30 November 2012

Where We Could Pull Over

We'd finally found a pull off spot after an hour's drive through the Scottish highlands.  The last of the day's light was about to disappear behind the stream-veined peaks and thick swaths of grey cloud.  Merlin scurried up a hill with his camera, I stayed below and mostly took pictures of his silhouette.  Nikon appendage against an IMAX movie backdrop.  There'd been a castle at the water's edge just a few minutes earlier, there was an island with a single tree standing up from it like a flag just a little further along.  But this is where we could stop.  And we were more than willing to drink as much of it in as possible.
This is a wide shoulder on British country roads, a foot or so between the pavement and the stone walls.  This is in the Yorkshire Dales, England.  Our car was left a few hundred meters back, in the parking lot of the White Scar Cave.  Our jeans were still wet from the rushing water underground and, at only 3:45 PM, that beautiful twilight was already setting in.  So, we walked along the shoulder.  A tight squeeze even on foot.  Most of the time, there's no space at all, hardly enough room for two cars to pass each other.  Our GPS did an admirable job at keeping us on the scenic route, on leading us from one place to another over narrow stone bridges, off pavement onto dirt, through the villages within National Parks and always, always steering clear of private roads that lead off into the woods to a secluded estate.
Pheasants make their way across the road at their own speed, pulling that long, pretty tail behind them like an airplane over the Jersey shore, going extra slow so you can read the promotion banner it drags behind it.  Land Rovers filled with dapperly outfiitted hunters take a sharp turn onto one of those private roads.  And all you want to do is pull over to take a picture.  But there's just no darn place to do it.  So, you snap a photo from the window of your car.  You're in the Lake District now, the English countryside at its most storybook.  It's the land of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, where dogs sit at their owners wellies in all the pubs.   Rolling green with grids of stone walls, cottages with curly cues of smoke rising from their chimneys, farmsteads with gorgeous old barns.  Sheep in their winter coats.

Back in Scotland, up on Cow Hill, there were Highland cattle, squat, long-haired animals that are more Mr. Snuffleupagus than Bessie the Cow.  Sturdy animals for this difficult landscape - one filled with powerful winds and heavy rains.  Other then them, we were alone on our Highland hike, in the shadow of Ben Nevis with views down over Glen Nevis and the Loche Linnhe.  Our car was down at Braveheart Car Park, built for the crew of that great Mel Gibson epic.  Somehow to keep the trailers and equipment trucks while they filmed here on Cow Hill.  I almost began to hear the Braveheart soundtrack in my head, the bagpipes and strings, but my brain kept getting stuck on Titanic.  All James Horner sounds the same.
There's a rugged beauty to the Highland landscape, one that just feels like wild red head and rough wool.  The thistles and gorse that cover the landscape with purple and yellow when flowered, make for a blanket of thick thorn and spikes at the dawn of winter.  Driving along Loch Lomond in Trossachs National Park was spectacular.  "National Park" doesn't mean the same thing in Britain as it does in America.  Here, the area is not so much "parkland" or nature reserves cared for by rangers. They are whole areas deemed too special to develop.  They are unspoiled and pristine, and also the home to thousands of people in villages throughout.  Just off to the right of this photo,  a white house sat in the blip of flat space between two sweeping hills.  It was like an ant between a camel's humps.  The narrow dirt path of pull-off room we'd found was probably the very start of their driveway. 
There are castles and ruins, barns and walls, old towers and bridges all through the British countryside.  Old stone reflected in puddles and the waters of lakes and loches, structures half covered in bright green lichen.  They mostly blend right in with the scenery, a natural fit like a cloud in the sky.  The Ribblehead Viaduct was an exception and, in a rare stroke of luck, we were actually able to stop our car fairly close by.  Twenty-four arches stretch across the valley of the River Ribble in North Yorkshire, England.  It was a marvel of modern technology in its day, a project that resulted in the death of at least 100 labourers whose graves doubled the nearby cemetery.  An incredible structure, young for these parts at only 128 years old.
We just arrived in Wales yesterday, our final stop in the United Kingdom.  The final days of our entire trip - and the weather has begun to look up.  Clear skies make photos easier, but there's still the issue of finding a place to stop.  We drove across The Cob three times (insert corny joke here - ha!).  Back, forth, back we traversed the rock and slate causeway, a sea wall across the Glaslyn Estuary.  To our right (and then our left, and then right again) was this view of the Estuary.  We finally found a construction site a few minutes' walk away and left our car with the workers'.  Then, we strolled The Cob leisurely on its lower level, next to the cars.  Above, on the other side of the causeway more people strolled, alongside the old steam train track which still gets use most days of the week.

When we'd left Warwick, England for Wales that morning, we were warned about recent weather.  "Oh, Wales is flooded,"  a young woman said with wide eyes and a shake of the head.  While its true that parts of Wales experienced terrible flooding, we found most of it still above water.   Nothing compared to the deep water we'd driven through two days before in England.  These tractor tracks were filled with rain, but otherwise the land was dry.  This was a terrible place to pull to the side of the road, by the way.  A tight squeeze for the two-way traffic, a nerve-racking reemergence onto the road.
Just a few minutes further,  Criccieth Castle cut a beautiful silhouette into the sky.  The village  of the same name stood beside it, tucked inland.  As good a place to pull over as any.  We walked along the pier, which jutted out into Tremadog Bay and looked at Wales all around us.  I don't remember the last time I was able to see as far into the distance, the sky was so clear.  Water to sand to stone to dirt to hills with more hills behind that and more behind that.  We parked the car and ourselves for the night, checking in to The Lion Hotel which was hosting "Christmas Evening" for a busload of seniors.  Mince pies, turkey, a raffle and holiday sweaters.  Our car collected a thick coat of frost by the morning.

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