As the appeal of staycations look set to remain, the UK offers a wealth of gems for motorhomers and travellers to explore.
Having rented out their house pre Covid-19, Sharon from Leave Work to Travel recalls how being homeless became a bonus as she, husband Steve and their travelholic golden retriever Bracken embarked on a Scottish motorhome trip which exceeded their wildest dreams.
The emotion that Scotland’s heart melting beauty evokes is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
If anyone had told me the magnificence of this country would move me to tears, that I’d ascend the dizzy heights of Ben Nevis and scale the cliff tops of Britain’s most northerly point – I’d have been more than a little sceptical.
Working full time for decades through deadline-driven weeks and weekends had previously left Scotland low on our travel itinerary – opting for warmer and more exotic climes. We had a lot of catching up to do.
Our Swift Rio 320 was gleaming from its pre-trip scrub up when we set off up Northumberland’s iconic coastline on a route which took us 3,200 miles across two months. This included 24 boat journeys to transport us to a breathtaking 14 islands.
Edinburgh took on a different perspective as we enjoyed sweeping views across the Firth of Forth just a short walk from our campsite at Cramond.
Our coastal route took us to the picturesque seaside villages on the East Neuk of Fife. Wild camping on the beach at Kingsbarns, we savoured the sunset with a glass of wine – Bracken had a pawsecco!!
The legendary golf course at St Andrews didn’t disappoint but we didn’t hang around as the town was heaving and we were constantly aware of the pandemic and the importance of social distancing. That evening we opted for a quiet certified Caravan and Motorhome Club site catering for just five vehicles in a quiet field.
Perthshire was perfect – Dalwhinnie Distillery, golfing in Glenshee and long leisurely walks around delightful lochs of which there are over 31,000 in Scotland. Bracken was in his canine heaven swimming and exploring.
Fabulous Fortrose – based in the country of Ross and Cromarty – is surrounded on both sides by the North Sea. We loved every second of our sun soaked, beach front campsite and met up with friends who’d booked into a local bed and breakfast.
Having pushed out the boat to spot bottleneck dolphins on an RIB trip from Inverness harbour, we saw nothing. However, the next day at Chanonry Point in Fortrose we sighted them at a distance.
Highs and Lows of North Coast 500
Part of our route spanned the renowned North Coast 500 – lauded as one of the world’s most beautiful road trips. Unfortunately, some badly behaved campers had upset and created tensions among local communities – further exacerbating the challenges of an already difficult Covid climate.
A must for foodies on the route is devouring delicious seafood at the Inn at Applecross which is situated on a remote peninsula and famous for its spectacular mountain drive.
Eighty five miles further North is the sensational Seafood Shack in Ullapool where the buzz is palpable, and the tempura Haddock wrap sensational. After booking in at Ardmair Bay site to find that their wifi was not working, we moved to Broomfield Holiday Camp just a few minutes walk from the town centre.
Another stop off to make time for on the North Coast 500-mile circular trip is Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Scotland and the island of Great Britain, where birds including puffins, razorbills and guillemots can be seen at the nature reserve.
Snapping a selfie at the world famous compass at John O Groats – the starting point for fundraising feats to Land’s End 876 miles away – is no mean feat. The endless queues of bikers, staycationers and holiday makers from further afield were painstaking so we skipped the queue and spotted a different angle from which to capture it. What made John O Groats memorable for us was a stunning six kilometre circular coastal walk to Duncansby Head Lighthouse, and the old RAF station, and Duncansby’s magnificent rock stacks.
Intoxicating: Skyfall Minus Bond
The allure of James Bond films with their sensational global backdrops, smouldering stars and dastardly villains never ceases to diminish. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore the location of Skyfall’s dramatic climax in Glen Coe with its compulsive cocktail of scenery. Surrounded by towering mountains and swirling mists, we retraced the footsteps of Daniel Craig to the spot where he revealed to M (Judi Dench) that Skyfall was his original home. The picturesque town of Glen Coe nestles in the mouth of the famous Glen and is also worth a visit. .
