31 Jul 2018

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

This is a whole blog post about caves! Woohoo! No but seriously, caves are fun.

We were lucky enough to visit the Smoo Caves on our North Coast 500 road trip in Scotland. The caves are located in Durness and are unique in the UK because the first chamber has been formed by the sea whereas the inner chambers are freshwater passages. Uh huh, I’m now a cave geek.

The outer chamber of the cave is striking to look at, enormous and yet secretive; it is accessed by a winding path down to sea level. Stood in the car park, the caves are no where to be seen – it’s only when you begin the walk down that you realise you were stood on top of them! The chamber is cavernous and filled with stone towers; impressive to look at but isn’t really the main event and you’d be missing a trick if you didn’t go on the tour and delve in further.

There’s a lot of conflicting information about the tours but they run daily throughout the summer and you can just show up and sign up for the next available one. It’s £6 per person and there’s no need to book in advance (tours depend on the weather - the caves flood in heavy rain - so they don’t take advance bookings).

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands
The entrance to the inner caves is off to the right in the outer chamber, through the covered walkway. Once we’d donned hard hats, we headed into the first inner cave which is known as the waterfall chamber and is full of water… obviously. We clambered into a rubber dingy and then floated out into the middle of the cave like proper explorers or summin’.

Because it had been unusually dry in the weeks leading up to our visit, the waterfall was nowhere to be seen as it only runs when a sink point in the river further up overflows. Obvs it would have been cool to see the waterfall cascading in from above, but it did mean we got to float round more of the cave and directly underneath the sinkhole the water normally crashes through (and the main source of floodlight in the cave).

We had to duck down and practically flatten ourselves against the boat to get under the very low arch into the next cave – which was more like a tunnel. We clambered out of the dingy using a rope and no dignity whatsoever and then headed further into the tunnel, where our guide gave us the opportunity to see how easy the rocks sparked when rubbed together – very easy as it turns out. It created a very strong smell of burning hair!

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

At the end of the tunnel was, what looked like, a small pool of water. But when you shined a torch on it, we could see that the cave actually continued really far down (albeit flooded). Our guide told us they believe there are more caves 10 metres below where we were stood. It had taken them 10 years to get permission to start digging in the caves – that was 4 years ago. They’re currently 4-5 metres from breaking into a new cave and hoping to be in by Christmas. It was fascinating to hear some of the things they have found; a lynx tooth – from an Asian lynx – that was approximately 7000 years old. Traces of hazelnuts amongst the charcoal yet there have been no hazelnut trees in Scotland for 2000 years – which suggests evidence of hunter gatherers using the caves once upon a time.

How fascinating. No, seriously, I found the whole thing really interesting. Partly because caves that have a) naturally formed and b) been around for donkey's years are really intriguing and atmospheric and partly because I found the story of two guys campaigning for years to be able to dig in the caves so heartening. Ten years campaigning and four years (so far) giving tours during the summer and digging throughout the winter, never knowing what they might find. To be that committed and passionate about something is to be admired (and okay, yes, I was slightly jealous pf these cool cave dwellers also).

Would highly recommend a visit to Smoo Caves – you’ll need sensible shoes (aka walking boots), a waterproof and be willing to get a little muddy.

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

Exploring Smoo Caves In The Scottish Highlands

27 Jul 2018

Those Summer Nights

Those summer nights


So I think I’ve finally found the optimum keep-cool position in the flat. On the bed, fan mere inches from my face. I actually just managed to knock out 1000 words in this position which hasn’t happened since god-knows-when because GIRL CANNAY DEAL WITH THE HEAT AND HAS NO ENERGY.

Two things:

Once again, I’m just gonna point out that disliking the heat does not mean one dislikes the summer. It means one prefers to be able to do the washing up without generating upper lip sweat.

ALSO why do summer-lovers get so angsty when one mentions they don’t like this level of heat in the UK? Like my favourite season is Autumn but you don’t see me getting offended when you moan about being cold all the damn time.

I got up at 3am this morning to go stick my face in the fridge – no joke. If you never hear from me again, I’ve boiled alive in the flat. Lead good lives my friends.

