North Coast 500 - Day 4 - Talmine to Armadale

When I was planning my North Coast 500 trip, I decided to have one day where I didn't travel too far, just in case I needed a rest day and a bit of time out from driving. So on Day 4, I travelled just around the headland to Armadale.

But just going back a little to the end of day 3. My super lovely hosts at The Woodlifeway Guest Room, Steve and Lea, chatted to me about their journey up to Talmine from down south, and the crofting way of life. They love the nature they have on their doorstep, the deer, golden and white tailed eagles, the seals on the sand bank just across from the croft, and otters. But they were most excited when telling me about their regular sightings of the northern lights! They showed me photos they had taken from the bedroom window just a few nights before. I have been lucky enough to see the northern lights, it was a few years ago now when we took a trip to Finnish Lapland for my Mum's 60th. That and the starling murmuration are certainly up there as the most spectacular things I've ever seen. But there was an added excitement to think I might see this colourful dance in the sky here in the UK. I set my tripod up and we stood still, me holding my breath, it felt like a stake out. Although there was a bank of thick cloud in a crucial area, I saw the unmistakable green tinges. Luminous streaks in the sky, a painter's first brush stroke on a blank canvas.

After this excitement, I took myself to bed and slept so soundly. I woke up quite early, at 5.30am. I pulled back the curtains and was greeted with that beautiful early morning hue. With the sun yet to rise, the snow on the mountains was a dark cobalt blue studded with sharp black rocks, the small crescent moon hung in the pale blue sky.

Even though I had gone to bed quite late, I wanted to get out to watch the sunrise. I pulled on my boots and walked to the edge of the croft. A few birds had started their chorus.

I stood and watched the ever developing light. From behind a little stone building to my left, a bright orange glow grew in intensity.

And then the very tops of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal were crowned in a pale pink which inched its way down the mountainside.

They looked like a child's perfect drawing of a mountain, with the definitive snow line. And then, from the grass, a skylark flew vertically into that big sky, its song swirled around the croft.

I came back inside, just as Steve was lighting the fire, the room filled with the smell of wood smoke. I ate my breakfast with Steve and Lea, and we chatted over homemade bread, flapjacks and bread pudding. As the fire crackled, we talked about music, and croft life.

I was fascinated to hear that every croft has rights to their own particular patch of peat. Peat rights! Lea makes beautiful household goods out of wood. She told me all about the provenance of the wood she uses. I bought Dad a new coaster for his cocoa mug made out of sea buckthorn. They like to have music on in the house. All About Eve came on, and Steve told me about his goth loving past, we realised we share a penchant for The Sisters Of Mercy. Guitars are strung up on the white walls. Maybe when I go back, I'll have a sing with them, I know there will be a next time. 

I left the croft and drove away with their smiling faces in my wing mirror. I stopped a little bit further along the road, at the side of the Kyle of Tongue to see if I could spot an otter, but not this time. I had seen the seals basking on the sand bank opposite the croft before I left, a new world discovered by the retreating tide.

I just pootled slowly along the coastline. I stopped at Farr Beach, Bettyhill and sat on the warm sand for a while. I just listened to the healing sound of the waves and watched the rush of sea water as it edged along the beach, leaving ripples carved into the sand and little piles of seaweed dotted on the shore.

The afternoon was a little disjointed as I tried to find something to eat (not such an easy feat at the top of Scotland). I also noticed (with a heavy heart), that I was leaving the mountains behind. Being in the mountains and driving in that terrain had been exciting and exhilarating. Now the roads were relatively flat, the landscape transformed right in front of me. 

I passed the wildlife carefully.

My next Airbnb was Armadale House. I parked on the gravel drive and was met by my smiling host Detta, rosy cheeks and silver hair. We drank tea and ate biscuits in the kitchen and then she took me on a tour of the house that is undergoing renovation work. The beautiful shutters on the window, the grand staircase, a stag's head adorning one of the walls, and that big green front door.

I walked around the garden, a big pile of peat was drying in the fading sun.

Even though I hadn't done too much, I was tired and went to bed, my morning of waking up at the croft in Talmine still with me. 

The North Coast 500 - Day 3 - Inchnadamph to Talmine

I mentioned in my last blog (you can read it here), that this day, day 3, was probably my favourite. The bright blue sky and surprisingly warm sunshine certainly were a factor. Day 3 was all about open roads, snowy mountain tops, deserted beaches and crystal blue waters.

I woke up early and had a bowl of porridge on my little veranda at my B n B, a breakfast with a view. Whilst I was away, I found a new love of porridge, something I'd always thought wasn't my thing. After breakfast, I took a short stroll down to Loch Assynt to the soundtrack of oyster catchers flying overhead.

