Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The sea, the sea

I'm not really a sea person. I don't dislike the coast but I'm not one of these people who seeks it out or needs periods gazing out across the waves for the good of my soul. I quite like being landlocked. I like lakes and rivers and dales and hills. I like trees and dry stone walls and hedgerows. I like the scope for travel and exploration that the land offers. When we lived in East Yorkshire, near Hull, on the East coast,  I felt stuck out on the edge of things and I didn't like it at all. The sea feels like a barrier for me, a dead end. I've never sailed, and suffer from seasickness, so maybe it's just that I don't feel as if I can get about easily on the sea. On land, I know I can walk, or drive to get where I want to go. C says I always need an escape route, psychological and geographical. Maybe he's right.

C loves the sea of course. Another thing we are at odds about! C's brother used to live in the Outer Hebrides and C just loves it there. I know, would love to spend the rest of his days digging peat in the drizzle on an isolated croft on North Uist.  On the odd occasion we've gone there together, I've felt really trapped, stuck on an island that you could drive around in a day. C feels the exact opposite. For him the sea is a liberating expanse of space. Oh well, they do say opposites attract.

Odd then that our recent jaunt to the seaside was instigated by me. I felt an unfamiliar desire to escape to the sea. I'd had in mind something quite wild and isolated (also unlike me) but in the end, the restrictions of time meant that we only got as far as Stonehaven, not exactly off the beaten track (in Scottish terms at least). Stonehaven is about 15 miles south of Aberdeen. It's been a fishing village since the iron age into the late 19th century. Presumably it benefited from the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, developing as a seaside resort. It's not exactly Blackpool, but it does have an outdoor heated seawater swimming pool, which the town is very proud of. It also boasts an amusement arcade and a Pitch and Putt course - surely the core requirements for a British seaside resort. Unfortunately, the sea front by the beach is a bit uninspiring, with fairly ordinary modern housing all along it. However, it does have a beautiful old harbour ringed by sturdy, 18th century stone buildings, which are now being done up. The presence of seafood restaurants is a sure sign that gentrification is well underway.

Stonehaven Harbour, at dawn (yes, really!)

Stonehaven Harbour, still at dawn.
The reflection of the buildings and boats in the shallow water shows how sheltered it is.
We stayed at one of the two pub hotels along the waterfront. I am not going to recommend it. The one good thing I could say about our room was that the fixtures and fittings were good quality and new, the hotel having been recently refurbished. However, the room was at the back of the hotel and to access it you had to go through hotel laundry room/chamber maid store, stepping round the cleaning equipment. Rather than being woken at dawn by the soothing splash of the waves, we awoke to the thrum of the washing machine. The room was so small that we had to take it in turns to edge around the bed sideways to get about. And for this we paid £85. Maybe I'm just out of touch, but that seemed a bit steep. We were in Stonehaven for goodness sake! I really think accommodation in the UK is ridiculously expensive and bad value.

Anyway, before I get stuck in ranting mode, let me tell you about the highlights in Stonehaven, apart from the beautiful harbour. We had a fantastic meal at the Marine Inn on the harbourfront. Great atmosphere as well, with quirky driftwood and fishing industry inspired art on the walls, a big open fire ready for the winter and unusual fruit beers on tap. Should have stayed there!

A short, invigorating cliff top walk South brings you to Dunnottar Castle. Surely one of the most impressively situated castles in Scotland (apart from Eilean Donan). The castle is quite ruined, but not to the extent that you can't get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the place.

Dunottar Castle
by Jjhake on http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DUNNOTTAR_CASTLE_Large.JPG
The castle has played a significant role in Scottish history because of the strategic value of its location in allowing control of access north/south by sea and land. The site itself has been settled since Pictish times, in the early centuries AD, although no-one knows exactly when. The first Scottish King, Domnal II died there in 900 AD. The present castle was once the seat of a powerful family, the Earls Marischal of Scotland, until an awkward episode of treason as part of the Jacobite rising of 1715 meant the castle was confiscated by the crown. In 1651, the Scottish crown jewels were taken there for safe-keeping and defended against Cromwell's army.  In the 13th century, whilst occupied by an English batallion, it was beseiged and taken by William Wallace. It's most famous for the story of the 170 Covenanters, men and women, imprisoned in a dungeon in the half ruined castle for 2 months in 1685. Few survived the brutal conditions, and those that did, were deported as slave labour to the West Indies. All of which reminds me how ignorant I am about Scottish history, and how useful Wikipedia is! Of course Mary Queen of Scots stayed there as well - inevitably. That woman really got around. There isn't a historic house in Scotland that doesn't boast  a bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots reputedly bunked up.
Walk across the cliff tops
from Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle

First view of Dunnottar Castle
Scottish thistles!

But it wasn't all brisk walks and historic sites. There was time for hedonism as well. More soon ...!

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