The Wandering Weasel, Author at The Wandering Weasel
 
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Author: The Wandering Weasel

The Isle of Man: Mountains, Towers and Voyeurs

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Do you ever feel like you’re trapped inside your own life?

City living has a way of confining the mind over a long period of time.

I talked last time about the London ‘bubble’ and how it serves to limit your experiences to the very trendiest of places, rather than the dives that you might actually want to visit. It’s really more of a self-imposed imprisonment, composed of bars complete with exposed brick and bare light bulbs. If I spend longer than a month in London, continuously flitting around the streets of Camden and Brixton, I begin to become weighed down by a real sense of claustrophobia.

The streets begin to narrow and each bar seems to get busier with each passing minute.

When I find myself gasping for fresh air and a place to drink that isn’t painted with several layers of irony, I make my excuses and run back to my flat. In a darkened room with my favourite Bjork album playing, I calmly book myself tickets on a plane to a remote British island and sit back with a sigh of relief.

I’d not considered visiting the Isle of Man before this week. Call me a bigot, but it had always seemed like a distant (and Northern) cousin of the Isle of Wight. As far as I was aware this was a small island, surrounded by sea with seemingly very little do, at least in comparison with London. However, after my little panic attack in Camden, this sounded like just the thing that I needed. After a speedy session of booking through SkyScanner (return flights for the weekend for £180), Airbnb (Room in Douglas for £114 p/night) and Airport Parking Market (parking at London City Airport for £33) – I was ready to leave.

The flight from London took just over an hour. As it was an internal flight so the security was light so before I knew it I was stepping out of the wonderfully named Ronaldson Airport and breathing the fresh island air of Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man.

A few things to note about the Isle of Man, when considering it’s differences to London.

It has a population of just under 88,000 compared to London’s 8.674 million. It covers roughly 570 square kilometres, whereas London sprawls over 1,500 of them (you can do the mathematics on that one). But, what about crime? Surely such an isolated place must be filled with crack pot deviants and raving marauders, right? Wrong! There were 194 offences in the space of a year on the Isle of Man, compared to the thousands recorded in London. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be starting to consider how much you’d really miss having London on your doorstep.

The Isle of Man has been an established tourist destination for some time, as such it’s had a significant amount of financial investment from patrons over the past century. As the years have gone by, fuelled by it’s popularity during the Victorian era, the island has become populated with strange follies and quirky tourist attractions. Great Union Camera Obscura is probably the best example of this.

Sat on top of a hill at the edge of Douglas, this squat building has the look of an observatory, except the telescope isn’t pointed towards the stars. Fans of people watching will be hard to pull away from this lens which is set firmly on the town centre, allowing the voyeur to watch tourists as they go about their business.

Hopping into a hire car I drive over to Bradda Glen to get a look at Milner’s Tower.

The sun is shining and I can see the coast of Ireland looming massively on the horizon. Dedicated to the philanthropist William Milner, the tower cuts a striking shape in sharp contrast to the utterly rugged landscape all around it. I stand and stare for a while before remembering that I have a flight back to London in a day’s time – so it’s back to Douglas for a meal and sleep.

I wanted to spend the last day on the island absorbing as much of the place as possible without having to move too much so I elected to sit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway and idly munch on a meal deal. I’ve spoken before about the romance of train journeys and this one was no different. The railway climbs up 2,000-ft to reach the summit of Snaefell Mountain, the highest point on the Island. With the sun breaking through the clouds, the mountain breeze shook the fine layer of Dorito dust from my trousers as I stepped onto the platform.

Any thoughts of cramped London streets, gourmet bao buns or rooftop bars soon dissipated from my mind as I stared at the vast expanse of land and sea below me.

The Isle of Man is undoubtedly the ultimate British island retreat for any claustrophobic Londoner.

The Highlands: Pies, Miles and a Range Rover

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Don’t feel bad for Scotland.

They’ve done a damn good job of playing the sympathy card for the last couple of decades. Movies like Trainspotting and Under the Skin have done their best to portray Scotland as the grubby back end of English civilisation.

Towering concrete blocks housing drug addicts and boozers do little to put forward an impression of Scotland as a high-ticket holiday destination. But, don’t be fooled by these false images though, Scotland (and the Highlands especially) is home to a wealth of gorgeous vistas, comforting public houses and top-class restaurants.

If you’re thinking of ditching the annual holiday of sun, sea and sand, in favour of something a little more atmospheric, then Scotland might just be the place for you. Whereas you might not be guaranteed to get much of a tan whilst you’re out there, you’d be surprised how pleasant the weather can be at this time of the year. So nice in fact, that you might want to consider booking a 2-day driving tour of the Highlands, instead of a long stint at just one Hotel.

