Musing in Monmouthshire

We needed a break from all things chemo and career change, and so headed over the border into the Monmouthshire hills for a week. Despite being on our doorstep, it really does feel like a world apart. Whereas I often worry that I’m spoiling the view in manicured places such as the Cotswolds, in Wales we can enjoy the wildness. And I’m sure I don’t feel this way just because I’m Welsh.

Dervla panicked a little when she realised that she didn’t know some of the new roads leading out of Monmouth, but all in all she did well, and got us safely to our haven for the week – The Hayshed. It’s a newly built barn sited where, you guessed it, the old hayshed used to stand, and it’s gorgeous. Deceptively large inside, toasty warm thanks to underfloor heating, very well equipped, and with this view:

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Before we’d even unpacked we knew that we didn’t want to go home. The trouble with staying in holiday homes as beautiful as this, is that you realise that you really need to up your game and tidy your own house up a little, which we’re in the process of doing. But now we want to live in a barn, in the middle of nowhere.

Walking in Woodstock

With Rich having to attend hospital appointments in Oxford for two days running recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally make that visit to Blenheim Palace Gardens, and to stay overnight in Woodstock.

Woodstock is very chocolate-boxy, and despite it being a foggy mid-November day we had to queue to get into the long stay car park. I love quirky towns and villages, but as we’re both quite averse to large crowds, the busy-ness always detracts from the overall appeal. It reminded me a lot of Stow-on-the-Wold in this respect. Pretty n’all, but give me rough around the edges any day.

Fortunately you don’t have to walk far to lose the crowds – in this case just 100 metres or so from the entrance to the gardens. And yet with the trees just starting to change colour, now was the perfect time to walk here.

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The walking is easy – either on paved roads or flat, well-marked footpaths, but you do unfortunately have to watch out for dog poo – one of my bugbears, and yes you guessed it, I stepped in some towards the end of the walk despite always being careful about such things. I have no time for selfish dog walkers – pick it up!

After a very pleasant 5 miles – the longest Rich had walked in one go since our trip to Barra in October, we drove a few miles to our Bed and Breakfast for the night in Bladon. Park House is run by the lovely Sharon, and is full of character. We’d booked the Amethyst room complete with an extremely comfortable super-king sized bed – so big in fact that when Rich woke up from his nap he couldn’t see me on the other side. Whilst the house is on an A-road, the traffic noise does ease off eventually, and with ear plugs I couldn’t really hear much until the morning commute started.

We’d reserved a table at the Star Inn, Woodstock for dinner, and were seated right next to the magnificent inglenook fireplace. They even presented a gluten free menu, allowing me to eat fish and chips without having to first cut away all the batter. Rich worked his way through the biggest steak and kidney pie we’d ever seen, followed by tiramisu for pudding. This apparently was a revelation as he’d only ever eaten supermarket versions. After coffee, which was again of excellent quality, we walked back to the by now almost empty car park, enjoying Woodstock without the crowds, albeit in the dark.

Ignoring the aggressive driver who insisted on sitting on my bumper right to the door, we headed back to Park House to watch ‘Speed’ with Guy Martin, and to chuckle over Sharon’s stories about some of the things that certain B&B guests get up to! The nerve of some people!

The following morning we were treated to a full English in the breakfast room. Before being run as a B&B this used to be a tea shop, and before that an antiques shop, and so the room is filled with curios – Hayley heaven.

After checking out and loading the car we headed over the road to St Martin’s Church to look at Sir Winston Churchill’s burial place. Apparently it attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, but we had the graveyard to ourselves. I’m pretty sure that Winston chose this as a resting place for the same reason – a bit of peace and quiet, close to his family.

Bye bye Barra

On ‘National sleep-in day’ it would have been rude not to. In fact as the weather had closed in, just like the nice Co-op lady had promised, we decided to go the full hog and have a largely stay at home rest day. The wind howled all through the night, the village was shrouded in mist, and waves ran across the harbour.

After our version of a Scottish breakfast, complete with toffee apple flavour sausages, we braved the 60mph gusts together one last time to buy dinner supplies in Castlebay, loving the fact that even going to the local shop felt like a proper expedition. Leaving Rich to recover I then attempted to visit the archaeological site on the hill above the road to Vatersay, but had to turn back after 20 mins because the wind was literally tearing my woolly hat off and making it very difficult to stay upright – not ideal conditions for walking up a hill in the mist. So I came home to a cup of tea and a chocolate brownie instead.