Tackling New Challenges
Such explorations wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Fort William and its internationally acclaimed landmark Ben Nevis which towers at over 4,000 feet and is a potentially dangerous climb. Challenges include negotiating uneven, rocky paths and the fact that hill fog can roll in at any time to shroud the mountain and disorientate walkers. While the foot of the mountain can be bathed in sunshine, it can be bitterly cold at the top.
Yorkshire’s Three Peaks, which I had previously completed, was a proverbial stroll in the park compared with Ben Nevis. The final remnant of an ancient volcano, it rightly earns its reputation as the ‘venomous mountain’.
Bracken found the experience a breeze – Steve had tackled it previously on a Three Peaks national charity marathon and was a star in ensuring our safety at all times. It was my most difficult personal challenge to date.
We saw at first hand the perils of being unprepared, stopping on the way down to assist a lady who did not have warm clothes or proper walking shoes and who had twisted her ankle, and had to be airlifted to hospital.
A moment I will treasure forever was meeting a couple who got engaged at the summit which was enveloped in a mantle of fog. We took their photograph and they proudly showed us the ring – happiness emanating from every fibre of their being.
Staying at the Glen Nevis Camping and Caravan Park at the foot of Ben Nevis, we were transfixed by its indomitable power. Being at such close proximity was also a disquieting reminder of how many lives it had claimed over the centuries.
Our explorations hit a new high when we set sail for the Hebridean Islands and the captivating Isle of Skye. Famous for its castles and rugged landscape, the largest of the Inner Hebridean islands will be in our hearts forever.
It must have been the hottest day of the year when we climbed the Old Man of Storr – an enormous pinnacle of rock created by a massive landslide. The ascent was steep and slippery, but we were rewarded by sensational views from the top and privileged to see a majestic golden eagle surveying the dramatic landscape.
Steeped in history and clan legends, Skye’s famous landmarks include Dunvegan Castle whose amazing collection includes Jacobite and Bonnie Prince Charlie relics including the Prince’s waistcoat and a lock of his hair.
Our visit to the island of North Uist transported us into the turquoise waters and glistening white sands redolent of the Caribbean and some of the highest peaks on the Outer Hebrides.
A paradise for wildlife, with bountiful, sun drenched beaches and camping sites just yards from the sea, the island boasts Europe’s largest breeding colony for seals, with 9,000 pups born each year.
I’d definitely recommend visiting Uist Wool – a spinning mill and wool centre which is an inspiring community outreach preserving cultural traditions.
Guinness Book of Records
We were literally blown away by Lewis and Harris – the third biggest island in the British Isles. The lighthouse at the extraordinarily breezy Butt of Lewis with its sweeping Atlantic views features in the Guinness Book of records for being the windiest in the UK.
The island’s ancient landscape includes the cross-shaped 5,000-year-old Callanish stones which predate Stonehenge and were significant for ritual activity.
Throughout our stay we came across an eclectic array of campsites – the majority in fabulous settings. We were grateful to have our own shower and toilet as Covid restrictions saw many campsites only take tourers with their own facilities.
Our wild camping adventures included a night parked by a pier outside of Stornoway. The next morning we spoke briefly to a local couple who’d popped down to hook a herring and went happily home to cook it for their breakfast. A gem you won’t find on a camp sites!
As travel reviewers we were also invited to review hotels which also enhanced our eclectic mix of experiences.
Magic of Mull
The iconic brightly coloured houses in Tobermory set the tone for our magical adventures in Mull whose population is less than 3,000.
With heart stopping scenery around every corner, Mull is a magnet for lovers of the great outdoors. It is also the gateway for the idyllic offshore islands of Iona and Staffa.
Just 2km wide and 6km long with a population of 150, Iona holds a strong significance for Christians after St Columba and his followers arrived in AD563 to spread the gospel. His legacy can be found in the restored medieval abbey which dominates the coastline.
Our Iona excursion also included Staffa – an uninhabited island with impressive towering basalt columns and Fingels Cave which the composer Mendelssohn captured beautifully in the Hebrides Overture. Here we carefully watched a sea eagle hovver and check Bracken out.