My recommendation?

If you’re travelling from London (as I did) then take the utterly mesmerising train up to Edinburgh. The journey will take you around 4 hours and 30 minutes, enough time to settle into a few of Robert Burns’ poems or even slam through Mel Gibson’s ever-so-slightly-broad Braveheart. Regardless of if you came to see it or not, schedule a couple of hours to enjoy this enduringly picturesque city. My top recommendations for a flying visit are, of course, the Castle as well as a bite to eat at The Piemaker – here’s a hint, try the pies…

Once I soaked up what Edinburgh had to offer in the way of cuisine and culture, I headed to Hertz and picked up the vehicle that would take me on my trek around Scotland. Here’s a piece of advice for anyone who’s nervous about renting a car for the first time: Don’t panic when you can’t find something exactly like your comfy little Kia parked at home. Take the opportunity to broaden your horizons, rent something completely different and have some fun!

I don’t own a car in the city, so I jumped at the opportunity to drive a brand new Range Rover.

I would never usually drive something like this, but as it was a holiday, I thought that I’d get into the spirit of the country (as well as ape a certain television show featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). With the dust in my rear view mirror quickly rising to obscure the retreating vision of Edinburgh, I drove on to my bed for the night in Crieff.

Existing in the sweet spot halfway between luxury hotel and self-catered accommodation, Highland Heather Lodges provide lodges in perthshire with hot tubs in the form of 4 accommodation options that will suit most requirements. Although better suited for couples or families, the 1-bedroom lodge that I stayed in more than served my needs. Handsome hard floors, comfortable furnishings and a modern kitchen make this a great option for anyone looking to find themselves a cosy home away from home in the Highlands.

From Crieff you can easily access either the Highlands proper or Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, making it a perfect spot for any hikers eager to take advantage of both of these fantastic walking destinations. I was more eager to get the Range Rover back on to the road and drive through some seriously scenic territory. With the lease fast running out on my new found treasure, I pushed a little harder on the accelerator and allowed myself to drift into a James Bond influence fever dream of mist, green mountains, winding roads and burning rubber.

I knew I’d be blown away by the scenery on offer in the Scottish Highlands, I just didn’t think that I’d return so smitten for my rental car.

Leeds: Rock’n’Roll, Rice and Pints

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I’m quite proud of being an atypical Londoner.

Yes – I’m super into the hottest new bars (Dalston Roof Park is my new favourite, along with about ten thousand other journos in the city) and I can’t imagine a day without finding fault with something on the Underground, but I’m not completely trapped in the ‘bubble’ as it’s known.

Whereas the vast majority of my colleagues and friends seem to be psychically tethered to the city, I find myself constantly seeking out other British towns to escape to. ‘The price you must spend on train tickets’, they always tell me, after dropping £30 at the door just to get let into ‘that new Japanese Blade Runner kind of place’.

They’ve forgotten that life can be wonderful and vibrantly different outside of the ‘bubble’. Not only do you not have to queue, wait and pay for the privilege of heading into a new bar, most of the time, you can walk in and buy 3 pints for the same that one would cost you in London.

Such was the case on a rather drizzly weekend spent in the heart of Yorkshire’s capital, Leeds.

When you hear Londoners talk about ‘the North’, you can practically hear them place sarcastic emphasis on those quotation marks. I probably acted in a similar way a few years ago. The sheer notion that there was an alternative to London for (relatively) young people looking for a place to live and work seemed ridiculous. Sure, maybe the rent’s cheaper, but have you heard how backward people are up there? Do you really think there are any decent places to drink, other than gross old man pubs?

If I had the ability to travel back in time, before making the obligatory trip to 20th April 1889 to kill a certain Austrian would-be dictator, I’d make a brief sojourn back to 2013 to slap myself in the face – time paradox be damned.

Leeds is one of those cities that you really need to be shown around.

The best places to drink are off the beaten track and the hippest restaurants need to be stalked like rare game. You can, of course, elect to enjoy the city with a Lonely Planet in hand, but you’ll find even the most recent edition will fall some way behind what a real Loiner (Leeds inhabitant) can offer you.

My guide was an old school mate who had fallen in love with the city over a decade ago, whilst racking up a mountain of unbeatable debt as a student. Despite the rising student fees, Leeds is still an incredibly popular student town – there are three Universities within the city limits and it has the fourth largest student population in the UK. It’s not hard to see why, when we walk into the Brudenell Social Club, where you can get a decent pint of Theakston’s Ale for well under £2.

