Tuesday, 27 August 2019

In the refuge

Life must be different every single day for the people who live in the village on Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast. It's an island only at high tide. At low water a proper road called the Causeway is exposed, and traffic - in season, quite a lot of it - can get onto Holy Island for a while. That's the cars of residents, delivery and Royal Mail vans, buses, tourist and sightseers' coaches and cars, bicycles, and whatever else wants or needs to visit the island.

They can only stay a few hours, though, before the tide turns and creeps back to cover the Causeway. It's usually deep enough at high tide to make it impossible to drive through the water. Some try, of course. A van (actually an empty horsebox) driven by someone with a poor command of English (so that he couldn't read the warning signs very well) got stuck earlier this year - see the written report at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-47684980. These are two of the pictures, which show how deep the water gets:

I shouldn't think the water was quite as deep when the van's engine gave up, and the driver had to make his escape by wading. But he would have got pretty wet.

On the island, your attention is drawn to the times of high and low tide, and it's made clear when you shouldn't try to cross over to the mainland.

It's the nature of the tide to alter its times from day to day; so anybody who visits the island needs to look up the state of the tide when they intend to arrive, and when they intend to depart, and adapt their plans accordingly. The local bus service builds the safe period for making a crossing into its timetable - see https://passenger-line-assets.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/bordersbuses/BB/477-timetable-20190611-94d308bb.pdf. It makes for a very complicated schedule! You can easily see that occasional visitors might not study the tide table much, if at all, and non-local delivery vans especially must often take risks. It isn't worth it. Once the Causeway is covered, even by an inch or two of water, there is a risk of driving off it into sand or mud, or of flooding the engine compartment with water-splash. And yet who wants to hang around for a few hours, until it's safe to cross again?

Here's a map or two to show the line of the Causeway:

As ever, click on these maps to see the detail clearly.

The total length of the Causeway is about three miles, and you can see there is a middle section - which stays dry - with sections east and west which normally get covered by a high tide. On the eastern section, you will almost certainly be able to turn around and return to the village to sit it out. But if already on the western section, where the water gets a lot deeper, you are definitely committed to get across or get stuck. As the road is a straight line, there is a temptation to plough on at speed, which might not succeed. 'Who dares wins' is an admirable motto, but it doesn't always work!

This YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_31v_edZa7Y) is a time-lapse effort that shows how the sea steadily and inexorably covers the Causeway. At least it doesn't come in faster than a horse can gallop, as is reputedly the case in some spots in Morecambe Bay. This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAgi2L-6ItI) gives a good impression of the Causeway starting to get covered by the incoming tide, at a time when lots of drivers are taking their last opportunity for hours to cross over to the mainland. It gets perceptibly wetter as you watch. Imagine the same scene in the dark, when you can't see what might be bringing the traffic to a standstill all the time. (As if anybody would attempt a crossing after sunset! But of course, this far north, the winter days are short, and night falls early...)  

What if the worst happens, and you have to abandon your car? Well, both maps show a 'Refuge' on the Causeway, where the water gets deepest. This is what my post is really about: seeing what that refuge is like.

I should explain that there are two refuges. The other is for people who walk to Holy Island across the sands, no doubt following the ancient pilgrims' route to the Holy Island Priory. On the larger-scale map you can see a long line of posts marked on the sands south of the modern road, and a refuge for those walkers. Here's someone else's picture of this refuge:

It's a very basic affair indeed, hardly more than a platform. No roof, shelter from the wind only if you sit or crouch down, and not much room for a big party of walkers. But I don't suppose it's often used.

The refuge for people on the Causeway is much more sophisticated. This is the one I wanted to look at.

So here I am, one late-April afternoon, arriving on the Causeway from Beal, looking for a place to park. Actually, there's only one or two semi-official parking-places on the Causeway. But there are several level areas of firm shingle on either side of the road. While the tide is low, nobody seems to mind if you pull in and use them.

I find a place to leave Fiona some way beyond the refuge, and have to walk back. Fiona will be safe there for hours yet; but even so, I don't intend to linger long in this place. You never know what the sea might do.

As I get nearer to the refuge, I can begin to appreciate its construction.

It's built on the north side of the Causeway, next to a big drop where the road becomes a bridge over a river in the sand. It strikes me that if the sea were already lapping at the steps up to the refuge, and a bunch of people were clustered impatiently in waist-high water at the bottom of the steps, it would be easy to fall sideways off the road into deepish water. 