We were intoxicated by the beauty of Islay – the most southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides – without sampling the whisky as many distilleries were closed due to Covid. A 10-minute small foot passenger ferry to Jura brought a whole new meaning to ‘getting away from it all’. In six hours, we saw three cars and five magnificent deer!
Sleepless in Arran
The majestic and awe-inspiring Scottish red deer thrive in the islands and Highlands. Our captivating campsite on the island of Arran – with its sensational coastline and abundance of dramatic mountain peaks – was home to a family of deer.
Ensconced in our Scottish memory box is how we were kept awake all night by the voracious grunts of a stag right outside our motorhome who was asserting his dominance!
Seals basking in the sunshine, spectacular scenery and poignant tales of adversity encapsulate our Orkney adventure. Disembarking on mainland Orkney, we visited the inspirational Italian Chapel built by Italian Prisoners of War (POWs) during World War II.
After a German U-boat torpedoed a British battleship anchored nearby with the tragic loss of over 800 lives, Prime Minister, Winston Churchill immediately called for improved defences.
The Italian soldiers were transported to construct causeways, known as the Churchill Barriers, which linked to Mainland Orkney. When Italy surrendered to the allies, the POWs were allowed to build their own chapel which they constructed from two Nissen huts, scavenging materials from wherever they could.
Gift for Prosperity
The chapel’s interior is breathtakingly beautiful – a true work of art painted to look like brick walls and carved stone.
It features frescos of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altarpiece portraying the Madonna and Child.
Although the Italians left (September 1944) when the Churchill Barriers were completed, Domenico Chiocchetti who led the project returned in 1960 to help with restoration work. On departing he wrote this letter to the people of Orkney:
“The chapel is yours – for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. I thank … all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lambholm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart”. Domenico Chiocchetti - 11th April 1960.
Bracken’s sense of adventure and fearlessness saw him undertake many firsts – among them being his first journey on a small passenger ferry to the Orkney Island of Hoy or ‘High Island’.
We ascended the Old Man of Hoy – a 450-foot sea stack which is Orkney’s most famous landmark. The route took us though the most magnificent hues of heather we’d seen so far and the views from the stack were indescribable.
The island of Westray – hailed as queen of the Orkney Islands – was divine as we witnessed massive waves crashing in from the North. We were delighted to see seals – around 15 per cent of world’s seal population make the Orkneys their home.
Our longest sea journey on our quest to explore the most remote locations was an overnight boat from Kirkwall to Lerwick – the Shetlands’ main town and port.
A blip where another dog had commandeered Bracken’s allocated kennel was quickly resolved and we slept soundly in our own cabin.
Situated between Norway and mainland Scotland, the Shetland Islands are spectacular – as was the view on our campsite at a stunning marina.
Venturing further north to the island of Yell, we discovered an oasis of peace, wildlife and wildflowers where a Shetland pony greets visitors and locals alighting from the boat. Owned and cared for by local crofters, the animals originated in the Shetland Isles in the Bronze Age and have stayed there ever since.
Shetlands strong Viking heritage is very apparent on Unst – Britain’s most northerly inhabited island where the remains of 60 longhouses – more than in Scandinavia – are evident.
The pinnacle of our adventure was the indescribable sight and sound of thousands of birds at the Hermaness National Nature Reserve at the island’s furthermost point. If we’d ventured any further north, we’d have been in the North Pole – and Norway was just a few miles east of us.
The dramatic cliff-top reserve is a haven for over 100,000 birds in breeding season including gulls, shags, gannets, puffins and kittiwakes and the not-to- be-missed Bronxies famous for dive bombing.
We absorbed and consigned to memory forever the humbling, inspiring and emotional experience.
Every day since our Scottish explorations I wonder if any future road trip will surpass this spectacular sojourn of life, learning and discovery in the most beautiful country I have had the privilege to explore.
All images were taken by Steve, Leave Work to Travel’s photographer. You can follow the travelling trio’s adventures on www.leaveworktottavel.com where Bracken also has his own blog and on Instagram and Facebook @leaveworktotravel @brackenstraveltails