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      26.10.2002 20:47
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      It was the autumn half-term holiday last week, so for those with kids or connected to primary and secondary education in some way, it was a last chance to get fleeced by the tourist industry before the bargain basement off-season prices apply. Whoo-hoo, my daughter is now 22. Booo, I'm married to a teacher! Ruth and I tend to alternate between catching the last of the sun in the Med area and having a relaxing if calorific time usually in our beloved Lake District. (Oh that Sticky Toffee Pudding!). It was the UK's turn this year, but we fancied somewhere else. I'm running out of places to see in The Lakes, and I'll be bug****d if I'll go to see all the Beatrix Potter memorabilia just because we've "done" everywhere else. Having been to Carlisle a few times whilst in The Lakes, I remember making a mental note that "Scotland can't be far" - well the border at least, so despite the fact that Lakeland is far enough for any Londoner in his right mind to drive, I persuaded myself that another 90 minutes wouldn't kill me! THE JOURNEY Our accommodation wasn't going to be available till 4 p.m. anyway so there was no hurry, which was just as well. It was approximately 380 miles from West London to our final destination in Gatehouse Of Fleet (GoF from here on in), which lies halfway between Carlisle in England and Stranraer in Dumfries & Galloway Region (D&G). The latter lies at the end of the A75 trunk road which is a left turn from the very end of the M6, and the town is a busy ferry port for Northern Ireland. More of this later. Taking a break every two hours made the journey quite bearable, and we were blessed with fine sunny weather for the whole trip - no mean feat in our maritime climate. Our last stop was the only one not made at a motorway service area, and was in fact made at Gretna Green, the famous "quickie" wedding spo t just inside Scotland so favoured by English elopers over the years, presumably because of different residence qualifications on the Scottish side of the line. Anyway, we witnessed (not in the legal sense) two weddings in the half hour that we were there. It seems that rapid weddings are the only similarity between this place and Las Vegas - I looked in vain for billboards advertising Englebert Humperdink at the local Travel Lodge, but I did ascertain that there is a Factory Outlet Village nearby for the newly-weds to augment their trousseau with imperfect jeans and the like. One highlight of the drive up to this point is that wonderfully scenic stretch of M6 as it and the West Coast Main (Railway) Line weave in and out of each other as they compete for the flattest ground passing through the Cumbrian Mountains prior to Carlisle. After leaving the M6 and driving along the A75 towards our final goal, I felt a case of déjà-vu. The road was strangely similar to my more usual autumn drive towards Barrow along the south side of Lakeland. It was almost as if Mother Nature was just practising with Morecambe Bay and South Lakeland before moving on to grander things, in this case, The Solway Firth and Dumfries & Galloway Region. The scenery alternated between decidedly craggy and green and rolling, just like The Lakes and Grange-Over-Sands, only spread over an area three times larger. Passing around the town of Dumfries and later Castle Douglas, the A75 has a reasonable number of passing places and sections of dual carriageway. Just as well really, as some of the trucks can really hold you up on narrow sections, but by contrast, some of the trucks, or rather their drivers go like they are on a mission, i.e. to catch a ferry, and it's best to let them past at your earliest opportunity, especially if you are in no hurry yourself. Let's face it - if your journey has brought you through the Birmingham area, then you WILL be late for your ferry ! I lost count of the number of times the logo "OVLOV" loomed VERY large in my mirror as yet another trucker tried to scare me off the road because I was "only" driving at the speed limit. However, any other day, I'd have been pleased with the encouragement! At least you can equate miles to minutes when trying to gauge journey-times around here. Passing through Twynholm, I was halfway through saying "I'm sure David Coulth..." when my wife interjected from the safety of a guidebook. "Twynholm, birthplace of David Coulthard, and now home to his museum of motor racing memorabilia, twinned with the Pit Stop Diner. Race-day diners get a free glass of champagne if David wins! "Should be nicely chilled", I thought, "it'll have been in the fridge for a few months". WHERE WE STAYED a) The Property (aka Schloss Nibelstein) Seven miles further, and we were in Gatehouse of Fleet, a "nice wee toon" according to its own web site, and on first glance, and several subsequent ones, I wouldn't argue with that at all! When my wife informed me that the property we had hired was known as The Gatehouse, I thought "Not THE Gatehouse", but no, it was just A gatehouse, albeit rather a nice one. This place has to be just about the largest rented property that we've ever hired that only slept two. It started life during Victorian times as the gatehouse to the Cally Estate, now containing a hotel, golf club and a woodland belonging to the Forestry Commission. It had a grand circular tower with a castle-like pointed roof, inside which was the spiral staircase to the bedroom and main bathroom. The whole outer appearance was that of a mini-castle, and at night I looked for the bats circling in the moonlight, but to no