My inability to deal with heat aside; oh my what a summer. Like the rest of us, I cannot believe how long this heatwave has lasted. I mean sure, the lack of appetite, lack of energy and major presence of sweat aren’t really my faves. But there is just summin’ about the feeling a long, hot summer creates; it’s like a crackle of magic in the air.

It’s these summer evenings that I like the most. I love that smell of summer evenings – you know the one. Like a hazy glow – if that smelled of something. And what is that feeling that lingers in the air? Possibility? Light-heartedness? Gin-induced fun? The girls and I were wandering around Angel in London last weekend and I had so much love for all the seats outside the brightly coloured restaurants; such a nice contrast to the perpetual grey that’s easy to get used to in London. 

Lazy smiles on sun-kissed faces, the fizziness of berry cider on lips, the colour of the sky at golden hour; it’s beautiful.

Having said that, it just got extremely dark in here and I swear I just heard a crack of thunder. Looks like the storm has finally arrived… which means temperatures are surely about to drop a few degrees. Yaaaaassss.

18 Jul 2018

Driving the North Coast 500

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Currently reading work emails in a bleary-eyed fashion. Not sure if my brain isn’t working properly or people have stopped making sense. The third load of washing needs to go on, the fridge is empty and I just checked the bank balance – oh god make it stop.

Yup, hi, I’m back.

But, like, I really don’t want to be.

I know, I know, holiday blues and the like. But it’s hitting me really hard I’m telling you. My laptop screen is too bright, the noises from the city are too loud and it’s too hot. All compared to the Scottish highlands anyway.

What a trip. I don’t even really know where to begin apart from THAT WAS REALLY FUCKING AWESOME AND MAYBE ONE OF THE BEST TRIPS EVER AND I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY.

Yeah, that’s a pretty accurate summary tbh.

We started our North Coast 500 road trip around the Scottish highlands by flying into Inverness and picking up a hire car. Naturally a lot of faff came with this – has anyone ever got on an airplane and picked up a hire car at an airport without some level of faff? I dunno.

I think our car was a Peugeot 308 but I know bugger all about cars and could be wrong; but meh *shrugs*. Anyway, when I got in it, I kinda freaked out. As I’ve said before, I was already pretty nervous about driving the notorious roads on the NC500 and doing so in an unfamiliar car, so what I really did not need was a car so full of technology that we spent a good five minutes wondering where the hell the hand break was (it was a button btw). We’d brought the satnav with us as well as iPod speakers but, lol, what old school folk we are. All of that shit was in built into the car (needless to say, our current car does not have any of these things. Does have a CD player though soooo). It had anti-stall, parking sensors, automatic lights and a whole host of other jazzy technological accompaniments; and I was all ready to march back in Europcar and be like, oi pal; give me a bloody hand break and something I know how to drive.

You know what though? By the end of the week, I was all for taking the car back with me. I am alllll about those parking sensors. Never thought I’d say the words ‘omg what a smooth drive’ but whaddaya know, miracles do happen.

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

We waved goodbye to dual carriageways the moment we left Inverness and it was either single carriageways or single-track roads with passing places from there on out. The road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula (the famous Bealach na Bà) was just as bonkers as described, twisting around in ways you wouldn’t really have thought possible (we also did this on the day where the clouds were stupidly low so could barely see anything – which really added to the fun). But this mad stretch of road aside (which G drove), I quickly realised that the roads were totally manageable as long as you adapted your driving style.

Put it this way; if you want to do the North Coast 500 because you have visions of speeding through the mountains and really putting your car to the test; then this ain’t the trip for you. On some of the single carriageways, we did nudge 60mph but that wasn’t a regular occurrence. The average speed in the area is about 45mph and there were many times we were really only doing 30mph.

The dips, summits and hairpin bends on many of the single-track roads make it impossible (and bloody dangerous) to go any faster and there’s a lot of stop start as you have to pull into passing places to pass other cars or let locals overtake. You usually got a sense when someone was a local but, when in doubt, always best to let people pass – locals actually have shit to do. The passing places were incredibly frequent though – minimum every 100 yards – and, whilst there were the occasional roads where this wasn’t the case, I think we only had to reverse back to one twice in the whole trip.

