Boys Trips and Early Days

There is nothing of much use here if your planning a trip to Ireland or a Scottish Island. Just loads of rubbish about my early camper van experiences and our futile but extremely enjoyable boys only adventures.
 

Boys Trips

My early introduction to Motorhoming (if you can call it that) was when my very good friend Dennis purchased a 1967 Commer Caravanette which we quickly christened The Beast in 1985. I was in my late teens then and immediately could see that our lives were about to be transformed with this great thing of Beauty. The beast had in tow a beautiful 1959 clinker built 11ft Norwegian rowing boat (Tatty Head) which was also a thing of beauty. Sadly neither is with us anymore.

The Beast served us well and the Tall Tales Fishing club was formed which consisted of 9 Englishmen and a Frenchman.

Generally in the 80’s the van was used for fishing trips to the Lakes, Scotland and Ireland. At least that’s what people thought. The younger elements of the team spent half their time chasing the local talent or searching the van for Dennis’s expensive scotch and wine which he tried ever so hard to hide.

The trips to Ireland are now the stuff of Legend. Half of us were from the north and half were from the north but living in the south (except Jerome who was from Toulouse for some reason). We would meet at midnight at Holyhead and all get in the van (yes all of us) and drive onto the Ferry. The party would have begun the minute the van left Darlington so by the time we got to Ireland (if the ferry was still intact) most of us would be well oiled.

The first time I met Jerome we got so drunk that we didn’t remember leaving the ferry and landing in Ireland. Somehow we had been shovelled into the van and were asleep on the floor on a mattress. At some point the van got a puncture. We were (apparently) dragged out of the van still on our mattress and left on the pavement in some small Irish town.

The chaps thought it would be funny once the tyre was fixed to drive off and leave us asleep. It was some time later that Jerome and I woke up to find ourselves in a busy high street with people stepping over us and no sign of the others. Of course the nearest pub was always a good bet and we found the lads just “washing their hands”

It must have been some vehicle to take ten of us and a boat across Ireland. Once on the Shannon we would pick up a big motor cruiser and as the only person with boating experience I got to be skipper and helmsman! The lads would take it in turn to sleep on the boat or the van but there was never a dull moment.

The Beast was a bit of a girl magnet in Ireland and the record was one Afternoon when I was sent off into the local town to pick up supplies and came back with no less than eight seventeen year old convent girls (in Uniform, Oh yes). We were a mixed age range at the time from fifteen to fifty but that didn’t seem to matter.

The Irish welcomed us with open arms where ever we turfed up (despite Jerome’s habit of going to the loo where ever he felt like it) and the hostelries around the Shannon and Lough Derg did very well from our visits. I remember on one occasion at the bottom end of Lough Derg at a place called Killaloe we were at a river side pub for lunch time refreshments when Jamie started debating if it would be possible to hit a golf ball from outside the pub, across the Shannon and into the neighbouring village of Balina on the other side of the river.

Over several pints of the dark stuff this was debated by us and the locals and some hours later a number 1 wood and a golf ball was provided and the whole town assembled on the river bank to watch this Englishman take aim at Balina on the other side of the Shannon. Money changed hands and our English golfing pride was in the balance. I don’t think the good people of Balina were warned but no matter, Jamie, five Guinness’s down managed a slice which somehow bounced its way three times out of the water but didn’t even make the half way point to the other side which must have been a good three hundred yard drive! (see pic). Jerome our French member still managed to celebrate by taking a piss in front of both towns off the bridge adjoining them. I love the French.

Those trips were fantastic and I will remember them with great fondness forever.

Dennis and I would spend many days together over in the Lakes fishing in Tatty Head and staying in the van next to some pub or other. The van somehow would sleep five! One in the front seat bed, two in the double in the back, one in a hammock and me on my mattress on the floor!

I don’t think the Commer ever saw a campsite.

Like your first love I suppose you will never forget your first van (even though it wasn’t really mine). The fondness I felt for that vehicle was akin to the love you might have for an old dog or a best friend. It was heart breaking in later years to hear of its demise. A world of memories though but decorum prohibits me publishing most of them online.

