28 Jun 2015

Wales and Scotland 2015—Part 2: Scotland

We arrived in Hawick (pronounced ‘hoik’ for the uninitiated) around 6pm that night and managed to find our friends’ ‘unfindable’ home without so much as a phone call. Their neighbour’s cottage was vacant and they had kindly arranged for us to stay in it during our visit.

After a quick shower, we went in their car to nearby town Denholm to get some take-away fish and chips which filled the void nicely. After a bit of catching up we turned in for the night for some much needed sleep.

The beautiful, cozy stone cottage—even in late June the nights are cold in Scotland.

We took a long walk around the area with our hosts and while the skies were grey, we managed to escape the threat of rain, enjoying the hidden footpaths running through the greenery.

We came across the hidden ruins of a castle, buried deep within the woods and not accessible by vehicle—even a small dirt bike would struggle with felled trees blocking the path in many places, let alone a GS or anything on four wheels. And this is how the local people like it—they do not want heavy machinery brought in to restore the castle, and as it is entirely surrounded by private land with no access rights, the castle will likely stay as it is for many, many years to come.

A Series 2 Land Rover used for work, not school runs.

On our second day we headed off with our hosts to the Scottish Borders Brewery to go on a self-guided tour. Attached was a tourist shop offering local bits and 4x4 adventure experience events, a food shop with specialties from the area including the infamous Scottish tablet—a confectionary of sugar and cream so rich it makes the teeth hurt—and a restaurant serving traditional Scottish fare.

We drove back and were greeted by Poppy, the neighbourhood stray who loves everyone, lives in a shed and eats what people put out for her. She is an old girl who’s not too quick on her feet anymore but lives very happily and independently.

That evening we were invited for dinner with neighbours living in a converted church—a crypt remains untouched and sealed off within the building, visible through a glass panel, and the yard contains the original graveyard. What an amazing home!

On our last day we toured the area and rode around Kielder Forest Park, just over the English border. A gravel toll road runs through the middle of the park—the toll machine was not functioning but we could fit past the gate, and so still had the opportunity to enjoy the endless views of the dales and the overwhelmingly green wooded areas.

As with Wales, the roads in this area have very little traffic—most of them are quite technical, narrowly twisting through the landscape, but there are a few with long, sweeping curves. There is a blanket 60 mph speed limit which basically means you can go as fast as you could ever want, since the roads themselves limit the speed you can actually travel. Much of the time 40 mph feels fast enough!

After a good day out we retired for the night, ready for the slog home early the next morning via a mix of A/B roads and motorways. After saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts, the journey was relatively uneventful—but of note was the rise in temperature from 5°C in the Scottish Borders to 32°C back in London. Compounding this was the fact we entered London during the peak of late afternoon traffic, and spend an hour and a half travelling the last 10 miles—the bike doesn’t squeeze through traffic quite as efficiently with the panniers fully extended…

I am looking forward to exploring more of Scotland—our time there was limited to the Scottish Borders and next time I intend to explore the Highlands. Maybe in 2016!

Wales and Scotland 2015—Part 1: Wales

This year my main trip by motorbike was a week through Wales and Scotland. Never one to pass up an adventure, Zev once again joined me, observing the world from the pillion seat of my R1200GS.

Part 1: Wales

The trip started out somewhat wet, ploughing along the soulless M4 motorway from London to Wales. We left late, around noontime and by mid afternoon the skies started to clear up, sun peeking out among the clouds.

Exiting the motorway just past Cardiff we headed to the Brecon Beacons for a ride through on our way towards northern Wales. These roads are beautiful and fast—the speed limits realistic and the traffic exceptionally light. Wales has gone to the top of my list of best countries for motorbiking.

The rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons never get boring—the narrow roads alternate from rolly-polly humps (which have the bike airborne at less speed than you’d expect) to twisty blind corners requiring a wish and a prayer that nothing else, human, sheep or mechanical, is occupying any of the space within a given trajectory.

The dales are stunning in a way which cannot be captured by the camera—endless expanses of open scenery, interrupted only by the odd hill in the distance. To be there is absolutely breathtaking.

Stopping just past a cattle gate we walked around to get the blood circulating—no cows to be seen, but sheep in every field (and occasionally on the road).

Past the Brecon Beacons and deeper into Wales we stopped at this hillside pullout for a short break. A man came along who had been walking his dog in the forest and was very pleased that we’d come to visit from London—before he left he got a packet of biscuits from his car to keep us going on our journey. The Welsh are friendly, delightful people.

Another stop in the late afternoon. The clouds in the distance looked ominous but amounted to nothing. The light was amazing—almost golden in colour and enhancing the thousands of shades of green all around. It was almost surrealistic.