The following day the mist cleared, but the wind didn’t. Did this stop the twin otter plane taking off from the beach for Glasgow though? Did it bugger! Sorry Air Iceland, but this flybe (Logan Air) return flight trumped yours from Isafjordur to Reykavik in Winter for scariness! Rich’s leg still has the claw marks in from where I held on so tightly out of fear. For the whole 45 minutes the wind buffeted the plane, causing it to shuffle and shake, fall and climb. No one spoke, and I just looked down at the floor rather than at anyone else’s face for their reaction. When we landed in Glasgow, despite being an atheist, I prayed. And the whole plane drew a collective breath. Exciting? I’d say so. Rich is desperate to do it again!

As anticipated, the week on Barra did us the world of good. Walking in wild places helps keep us sane whilst living with chemo and NF2 tumours. I don’t want to moan, as I know that life can be stressful for all of us. But, and yes there is a but, major health issues do change your perspective. They have to really. I’m not the same person I was before I met Rich, and for that I am grateful. Being a part of his life whilst he contends with pain and discomfort is always a humbling experience. And I know that it humbles other people whom we meet on our travels. Travel allows us to forget hospitals and whatnot for a little while, and in many respects seems to make pain more bearable. It also makes us more rounded people, and we never fail to learn from the people we meet and the places we visit. We’ve always had a soft spot for Scotland, and are already planning at least one return trip this year. In the meantime, bi sàbhailte – be safe.

Northbay Junction

We caught the 10.30am bus as far as Northbay Junction – in the north (not suprisingly) of Barra. From there we walked a circular route westwards to Loch an Duin’, south east along the old lakeside track, before emerging onto the road again by Loch Na Obe Cottage. We lost sight of the footpath markers just before the cottage, but fortunately have become dab hands at scrambling over fences. Today this felt like more of a feat than usual though as we were starting to get tired after 6 days of walking.

One advantage of visiting such beauty spots as the Outer Hebrides out of season, is that when you’re desperate for the toilet and are in an urban area so can’t really go out in the open, the nice caretaker of Northbay’s community hall gives you the keys so that you can use the facilities. Sadly the community cafe and garden is only open on Thursday’s, but looks well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

We’d deliberately chosen this walk so that we could catch a bus back along the east coast of the island. As it’s more sheltered there are more houses on this side, but it still feels very rugged.The roads are good though, and we’d happily bring Skyra (our lil car) and Dervla (the satnav) back for a longer trip.

Trotting over Tangabhal

When you stay on a Hebridean island, after a while you get used to the wind and rain. Ignoring the elements as much as possible, we caught the 10.30am bus, disembarked at the foot of Tangabhal (also known as Tangaval), and walked over the headland to Dun Ban – the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.

With gusts of 50mph in October, as a fort it’s not somewhere I’d have relished living in Winter, especially as you have to negotiate areas of quick sand to reach it. Rather than retrace our steps once we reached the summit of the Beinn, we carried on over the hill. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but for the sake of my knees I have to descend slowly when walking on machair, and with Rich marching on ahead, and the rain hammering down, it made communication that much more difficult. Although he’s deaf, I’m still convinced that Rich has selective hearing when his ABI hearing device is switched on! When he tried to take us directly over a steep shoulder, bickering ensued after I’d had to chase after him yelling, and quite possibly cursing! Fortunately he then produced a much needed flask of hot chocolate, and we focused on raising our blood sugar, and forming a plan.

We traced a safe but soggy route down off the hill, and after scrabbling over a few fences eventually met the road. I wasn’t surprised that when I later asked the woman serving behind the Co-op counter what Winter was like on Barra, she responded “you’ll find out tomorrow if you’re staying the weekend!” Fortunately, we were…

The fat Shetland pony

That’ll teach us to rely on the weather forecast. When we set off to walk up Barra’s highest peak – Sheabhal, it was cold but clear. By the time we’d walked the few miles to the foot of the hill she was shrouded in cloud, and we were soaked through. Gore-tex has its limits in the Outer Hebrides it seems.

Hillwalking is one of our passions, but we’ve never felt the need to climb peaks when the weather is pants and we wouldn’t see the route clearly, let alone the view. I didn’t fancy slipping over and making my dodgy knees any more dodgy, or having Rich at the mercy of his squiffy balance without being able to see the horizon.

