Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Luskentyre beach discovered

Good for the tourist industry: the beaches of the Outer Hebrides have been getting a lot of press in the last few years, in papers such as the Independent (and again) and the Telegraph. Journalists are seen out here in increasing numbers, and articles have been appearing in various newspaper travel sections with increasing frequency.

Our favourite beach is Luskentyre on Harris. Which is impossible to describe adequately, and because of its "widescreen" estuary aspect, is very difficult to do justice to in a photograph. 


Media_httpstaticflick_bvwgj



The Observer picked up on this in its recent survey of the top deserted beaches in the world, plonking Luskentyre at no.1. In a previous Observer beach article, the Outer Hebrides was discussed a bit then too. Though I haven't of course been to every beach everywhere, they may be onto something; it's preferable to any I've strolled on in California, Barbados, St. Lucia, or the meditteranean (he says modestly).

Will this mean that thousands of people will appear on Luskentyre, turning it from deserted to as crowded as the Costa Blanca. No and never; for three reasons:

  1. Air fares from the mainland to here cannot compete against those to the med and other European destinations. "Do I spend 20 quid on a return fare to Costa Polluta in Spain, or 200 quid plus on a return fare to the Outer Hebrides?"

  2. The ferries and planes, between them, have a limited capacity. Unless they swim, it is impossible for thousands of people to suddenly converge on the Outer Hebrides.

  3. Lots of beach. Masses of it. Luskentyre itself is huge, being well over three miles long. And there's lots of other beaches out here. With all the coves and crannies and estuaries, I reckon there is somewhere between 150 and 200 miles of beach walking in the Outer Hebrides.

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Online shopping: the race (1)


Media_httpwwwisleofbe_fignj

There's a shop on Berneray (which supplies us every day with Green and Blacks chocolate, our favourite), a Co-op (maddeningly narrow aisles) 10 miles away with a door-to-door bus service (essential in bad weather as we don't drive), and several other shops further south, in Stornoway, and in Portree. However, specialist books, DVDs, clothes shopping and other esoteric items require a trip to the mainland; hence, like many residents, we dabble in online shopping. 

Online shopping is pretty easy; Berneray is within the remit of several delivery companies (all but one of which are efficient) and the post delivery time here is often excellent; post a parcel in the south of England one afternoon and it'll usually be delivered the next day. Broadband has made it easier. The difficult part is working out how the item will get here; we prefer the post over courier due to the speed, and because it keeps the postal service viable. The picture to the left is of Effie the postie of Berneray.

Indeed; we do much of our online shopping because we don't live next to a large retail park. Nobody comes to live in the Outer Hebrides for the shopping experience. That's a definite plus, not a minus.

Also, for many products and services online price comparisons and shopping are by far the cheapest way of doing it. Booking flight tickets over the phone is not advisable here, unless you have a lot of time and/or money to burn.

In the last 24 hours, we've ordered items from 4 quite different online sources. It will be interesting to see when they arrive, and by what method:

  1. a Dell PC (put together in Ireland, I think, and transported through Wales, England and Scotland)

  2. a couple of DVDs from dvd.co.uk (coming from Jersey)

  3. a dress that SWMBO bought off ebay (coming from Orange County, California, USA)

  4. a boots online order (coming from a warehouse somewhere in England)


We've had problems with Boots online shopping before, it taking a pathetic 15 days to arrive here. No excuse when other online shops take far less time.

We'll keep you posted (no pun intended).

Monday, 29 May 2006

Traigh Hornais to Orasaigh

Here's a beach stroll we did in March 2005. It's on North Uist, only about 4 or 5 miles south of Berneray. You can see different sized versions of these pictures on my Flickr page.

Get off the bus at the sign for Clachan Sands and wander down the track to the beach, between the old and the new graveyards. At the beach turn left. This is what you should see:


Media_httpstaticflick_ilhyc



Amble along the beach. It's vast, clean, and the only noises you will hear are the waves and the various birdlife. Maybe the distant moo or baa of farm animals, but that's it.


Media_httpstaticflick_jqhho



Keep strolling. If you have binoculars, you can check out the islands such as Boreray (previous picture).


Media_httpstaticflick_gbcbk



You should be on your own, unless you are very unlucky. The highest number of people I've seen on this beach at any one time is 8. Which, for here, is "seriously crowded".

Depending on the tides, when the beach comes to an end you may be able to hop across to the island of Orasaigh. Sands in estuaries out here can be treacherous, so watch yourself.


Media_httpstaticflick_sdksa



Orasaigh is a small island used for livestock by local crofters. The highest summit is, erm, 70 feet which is where the above picture is taken from. On here, you can get a good view back up the beach, and further along North Uist to distant Harris.


Media_httpstaticflick_anhvu



Again, watch the tide. Once it starts coming in, you can't get back to the beach. Walk across the island and over the tractor track to get to a knobbly bit of North Uist. Follow the shore round till you pass a house (Alastair the bus driver lives there: say hello) and then get back to the North Uist circular road. Turn left, and follow it to the t-junction back to Berneray.