Let's go up, open the door, and see what it's like. The door is never locked of course: and anyone can go up there.

I close the door, shutting out most of the breeze. It's really just a garden shed on stilts. There are windows facing south over the sands, and west along the Causeway towards the mainland. Nice views! 

Look at that. The deep-water section of the Causeway is too narrow for cars to pass each other. That's what was causing the bottleneck in the second video. 

The amenities of the refuge were few but to the point. There was a bench seat to sit down on, and possibly snooze upon if alone. Someone had left behind a towel - not that I was going to touch it with a barge pole in cold blood. But if I really were stranded, and very wet, it might be welcome.

And there was a dedicated telephone for summoning help. Although I imagine most people would try using their mobile phone first.

The place was devoid of a heater, or any lighting. And more than amply ventilated - one could say it was downright draughty. At least that made it smell fresh. The refuge was a minimal shelter, good enough for its purpose, but relying on you to be wearing suitable clothing to keep you from dying of hypothermia. On a sunny afternoon, though, it was easy to be cheerful. It was peaceful. I quite liked it up here. 

I was almost reluctant to leave, but I wanted to see something of Holy Island, which I did. A few photos will sum the experience up. 

Lindisfarne Castle had closed for the day, and I still didn't manage to walk all round the island - another, much longer, visit will be needed for that. But I will be back. 

The sun was starting to set. It was still very safe to cross back to the mainland, but I wondered whether I would find the refuge surrounded by encroaching sea on the return journey. Surprisingly, this wasn't so. The sea seemed as far out as earlier. It must make a sudden advance, but not just yet. 

That shot just above shows the line of posts to guide people walking across the sands. I suspect there's as much soft mud as firm sand out there! After my Hilbre Island adventure in 2014, during which I was nearly sucked under, I'm wary of walking in such places!   

That blob in the centre is the one-star refuge for walkers. I don't expect they rate a phone for summoning the Coastguard, and have to rely on waving and other signals. Tragic.

I parked Fiona, and walked up to the five-star refuge for some better exterior shots. Nary a ripple of surging sea-water in sight - yet.

Is that river a little wider? Or just my imagination?

Time to go home. 

It really was time for home - next morning I left Northumberland for Stamford in Lincolnshire. Two days after I was back in Sussex, my month-long Scottish Holiday over. 

Monday, 26 August 2019

The Gleneagles Hotel

My Scottish holiday in April seems a long way in the past now, but I still have a couple of posts on it up my sleeve. Here's a post I simply couldn't pass over. My visit to one of the finest hotels in Scotland. The Gleneagles Hotel.

It's located south-west of Perth, just outside Auchterarder, with the A9 and the railway station handy. (As ever, click on the maps below to get a closer view)

So although close to the Highlands, the Hotel isn't actually in the mountains. But you can see them all around. The air is that clear. Nor is the Hotel sited in a glen called Glen Eagles, although there is such a glen not far to the south. The placename 'Glen Eagles' is, I'm afraid, a corruption of the Gaelic Gleann Eagas - and while I don't know what Eagas means, I'm quite sure it isn't the word for 'eagles'. So you shouldn't expect to see a squadrons of golden eagles zooming around in the nearby sky. On the other hand, this amazing hotel has nearly everything else you could want.

I've got a thing about posh hotels, and - if I can - I like to take a look at them, and perhaps treat myself to a very self-indulgent lunch or dinner. Mind you, it's always an expensive experience, and so my meals in these places are few and far between - definitely a special reward to myself.

And I can never even think about staying a night - that's way beyond my means! I may be comfortably off as single pensioners go, but the pennies won't stretch to luxury five-star hotels, and that's what the Gleneagles Hotel is. Just as well that I can get around the country, for ninety-odd nights of the year, in my little caravan. I don't think I'll ever be able to do it another way.

As I say, I do now and then plunge in and enjoy a meal at some of these top hotels. Not often: in recent years there has only been dinner at the George Hotel in Stamford in 2013, and then lunch at the Randolf Hotel (of Inspector Morse fame) in Oxford in 2016. Those two haven't by any means been my only hotel meals in the last few years, but they were definitely the poshest. And pretty expensive too. Dinner at the George in Stamford cost me £90; lunch at the Randolf in Oxford hit me for £68. Big money for only one person, when a stir-fry back at the caravan would have done just as well.