There’s music playing in both rooms to the side of this odd, box-shaped boozer. Half the drinkers here are drifting in and out of each room, head’s nodding and slightly swaying. The other half are happily eating pies and swilling pints, there’s an effortlessly casual feeling to the atmosphere that you simply wouldn’t find in London and I am instantly beguiled. After a couple of pints, my eyes were beginning to be drawn to the food on other’s plates.

Thankfully, we had a plan for this.

Anand Sweets is a family run shop and catering business, specialising in vegetarian and vegan Indian dishes and methai (Indian sweets). We sit inside the newly refurbished shop and enjoy ordering off a menu of dishes which is pretty much alien to me. In my mind, I consider how popular a simple place like this might be and decide that the perfect storm of delicious food, entirely vegan options and incomprehensible menu would probably bowl over thousands of Londoners if they ever got the chance.

Getting the train back to London, I felt the change in my pocket from the £40 that I’d taken out at the start of my journey and thought about how far it would have taken me if I’d stayed in the big city.

Probably, about as far as the queue for the first bar…

Durham: Cathedrals, Gardens and Tea for One

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The North East of England doesn’t get the respect it deserves when it comes to tourism.

When it comes to foreign tourism, visitors to the UK are more likely to hit the iconic cities of London, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Simply put, most foreigners have never heard of Durham.

They don’t have an internationally recognised Football team and the closest thing they have to a globally known landmark is the Angel of the North (which is more in Newcastle’s jurisdiction really). To a visitor, with a very small grasp on the history of Great Britain, the attractions that Durham has to offer might seem a little confounding. Cathedrals, gardens and tearooms are really what this not-so-modern city has to offer – three things that an utterly British gent like myself is more than happy to make the journey for.

London to Durham by train can take anywhere from just under 3 hours to around 3 hours 40 minutes. Although the price and standards of the trains in Britain have started to become very distantly related variables, I’d take a seat on a carriage over a tiring drive any day. When I arrive into Durham it’s around half 11 and a perfectly acceptable time to stop into the first tearoom of the day.

Walking through Durham’s charming shopping district, meandering my way towards the Cathedral, I find myself forgetting that I’m as North as I really am.

The cobbled streets, narrow Tudor-style walkways and copious pubs that crowd the streets here are reminiscent of Dickens’ London, or perhaps the live-action adaptations that were filmed here. It’s a shame that this quaint city doesn’t get the international attention that it deserves, foreign tourists would no doubt be wooed by the utterly English sensibility that rules large swathes of the town. Nowhere in Durham does this Englishness feel more pronounced than in one of it’s many tearooms.

I stop by at the questionably named Cafedral Durham for a refreshing cup of tea and a scone. For all of it’s Southern pretensions, I’m instantly reminded that I’m far up North thanks to the dark builder’s tea I’m served. The cafe is only a small space, but there’s a real bustling feel to it.

If this had been a place in London, the designers would have no doubt decided to cram the place with overtly quirky bric-a-brac – but the owners of Cafedral Durham have clearly shown some restraint and left the decor clean and unfussy. Think less Grandma’s front room and more modern country kitchen.

Feeling utterly refreshed, I wander the short distance over to the Cathedral to admire a building that has overlooked the city for nearly a thousand years.

Religious buildings often split the room. You have some people who are insistent that you have to be religious to enjoy a trip to a Cathedral, whilst others frankly say that ‘they all look the same’. For me, the sheer spectacle of a cathedral is enough to put a smile on my face. That’s exactly what happened when I ambled my way into Durham Cathedral’s cavernous surroundings. On a Wednesday afternoon it’s blissfully quiet, the few tourists visiting make very little noise as they slowly circle the building. Whether you’re religious or not, the scale and detail of Durham cathedral is more than enough to inspire. The mind boggles all the more when you consider how this gargantuan build was undertaken without the use of computers, cranes or any kind of electric tool.

Just a 15 minute walk from the Cathedral lies Crook Hall and Gardens. Walking along the River Wear, with Cathedral in the distance you can imagine the city as a bustling Medieval metropolis, with the water crowded with canal boats and barges. Within 10 minutes any noise from the city has been eaten up by trees and space leaving only the sound of birds and wind through the trees. Crook Hall is nowhere near as ancient as the Cathedral, it exudes a country charm that makes one forget about the Dickensian city just a few minutes walk away. A carefully manicured garden is the icing on the cake.

I can understand the trepidation that foreign tourists treat Durham with. It has none of the flashing lights and distractions of Britain’s other cities, yet it’s hard to imagine finding a more ‘English’ experience anywhere in the country.

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