Total walk time: who cares. Take a picnic and some gin and make a day of it.

Sunday, 28 May 2006

One step forward, two steps back

I previously mentioned the air fare discount scheme. No cards or pin numbers for us so far, but an email response from the organisers that ours is being processed. Hurrah. One step forward.

But. Unfortunately, we aren't going to have fabulously cheap flights. SWMBO has just booked a return to Glasgow at around a hundred quid, and worked out that under the scheme she'd get about 12 pounds off. The Stornoway Gazette has printed a catalogue of problems with the system; surprising that there are so many, as there are so few eligible people. The Stornoway Chat forum picks up on a few people who have had no card / two cards / card with the wrong name on it, and so forth.

The other step back is the withdrawal of the BMI flight between Stornoway and Edinburgh in a few months time, due to insufficient numbers. I've used this a few times, and it was an excellent service. Cheap, reliable, nice comfy seats, and quick. The planes were mostly empty when I used them, so I did fear then for the future of this service. It is a shame that the service will be withdrawn at the height of summer; with a little more advertising (it wasn't a well-known service) and some tourists, they may have filled the planes. The service is being replaced by LoganAir, which will undoubtedly mean sky-high prices and awful coffee again.

Saturday, 27 May 2006

Silicon information

I did like this news item as a case of how IT can improve your trip to the beach in the Outer Hebrides. Here, wandering around the beach with a handheld PC makes use of GPS. Wander into a certain location on or around the beach, and you receive contextual information, Gaelic song and pictures connected with that location.


Media_httpstaticflick_aiwoj



I have yet to make it to the beach in question, Traighe Mor. Accounts and pictures (Flickr have some cracking ones) from visitors and nearby residents point to it being one heck of a beach. Below is the Google earth satellite picture of the beach.


Media_httpstaticflick_dnpxc



Why not visited yet? Because it is a heck of a long way from here. There is a common misunderstanding amongst many visitors that the Outer Hebrides are a few small islands that can be "done in a day". There are periodic accounts of people who turn up on a ferry and have allowed themselves 4 hours to "do" all of Lewis and Harris before the return ferry.

The Outer Hebrides rather longer: 130 miles between the inhabited ends, and a lot more if you add on some of the other islands. The land mass itself is over eight times that of the Isle of Wight. You can do it from end to end by car or public transport - just - in about 10 hours if you time it right (there are two stretches that require a ferry).

Some of the offshoots, such as round west Lewis or Cheesebay (yes, that is a real name) are dead end roads that go on for miles. I recommend at least 2 weeks to get a good idea of what it is like here; locals recommend 3 generations to get a good idea of what it is like to live here :-)

Friday, 26 May 2006

Hotspot Outer Hebrides

The pace of broadband take-up out here continues to speed up. And this isn't just for residents, either. There are suddenly a lot of places that have public broadband facilities.

In Lewis, several hotels such as the Doune Braes offer wireless broadband to people inside the building. The County Hotel in Stornoway offer wireless access for free, so you can sit in their bar, have lunch (their food is good) and tap away. Here in Berneray, the Nurse's Cottage has broadband hooked up to a PC for visitors and residents (including an out-of-hours service), while a new B&B just down the road (opening later this summer) will offer a massive guest room with seal view and a Mac in the same room hooked up to broadband; very sensible. Just down the road in Lochmaddy, Tigh Dearg had broadband installed yesterday and is establishing a wifi hotspot, while the nearby Taigh Chearsabhagh has had broadband (by satellite) for some time for visitors and is soon switching to a wireless feed.

Further south in Benbecula, Nunton Steadings also has wireless broadband (and is a good place to sit with your laptop, drinking good coffee and being online), while the UCVO near the airport (where Am Paipear is put together) and the Dark Island hotel a few miles away offer drop-in broadband services.

Add to this the various libraries up and down the Outer Hebrides which have broadband (Stornoway public library has lots of PCs, while the one inside Lionacleit School also has several fast terminals for the public). And there are loads more I haven't mentioned or discovered yet, from the Butt (of Lewis) to Barra.

The Outer Hebrides seems to have gone from having little broadband (for visitors or residents) a year ago to such an essential service rapidly becoming ubiquitous. There's certainly more access for visitors here than in the backwater part of Worcestershire where I grew up in, or in many other parts of rural Scotland.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

Cuckoo

I think that was a cuckoo that woke me up at 5am this morning. Not entirely sure, as am not entirely sure of anything at that time. What the heck is a cuckoo doing on Berneray.

On our first trip to the Outer Hebrides, five years ago, the first night was spent in Castlebay on Barra. Periodically, we were woken up by the loudest bird in Scotland on a telegraph pole outside. Its twittering was somewhere between a cockerel and a bark. I've been back to Barra several times since (the beaches on the west and north sides are sensational) and haven't seen or (thankfully) heard the damned thing since.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

The peas of destiny

A combination of occasional showers and lots of warm, sunny weather means that various vegetables have burst through the surface. The peas came up unexpectedly quickly, which meant that supports had to be hurriedly acquired. These in the picture should hold. Unless there's another hurricane.


