Aberdeen Day 1
The genesis of this trip came from my school friend Judith who mentioned that she’d booked a trip to Aberdeen to meet with a cousin who she’d never met before. She’d already booked her train journey and her accommodation – in Cove Bay, a town 5 miles South of Aberdeen city. Faced with the prospect of what was predicted to be the hottest day of the year in Hebden Bridge, in my second floor apartment with no outdoor area and windows that barely open, I jumped at the opportunity to be by the sea. The fact that the weather forecast was predicting that Aberdeen would be at least 15 degrees F cooler than West Yorkshire sealed the deal. The night before I’d attended a very enjoyable concert at Hope Chapel given by the Spooky Men’s chorale.
But it was to be day of travel problems. Problem number 1: the taxi service that I always use is fully booked. Problem number 2: As I stand waiting outside waiting for taxi company #1to arrive I receive a message to say that they have been delayed and will be at least 15 minutes late. So I call back company number 1 and they will be with me ‘in five.’ And they were. Problem 3: I was looking forward to picking up one of my favourite cheese scones from the station cafe to eat as a snack on my long 5 hour journey – and they were all out of scones!
An earlier train had been delayed and so I was able to take one which meant that I had a little more time to change trains in Leeds onto the Edinburgh train. Soon after I boarded I got a message from Judith to say that she’d missed her connection in York and so now she’d be arriving in Aberdeen around the same time as me rather than an hour earlier. I enjoyed the journey passing Durham Cathedral and seeing the bridge across the Tyne – with passing reference to The Nice.
I’d made this journey to Aberdeen in 2017, taking the ferry to the Orkney Isles from the city. At one point I could just make out the isle of Lindisfarne off the coast. The train was hot but not unbearably so. I think there must have been effective air conditioning . We stopped at Berwick upon Tweed as scheduled, but then we didn’t restart. Problem number 4: We sat and sat, and eventually we were informed that a tree that come down on the track in front of us and that it had brought down the track’s power lines. We’d have to stay put for ‘some time.’ That didn’t sound good at all. After sitting still for an hour on a train that seemed to be getting hotter by the minute we were issued with an update as follows: ‘We are sorry to announce that there is no update as to when this service will resume. Because we have been delayed for over an hour a complimentary soft drink will be available from the bar at the front of the train.’ We ended up sitting there on the train for four hours! Conversations between passengers were slow to start up but start up they did. I was sitting opposite a businessman from Cambridge who had travelled up to Leeds the night before, bound for Aberdeen to collect his new Tesla. But even such a riveting conversation has its limits and these were arrived at in much less than 4 hours. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d have had a decent view, either animals in the countryside, or city animals to people watch but we were on a station platform with a view of a brick wall – literally.
Eventually we received another update. We were to leave the train and 30 taxis would take us the 56 miles to Edinburgh. We all got off. Problem number 5: No taxis arrived. After an hour of standing on the platform, where only 1 toilet for all 96 of us worked, we were told to board another train which would be assigned to the south track to bypass the situation. We all boarded the train. We set off. After 10 minutes we stopped for another half hour. It was at this point that Judith and I worked out that we were now on the same train. If she hadn’t have missed her train in York she would have avoided all this chaos but I would have been stranded alone.
We eventually arrived in the vast Waverley station at 8:30p.m. five and a half hours after our scheduled arrival time. We queued with many others as we tried to find if the railway company could arrange overnight accommodation for us in Edinburgh as we had been told it does in situations like this. A train to Aberdeen was showing up on the departure board for 9:30 but we were told there was no guarantee that it would run. “Ah no” we were told by a very frazzled customer relations man. “There are no room to be had in Edinburgh because of the golf.” “What golf?” I wanted to ask. What were we going to do? Where could we spend the night? At one point Judith suggested we slept on the floor of the ticket office. But with perseverance she found us an Airbnb only 1 ½ miles from the city centre and we left the office to jump into the nearest taxi. Problem number 6: No taxis are allowed into the station concourse for security reasons and so none of the signs pointing to ‘Taxi’ are correct – and Waverley is a huge station. Eventually we were told that if we walked to a nearby hotel there were probably some taxis outside it. Correct and 10 minutes later we were climbing some bare stone spiral steps to an apartment above a cbd shop and dumping our bags before heading out immediately to find some food. We were in a city neighbourhood close to the cinema. The first pub that we found food in had already stopped serving for the evening. Well, it was 10 p.m. so we opted for some food from Sainsbury’s to take back to the apartment for a quick meal. I was all tucked up in bed by 11:30. The wall mounted tv was minus its remote and so was inoperable and the bedside light didn’t work. There was no milk in the fridge or even tea or coffee in the room but we’d noticed that when we’d arrived and brought some from the supermarket.
