Sunday, July 27, 2008

Drinking in the UK, Part Four (the road to Islay)

Actually, not much drinking in this entry because this was a travel day, driving from Glasgow to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. The island is pretty much the most southerly and westerly of the Hebrides, home to eight distilleries, and graced with an amazing and rich history. When I first began planning the Greatest Vacation Ever, months before my trip, I had toyed with the notion of traveling awhile in Germany or Belgium, settled on a trip to Ireland, and finally decided on Scotland. Thinking of Scotland, one (well, me) naturally considers visiting a distillery or two and the opportunity to visit one location that had some of the most distinctive whisky in the world, all concentrated in a smallish island, became the focal point for the trip. After making the decision to travel to Islay, Glasgow followed, because it was the most logical jumping off point for the trip.

I should probably have called this "Driving in the UK, Part One", because this was my introduction to the craziness that is driving among Brits. The nice people at the rental agency, out at Glasgow Airport, offered me a relatively inexpensive upgrade to a Mercedes, which was not only a lovely little car, but had the decided advantage of an automatic transmission. A stick shift is my norm, but with everything else topsy-turvy on the road, I appreciated not having to learn how to shift with the wrong hand.

The early part of the journey was custom-made for a beginner in the UK, starting as it did with what was effectively freeway driving, from the airport into the city. Nothing particularly odd or difficult, other than the decidedly odd experience of being on the wrong side of the road. Traffic wasn't too bad and I could noodle along in the slow (far left!!) lane, while I got the hang of it. I did have to drive through the center (oops, "centre") of town, but only on major roads. Traffic lights were reasonably normal, other than a sort of countdown thing done from a red light--and I love the fact that the Walk sign stops traffic in all directions at an intersection. Markings on the street were different but not unintelligible and, in general, wayfinding signage in the UK proved to be excellent. There was nearly always good notice about which direction I would be taking and I learned to really appreciate roundabouts. I had great opportunity to figure roundabouts and signage out, because immediately outside Glasgow traffic bogged down in a long construction zone. Ordinarily, I would have been chafing at the delay but for a learner, it was a great help.

Outside the construction zone, things changed dramatically. For all the traffic cameras on the highways (marked in advance, to allow drivers a chance to slow down), Brits drive way too fast. Bad enough they're on the wrong side of the road, but everyone seems to be in an incredible hurry, even though it's a wee little island where nothing is very far from anything else. And somewhere along the line, some lunatic British engineer decided that country roads needed curbs (sorry, "kerbs") rather than shoulders. My dad had warned me about this and I had silently snickered at the notion that it would be a problem, but zipping along at 60, with crazy Brit bastards screaming around curves at me from the wrong side, I skidded along more than a few completely unnecessary concrete incursions and was soon fearing a blowout. Thank goodness for German craftsmanship and sturdy tires (sorry, "tyres").

All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that once you're off the motorway (which is most of the time), there are no straight lines in British roads, especially driving over to and down the Scottish coast. Nothing but twisty, winding roads once I'd gotten past Loch Lomond (remarkably unpicturesque big flat lake surrounded by flat ground--nothing at all like I'd imagined Scotland). After that, the geography changed considerably as I drove through the mountains and over to Loch Fyne. And that's another thing about the Scots. You would think that a country so rich in language could come up with two different words for two completely different bodies of water, effectively a lake and a fjord. Some lochs are salt water and others are fresh but they're just "lochs".

This is a map of my route, up the A82 and then down to Kennacraig on the A83. Kennacraig is too small to show up here, but it's the point along the coast near the lower left, where the dotted blue lines head out into the water--that's the route of the ferry to Islay. Lots of photos of the lochs here. The geology of Loch Fyne and even much of Islay reminded me of nothing more than Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, except there aren't a lot of castles around Puget Sound.

The weather was spectacular, with brilliant sunshine sparkling on the Loch, and lovely little towns--so very very not American-looking--scattered along the route.

Waiting at the ferry terminal at Kennacraig was also remarkably familiar to me, after years of similar waits for the ferry to visit my sister and her family on Lopez Island. There were a lot fewer people waiting for the Isle of Arran than the long lines at the Anacortes ferry terminal and the ferry was very different than the "super ferries" used by Washington State. Oh, and I had a reservation. Much better than the stress of worrying about getting well up in the line or having to wait for the next sailing. Which, in this case, would have been the next day.

That's the Isle of Arran in the top photo. It looks much more like a ship than a ferry, and has to deal with much rougher seas much of the year than those on Puget Sound. As the ship pulled in to the dock, the bow pivoted up out of the way and the loading ramp dropped down. It was a lovely ship, very spruce, with a nice bar (ah, so there was a bit of drinking: one of the Islay Ales on tap). I settled in for the two-hour trip and we finally arrived well after sunset.

Dark. Very very dark. Once I'd followed the rush of locals driving off the ferry into Port Ellen, I find myself virtually alone on the narrow road. Outside of the few towns along the way, there were no lights. No street lights at all and under a thick overcast. All of that wayfinding signage I'd appreciated on the "mainland" was gone and there I was, alone in the pitch dark. For what must have been the first time in my life, I had prepared myself thoroughly before coming to a new place, pouring over maps of the island and devouring Andrew Jefford's superb book, Peat Smoke and Spirit, which is a thorough study of the island's geography, history and, of course, whiskies. I had my route from Port Ellen, through Bowmore and up and around Loch Indall, through Port Charlotte and down to my b&b at Octofad Farm burned into my brain. Fortunately enough, there aren't a lot of roads on Islay so even a tourist completely in the dark would have a difficult time getting lost. There just aren't a lot of options. On the other hand, I hadn't expected the road, once south of Port Charlotte, to turn into a one lane path. With lay-bys, just in case there was traffic coming the other way (there wasn't, not this time) and very few signs. I stopped at one well-lit farm, thinking it might be Octofad and was chased off by a sheep dog. At last, there it was, a warm light in the window and a small car park out front. And a warm welcome from Cathy, my landlady for the next few days. I was finally here, finally on the mythic island of Islay. It wouldn't be until the sun came out the next morning that I discovered that the one lane road ran right along the rocks plunging into the loch. And sheep, lots and lots of sheep, most of whom found the road a handy route from forage to forage.


Anonymous said...

At this rate it'll be 2010 before you even get to England!

Fun reading anyway.

Joel said...

So was there ever a Part Five (or Six, Seven...)?