Media_httpstaticflick_qjaef

 

Elsewhere on the, ahem, farm the leeks and onions have emerged. Hurrah. I just hope that Mr Ratty who knawed at the radishes last year was the vermin caught by next door but one's cat the other day.

Friday, 19 May 2006

Care in the community: transportation

We don't have a car (more about that later). But, there are various modes of transport. Side-car being one; this has the additional use of preparing me for my twilight years, when I'll be in a chair and wrapped in a shawl.

The pilot is Andrew, our Marxist near-neighbour by the way. Shortly before this picture was taken, he had an unpleasant incident with a freely-defecating flock of seagulls.


Media_httpwwwbbccouks_wocsh

 

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Blue flag but no elbow room

The blue flag people have announced their list of the "best" beaches in England, Wales and Northern Island for this year. The Scottish list comes out in a few weeks.

The criteria for listing includes waste bins, toilets, lifeguards, and various other facilities. As the BBC news story says, "So if deserted beaches are for you, the Blue Flag is not an indication of quality."

In 2005, the number of beaches awarded a blue flag in Scotland was ... 7. Did the assessors allocate half a day to checking out Scotland's beaches? Or was it the lack of adjoining amusement parks, and other "facilities" that put them off?

Also in 2005, they awarded the beach at Bournemouth the title of the cleanest beach. Huh?

Here's a picture of the beach at Bournemouth, which apparently gets up to 100,000 visitors a day.


Media_httpnewsimgbbcc_ggjiw



Now here's a picture of the beach at Scarista on Harris:


Media_httpstaticflick_lbbpa



Which strikes you as being cleaner?

At least one person has some intelligence:

"Simon Calder, the Travel Editor of The Independent, believes Britain's best beaches are found in the Western Isles in Scotland.

He praised them for having the 'purest, clearest' water as well as 'dramatic seascapes', adding that they were 'probably the best in the world'.

'If you ignore the temperatures, you will find probably everything you would look for in a beach, from the quality of the sand to the pure, beautiful clarity of the water,' said Mr Calder."

Monday, 15 May 2006

The peas of wrath

Growing has been, so far, much easier this year. The weather through the winter and spring has been a lot warmer than last year; significantly, the constant gales that we had in our first winter and spring don't seem to be around. Consequently, the eight rows of peas that SWMBO planted just a few weeks ago are rapidly emerging, necessitating scurrying around for the supports they will soon need.

Though I am starting to wonder if we are in some geographical pocket of freak good weather. A long time ago, I lost count of the number of times the weather forecast would say "rain all of the next day". Only to start work the next morning by shutting the curtains, to avoid getting blinded by a bright sun in a cloudless sky. Plus, SWMBO has been out most days of late with a watering can, to avoid the peas drying out.

More pea news as it happens.

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Traigh Scarasta


Media_httpstaticflick_kjmxx



The beach at Scarista, on the west coast of Harris. On a hot day such as this one (May 10th 2006), the heat haze makes photography difficult.

In the distance are the hills of west Harris. When the tide is out, the beaches forms part of a huge expanse of sand, stretching along several miles of the Harris coast.

Just off this beach is the restored hotel of Scarista House, which has served us excellent local seafood for dinner.

Traigh Hornais and Traig Lingeigh


Media_httpstaticflick_sczdx

 

A hot day in early May, on the coast of North Uist not far from Berneray. Walking down a very pleasant track, across farmland and between two dramatic graveyards, brings you to the beaches of Clachan sands. The picture above shows the rock at Hornais which divides the beaches. To the left, Traig Hornais, and beyond it the communities and islands of Grenitote, Sollas and Vallay. To the right, Traig Lingeigh, Newton Ferry and Berneray.


Media_httpstaticflick_dfxei




Media_httpstaticflick_hosoc



The beach of Traig Lingeigh. At exceptionally low tides, the beach extends to the small circular island of Lingeigh.


Media_httpstaticflick_heedv



At the end of the beach, a walk over the small hill of Sudhanais (c. 100 feet) takes you to the small community of Newton Ferry (4 croft houses). Beyond is the small beach at Rubha na Traghad, and the road meandering off to the Berneray causeway about another mile distant.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Balloons


Media_httpstaticflick_cgfva

Idly looking out of my office window to see a bundle of balloons on a rock in the middle of Bays Loch (the natural harbour on the east coast of Berneray).

Odd. Are the seals who are the sole frequenters of those rocks having a party?

James Ross (a local resident who provides me with a steady stream of imaginatively broken IT equipment to test my repair skills) thinks this may be connected with a wedding a few days ago. Said wedding took place on the other side of the Sound of Harris. Which would have been an impressive weekend drift for the assorted balloons.

News update...


Media_httpstaticflick_vjyeh



A few minutes later, Angus and someone else (locals: who?) appear, rowing/steering a boat towards the balloons, now beached on a rock closer to the Post Office.

No doubt, a danger to shipping in the Sound of Harris. Or at least, a slight inconvenience to the odd seal.

The balloons are released, to float away in the general direction of Pabbay and Harris.

And that's our daily allocation of excitement.