I packed the Corsa up, it had that warm car smell when I climbed into the driver's seat. I felt the warmth of the sun through the glass as I drove along the side of Loch Assynt to Lochinver.

I had the most incredible mushroom, chestnut and red wine pie at Lochinver. When I posted about it on Instagram, quite a few people replied excitedly to say they'd tasted these gorgeous pies too! After finishing the last bite, I was happy to know that they have a Pies By Post business.

I followed the road around the coast, and for the most part I had it to myself. It could have been the day when I felt most alone, but the landscape seemed to hold me. Sometimes there were stretches of road that felt very remote, and just as I was wondering if I'd see anybody ever again, out popped a little house with smoke curling from its chimney.

My first stop was Clachtoll. Such a perfect little beach. Dunes, white sands and turquoise water. I had it to myself.

The only other person I saw on this stretch of road was the postman. I pulled into a couple of passing places to let him go by, but on the third time, he waved and gave me a smile of recognition. I don't know quite why, but it gave me a boost, another reaffirmation.

The ever changing landscape was exhilarating. From the beach, to driving along cliff tops, to mountain views. Little lochs peppered the brown land. As I looked at the map again, I realised that today I would be reaching the very top of Scotland. For some reason before I set out (and this is how my anxiety can manifest itself), I had pre-empted a wave of panic washing over me when I reached the most northerly point. The furthest I could possibly be away from home on this trip. Although the thought grumbled away a few times, I didn't give it air to breath, and I know it might not sound much written here, but it was a significant turning point for me.

Along the single track road towards Drumberg. The tarmac carved into the horizon. I stopped to look at the map just to check the next petrol stop as I'd noticed the gauge getting past the wrong side of the quarter full mark. As I stopped, I noticed two pairs of deer eyes staring at me from the side of the road, they chewed nonchalantly. Bored with me, they sauntered into the trees. The landscape made me feel incredibly small. Everything seemed to be oversized. The lochs, the mountains, even the sky.

After travelling along the single track road for the morning, I met the A road again to head further north. I joined a small herd of campervans and motorhomes with shiny bike racks and bright logos. Travelling further into North West Sutherland, I started to feel an urgency to reach the top of the country. I drove a little quicker than anticipated up to Durness, so I didn't make any stops or take any photos until I hit that little town. I had a welcome hot chocolate in Cocoa Mountain and let Suzi know I'd made it to the top. Just along from Durness is Smoo Cave. It's very impressive at 130 feet wide, 200 feet long and 50 feet wide. The river Allt Smoo falls from an 80 foot drop into sea water below. The sound was deafening, and again, nature made me feel incredibly small.

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I drove towards my Airbnb in Talmine. The majestic Ben Hope caught the late afternoon light.

And then to the lovely croft that was home for the night, and that's exactly how it felt. I had such a warm welcome from my hosts Steve and Lea. A pair of slippers waited for me at the door, and inside, the log fire glowed in the burner. The perfect end to a long day's driving. I settled in for the night. I'll write more about this lovely croft in my next blog, about my glimpse of the northern lights, and a beautiful sunrise that started Day 4. 

The North Coast 500 - Day 1 - Dornie To Big Sand

I can't believe I've been back from my Scottish road trip for a month already, it's taken me a while to settle back into the rhythm of things. But I've been looking forward to sharing my photos with you, and it seems like the right time! I thought I'd split my trip up into days so as not to bombard you with too much, but it feels like this first one is a biggy, so I hope you'll stay with me. Before I start chatting about the trip, I just thought I'd tell you a little bit about why I did it, and how important the journey became to me. So I'll jump straight in. 

I've lived with panic attacks since I was 21. It shocked me recently when I realised that this is more than half my life. It is an ugly and frightening thing, it is physically and mentally draining. First, my heart lurches, then along come the sweats, dry mouth, gasping for breath. My ever increasing heart rate thumps in my chest, and I always think that this is the one that will lead to a heart attack (even though I know this is all down to hyperventilation). It is very clever and manipulative. It doesn't interrupt my work (which I'm so thankful for), but it loves to manifest itself when we're going to social occasions, or about to travel somewhere for pleasure. I can't tell you how many trips we've had to rearrange as I've been so frightened of having a panic attack. This anxiety has led to depression over the past couple of years, I've found it really hard to even say that word. At the beginning of the year, after being in bed with flu for a week, it hit me, and it was a pretty dark, scary place. I am grateful for having amazing support around me, and Suzi is just incredible, she surprises me constantly with her compassion and understanding.

Coming out of it, all I could think about to help heal and to regain self confidence and belief in myself, was a trip to the wilds of Scotland. I'd heard about the North Coast 500, a journey around the northern tip of Scotland, from west to east hugging the coastline. I really enjoy driving, so I wasn't worried about that element, it was the travelling away from home for an extended period, and the being alone that I was more worried about. But I felt I needed this trip so much that the excitement outweighed the panic.