avail. The interior also comprised a fully fitted kitchen, a lounge with open log fire (as well as central heating, thank goodness), and dining room and a separate downstairs toilet/drying room. The whole place had been decorated to a standard that you'd wish for yourself, with real light oak floorboards, a four-poster bed, and decent quality bathroom fittings. There's nothing more annoying, when you've shelled out say £300 to rent somewhere in high season than to find that the bathroom suite looks like it was a "manager's special" at B&Q. Another good sign was that the owner only lived three doors away, and when we ventured out for a drink on our first lunchtime, he spotted us and bought us a drink! Incidentally, for those that just "can't leave it alone", cell-phone signal strength was 4 out of 5 on the O2 network, but no, you can't get digital terrestrial TV here (I know, I tried!) although the main five analogue channels were fine. Of course, you can always take a book or two. I polished off Bill Bryson's "Down Under" - I'd been saving this until it was at least a year since I went on my own Oz marathon. The swine - he plagiarised my journey (well, you'd swear he had, except that he wrote it a year before I went). Another opinion in the offing? I'm going to be busy! b) The Town Gatehouse of Fleet lies on the River Fleet, which flows into the Solway Firth. Despite its current picturesque setting, it is one of those areas, like Coalbrookdale in Ironbridge Gorge, that used to be much more industrial than it is now, in fact it "enjoyed" the soubriquet, "The Glasgow Of The South" at one time, thanks to the abundant water power for the cotton mills in the area. Nowadays you can visit the water mill, which is a visitor centre for the town. The town centre consists of one main street lined mostly with familiar "D&G or borders-style" architecture, i.e. ridge-roofed dwellings and shops with characteristics cornerstones often picke d out in a contrasting colour to the more roughly-hewn walls. Properties built like this can be seen as far away as Kendal and Keswick in Cumbria, and anyone familiar with the Lakes might think they've been dropped there if they'd fallen asleep for the last two hours of the journey. An awful lot of people seem to have used GoF as a watering hole and place to get some peace and quiet whilst waiting for their literary muse to arrive. Robert Burns is thought to have penned "Scots Wha' Hae" whilst resident at the Murray Arms Hotel, presumably after several wee drachms (the consonants are always the first to go, I find!). Dorothy L Sayers is also reputed to have holed-up at the Anwoth Arms (called something else at the time) whilst writing.....errr...... something else! Now here I am, William Nibbles, "bon-viveur and raconteur extraordinaire", making notes for yet another opinion whilst "havin' a swally" myself in the Masonic Arms. With the exception of the Bank Of Fleet Hotel, that's pub-life accounted for. Food in all of these was excellent value, and thanks to Malaysian lineage amongst the Anwoth's owners, Far Eastern cuisine can also be found in amongst the Haggis, Bashed Neaps and Tatties. There are of course several gift shops, but we won't go into those - in fact I make a point of not going into those! PLACES TO GO, THINGS TO DO (OR EAT, OF COURSE!) Much of our travelling involves picking somewhere promising for lunch, so don't be surprised if I fail to go into much detail on forest mountain bike trails and walking routes - they've got loads of them, what else do you need to know? That WAS the detail! Getting around isn't that easy without a car, since the nearest mainline station to GoF is about 30 miles away in Dumfries, although for a greater selection of trains on the West Coast Main Line, Lockerbie or even Carlisl e back in Engl and would be better bets. Then, you would need to grab the Carlisle to Stranraer bus. This would of course limit how much hiking gear and or bikes you could bring with you. With self-catering, it almost HAS to be a car, I'm afraid, especially if arriving on a Sunday with no knowledge of whether local shops will be open. As I said before though, once committed to using a car, journey times are easy enough to plan - just wait for the next "wave" of trucks to or from the ferry, and surf your way along the A75 in a bow-wave of Volvo's and DAF's! DUMFRIES itself is a pleasant enough riverside town with all the usual shops and facilities - it was raining on both of our visits which does not show off the local stone to its best effect! I did, however, buy a new electronic organiser in Boots there, so expect a spin-off op soon! We lunched in the newly opened J D Wetherspoon's pub, The Robert The Bruce, converted with a degree of poetic justice from a former Methodist Church, (a bit like buying up The Soil Association's HQ and turning it into a Macdonalds!). It seems that many of the locals value this new addition to their drinking choice, with its policy of always serving food, always having a No Smoking Zone, never having background music or noisy games machines and always serving an interesting array of beers. I opted for the Deuchar's Caledonian IPA - the beers from "that country to the south", I could have any time! KIRKCUDBRIGHT - don't even think about pronouncing this how it's spelled! Stuttering "K-Koobry" seems much nearer the mark. This is only about 6 miles from GoF and is a delightful little harbour town on yet another of the Solway Firth's inlets, which are starting to remind me of the southern coast of Cornwall and Devon. Like most places around here, it looks a lot better when it's not raining, but we