The White Horse – typical British pub with three or four rooms upstairs. The bar full tonight, stinking of smoke. Just eaten in the Fauconberg Arms, Coxwold – in a sense where I had meant to stay, but through my misreading of a poorly-written guide – "Drives around York" – reduced to 50p – I thought Sterne had lived here, rather than at Coxwold.
But we saw Shandy Hall – nothing much to write home about. Nice church with octagonal tower – a mini Ely. Meal good, filling, the pub slightly artificial. Though, it has to be said, rather neater than ours. The old clash: authenticity versus artefact.
Today we drove up from Leicester, to Leeds, hoping to revisit the rather nice Art Gallery there. Hopelessly wrong-footed in Leeds – there seems no centre, no real direction. Eventually park – and find the gallery closed. Leeds utterly dead – utterly depressing. How do people live here? Ate in a typical greasy spoon – high ceilings, cardboard white sarnies. Then on to outside York, Beningbrough Hall (National Trust). Simple but attractive country house, rolling fields, avenue leading up. Full of fine portraits, mostly from the National Portrait Gallery. Exhibitions on the second floor, then down tiny (servants?) spiral staircase, out and to cream tea where I (non-Jainistly) kill three wasps in various unkind ways.
Then driving north to visit some of the villages to find a hotel. Glorious weather – very autumnal, strong sun, leaves turning golden. Strange sensation: looking for a turning to Coxwold, found it on the left, but expecting it on the right – I had taken a parallel road which had folded back – hence the reverse.
From Coxwold to Byland Abbey – which I remember well. Pass hotel, on to Ampleforth – looking for Shandy Hall – wrongly. Then finally to Helmsley – pretty, but too pretty – rather touristy. So we decide to retrace our steps, searching for some B&B. We found one – and a snooty woman who said she wasn't "taking in". Another – no response. To the White Horse – a little basic, but seems suitable – and cheap: £15 each. Money matters now – especially if, as I dream, we go to Orkney…
Strange to be here again, the rain falling down outside on the B&B window. Saw the castle this time, its gewgaws – mostly in dodgy taste, but the setting excuses all. So unexpected from the road, driving down from the A1. A walk on the magnificent beach – such fine, clean sand, to the grey blue sea. Then the statutory cream tea (ginger cake, actually) – well, tourism is about various consumption - then through the Trinity-like hall and the keep. Nothing special, but the hall in particular was very visibly articulated as space. Down to the village, asking about rooms – this cost £18 each, including en suite bathroom. Nicely appointed.
We left Ampleforth early and cut across to the A1 through Thirsk – a pleasant, natural-looking town, reminded me of Keswick greatly. Up soon to Durham – superb in the distance. Parked under the cathedral. A statutory coffee break in a typical Brit coffee shop – rather spartan. To the cathedral, where we see that there are B&Bs in the castle. Also a special service in the cathedral – the bishop's, as we find. To the Cellars (?), for an excellent meal: cauliflower and cardamom soup (tasted of Persia…), and prawns and curry (not so brill). Lovely atmosphere – and the newspapers to read.
Then up the A1, through a blissfully invisible Newcastle, up to here. I realise that the best thing about going somewhere (or one of them) is going back: that strange double focus, the past and the present (for some reason Jaisalmer comes into my mind). Tomorrow, Edinburgh and beyond…
Edinburgh and beyond, indeed. We left Bamburgh in thick fog – having got up far too early for brekkers. One problem with B&B – generally breakfast is late – 8.30am. But yesterday's accommodation was very good – as was the breakfast, a real English breakfast, perhaps as a last gesture before Scotland, only a few miles away.
So across country to the A697, leaving behind an invisible Bamburgh. Roads flooded in places. But we got through, though progress was slower than I hoped. Amazing how dour Scotland is compared to England, almost instantly, this Calvinism in stone.