The VW Club

Chris or Patter as he is known managed to get hold of a 1971 VW camper. Up until then the Commer was the number one vehicle but now we had (well Chris had) The King of campers. We were well into tents by then and we even had cars so the world was our oyster (well the UK and Glastonbury festival was). The Lake District on our doorstep still featured strongly in our favourite locations to visit. Mainly because it was near and cheap to get to and that it was full of pubs. We all had things called jobs by now and had to use weekends and short holidays for our adventures.

Slowly over the years people got married, got better jobs and somehow many of my friends who not too far in the distant past would have been happy building a massive fire and a model of Stonehenge on some distant Scottish beach were now captains of industry (unbelievable). Even I somehow bumbled my way into an IT career.

Eventually our camping trips became less frequent as people’s lives got ever more sucked into that inevitable grip and responsibility that society seems to insist that we have thrust upon us. Not me and Patter though! Oh no. Despite me getting married we still took time out for some mad adventures in the VW and we still do to this day.

Most of our trips have involved journeys to Scotland and many of the Islands and we have even done a couple of missions to seek out film set locations.

In the last ten years we have visited the inner and outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney (twice). One year we even visited Wales but I think that could have just been because we turned left by mistake at Penrith instead of right.

When we were young it seemed we could sleep an army of bodies in a Commer or VW but in recent years Patter declared all that was over and he wanted the van to himself so for me it was back to a tent.

The Herbidean Islands

For some reason we decided it would be a good idea to go to the Outer Hebrides via Skye one summer. Michelle was only too willing to help me pack so off we went. If you have never gone on an adventure in a VW then it’s difficult to explain but there is a certain joy and feeling that all is well with the world as soon as you get in it and head off. Its sole purpose is to have fun and it’s also quite a cool vehicle to be in. People are nice to you in a VW. They will come and talk to you. You can’t be an axe murderer or criminal if you’re in a VW camper and people seem to know that.

I would be disappointed if I lived on Skye as some idiot decided it would be a good idea to join it to the mainland via a bridge. This immediately loses its Island status and independence in my mind. We used Skye as a stopping off point before embarking on the island tour. It’s a foreboding but beautiful place but going midsummer is not good if you value your skin. The first day we are there we pitch camp at the head of the first loch we come to and it looks a stunning spot. By the time I have pitched my tent however I have been savaged to death by the dreaded midges.

We stay a few days but are itching to get across to the outer islands. Our first stop is South Uist, Benbecular and North Uist. All separate islands but joined by causeways. It’s an interesting but not what I would call pretty landscape. Arran and Mull to me are pretty islands but the Outer Hebrides some would class as baron and bleak places. However there is a serenity and windswept beauty about them and the people are a bit mad which makes it right up our street.

As we drive around the island we keep seeing these signs for a BIG SALE!. We are directed left, right, left, right, back where we started, right and left then eventually we end up at what looks like a village hall. As soon as we arrive one of the locals comes out to greet us, drunk as a skunk he immediately starts negotiations with Patter to buy the camper van. ITs not for sale but this doesn't seem to deter him. There must have been a ship wreck as the hall is full of Booty. There is everything here on sale you can possibly imagine and none of it makes much sense. This seems to fit a pattern for the whole of the Outer Hebrides.

It’s Sunday and we have run out of booze. Bad planning (well no planning actually). I am aware that its even bad form to arrive on the island on a Sunday let alone start asking for a drink. They are supposedly quite religious about Sunday being a no booze day or no anything day for that matter. We spy a likely red nosed fella and wink at him and ask where one might obtain a can of beer or two. Instead of damming us in a religious rant he points out that there is one shop about 20 miles away that will be open at mid day for an hour. We eventually find it at five to twelve and there is a queue to get in. As the doors open its like supermarket sweep as arms seem to drag along the booze counters scooping and devouring everything in their path that might have alcohol in it. We make a note not to shop for drink on a Sunday again but the Welly Bar is thankfully restocked. The Welly Bar is a massive Welly boot that sits between the two front seats and is full of little bottles of beer for journey consumption (passengers only).

The locals are really friendly. We park outside one pub just to check the map and the local lads about our age come running out and make us come in for a drink. Again they are interested in the van but are more interested at challenging us at Darts, pool etc as they have had nobody new to play against for ages! Even the Police make us laugh. As we travel from one Island to the other on the Causeway a battered and ancient Police car comes the other way and the two uniformed occupants are waving in unison at us!