This is all before you’ve even considered the wildlife. Cows, goats, deer, sheep, wild horses – they own the roads, not you. Oh and those sheep do not give a shit. They literally just nap in the middle of the road, are not scared of the cars and never seemed to have any intention of getting out of our way. We had one incident where there was an enormous highland cow just wandering down the narrowest of roads and I genuinely wondered if there was room for both car and cow or whether we were about to get trampled (good story I suppose).

Anyway, driving fast is just not what the trip is about. Even if you could get up to the speed limit, you wouldn’t want to. You have to pull over every five minutes (not an exaggeration) to splutter at the jaw-dropping views. The emphasis is on enjoying the ride, not hurrying towards your destination (wasn’t intending that to sound like a cheesy quote…).

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Before we set off, I did wonder whether I was going to get fed up of staying somewhere different each night; not having the chance to settle in. And yeah, first thing in the morning, having to pack the suitcase up again and having to get up at a certain time because we had to be checked out by such-and-such might have momentarily felt a bit tiresome. But then I’d step outside and bam, that spectacular view would hit me (everywhere had a view) and the pure fresh air and countryside smells would wake me up. We’d get into the car, stick on some good tunes and wind our way along the roads and I would be filled with this enormous sense of adventure.

You never knew what was around the corner (again with the cheesiness) and I bloody loved that. We could go round the bend to be greeted by the sight of a beautifully white, sweeping beach at the exact same time that the sun broke through and we’d spontaneously decide to spend the rest of the afternoon sat on that beach. We could pull up to a random gin distillery to nose in the shop and end up on a tour drinking the best gin and vodka I’ve ever drunk… and then spend £80 on said gin and vodka *shrugs*. We could turn a corner and find a zipwire stretched across a beach between two cliffs and think why the hell not and yep, suddenly flying through the air.

I barely looked at a screen, picked up a book or checked the news (lol picked a hell of a week to do this); we were pretty much outside constantly. We saw unforgettable sights, stayed in some gorgeous places and, of course, ate/drank a fair bit too. I now have a new love for gin and highland brie pizza fyi. Feel free to bring me some any time.

The North Coast 500 was honestly one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever done. The landscape was bleak and a little bit otherworldly. And yes, I was prepared for it to be gorgeous; I've been to Scotland, including into the highlands, countless times. But this was just different somehow. Constantly being on the move, travelling through 625 miles of Scottish countryside and every single inch looking like something out of a painting; it was mind-boggling, breath-taking and truly bloody wonderful.

Tips for driving the NC500 can be found here.

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Driving the North Coast 500 in Scotland



6 Jul 2018

North Coast 500 | We're Off To The Highlands!

North Coast 500 - we're off to the highlands!

I AM ON HOLIDAY.

Okay, not quite. But you know when you just wanna scream that the moment you stick your out of office on and shut your emails down for the next 9 days? That’s where I’m at right now.

Tomorrow morning, G and I will head on over to Luton airport (a necessary evil) for a lil flight to Inverness. We shall then pick up a hire car and drive off into the highlands not to be seen again… until we fly home 9 days later obviously.

We’re driving the North Coast 500, the 516 mile scenic route around the north coast of Scotland which starts and ends in Inverness. I’m trying to pack lightly whilst also packing for all weathers – which is somewhat difficult – and I am extremely nervous about driving a) a hire car and b) on roads that quite literally come with NOT FOR INEXPERIENCED driver warnings… but zomg so excited. We shall be heading clockwise from Inverness (I think you’re supposed to actually go anti-clockwise but we like to live rebelliously), following the coast all the way round. We plan to hit Dunnet Head (the furthest point north of the UK) on day 6 and be back in Inverness by day 9, stopping at all sorts of places along the way.

This trip has been a long time in the making. I feel like it was very early on in our relationship that G and I talked of hiring a VW type 2 and doing a Scottish road trip, and the idea never let up. When I came across the North Coast 500 route last year, we knew it was 100% for us (although we’ve not hired the van because they are stupidly expensive and also, I’m not sure my driving nerves could cope…).