In Edinburgh: I'd not realised before the paucity of long-term parking. We stopped behind Princes Street – but only for an hour – despite having put more money in. then to Fruitmarket Gallery, one of my favourites. Good food, but nearly deserted. Excellent exhibition of a woman called Laurence. Then to National Gallery. We are very taken with Poussin's "Seven sacraments" and, rather strangely, "The death of Patroclus". Then, of all places, to the Castle (by taxi!). Hi St. Columba's.... Not much to see at the Castle, except a Tower of London-like jewel room and fine view. Down into innumerable clothes shops. Walk back to the car in the shopping centre by John Lewis.
Then after petrol and the rather wonderful Forth bridge,along the M90/A9 to here. Good road, lovely views now. As the rain and cloud cleared, stunning scenes. Pitlochry surprisingly busy, many B&Bs full – hence our coming here to a one-star hotel. Food in the Windmill pub – frozen but edible. Bought bottle of mead (ha! - Aldeburgh), which I'm drinking now.
In a repository – all the chairs and sofas facing forwards like some ghostly theatre. And the show? - the saddest kind of bric-a-brac – garden gnomes, cheap porcelain, cut glass. At the back, boxes piled high, beds, fridges. At the front, TVs, hifi…
Now on Thurso beach – and one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. Two islands of Orkney in the distance, so clear you feel you could reach out and touch them. The cliffs like the rocks above Hatshepsut's temple – flaky and velvety. But spread before it all the sea – black, ruddy – and there is only one word for it: wine-red. Over in Scrabster our ferry boat of tomorrow (yeeha) is about to depart. Scrabster rather rough, not pretty. Thurso – so far as we have seen, a lively, bustling little town ("Thor's River" – Thors-a) Brilliant B&B - £17 each, but en-suite, everything, charming old lady.
To the top of Britain again: that coming back… The smell of seaweed, stacks of it on the beach. Huge blue sky overhead (Grecian). The sun low in the sky (5.50pm), casting huge cracked shadows across the sands. After dinner – in a typically atmospheric restaurant - £26. More mead.
This morning out along the A9 – a good read, and one that I have decided is surely among the most beautiful in Britain. Typical lakeland scenery: shimmering browns and purples on the hills, the dark masses of distant peaks, cloud fraying on hilltops. To Inverness, where we book the ferry. A pleasant town, with helpful people. Lunch in a nothing place. Then more A9 – even better over the bridge along the coast. Very like Western Ireland, Man…
We cut inland along a single track road. Very like the road to Hardknott Pass – but 40 miles long. Glorious, especially the first half. Then along the northern coast – Orkney plainly visible, as is the Dounreay nuclear power station (complete with airstrip). I love these extremities of lands, the sense of boundless water for hundreds of miles. So to Thurso, which, except for distinct lack of restaurants, is glorious.
24.9.92 On the ferry to Orkney
Yo! On the deck, with Hoy facing us, the car loaded below. How I love these ferries. A bright day, though clouds over most of the sky – some promise of better weather.
Huge breakfast at Mrs Chadwick's this morning. Her house obsessively filled with objects – every surface covered with knick-knacks. But a beautiful bathroom. Round the town after breakfast – still pretty dead, but came across nice temporary gallery showing Finnish photos – suitably dark and brooding. Apparently the local arts festival opened here last night – could have fooled me…
Thence to Scrabster. £81 for three-day special – RORO ferry, one hour before leaving, St. Ola (the "island" was the headland to the east: the real Orkney is further back). Wind bracing but not freezing – sea very calm. Inside for food in Hoy View Grill.
St Ola – 3039 tonnes, 500 passengers. The first view of Hoy's south coast sheer ruddy cliffs, split by deep fissures (steel-grey sea). A valley down to the sea (on Hoy), a few dots of habitation. The Old Man of Hoy – like some petrified tree stump. Row of statues along the top – like one of Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures with figures emerging. The striated wall of red and green. Hoy looks much ruggeder than Orkney. Few birds here. From here looks like a rabbit, Aztec statue – constantly changing. A chess piece. No caves so far – too hard the rock? No – one cave as we turn towards Stromness.