Fast forward to 2019. It was about time I found a reason to give myself a holiday treat again. But I'd become wary of spending silly money just to feel pampered. So I hadn't put the Gleneagles Hotel on my list of places to go to if feeling peckish. Nor even as a place to take a peek at without necessarily stopping to spending money. A chance encounter changed that, though.

I was pitched at the Club site at Balbirnie Park, between Glenrothes and Markinch, and wanted a short-range trip before moving on southward to Northumberland. Studying the map, I saw that I might enjoy a triangular drive north-west to Perth, then south-west to Gleneagles station, then south-east back to Balbirnie Park, stopping as the mood took me. It was a fine day, getting quite warm. I love a drive, and reached Perth too soon to consider stopping for lunch. So I pressed on a bit further, now on the fast A9, and in no time saw the slip road for Gleneagles station. I thought it would be a good place to stop for a short while, to consult the map, and in any case see what the station looked like. I have a growing photographic collection of British railway stations, mostly the picturesque out-of-the-way ones, but anything is grist to my mill.

Gleneagles station sits in splendid isolation in fine countryside, but has a baronial air, seemingly built for well-off Edwardians in tweeds, up from the Metropolis for a weekend's goff. No riff-raff allowed here. In fact, the very neat and well-swept platforms were almost deserted, as if ordinary travellers in their dirty and dishevelled clothes had been frozen off the platforms and browbeaten into taking the bus instead. It's on a main line with direct services from London: you can catch a Caledonian Sleeper (specifically the Highlander to Inverness) and it will get you here in style, and maybe comfort too.

Is it 1919 or 2019? Hard to tell. 

I wasn't the only human presence. There was a man dressed very smartly in (if I'm any judge) a Savile Row suit, with an earpiece. He had a gravitas about him that told me he was Someone. Indeed he was. He was in charge of the Reception Committee at the Hotel, the chief man. He explained that he was waiting for the next arrival - he was personally welcoming a guest off the train. I suppose he'd simultaneously summon a Range Rover or Bentley with the earpiece. The Hotel was barely five minutes' drive away.

In the few minutes before the train came in we had a chat. He asked me whether I intended to visit the Hotel. I said I hadn't really given it much thought, but I would certainly need to lunch somewhere soon. He didn't give me any hard sell, but said simply that I was very welcome to take a look and see whether I liked the menu, if lunch was what I was looking for. I thought the Hotel was just for golfers, said I, and in any case I wouldn't just be able to turn up casually. Oh no, said he, it was really part of a big multi-activity leisure resort, and nowadays the Hotel offered affordable breaks for families, as well as hosting big sporting events. I could walk in and take a look at the Hotel facilities without needing a special pass or anything. Well in that case, I replied, I would definitely think about it! 

Having expressed interest, but without committing myself in any way, I could have got into Fiona and driven off, letting the opportunity go by. But I'd pretty well had an invitation. I decided to take advantage of it. 

So shortly afterwards, I was turning into the Hotel driveway. It seemed to go on and on. A good thing that Fiona, dusty as she was from so much travel, nevertheless looked the part. Ah, a lady here for a round of golf with her friends, onlookers might think. And there was plenty to see that related to golf. Beautifully-maintained tees, fairways and putting greens. A sprinkling of people dressed in natty golfing attire. Little golfing buggies all lined up. A glimpse of landscaped grounds - and surely of the Hotel itself?

Still the driveway went on.  Eventually signs to two car parks. One for valet parking - scary! Not for the likes of me! Another for visitor parking - this one, definitely! Even the ordinary car park had more than its fair share of Range Rovers, Porsches and similar. The tradesmen's vans looked odd in such company. Mind you, there must be a host of tradespeople coming in daily to make deliveries, and service or fix this or that.

Fiona - always feisty - was undaunted by the big black beasts. She looked fine, in no way out of place. What about myself? Oh well, I told myself, if you breeze in as if you're a paying guest, nobody will challenge you.

First, however, I had a closer look at the grounds. Impressive and immaculate. Attractive trees. Acres of lush lawns. A lake.

What to make of it? You can see from my face that I was having misgivings. They held important international meetings here. It felt rather like sneaking into Buckingham Palace or The White House. I would have felt easier if I were there in some official capacity, with a pass to show. Ah, let's go for it. I put on a bright smile.

Closer to the Hotel, two stone eagles. They seemed friendly enough. Och, go for it, they whispered.