We were getting tired and found a bed and breakfast hotel nearby through a booking app on my phone. What would we do without technology? I remember, as a child, when travelling through Europe with my parents we would take our chances for vacancies as we came across hotels, sometimes going to two or three before finding something suitable—this can still be done of course, but it’s just so much more convenient when tired to book a place and go straight there.

We checked in at the Dolanog B&B where our hosts Sue and John had us in our room with a cup of tea each in no time. They recommended the restaurant at the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel and Spa about six miles away, so we freshened up and headed out.

On our way to the restaurant we stopped at the Lake Vyrnwy Dam—the sun was low in the sky and made the dam glow. It is a Victorian dam built of stone in the late 1800s, the first of its type in the world.

While at the restaurant we had a view of the sunset over Lake Vyrwy while enjoying Welsh cawl (broth with lamb and vegetables) and salmon fishcakes. We snaked our way back to the B&B through the narrow lanes in the dark and retired for the night.

The next morning we stopped at the Colinette Yarns shop in nearby Powys to pick up some yarn as a thank you gift for our friends in Scotland with whom we were going to be staying.

We continued through Wales and re-entered England for a quick loop through the Lake District. Unfortunately, while it was beautiful, it was also backed up with traffic and absolutely rammed with tourists, spoiling a potentially amazing place to ride—indeed I was feeling so grumpy I didn’t even take any pictures.

We decided not to go deeper and so set the GPS to take us to Hawick in the Scottish Borders, only 60 miles away.

17 Jun 2015

Spring weekend in Italy

Day 1

I set off with Zev for a short weekend away to visit my best friend Fed (of Panda 4x4 review fame) who lives near Milan, Italy. Catching the 5:09 train (by the skin of our teeth) we went to Gatwick Airport, and less than four hours later we emerged from Malpensa Airport into the golden glow of Italian sun and 30° humid weather, welcomed by Fed.

We spent the day touring northern Piedmont at the foothills of the Alps—one of the first stops was the beautiful town of Varallo, with its narrow, winding roads and nearly devoid of tourists.

That evening we had a delicious dinner with Fed’s family and an early night.

Day 2

The next morning we took Fed’s Land Rover Defender through the rice fields of Novara province, where most of the world’s risotto rice is grown before heading along some tracks into the forest.

Rice field

Zev observes the river

Zev finds a stick

Back on the main road we drove to Lake Orta and had a look around Orta San Giulio and Omegna with a last stop at Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, a beautiful church overlooking Lake Orta.

Orta San Giulio

Isola San Giulio

Dock on Lake Orta

Fed contemplates the next move

Zev offers a drink

View of Lake Orta from Santuario della Madonna del Sasso

That evening we had a look around the jazz festival in Novara and went for drinks and a bite to eat.

Day 3

We drove to Milan to have a look around Corso Como and Piazza del Duomo—and of course a wander around Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, reportedly the oldest shopping wall in the world. For lunch we went to Eataly, a high end Italian market and restaurant. The trip was cut a little short when the skies opened, monsoon style.

Piazza Gae Aulenti

10 Corso Como—a high end boutique department store

Inside courtyard of 10 Corso Como

Rooftop terrace at 10 Corso Como looking toward the controversial UniCredit building 

On the rooftop terrace at 10 Corso Como

Fed and Zev tuck into lunch

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Day 4

For the final day we went to the Milan Expo, a universal exposition focussing on food and energy. While it was worth the visit, it was at the same time something of a disappointment as we were expecting a bit more from the pavilions. It seemed a somewhat missed opportunity for various countries to showcase their cuisine and technology—instead many of the pavilions had looping videos and minimal displays.

A few pavilions of note—the China pavilion had an elaborate display of lights and dioramas of ancient Chinese technology. The UK pavilion featured a wire beehive reconstruction with actual hive sounds piped and amplified in from the University of Leicester. The Netherlands pavilion was designed as a street carnival. And the Qatar pavilion was perhaps the most beautiful. Honourable mention goes to the Alitalia pavilion which featured the most bizarre foodporn style video of an in-flight chef suggestively making a latte...

China pavilion

Lighting display in the China pavilion

Fed presents the Birra Baladin Fiat 500 truck

Zev and Fed at the UK pavilion

Selfie in the France pavilion

Oman pavilion

Citroën H-Van at the Netherlands pavilion

Reflections at the Russia pavilion

From the Expo it was straight to Malpensa to fly back home. The weekend was over far too quickly, seeing new places non-stop with never a dull moment. It’s worth mentioning how lucky we are in London, as a flight hub, to be able to jet off for a weekend for only £50 return—or, to give some perspective, less than the cost of taking a train to Manchester and back.