The bay was Rackwick, where Peter Maxwell Davies lives. Rounds towards Graemsay – the north coast of Hoy more beneficent, with rounded fells. Low island with sheep and cows. Curious effect of water here – like the back of huge whales – no waves, but scarred with marks.
St Magnus cathedral – stunning, beautiful church – thick pink pillars – really feel hemmed in by them – even though small, feels huge. Simple windows at the end (seven pillars). In the aisles, at the springers, two grotesque heads – tens of them. To the coffee shop Trenabies in Albert Street, past the Customs House (nineteenth century).
Orphir – Earl's Bu and the round church – both mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga. Bu – just foundations but for the round church there is a segment, and hundreds of gravestones – fine view of Scapa Flow. Two tombstones of women – Freeth, born in Wimbledon. Brilliant sunshine, blue sky to the circumscribing horizon. Mackerel clouds above us.
The Ring of Brodgar. Passed the Stones of Stenness, the isolated fingers, then these 40 or so left of 60. Stunning location between the waters with graceful swans. One stone struck by lightning 9/6/80 – heated up and shattered. Strange clouds to the south – very dark clouds with a bank of very white ones caught by the sun. The only people here – us. Huge mackerel sky flowing over us.
Maes Howe – when Ragnvald was away on a crusade, rivals went for Orkney. One was Harald, son of the Earl of Atholl – caught in a storm, he took shelter in Maes Howe. Two men went mad there… A low crawl inside – reminds me of the pyramids. What is impressive about the runes is not just the quantity but the quality: incised very firmly – and unweathered, unlike most. Showed round by guide with her young (<2) son. Repeating by rote, reading runes. Amazing from 5000 BC – around same time as pyramids, which are rather more impressive. But the density of monuments here.
The Broch of Gurness along a potholed unmetalled road. Village with lovely view across to islands. Strange orange square of stones on the beach. Lovely smell of seaweed. In the distance, on the hill, great wind turbines – strange contrast with the broch.
To lunch at The Northdyke – stunning position with views over Skara Brae, the out to Hoy. Brilliant sunshine. We are alone here too – the owner seemed surprised to see us – food?!? Strangely there is bouzouki music in the background (with repeating grooves). Have ordered the home-made soup, Orkney salmon, and "Stone Age Ploughman": bere bannocks (prehistoric barley loaves) and three local cheeses plus chutney. Mulled wine and o.j. Five tables, with a view through the glass. Harry Carter – the proprietor – not Scots, and looking to sell. Also there are watercolours by him.
Now New Age sub-Laurie Anderson stuff – all synths and subdominants – very trivial but very appropriate for this chilly, empty crazy restaurant – complete with "Part of Old Boat", stained glass mini-windows. Overall, an incredible melancholy hung there.
On the beach by Skara Brae, looking out to 3000 miles of Atlantic. I remember Ireland. Restaurant reminded me of one at the end of Ireland.
Skara Brae almost too good – looks too well preserved. The lady custodian clearing out the rooms – "spring cleaning". Packed out in July and August; for us, no one. Beautiful turf, the surf's thunder ("surf and turf" with a new meaning). The cry of a gull.
Highland Park Distillery outside Kirkwall. Every half hour, free tour. To the Italian Chapel – two Nissen huts end to end. 1944. 1960, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to restore it. Station on island Lamb Holm, painted walls. The sun enters from the west end, long image on the carpet. Very still, silent. Real trompe l'oeil at the back, the west end.
"Otters crossing for next 600 yards" – sign outside Kirkwall.
Dinner – not in Albert Hotel, whose bar was awful – but in Kirkwall Hotel by the harbour. Overbright bar restaurant, but simple, good food.