A well-preserved Rolls-Royce from the 1950s was parked in the driveway. I wish I looked as unblemished, as I also date from the 1950s. 

Close-up, the Hotel had an air of confident, well-tended good living. There were people sitting outside, under umbrellas, eating and drinking. None of them were wearing tweeds. Maybe lunch here was feasible after all. 

By now half and hour had elapsed since I'd met that chap in the suit at the station. Time to find the entrance, and sashay inside. And would you believe it, there was the man on the entrance steps with his front-line staff, two older men in matching tweed jackets and kilts. They all looked at me. The man in the suit recognised me with a smile. He seemed especially pleased that, after our conversation, I really had come to see the Hotel. While the two men in kilts attended to a party that were disgorging themselves from a taxi, their chief took charge of me, and led me inside. 

I was amazed that he did this. Surely he was too busy to spare me more than a greeting? But no. He personally gave me a quick tour of the ground floor, explaining what I would find up each passageway. Along one of them was a Shopping Arcade I might enjoy visiting. And lunch? I only wanted a nice sandwich with a gin and tonic. In that case, he said, the Birnam Brasserie over there would have exactly what I wanted. 

I thanked him for his time. I don't often get such personal attention! And he had made me feel special. Certainly, while he was doing his quick tour with me, other guests and members of staff had looked on, clearly wondering who I was to deserve such attention. Well, I'd been accepted as an approved visitor. That now gave me confidence to go where I liked. 

Lunch could wait. I decided to explore the public areas first. What about that passageway with the Shopping Arcade on it? Well, it was (as you might well expect) a series of superior shops full of very expensive and exclusive clothing, accessories and gifts - the kind that make a big positive statement about your lifestyle and taste. Such as that rolled blanket in the picture below, with its leather carrying handle.

I'm not implying that these goods were useless and impractical and a waste of money. They were simply too nice for everyday use. Fatally attractive, even so - the kind of goods that would work a spell on you, so that if staying here and passing these shops several times a day, there would come a point when your resistance would crumble and you'd buy something. I did see a yellow cotton bathrobe that tempted me, but I resisted. I might not, if actually staying here.

I explored further. There were many rooms for private functions, such as this one, complete with a garden view and its own bar.

The room in the next shot was the headquarters of the person whose job it was to present the activity statistics for the previous day - the best round of golf, the best clay-shooting score, the weight of the biggest fish caught - that sort of thing. It seemed you could just wander in and gaze at the figures on the wall. 

All along passageways were period pictures of championship golfing scenes.

Some rooms were clearly more private than others. There must have been a ballroom somewhere, but I didn't find it. There was however this tantalising photo of a grand room bathed in mauve light, with theatrical curtains at one end, for cabaret performances perhaps: 

Behind this stout portal was the American Bar. I'm guessing it was an exclusive cocktail bar, for guests only. No casual Manhattans for this lady, then. 

I prowled hither and thither - quite without challenge. My caravan-holiday clothes were not quite up to the standard of those worn by obvious guests, but on such a warm day it didn't seem to matter. I very much liked the grandness (and opulence) of the Hotel's interior.

Well, did I have lunch there? No! By this time, I'd concluded that a gin-and-tonic and a posh sandwich might set me back a cool thirty quid - possibly more. No Pensioner's Special would be available. I looked wistfully at the carefree people underneath the umbrellas, but was resolute. I'm sure I did the right thing, by walking straight back to Fiona and making an escape. 

Would I stay at the Gleneagles Hotel, if I really had the money? Yes, in the same spirit that I'd treat myself to a cruise. It would clearly be a delightful experience, provided I were deliberately going to splash out. 

I saw the place in the second half of April, when prices would be lower than now. Earlier today, I went on the Internet to see what a stay there might cost. (Click on these to see the detail)

Yikes, £2,009 for a seven-day stay!

'Only' £984 for three days! For which you get an inside-facing room (though it looks pleasant), plus a range of eating options:

The most expensive eating option is the Andrew Fairlie gourmet one:

All in all, I think a trip up to the Gleneagles Hotel from home in Sussex, for a week (to make the visit fully worthwhile), would probably leave little change from £3,000. I could have a very nice two-week cruise for that. And for the same amount, I could enjoy a hundred nights of caravanning. 

Will I treat myself to a couple of nights there, if I get anything from my PPI claims (now with the Ombudsman, who seems to be taking them seriously and running with them)? Or just buy a big new TV? Such are the terrible choices of modern life.