Beating a hasty retreat meant that at least we caught sight of the gorgeous fat pony and his much bigger friend in a field beside the road, and were in time to catch the Barra Atlantic fish van back in Castlebay. The fish van parks up outside the community hall every Thursday, and for the bargain price of £6 we bought some beautiful fresh haddock for tonight’s tea, and some locally smoked salmon. I really do miss not having a local fishmonger back home, especially as I was born and bred on the coast.

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With our fish supper sorted we then ventured into the community shop, but sadly were a little disappointed. Maybe they were having an off day, but the staff weren’t very friendly, and the produce seemed ridiculously expensive. At our next stop – the Hebridean Toffee Shop, the owner explained that this was probably because the producers all charged a lot for the amount of time spent on labour. This only really works if there’s a market for the goods though, and if, dare I say, the goods don’t look too rough and ready! Given the high standard of artisan products elsewhere in Scotland, including at the toffee shop, I don’t feel too bad about saying this.

We walked back to the Co-op via the Herring Way, bought a tin of mushy peas to go with tonight’s fish, and then nipped into the Tartan Cafe for a much needed hot chocolate. The cafe is inside the new Children’s Centre, and when we arrived there was a group of schoolgirls all eating plates of chips for their lunch – not a salad leaf or vegetable in sight, which is probably why they’d escaped from the school across the road. Barra seems to be desperately trying to keep young people on the island, and they can receive an education here until they’re 18, but I understand that yet another primary school has not long closed, and that there’s very little work on the island even for those who do want to stay.

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The wrong bus ticket

Ignoring the rain we caught the 10.38am bus to Vatersay – the island just to the south of Barra. Despite the forecast having predicted rain all day, by the time the bus drove off the causeway connecting the two islands, the rain had stopped, and didn’t reappear until we were home and snug.

As the bus made it’s way round the island, two fellow passengers started talking about Mick MacNeil – former member (keyboard player) of the band ‘Simple Minds’. He was born on Barra, and one of those passengers claimed that his holiday home was on Vatersay. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that he’s the sound engineer for the local group ‘The Vatersay Boys’, and that they’ve recorded on Vatersay, so don’t be surprised if you visit and bump into him.

The female bus driver was very friendly, told us exactly where we’d have to meet the returning bus, and where we could seek shelter if we needed it. She then dropped us opposite the Annie Jane monument that commemorates those emigrants who died when the ship transporting them to Canada was wrecked here.

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With two hours and ten minutes to do a 3-4 hour walk, we set off at a determined pace, helped in parts by the gusts of wind. For a small island, there’s a lot to see on Vatersay, including 3 gorgeous white beaches. Not surprisingly, it gets much busier here in the summer, but out of season we had the place almost to ourselves.

We almost had to jog the last section or risk missing the last bus home, and then an even longer walk, but were able to flag the bus down on the road. This driver was far less friendly than this morning’s, and made me close the minibus door 7 times because he claimed I hadn’t shut it properly. After the third time, I asked him to help if he was adamant that I was doing wrong, but he refused, so I persisted, until eventually I gave him one of my looks, and he realised that he’d probably pushed me too far! He then however insisted that we had the ‘wrong’ bus tickets. To have bought the wrong tickets would have been an achievement on an island of this size, where there are only so many places you can catch a bus to. Having come to suspect by now that he might have learning difficulties however, or at least problems interacting with others, I just apologised and then kept quiet. This seemed to do the trick and his tune changed almost instantly, with him then offering to drive us round to the airport so that we could watch the plane landing on the beach at Traigh Mhòr. For the rest of the journey we talked about life on the island and travel, and he praised our decision to stay longer than one night on the island. Apparently islanders find it quite sad that tourists hop-scotch over the islands, and never really get a feel for any of the places they visit.

Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas and the flight was cancelled because of the mist, but at least we got to sample the airport cafe’s very nice coffee, and to see more of the island from the bus. Back at the Co-op we stocked up on fresh veggies from the reduced section (they don’t like fresh veggies here it seems), and walked back to the apartment to be greeted by Scooby and friend (we nicknamed him Scrappy) wanting to play catch. They’re both border collies who like to stay out in all weathers, and never missed an opportunity to play ball or cuddle. We liked them a lot, so much so that when we do eventually make time and space for fluffy creatures at home, one or more will be a border collie.