Planning the NC500 has used the very best of our organisation skills to ensure we have somewhere to sleep and eat on each night (naturally G has a spreadsheet) but we’ve left our plans for what we’re going to see and do each day a little more loose. We’ve researched of course, and we’ll be going armed with a couple of guidebooks, but I want the freedom to be like holy shit, look at that beach, let’s sit on that for 5 hours, should the moment arise. The highlands look absolutely stunning and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to randomly pull over to see something I wasn’t expecting – that’s the point of road trips right?

This is going to sound kinda wanky but my intention for the trip is very much to ‘get back to nature’ (soz for making you vom). I feel like I need to clear my head and shut off for a while. Breathe some fresh air, spend quality time with G and really appreciate what I can see around me with a complete lack of distractions. I’m planning on going a bit old school. I’m usually most inspired to write when I’m away but I’m not taking my laptop with me this time; just good old pen and paper (pray for my writing hand). My phone will mostly remain on airplane mode and I really ain’t that fussed if I can’t find wifi for a week.

I desperately need to let go of usual everyday stresses for a while. To stop muttering ‘oh fuck off’ at Thameslink train announcements or the work email from that rude person. I want to sleep well, marvel at nature, get lost inside my own head, laugh with my love and have a bit of an adventure along the way.

If I decide to turn my phone off airplane mode and if I can find wifi, I may update the ol’ Instagram with our journey’s progress. If there are no updates, I’ve got lost in the hills with the highland cows and am probably quite happy about it.

Until I get back kids x

4 Jul 2018

Wedding Planning: Dealing With Morals & Expectations

Dealing with morals and expectations when wedding planning

Before I try and articulate these thoughts, let’s just establish one thing. I love weddings. Particularly if I’m going to a wedding where a) I actually give a shit about the people getting married and b) there’s a good crowd of friends/family; I just know I’ll have a whale of a time. Aside from that heavily religious wedding I once went to where there was no evening reception (just an awkward dinner and an outrageously sexist speech by the groom), I have always enjoyed going to weddings.

However, there have been a few aspects to wedding planning that have been more of a struggle than I expected.

I am, obviously, a feminist and the question on whether marriage and feminism are mutually exclusive has been a tricky beast to balance; and has made me often feel like a somewhat guilty feminist.

Let’s face it, traditional marriage doesn’t really paint itself in a good feminist light. Traditionally, marriage was a contract between two men; a father hands over his daughter to another man. The daughter, trussed up in a virginal outfit, is an object owned by men. The bride’s engagement ring is a symbol of ownership, changing her name erases her identity as a separate individual and she is supposed to promise to ‘obey’ her husband. Of course, I know that this is not what marriage is about these days and people tend to be doing whatever the hell they want, but I can’t deny that the act of getting married is awash with patriarchal symbols. And it does make my insides squirm uncomfortably.

So we toss it to one side right? I’ve met with the registry office; I know that all I actually have to do to be married is to answer ‘I am’ to one question, repeat a sentence and sign a register with a couple of witnesses. That’s it. Distinct lack of patriarchal symbols. So the rest, how we choose to celebrate or choose to arrive or what we choose to wear; is entirely up to us and, therefore, entirely not sexist. We can do whatever the fuck we want.

Well, yes, in theory.

But then you’re faced with the next challenge of wedding planning; dealing with the assumed expectations. No matter what kind of person you are or wedding you choose to have, assumed expectations are unavoidable. A lot of people get married all the damn time so people will simply assume you’re going to follow a certain process – and that’s fair because we’re all just going on what we know after all.

Let’s take, for example, the act of a father walking his daughter down the aisle. Everyone assumes you will be doing this which isn’t unreasonable; a lot of people do. I, however, will not be walking in on my dad’s arm. That’s my choice. For me, personally, it’s a rule I want to re-write. I do not want to be ‘walked’ down the aisle, I am nobodies to be given away and I’m attempting to avoid as much pomp and fanfare as possible (plus in a registry office, it’s less ‘aisle’ and more ‘walking into a room’). That’s my personal preference and opinion. It does not mean I judge you for choosing to do it at your wedding or not weep emotionally when one of my friends walks in on her father’s arm – I just don’t want to do it myself. And whilst we’re here, there won’t be a first dance, I won’t be changing my name and, nope, no throwing of the bouquet either.

