedly where William Wallace once sneaked across dressed as a cadger (beggar) to snoop on English troops.  There’s a pretty bench on the old fording point and a cafe/ pub next door where William Wallace stopped for a pie and a pint on his way back.  (I may have made that last part up)
    Cadger's Brig
  • 3.       The closes – Biggar reminded me a lot of Kendal with its broad main street and dozens of closes winding off to each side.  Definitely go off and explore as there are some pretty little nooks, and so nice that it’s all still much as it has been for hundreds of years.
  • 4.       Boghall Castle – it’s tempting to say that there’s bog-all to see at Boghall, but some ruins do remain – just enough to make you wish you’d been around to see the place in its former glory.
  • 5.       Grey Mare’s Tail – OK this isn’t in Biggar, but it is only a short drive away and it’s a great hike.  If you’re not feeling energetic you can just take the short walk to the waterfall, but if you’re wanting to work up a good appetite for a big dinner, take the signed walk all the way up to Loch Skeen at the top.  The views are superb and you’ll be able to polish off a pudding later with no questions asked!

Back at The Elphinstone (which itself has an interesting history and plaque on the outside) we freshened up and headed down for dinner (I can neither confirm nor deny that we polished off the biscuits in the room while we readied ourselves.)

The menu is huge with something to suit every taste and the dining area cosy & informal.  We tucked ourselves away in a corner and splashed out on a bottle of Prosecco which was divine.  (I mean it, wine can be a bit hit and miss but this was superb).  I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy smoked haddock soup & local delicacy before moving on to salmon in a pink peppercorn sauce with plenty of chips to soak up the sauce (I am *so* classy!).  Steve opted for the breakfast stack – a mini breakfast piled up on his plate) and the steak and ale pie which appeared to contain half a cow but which Steve effortlessly polished off and promptly followed with the rhubarb crumble (seriously, where does he put it?  He’s so lovely and slim & I swear I gain weight by osmosis when I hug him after a large dinner.)

After that there was nothing left to do but roll back up the stairs and crash out on the huge bed and check out how many medals we’d won that day in Rio.  It did seem odd, sprawled there utterly stuffed to the gills while we watched perfect athletic specimens in the peak of their condition compete on the global stage. To be fair we didn’t end up watching much – the pleasantly full tummy and large cosy bed meant I was drifting off to the land of nod in no time at all.  In fact if it were an Olympic event I definitely fancy my chances of a medal.

Corn Exchange

Can anyone spot Delores?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The biggest little hike in Cumbria.

Gummer's How from Windermere (literally in it)
There are lots of motivation posters carrying messages along the lines of "The best views only come from the hardest climbs" - well Gummer's How proves them all wrong.

Located at the bottom end of Windermere this diminutive fell is just 321m high and, as if that wasn't tiny enough, you can drive up the first 200m.

From the car park there's a clearly signed route which starts off as a nice gentle amble through the woodland before reaching a flight of stone steps.  At the top of those you can choose to take the gently ascending track that winds around the back of the fell, or enjoy the slightly more scrambly route to the summit (honestly, it's really not tricky and most kids love it).  Once you're there, you'll be rewarded with views sweeping from Morecambe Bay to the south, all the way around past the Coniston Fells opposite and up along the length of the lake to the high peaks of the central fells in the north.

Scrambly route
Stone steps
Well signposted but not well spelled
Worth it for the views

It's generally overlooked by serious hikers as it's a really short and easy hike - but that makes it perfect for families or a quick blast after Sunday lunch, or for those still confined to low level hiking for the time being...

It's also perfectly positioned for catching breathtaking views of inversions.  It was where we saw our first and we regularly pop back there through the autumn and winter months - it's especially gorgeous after snow.

Wonderful winter woodland
My first ever inversion
Stunning snowy inversion

First folks up there in the snow - stunning!
Why mention it now?  Well, during the summer months there's lots of folks looking for family friendly walks and this one is great.  There's a large free car park and stunning views from the start.  Once you're done you can drop down to Fell Foot Park for a picnic, or a swim, or a BBQ, or a spot of boating, or just lazing on the grass with a good book and a flask of tea (or something stronger if you've persuaded someone else to do the driving!).

Talking of cars (you see what I did there?) we want to say a HUGE thank you to Vantage Citroen in Morecambe who let us play with a Cactus RupCurl this weekend.  We normally drive an ancient Freelander with intergalactic mileage so it was lovely to have something sporty, fun and clean for a change!  Mind you, I did miss the assortment of strange knocking noises we've grown accustomed to...

The RipCurl was immense fun and we gave it a good workout - I particularly liked the fact it turned on a sixpence - not that I ever get lost or anything...  (am I the only person who continually argues with their satnav?)  Anyway, here's a few pics to give you an idea of what we did to their lovely car...

Next to Gummer's How
Overlooking Windermere

On the beach - complete with tiny man flying a kite on the bonnet

Mission Control
Checking the rear view camera...  :-)