Spooks

There is a dark side to South Uist. There is a secret (well not anymore) missile range on the island. http://www.secretscotland.org.uk/index.php/Secrets/SouthUistMissileRange Stuff gets exploded and fired out to sea all the time. There is even a warning sign with a badly drawn rocket on it! We are wild camping on this beach when all of a sudden 2 black BMW’s pull up next to us where half a dozen thirty something’s who are clearly neither islanders or tourists step out with high powered binoculars and start searching the horizon. They pretend to be casual but clearly they are looking for something. I would like to say we found the Scud they were looking for and sold it on Ebay but whatever they had lost neither of us found it.

Bernaray at the top of the lower chain of islands is stunning. It’s just a 2 mile round blob of an island really. We arrive in the dark and pitch camp on a cliff top in an horrendous gale. The tent is up in minutes and we retire to the van. There is something fantastic about sitting with a scotch in the VW with Radio 4 crackling away in the background in a remote wild spot like this. (has to be long wave though, FM is no good)

In the morning the storm has gone and the sun is shining. Below us is a superb white sandy beach and there is nobody else here. It’s my idea of heaven.

Harris and Lewis

Lewis has a big town, Stornaway. I don’t want to see big towns, it reminds me of home. I like the idea of being in remote places. It’s ok though as my faith in the Outer Hebrides is restored when one of the first people we encounter is a bloke walking around wearing a toilet on his head. These islands are a con as they don’t even have a causeway, they are just one island with two names, Lewis is the north and Harris is the south. Driving up through Harris is like driving on the moon. Its hills and land are lunar like. Again not pretty to me but still interesting.

I’m surprised there is any island left as they keep digging it up and setting fire to it. The island is basically one big piece of Peat and they use Peat for fuel. As you drive around there are huge slabs of it just being lobbed off and stored at the side of the road. Eventually they will wake up one day, warm but sat on the beach with the water lapping around them.

We visit the Black House museum and learn about Harris Tweed and life until very recently in the Black Houses. Peat once again features quite heavily .

Film Locations and Orkney (first time)

Two of my favourite films are Local Hero and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After not too much research we discover that both were extensively filmed in Scotland. Road Trip!

Local Hero was partly filmed in Pennan which is about 50 miles east of Inverness on the coast. We decide to head up there on the way to John O Groats and the Orkney Islands.

It’s a long drive but a magical little place. It’s October when we go and there is nobody here. It all looks familiar though as I have seen the film endless times. The phone box and hotel is there although the phone box used in the film is actually 20 yards nearer the sea.

We park up and pitch right on the front probably too close to the sea really and head into the Hotel. There are pictures of all the cast including Burt Lancaster in the hotel. At last a barman appears and it seems we are not the first to make the pilgrimage. He even puts on the splendid Mark Knophfler sound track for us. Typical I didn’t think anyone else would have thought of it!

Orkney

Who would go camping to the Orkney Islands in October in a VW and a tent? Well we proper adventurers would. The first couple of nights are spent on a beach / cove. I pitch my tent actually in the sand. It’s cold but I have a little gas heater a comfy air bed and good sleeping bag. Around 3 o’clock in the morning I am awakened by something big and heavy snorting and moving around outside. Knowing how Pat likes his sleep I know it won’t be him playing a joke. The side of the tent billows in. It’s trying to get in! I give it a big whack and can only describe the impact like hitting an almost solid sand bag. Whatever it is shuffles off spluttering and making some unearthly noise. I flop back down on the Air bed which immediately bursts with an almighty bang. There are clearly more monsters on the loose as the bang causes more spluttering and shuffling followed by a splash. Sea Monsters of Orkney? I’m fed up now. I’m awake, cold and have no bed.

At sunrise I stick my head out of the tent to be greeted not less than 10ft away by 3 big fat Seals. Seems I was trespassing on their turf but they don’t do anything seeing as I wacked their leader last night so they know I’m a bit handy.