Assumed expectations have been known to make me anxious whilst wedding planning because it is not in my nature to correct people nor do I actively want to disappoint people who are excited about our wedding. But neither do I believe in doing something you don’t want to do just because someone else thinks you should do it. Particularly when the thing they want you to do is ridiculously trivial compared to most decisions you will make in life.

I want to make the commitment. It feels right for G and I. And, no, loving someone and wanting to celebrate that with family and friends shouldn’t be controversial. However, juggling the constant stream of expectations, my own feminist views and what I actually want to do was not something I was prepared for when I said the words ‘we’re engaged’ for the first time.

I’m learning. I’m learning that feminism forges new paths through old traditions and that is so appropriate when it comes to re-writing the rules of marriage. I'm learning to pick and choose the traditions I want to adhere to and the ones I want to fling out the window. I’m learning that anxiety over, essentially, a big party is kinda daft and I’m learning that external parties getting het-up over a lack of wedding favours says more about them then it ever will about me.

Basically, I’m learning to make my own goddam rules.

2 Jul 2018

Life Lately: Heatwave Edition

June catch up

So we are officially half way through the year and you may have noticed – it’s HOT. They were talking about a hosepipe ban on the radio this morning for crying out loud. I can’t remember the last time we had such a long batch of continuous high temps and sunny weather in the UK.  I have been known to get a little grumpy during heatwaves in the past but I have actually really been enjoying this recent batch of good weather (despite the presence of excess sweat and lack of decent sleep). So much so that June absolutely whizzed by.

St Albans is glorious in the sunshine, and I’ve really been appreciating it since we got back from Devon. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been able to enjoy my usual beer-garden haunts as much lately due to that little football thing everyone is going on about. I could go on a little rant about the type of men that little football thing brings out of the woodwork but let’s just say that the pub gardens have been heaving and leave it at that. G and I did enjoy a random drink at around half 10 the other evening though, after most people had disappeared into the night. It was still warm enough to sit outside at that time, and that has got to be the one of the best things about this weather.

The annual Alban weekend came around again in June which means a street festival takes over the high street. We drank in the sun, ate pizzas and hot dogs and went to our favourite churro van (we seemingly can’t go anywhere else for pudding every time it comes to St A). Also, that ice cream above is from the new vegan café about to open opposite our flat. They are only open for ice cream at the moment but will be opening up properly very soon. As far as I can tell, it’s all pastel colours, pink peonies and fairy lights – and vegan! I am so excited. Just gonna stare out the flat window waiting for the moment it opens… not creepy at all.

Every time summer comes around, I desperately wish we had a garden so I’ve been trying to make the most of living and working near big parks to make up for it. I’ve been wandering out into the park next to the office with my book during lunch breaks and my sister and I enjoyed a vegan sushi lunch date in the park just this afternoon. I’ve also been trying to utilise the park near our flat more; Alice and I enjoyed fruit ciders, crisps and strawberries in the shadow of the cathedral on Friday night and, whilst not my own garden, it’s pretty darn beautiful.

Speaking of beautiful, I took a lil day trip to Oxford to catch up with some uni friends last weekend and it seemed only natural that we’d go punting. We went overboard in M&S snacks, made friends/enemies with a few ducks, avoided the aggressive swan, sat on the riverbank with some drinks from the riverside pub, got stuck on a submerged tree branch (twice) and generally caught up. It was so lovely to see them.

I also took a flying visit up north – literally just 24 hours. My Grandma is moving out of the house she has lived in my entire life, a house that holds so many memories for me, and I couldn’t not go and visit one last time. I saw my auntie and cousin also (and her baby Eliza who may be the cutest child ever) and we all sat in the garden in the sunshine and had a little picnic. It was lovely and emotional. I thought about my Grandad a lot; it feels strange to think that my Grandma’s next home will be somewhere my Grandad never set foot in but she is making a really good decision, and it’s so exciting to think one can still find new adventure at the age of 82.

Otherwise, there’s been work; the day job, the cat-sitting job and the charity trustee job keeping me busy. That and watching Our Girl. Oh and I discovered Ben & Jerry’s vegan chocolate fudge brownie and it truly is the bees fucking knees.

And that was June - until next time.

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up

June catch up