Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fort William and Inverness

I spent most of a day travelling to my next destination, which I thought was Fort William. The point of Fort William in my mind was that it was close to Loch Ness of monster fame.

The ten hour journey was all very pleasant - on the bus to Fort William, I watched the Loch carefully for signs of monsters, but not a monster was to be seen :-(.

Again - must read Lonely Planet carefully! Fort William is not that close to Drumnadrochit, which is the main Nessie centre, and it is a complete hole. I manage to get a decent meal and to have an interesting chat with a Canadian lassie who is also travelling alone but that was it. And there is better yet to come - after dinner (it's about 9:00pm) I start looking for my guest house. The address I've been given is 'Ard-An Guest House, Fort William'. Now Fort William may not be very attractive, but it is quite big. The directions say to follow the A85. I do that for roughly a mile and a half. By this stage, I am pretty sure that I am lost.

I ask at a booked-out B&B for help. This is where I discover two things - one, I'm here on the wrong day and two, Ard-An is something like six miles down the road. I've already decided that I hate Fort William so I cancel my booking. Now, problem - hole though the town is, it is very popular with masochistic hikers who want to climb Ben Nevis. There is no accommodation anywhere - absolutely none. I end up catching a taxi back to Inverness, where my booking actually was. Don't ask how much it cost, all I'll say is, it was an hour's drive. We saw a stag and a hedgehog, luckily we missed both of them. Still no monster...

The Guest House in Inverness is lovely. Even better, they have a room free for two nights, so I book an extra night. I really don't want to head back to Ard-An, it is miles out from a moderately unattractive town and the woman who runs it didn't seem all that fussed about me being stranded - she pretty much said it was my stiff s!t. Compare this to another hotel, where I had no claim on anyone, I just wandered in to see if they had any vacancies because it was 10:30pm and I was quite tired. The manager rang five other places for me to see if there was room, rang two late customers to see if they were going to cancel with the aim of giving me their rooms if they weren't coming and finally let me sit in the lobby while she booked me a taxi - oh, and she also let me call the place in Inverness to see if my room there was still being held... I have to write a nice email to her boss, telling him to give her a pay rise. Maybe two pay rises...

The next day, I go monster hunting once again. To my delight, Inverness has a Victoria Market - it is what we'd call an arcade, it is very cute. Lots of tourist shops, selling purple plush monsters, monster keyrings, soap, etc, etc... oh deary, dear. While I wait for my tour, I check out the Market and grab lunch at Mustard Seed.

Another point to Lonely Planet. The food at Mustard Seed is just brilliant. The waitress asks me if everything is OK - I tell her it's the best meal I've had in the UK, which may be damning with faint praise, but she takes it as it is meant. Those of you who know me well will realise how good the food is when I say I left a tip. Yes, it was that good.

My tour involves a half-hour cruise on the Loch, an hour at Urquhart Castle and a trip through the Loch Ness Experience 2000. Cruising on the Loch makes it clear how so many people thought they could see large animals swimming just below the surface - the tides and currents do very odd things to the boat wake and several times it really does look like something large is swimming alongside the boat.

The Castle is mostly in ruins, lots of lovely romantic shots - I am getting very good at photographing scenic ruins. Lots of tourists are out enjoying the sunshine - yes, that's right folks, we have sunshine!! For two consecutive days, the sun has been visible. Yesterday, I was comfortable in a long-sleeved shirt, today I managed to dig out one of my T-shirts for the first time. Almost as exciting as a scenic ruined castle! There is a telescope on a ruined fortification, but still no monster.

Actually I tell a lie - when I am fighting my way out through the shop to get to the bus for the next leg of the tour, I realise there is in fact a Loch Ness Tourism Monster which has swallowed the wee beastie down and which is busily consuming all my ready cash... We drive to Drumnadrochit to see the Loch Ness Experience 2000.

The exhibit is a sound and light multimedia show and it is actually extremely good. It provides very good explanations of the different Nessie phenomena, breaking down some quite complex science into easily understood bites of information.

The sightings and photos are explained easily - one famous photo, when subjected to careful analysis, turned out to be a blurred picture of a waterbird taking wing. It really did look like a monster head and neck, because cameras back in the 50s weren't well equipped to deal with motion photography. Another famous underwater photo and sonar reading were explained with the tree truck that caused them was located on the bottom of the Loch.

The next part of the exhibit explains the surveys carried out in the Loch which proved that there is very little edible life within the Loch environment - understandable, the water looks like crude oil, it is black with peat and silt. Very little light penetrates the water to support photosynthesis. Even trout can only grow to a fraction of their usual size on the scant food available in the Loch - there is no way it would support a massive creature like the Monster is supposed to be.

Finally, the exhibit explained sonar readings showing the presence of large 'somethings' in the barren zone below the warm waters at the top of the Loch and the icy silts at the bottom where all the organic matter ends up. To greatly oversimplify, the Loch is such a massive body of water that it has very odd thermal properties - these cause bizarre sonar echoes and patterns which look like something but aren't.

The bit I found exciting was that they really have discovered Ice Age survivors in the Loch - at the bottom of the Loch in the freezing cold, several species of wee creatures have survived off the debris that falls to the bottom. A type of prawn that has survived for 100,000 years is not quite as dramatic as a great big monster, but I find it amazing that this Loch (and probably only this Loch) is the home to so many survivor species.

Anyway, it was a very good exhibition - I noticed though that their gift shop had a squillion different variations on the monster theme - T-shirts, toys, slippers (alas, not in adult sizes), hats - the list was endless. Back to Inverness in time for rush hour.

I stroll along the river, which is very pretty and also leads me straight back to my temporary abode. I try to do a ghost walk in the evening, but not enough people show up and it is cancelled. The tour guide invites us back to the pub where the tour ends - I say great, then feel like a fool when everyone else heads home. I do get a sample of his tour style - he's extremely good. This is the bloke who originally set up the Real Mary Kings Close tours - the style of the tour is very similar, to judge by the sample, but the delivery is a lot more convincing than my Real Mary King experience. (Yes, it is the bloke - I recognise the face from the RMK posters. With difficulty. He's not only a great storyteller, he's a bit of a master of disguise as well). He's quite well known, which means that we get interrupted rather a lot - I take advantage of one of the interruptions to vanish, as I'm feeling a mite like a freeloader.

Back at my abode, I finally get around to writing up my postcards. I feel like a bit of a prat writing about my day in Inverness on postcards I bought at the Louvre. I will beat the postcards home well and truly!!

Tomorrow's post will hopefully cover my adventures on Culloden Field and at Cawdor Castle, with an uneventful trip to Glasgow. Stay tuned!!

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