Part Four: No Sleep ‘Til Bridgend

October 10, 2014

We woke up in the Inverary Hostel and prepared ourselves for the day ahead. The ever-helpful J gave me some extremely strong painkillers from his own supply. He has certain chronic joint and muscle problems and working through ‘discomfort’ is a road he’s been down. His advice and support, as well as his painkillers, were most welcome.

You can’t set off for a day in the saddle with nothing but medication in the stomach, though, so breakfast was called for, and supplied in the form of the ideal baker’s shop, David’s on the main street (what that street’s called I can’t remember, if I ever knew) in Inverary.

This baker’s merits a paragraph of its own. I’m gonna start with the coffee. They make really nice coffee. They offer said coffee delivered in every one of the basic forms that a passing acquaintance with pseudo-italianate high street coffee franchises would lead you to expect: I mean you can have an espresso, or an americano, or a coffee with milk, or a cappucino, all that sort of thing. I like espresso. I have simple, but strongly-held views on what an espresso should be like and how it should make you feel. The espresso served to me by David’s in Inverary that morning was that espresso. It also wasn’t expensive, and was served in exactly the amount of time it took for them to pour it and me to pay for it, no more. I had a bakewell tart with it and that was good, too. I got some sarnies for the road and they, too, were good. None of it was expensive, in the scheme of things. The staff were friendly, polite, and helpful. Seven of us – seven of us – were able, easily and comfortably, to have a seat on the pavement outside. Some of us hadn’t bought anything from the bakery and were eating our own food. No-one objected. We took our time over our coffee and enjoyed the atmosphere of Inverary, which gets a lot of visitors, this mild but overcast morning. Now you might think that what I’m describing isn’t very remarkable, but try looking for the same things – decent reasonably-priced coffee, comfortable pavement table, tolerant establishment – in Aberdeen, and you’ll soon understand how I felt about this singular coffee shop.

So, we set off along the Western shore of Loch Fyne, taking in the little body of water that, while joined to the mother-loch, gets a name of its own, Loch Gilp. The small town of Lochgilphead, to me, means only one thing, and that’s the Crow Road. Memories of the book and the BBC adaptation were passing through my mind as I enjoyed the marvellous views across the Loch. I was aware that I was carrying my injury – my right ankle was letting me know that all wasn’t exactly well – but a mixture of co-codamol and euphoria was keeping me going in the right direction. There are only so many ways you can say ‘the scenery was awesome’, so I’m going to post a picture:

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After a lunch stop, we continued. The road turns away from the Loch and over a small pass to the town of Tarbert (not to be confused with Tarbet). We stocked up on supplies before setting off for the last miles to the ferry ‘port’ of Kennacraig. It consists of a large car park, a jetty, and a portakabin which serves as a ticket office. It’s an incongruous sight on an otherwise beautifully deserted stretch of forested coast, yet we were very glad to see it. It was Monday evening. After four days in the saddle, we had arrived with less than an hour until the ferry was due to leave.

I have had mixed, but mostly very good, experiences with ferry crossings. I have to say, however, that crossing the water to Port Askaig on a beautiful West Coast of Scotland evening, with the sun setting, and the company of a group of travellers happy to have made it on time, was by far the best.  We soon abandoned the cabin and went to sit on the front deck. We had wine, and sherry, and I think maybe a little whisky too. We had oatckaes, goat’s cheese, houmous, quiche, and many other delicacies. Everyone was in a good mood and further entertainment was provided by trying to take pictures into the sunset:

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And so, speaking for myself, it was in a quite euphoric state that we disembarked in Port Askaig (one pub, one shop, two ferries) and set off to find a place to camp for the evening. The search would prove to be a complicated and not very successful one. Its failure can be attributed entirely to Scotland’s fiercest and most destructive predator of human beings: the midge. Long story short, C had arranged to take delivery, that evening, of a large tent, which was intended to sleep five of us. Having got hold of the tent, the only place we could find to put it was in a very midgey area. Once it had been put up and people started to take refuge from the clouds of midges that were surrounding us, so thick that it was hard to avoid breathing them in, a flaw in the tent’s design revealed itself. Its various air holes were covered with mesh, but with a mesh far too coarse to stop the midges getting in (if you have had the good fortune never to encounter these creatures, let me explain that at least half a dozen could sit on the nail of your little finger).

The night was easily the worst of the trip, and in the morning the group split as by 4:30 a.m. some of those in the large tent could no longer deal with the constant midge-biting and associated itching, and they split. I should say that my small tent had excellent midge protection, so that although I was constantly under attack while putting it up, once inside it I could sleep peacefully. I was therefore one of the last to leave the scene of the atrocity, having stayed in my tent and asleep for as long as possible before dealing with the further attacks involved in taking it down and getting the hell out of there. What happened next, as they say on buzzfeed, was extraordinary.

It was clear that camping on Islay was very unlikely to work for us, as we had no midge protection to speak of and were getting eaten alive. Now some members of the group made legitimate attempts to book us into other accommodation, but Islay is very popular in the Summer and the one youth hostel was full, as were the hotels. But then the irrepressible C found a place in the locality of Bridgend. I don’t propose to say exactly where or what it was,  but it will be enough to say that we had a roof over our heads and were kept warm and dry for the rest of our stay.

We could certainly have done worse. I will close this part of the account with a picture of the signpost in Bridgend (two shops, a hairdresser’s, a pub, a public lavatory, a bus stop). This sign is a gazetteer of the major settlements of Islay, and we would be exploring the places indicated on it over the following days.

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