I could bore you with details of Scapa Flow http://www.scapaflow.co.uk/ or the superb 5000 year old Neolithic village at Skara Brae http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/ but what’s more interesting is the Orkney Women. In the 50’s and 60’s the Norwegian whaling fleets spent a lot of time here and clearly they integrated quite well with the locals. There are loads of Scandinavian looking blonds here. Orkney has some stunning looking girls (and probably boys but we don’t notice them as much).

We hear that you can get a flight to North Ronaldsay for about £20 so we head to the Airport. Sure enough there is an 8 seater plane and it is about £20 return. I end up sitting next to the pilot and it’s a great flight over the islands. North Ronaldsay is really about as remote as you can get in the UK. The airport consists of a rough track and a hut with a beer crate for a boarding step from the aircraft.

On the way back the plane fills up with locals who demand to be “dropped” off at various islands on route. The pilot doesn’t seem to mind and simply drops the plane out of the sky anywhere that looks a bit flat. It’s the best £20 we have spent.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Perhaps the most watched film (for me) of all time. It is law I think that when groups of blokes get drunk they have to at some stage recite scenes from The Holy Grail or the Life of Brian.

Most of it was filmed in Scotland and we set out to find the Castle Anthrax, Camelot, The French persons Castle, Swamp Castle, The Cave of Caerbannog (killer rabbit) and from the final scene the Castle Arghh!

It turns out that the Castle Anthrax, The French persons Castle, Camalot and Swamp Castle are all set at Doune Castle near Stirling so this saves quite a bit of searching. Again we reckon we will be the only ones daft enough to go on such a venture. Nope. They even have a gift shop selling Monty Python memorabilia. You can buy a John Cleese Doll and Coconuts FFS!

Still it’s really interesting to see the places where those famous scenes were filmed. The Cave of Caerbannog with the killer rabbit is never found but months later when Michael Palin does the same trip for a BBC documentary, he never finds it either! The Castle Arghh at the end of the film is near Oban and is called Castle Stalker. The final scene of the film is cut short as they actually ran out of money!

Shetland

Let’s go to Muckle Flugga. Where is it? Well it’s the most northerly outpost of the British Isles, as near to Norway as Scotland and 61 degrees north. You could get to Australia faster than you can get to Muckle Flugga in a VW. It’s a 9 hour drive to Aberdeen, 12 hours on a ferry, a drive across Mainland Shetland, another ferry and a drive across the island of Yell, another ferry then a drive across Unst and your about there. It took us 4 days! The ferry crossing turns out to be a real party. An REM tribute band is on board and I become the guest guitarist for the night. We party the night away and worry about getting off the ferry at 6am later.

This time when we go its late summer but it’s still not very warm. It’s not as populated as Orkney and it feels much more Scandinavian right down to the buildings and small Fjord type inlets. Unst is amazing and just about as remote as you can get. The most interesting thing about Shetland is the Millennium Bus Shelter on Unst which even has its own website. http://www.unstbusshelter.shetland.co.uk/

When we visited there was a TV, a sofa, a seat out of an Aeroplane, a computer and a half full bottle of (real) Scotch (yes I did try it). Only on Unst could such a thing exist.

On the way back we end up in the Orkney Islands again as it breaks the journey in half (6 hours). Both are worth a visit but they are a hell of a trek. As usual the VW blows up somewhere near Penrith on the way home and we sit in the back finishing the last of the welly bar and waiting for the AA to turn up to take us home.

Future boy’s trips

Hopefully a Festival this year!

The Beast. Commer Caravenette.
 
Lough Derg
 
Lough Derg
 
Killaloe (left) and Balina and Jerome's bridge
 
Another example
 
VW and Kontiki in the Lakes November 2010
 
Doune Castle Stirling
 
Pitching camp and getting eaten on Skye
 
Bernaray
 
Pennan (Local Hero)
 
Pennan (Local Hero)
 
Another succesful installation
 
Photo says it all. Orkney.
 
Doune Castle (French Persons wall)
 
Doune Castle (Gate Keeper)
 
Castle Arghhh. Castle Stalker near Oban
 
Bernaray
 
Skara Brae, Orkney
 
Will this fit on the van roof? Islay.
 
Islay
 
Millenium Bus Shelter, Unst
 
Muckle Flugga 61 degrees north.