Scotland for softies
Beaches, rockpools, swimming, cycling... Paul Kirkwood found there’s no end to the delights of the bit of Scotland that’s easiest to reach from most of England
It took us 17 months to get the cottage and about 17 seconds to appreciate why we’d had to wait so long. Within a hop, skip and jump of parking up we were on its own little beach of cockle shells having coffee and cake. And then it rained. Oh, well. This was Scotland after all. We were staying at Port Donnel Cottage, a National Trust-owned Victorian villa at Rockcliffe, near Dalbeattie in Dumfriesshire.
Just round the corner from Carlisle, it’s relatively easy to get to by Scotland standards and has none of the ruggedness of the Highlands – which may be a drawback for some but is an asset for a young family of four. Scotland for Softies, I call it.
As I unpacked the car a woman with a dog wandered right up to the gate for a nose at our cottage and then, spotting me, swung away. I felt so smug. It was the best cottage in the brochure and it was ours for a week. The place had that “don’t need to go anywhere else” quality.
We kept nipping out as if to check that the sea was still there. In fact, often it wasn’t. This is the Solway Firth and when the tide goes out here it practically disappears altogether. You have to plan swims in advance, checking the tide timetables, or you’re in for a long, long walk. When low tide coincided with sunset we would scramble up to the rocks outside the cottage to watch fishermen digging for worms with Rough Island, a bird reserve, as the back-drop. Then at night, we’d gaze out from our bedroom windows at the lighthouses on Hestan Island and the Cumbrian coast winking at one another across the Firth.
The cottage was at the end of a small bay and had the high ceilings, solid doors and big windows of a rectory or a lodge. It had been extended to the rear to form a kitchen which was large enough to store my bike, which I’d brought with us for nipping up to the nearest village stores, a couple of miles away at Colvend. The settee in the sitting room was so comfortable we subsequently bought an identical one.
The cottage didn’t entirely suit everyone, of course. The guest book – always indispensable reading in a holiday cottage – included entries from a particularly hard-to-satisfy holidaymaker who was disappointed that the little beach didn’t provide direct access to the sea. (You had to walk all of 50 yards down the lane to the village’s main beach for that). Another guest had listed eight things that she would do to improve the property and even the complimentary entrants – who were in the vast majority – had to have a little niggle about the grill pan handle. Our only grouse was that we couldn’t stay there longer and it would be years before we could return for another visit.
There wasn’t much in the village but that was part of its appeal. The whitewashed Garden Tea Rooms did great home-made cakes and the Barons Craig Hotel overlooking the bay was handy for a posh meal on our last night, but that was it. Still, the fewer the places to spend money, the fewer the people, we figured. We were staying during half-term week – or, at least, it was half-term for us but not for the Scottish schools which made the place even quieter.
As well as the cottage, the National Trust for Scotland owns a pocket of land between Rockcliffe and Kippford, a yachting village a mile and a half away via the Jubilee Path. The coastal walk from the door in the other direction took us five undulating miles along a headland with stunning views. At last we could see where the sea started and the sand ended at low tide. We even spotted a beach below the headland where you could swim when the bathers back at base were restricted to rockpooling.
That’s what we did on the next morning when we joined a Seashore Safari hosted by a National Trust warden. Did you know that you can age a cockle shell by counting the number of rings on it? Or that a cockle feeds by drawing water into its body through one tube, extracting the food and expelling the remaining water? No, neither did we or the children. Between us the group of a dozen or so filled a bucket with wriggling and twitching life-forms, each plucked from the water with a call like a bingo winner.
With so much on our doorstep we were the cottage renting equivalents of those holiday makers who spend the whole fortnight beside the hotel pool. We did make some excursions, though. A day out inland took us to Threave Castle. The attraction isn’t so much the ruins but their location on an island in the middle of the River Nith. You summon the boatman by ringing a bell on the bank. Our later plans to visit Threave Gardens were thwarted by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall who were just about to arrive for a royal visit when we unknowingly paused at the gates. We were hastened on by a policeman and, moments later, saw the royal couple sweep past. We later followed further in their footsteps on a visit to Kirkcudbright, an attractive, colourful town.
Another day I took my bike on something of a pilgrimage back to the smithy where the pedal-powered bicycle was invented in 1840. It is located at Keir Mill, north of Dumfries on the 24-mile Kirkpatrick Macmillan Trail (named after the inventor). Later on the ride I visited Drumlanrig Castle where Macmillan learnt his trade. Buildings include the Scottish Cycling Museum, which includes a reproduction of Macmillan’s prototype. Set within acres of gardens, nature trails and mountain bike routes, the 16th century castle is home to the ninth Duke of Buccleuch and eleventh of Queensbury and contains paintings by Holbein, Gainsborough and Rembrandt.
Both were great days out but the best bit was anticipating what I was going back to. There really was no place like our holiday home.