Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Break In The Weather

Autumn has come to Fife in a riot of colour. Every shade of yellow, green and orange meet the traveller along the roads. We took advantage of a break in the rain to have a trip to St Andrews, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Scotland. Although Prince William has moved on to other things its status as an old and prestigious University city has continued and walking along the High Street you hear voices from every corner of the Earth.

Built right at the very tip of the East Neuk of Fife St.Andrews is approached from the surrounding hills. The views of this ancient city as it clings to the coast with the North Sea beyond are just breathtaking every time I see them. Today we went down to the ancient harbour so that Chris could take the photograph you see here. Foolishly I tried to spin silk in the sea breeze and had considerable difficulty as it flowed out and over my shoulder like a purple banner. But the air was clear and pure and the sun shone – both of which brought a priceless bonus to our health.

Lead On MacDuff

Its two weeks now since I set off on the expedition to all points North in Banff and Buchan. The long drive upto and beyond Aberdeen was sometimes reminiscent of the journey along the Lincolnshire Coast to Skegness – but without the caravans. The main A road becomes a ring road around the city and is curiously devoid of petrol stations or anywhere to take a break on the long journey. Worse lurks further along the road at the aptly named Black Dog. Mobile phone masts appear like trees from every available tall building in Aberdeen but in Black Dog there is an array within 50 yds of the road. Its possible to feel like a rapidly baking potato as you speed past as quickly as possible.

Pennan Cliffs at Sunset (Click Image for Larger Version)

Up in Banff the locals assured me that the planning department was run by lunatics. The locals are honest people and not given to exaggeration or hyperbole. One local couple had been trying to convert a disused Victorian Church into a home for three years. Currently the planners have told them to cover up all traces of the stonework inside the church with an inner plasterboard shell that obliterates all traces of the building's original purpose. Then one of the planners had the natty idea that an inner circular door “Hobbit Style” would just top the whole conversion off. I shall not repeat the comments I heard from the locals.

Meanwhile it was made explicitly clear to me that the planners would fight any application to build a house that was not in the vernacular white/grey roofed style. Even if I bought a plot with an absolutely derelict croft house on it, no wooden replacement would ever be allowed to rear its ugly head in Banff and Buchan without a lengthy fight all the way to the highest authority.

Back at my highly recommended B and B the regular proprietors were away on holiday in France, leaving the caretaking to “Uncle George”, a charming elderly man who divided his life between Australia and the UK and who had once been bitten by an extremely poisonous spider and survived – just. Alas George was not too familiar with the workings of the kitchen and had cooked some vegetables before discovering that the chicken ready meal was in the oven, whilst he had turned on the grill. But we got by and he was a most interesting man.

The B and B was in a completely hidden valley, invisible to all on the main roads to the North and South. It was so quiet you really could hear yourself think whilst overhead an eagle circled. Along the coast the terrain changed dramatically and gradients should be calculated not as “1 in 5” or “1 in 4” but as “1 in a mountain goat.”

Overlooking Pennan at Dusk (Click Image for Larger Version)

On my last night I explored along the coast from Pennan, through Gardenstown and on to MacDuff and finally Banff, where in desperation I had fish and chips as there were no restaurants. It was a great chippy and I sat talking about Scottish property prices to a knowledgeable lorry river and the owner of the chip shop. The news is not good. Fuelled by the boom in oil prices, property values are spiralling in Aberdeenshire and are now way beyond the means of first time buyers. I should have known. Earlier in the day I had visited every property shop in Banff. Each had some version of the disinterested receptionist sitting filing her nails behind and expensive desk. Each left me in no doubt that as a potential buyer I should get in the queue and stop interrupting her manicure. No one had offered me property details and most insisted I check the web site rather than take one of their newsletters that were already out of date.

No experience is ever wasted. At least I know now that this beautiful but harsh coast is too rugged for us as well as being in the grip of hyper inflation when it comes to land prices. After I came home we talked it over and decided to turn our attention to the West Coast. Taking advantage of the low season prices we have booked a short break on the Ardnamuchan Penninsular where there is no TV reception and the approach requires a five minute ferry crossing across Loch Sunnart. So soon the two of us and our operatic felines will set off for a mini holiday in a log cabin.