So, on Saturday 18th March, I packed up the trusty Corsa, left the cobbles, and travelled up to my cousin's house in the Bridge of Allan to break up the journey up to the Highlands. It was good to catch up with family. 

The next morning I set off for Dornie, the next stop before I started the NC500. I drove through all sorts of weather, but just before Glencoe, the clouds parted to reveal blue sky and snowy mountain peaks. I find that Glencoe attacks all my senses, it is beautiful and brutal with its rugged & scarred landscape.

I arrived at my Airbnb in Dornie, overlooking Loch Long. The silloutte mountains of Skye in the distance were illuminated by the most incredible light that was breaking through dark clouds. 

The next morning my NC500 trip officially started. Just before breakfast I went for a short walk up the hill to look down on Eilean Donan Castle.  Apparently it's the most photographed castle in Scotland.

I set off into a thick grey sky, rain carried in veils towards me. But as I travelled along Loch Carron, the sun came through again. The sight of water, mountain and snow seemed to trigger something deep inside, in fact I cried. 'This is why I'm doing this' I wrote in my journal. And then I felt myself letting go. Letting go of the thoughts of how I was going to be on this trip, letting go of the photos I'd already planned in my head, the film I wanted to make, the words I wanted to write. I let go of who I wanted to be on the trip and just decided to be in it, in that moment.

I'd heard so much about the road to Applecross, but I don't think anything could have prepared me for how stunning the drive was. As I approached it, I did start to jangle with a few nerves as I'd heard this single track road was a bit of a white knuckle ride. 

I slowly climbed out of Tornapress, where I was greeted with this sign.

The single track road hugs the mountainside in a series of twists and turns. I stopped in a few places to look back and take photos. I screamed loudly into the wind - there's something to be said for doing this. It felt powerful, that feeling vibrating through my body.

The road became much windier as it twisted around as I reached the summit. There was grit on the road and dirty snow drifts on the sharp bends. As soon as I reached the top, the heady mix of snow and hail came in, horizontal balls of ice ricocheting off the roof and bonnet of the car, as it shook violently in the wind.

But as before, the clouds quickly scudded away to reveal snowy mountains. Other travellers were trying to put coats on in the gale, everyone being buffeted, jackets like super hero cloaks stretching out behind them. Ruddy cheeked faces peeped out from tightly pulled cagoule hoods, and there was much dramatic blowing on hands through pursed lips.

As I arrived in Applecross the sun broke free and the wind died down.  This little village is beautiful. I sat in the Applecross Inn by the log fire, looking out onto choppy waters and to Skye beyond. I'd forgotten how much I love just pootling around in the car, without a purpose in mind, just taking it in and seeing where different roads lead. I met some smiley inquisitive sheep down at Toscaig Pier. When I put this photo up on Twitter, I had a reply from an Applecross resident telling me the names of the family that own them! 

Before I set off on my trip, I was really hoping I'd get to see a golden eagle. So when I read signs to Eagle Rock, Eagle View and Eagle Point on my journey, I had very high hopes! I was just listening to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac as I drove around the Applecross Peninsula, and Songbird came on. The timing seemed fortuitous as I spotted a large bird soaring out of the corner of my eye. I'd already been conned by a few seagulls and a large crow, so I stopped the car to take a closer look. In the background, a rainbow. I was in awe. This is the moment I thought. It turned out to be a buzzard, but it was beautiful all the same. The golden eagle will have to wait for next time as I didn't spot one for the entire trip.

There is a wonderful Scottish word - dreich. I love the way it sounds, every letter drawn out and accentuated. It perfectly embodies the kind of shambolic weather you can get on the west coast - rain, wind, and a big dollop of grey.

I carried on around the headland. When I was planning my trip, I saw many pictures of this cute abode, and felt I needed to add to the collection of shots of this house with the red roof.

And then I drove through the various brown tones of Glen Torridon with its rugged landscape; it seemed quite harsh in the stormy light.

I hadn't really planned places I was going to stop and eat, apart from the amazing Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe. Many travellers before me had included it in their itinerary, and I certainly didn't want to miss out! The poppy-seed and lemon drizzle cake was something to behold.

I was on the last stretch of my day's drive, which included beautiful views along Loch Maree. I saw my 5th rainbow of the day, but this was by far the brightest.

My Airbnb for the evening was a wooden cabin in Big Sand, a remote crofting village close to Gairloch. I reached it just as the sky drained of colour, and as the light faded, a few stars pierced through gaps in the dark clouds. I settled in for the night in my little cosy cabin. A cup of hot tea in my hand and maps strewn on the table, I finalised plans for the next day of my trip.

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