really only went there to do some domestic s hopping - one thing I did notice in the area, public car-parks seem to be free. STRANRAER - now this really is a labour of love. Driving the length of the A75 for fun, whilst going through 4-seasons-in-one-day weather. Whenever I hear the BBC announcer mentioning "turning to snow of higher ground" I'll know what they mean in future! In the space of 40 miles, I drove through blazing sunshine, wicked side-winds, hail, sleet, snow, torrential rain - all that was missing was fog and a plaque of locusts! As I've previously intimated, Stranraer is a sea-port sheltered in the northern lee of the hammer-shaped peninsular called The Rhins which forms the most southerly part of Scotland. To paraphrase a pop song, Stranraer "Ain't Got Nothin' Goin' On But The Ferry" so we didn't stay long. However, it is a splendid springboard for a visit to:- PORT PATRICK - which lies under cliffs on the exposed side of The Rhins. This is a really pretty fishing port, having previously enjoyed shipping traffic from Ireland, being the mainland end of the shortest route across. You can actually see parts of Northern Ireland, even standing at sea level. We lunched at Campbell's Restaurant, on the harbour front, specialising in fish, naturally, with a very good value mid-week menu (any two courses for £8.75). Only one thing let this meal down. What is it that's so difficult about putting some soluble vegetable matter into hot water that makes other people's coffee so insipid? (I don't just mean in the UK either!). After all, Ruth and I manage to get it right at home - it's got to be possible. Damn, from the bay window of the restaurant, one of our number, and I think you can guess who I mean, spots a pottery on the breakwater by the lighthouse. Half an hour later and about 60 quid poorer*, we set off for the:- THE MULL OF GALLOWAY - on the southern tip of The Rhins. Now this really is the most so utherly point in Scotland, being on the same latitude as parts of the Lake District and Hartlepool. It's also one of the windiest! This rocky promontory is protected by a lighthouse, built by author R.L.Stevenson's dad and is also an RSPB bird sanctuary for puffins and other sea-birds. From here, you have crystal clear views of the Isle Of Man, Co. Wicklow and various bits of Northern Ireland including the Mountains of Mourne. For a really surreal experience, play Santana's latest album, particularly the salsa bits, whilst negotiating the narrow farm tracks out to the Mull! *Mostly Christmas presents I'm told - yeah, right! CREAM O' GALLOWAY - Not a place, per se, but a dairy farm near GoF producing the most delicious ice-creams (and frozen yoghurts). Several tubs later, and having worked our way through a large proportion of their product range, I can safely say that the Elderflower Frozen Yoghurt and Toffee-Chip Ice cream are my favourites. To my delight, I find two outlets in the West London area selling their produce. School parties are provided for - lucky kids, I say. "....and now children, as part of the National Curriculum, we are going to sample every single one of these nice people's ice creams to help us understand the vital role cattle plays in the economics of this region!" TWYNHOLM - DAVID COULTHARD MUSEUM This contains 5 actual single-seat racing cars and one full-size mock-up (of the latest McLaren Mercedes), at least I assume it was a mock-up, there were no real fuel-flaps. More generously, "laughing boy" Frank Williams has lent (permanently) David's own Renault-Williams race-car from the 1995 season. At the other end of the scale is the Formula Ford in which DC got his first real single seat experience, and from the ceiling hang two of the go-karts that got him there I the first place! It's interesting not only to see the graduation from Formula Ford, via Formul a 3 and Formula 3000 to Formula 1, but also to see the mounting prestige of the advertising sponsors, starting with Tunnock's Biscuits and local newspapers, ending with major automotive suppliers, not to mention tobacco companies! Entry costs £2.50, worth it if you are an F1 fan, as they don't seem to mind if you touch things. CARLISLE - Yes, I know it's in England but if you want to learn more about the tumultuous history of The Borders, there's no better place than The Tullie House Museum. You can learn about The Reivers, a loose band of "land pirates" who bore no alliegance to either England or Scotland, and whose main aim in life seemed to be stealing livestock and killing the land-owner, leaving his wife a widow, or "bereft" as the modern day word for "having had the reivers visit" goes. There can't be many people that have spawned such a horrific concept, although being "Bushed" is currently being worked on, I hear. Our Canadian friend, whose surname is Davison (no D in the middle), was fascinated to find that she was descended from them, and claimed that it answered a lot of questions about her Uncle Stan! CONCLUSION This was never supposed to be an exhaustive guide to the Dumfries and Galloway Region, more an indication of how much you can achieve in 6 days, and hopefully to awaken some people to the area's existence. After all, mention a Scottish holiday to most people in the South and they will assume you mean the Highlands or Edinburgh. As with The Lakes, the weather can alter your perception of the place greatly, and I feel lucky that I was able to see, yeah, even photograph bits of it with the sun out! It really was stunning. There are other places, but please don't all rush to D&G at once - the A75'd never stand it!

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