26.9.92 The Gloup
Out east, stunning sun, past the airport – a twin-engine prop coming in to land. Badly signposted but so little traffic you just stop and look at the map. To The Gloup - a huge ravine – collapsed cave with massive arch at the end by the sea. Strange "glooping" sound of waves in confined area. Down to the cliff's edge – the cave is long – 50 feet – flat slabs of granite rather than a beach here. Beautiful. Birdlife sanctuary here – called Mull Head Nature reserve. Best cliff scenery so far.
Brilliant morning. The Churchill Barriers the best place to see Scapa Flow, and Hoy in the distance. The sunken ships – glorious and eerie – rusted to purple-brown, one especially, its metal mast high above the water. Melancholy. The thought of 70 plus German ships in the Flow – history sunken and hidden. East coast best.
Tomb of the Eagles. "Personally, I think he's a lazy-bones" – Mrs Simison ("syme-son") – of her 4000 year-old male skull – perfect teeth. Whereas of the two females – one had worn-down teeth, probably from chewing barley to ferment it. Also the other had a groove in the skull and overdeveloped neck muscles from carrying straps with weights. Eagle claws – the eagle clan? (there are other burials with dog's bones, others with deer). Seal's head later – perhaps the seal clan took over? Her husband discovered the tomb putting in poles. Now he shows how they heated food with stones – two hours plus two hours plus two hours (for the stones, water, cooking). Lent wellies for a two mile trek through the fields. Then out to the mound by the sea, crawling in on hands and knees – special pads or trolley. Stunning location with shattered rocks in front.
Back along the coast, looking for seals, but they are pupping on the outer islands. This is the end of the end of Orkney, the end of our three days.
To the Kirkwall Museum, good information on the island. Bere – pronounced "bear" – a rare and ancient barley – and there is beer made from it. To the cathedral. A memorial to the 833 men who died on HMS Royal Oak, sunk on 14/10/39. St Ragnvald on the left-hand side, at the back of the choir. To the Bishop's and Earl's palace – atmospheric ruins and good audiovisual with its history. The smell of coal smoke everywhere.
In the Pier Art Gallery, Stromness – nice light space in the main street. Leads out back to flagged pier and sandy harbour. Very apt collections – Hepworth, marine and Celtic – albeit mostly Cornish not Gaelic/Norse. Stromness even more of a one-street town, but harbour is more varied and lively. (Gloup = gloop = gjulfr, Norse for "chasm" – found in "Orkney Wordbook" from the excellent bookshop here.) To the "Khyber Pass" – a narrow passage... Good fish and scampi in The Cafe by the gallery and harbour.
Waiting in the car for the ferry to arrive, Sweelinck, Byrd and Bull on Radio 3, the light fading, Hoy darkening, the lighthouse more visible. Birds everywhere (see exhibition at Pier Art Gallery). For example, rooks and crows, and now in the evening clouds of birds in fluid flocks wheeling, fragmenting and reforming into new shifting forms. About seven cars, seven people on the ferry – almost just for us. Smooth crossing again. To Mrs Chadwick and warmth.
29.9.92 Port Sunlight
Out of sync again. Yesterday a glorious peaceful day. First a little shopping in Keswick, then out past Bassenthwaite, across to Crummock Water – perfect Lake District weather, the hills shimmering in browns and purples, the air slightly hazy. Then a walk from Buttermere village through the woods to the shore. Then back to Buttermere. To Seatoller House; we have the outhouse. Then along to Seathwaite for a gentle walk to Sour Milk Gill. Perfect (hot) weather. Back to Seatoller House for wine and the usual communal dinner – a typical bunch of Lake District-loving Brits, mostly fairly old – older than us, anyway. Port and then so to bed…
Stopping off in Port Sunlight – that crazy, mock Tudor housing estate – now eating in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Although few great works, lots of beautiful ones. Good for the soul and all that. Nice tea room downstairs (and that's what matters, eh…?)