Throughout the night we were woken by sirens blaring – there was a fire station opposite- and yells and screams of people revelling in the street. At least in Hebden Bridge those particular sounds are usually over by 3 a.m. but here they were still going on after first light. And there were gulls- angry sounding, and persistent. It didn’t really help that I’d had to keep the window open all night because of the heat.
By the time I surfaced the next morning at 7:30 Judith had already had a shower, eaten breakfast and was heavily engaged in doing a crossword puzzle. She’d brought her ancestry papers and charts that I’d been helping her with online and we planned on doing some more ancestry research during our Scottish adventure. Out train to Aberdeen was due to leave at 9:30 so we booked a taxi to get us to the station 45 minutes before departure, wondering if it would actually show up or still be affected by yesterday’s downed power cables. When we arrived at the station it was the only only train during the next two hours that hadn’t been assigned a departure platform so things didn’t look too promising. Then, 5 minutes before it was due to leave a platform was given and then it was a mad rush to find our platform. I mean this was a crazy rush. People were standing in the corridors, standing in the compartments. Two elderly men were sprawled on the floor between the seats but we were fortunate enough to get a couple of seats. I never knew Aberdeen was such a popular destination but I reckoned they were simply left overs from last night’s fiasco. We passed over the Fourth Rail Bridge and as we came into the next station, Leuchars, I suddenly saw hundreds of cars parked on a field at the side of the station.
“What’s going on?” I asked the man sitting next to me who was also taking a great interest in the sea of cars. Only minutes before he had just apologized to me profusely as his full bottle of Coke (sugar free, of course) took flight from his pull down table at a particularly bumpy section of track, plumeting directly onto my bare ankle from a great height. Ouch! “It’s the golf” he explained. “This is the nearest station to St Andrew’s golf course.” As we pulled into the station most people got off the train, heading for a fleet of double decker buses parked alongside.
We passed through the coastal town of Stonehaven where we had initially planned to spend our first day in Scotland, but by the time we arrived in Aberdeen on time- well, precisely 18 hours late- we didn’t feel like jumping on another train or bus to go and explore Stonehaven. Exiting from the station, opposite the ferry terminal, we had a quick lunch in Aitchie’s Ale House close to the Station Hotel where I had stayed the night before catching the overnight ferry to Orkney in 2017. We took a taxi to Cove Bay. Judith was staying in an Airbnb in the centre of a huge housing estate built in the 1960s for the people working in the oil industry according to another taxi driver. I had chosen to stay in the ancient tiny community of Cove Bay and my Cove Bay hotel was perched right on the cliff.
It was a picturesque, family run place and although I didn’t have a sea view I overlooked the old street of terraced bungalows, common in Scotland, but rarely seen in England. My room was comfortable and the TV remote control was present!
After an hour Judith arrived and we set off to walk along the coastal footpath right from my hotel. Soon we passed a new-build project of 167 houses for rent, right on the bluff. 15 minutes later saw us on top of the cliffs where sea birds’ calls accompanied our walk for the next 5 ½ miles. I called a halt to our walk when I couldn’t handle a steep downward track. It was too slippery for me with its loose stones. I couldn’t believe how fortunate we were with the weather.
I mean, we were in Scotland and I was too warm! There was not a cloud in the sky and the light breeze didn’t have much effect cooling me down. I came home with a little more colour on my face – a combination of the sun and the see breeze- very pleasant. Dotted along the sea, close to the cliffs were markers, each of 3 buoys and a flag- lobster pots. I wondered?
As we retraced out steps Judith announced that she was going to take the short path back to her Airbnb and she’d see me tomorrow morning when we were going on an all day coach trip. It was only 4 p.m. but she’d been up far earlier than me. She was looking forward to spending the rest of the day relaxing and doing crosswords and reading- things that I can’t do when I’m travelling. I found my way back to the hotel and joined five local men in the public bar watching, yes, you’ve guessed it – the golf!
The bar overlooked the ocean and I had a perfect view as I sipped my my pint of cider. I had ordered a half but, hey, never mind. I was writing my journal when I noticed that the men’s conversation had turned to Yorkshire so I went over to join them.
On being asked where in Yorkshire I am from one man immediately mentioned the sweet shop on Bridgegate, Hebden Bridge – small world.
Cider finished, I set off to find Cove Harbour. I’d seen a little sign pointing past the hotel to the harbour. Thinking that it would have tourist shops, cafes etc I’d asked the men in the bar. “No, this is the only place to eat around here,” I was told. And then he’s added “It’s a steep walk back.” This made made a little cautious but once over the cliff top I could see a stone jetty which seemed to have been chopped off in its stride.
A line of rusty chains prevented me falling off the end. Just by the chain was a group of 4 young people enjoying the view. I peered over the edge of the jetty. Only one boat was moored- Rachel. Obviously Cove Bay is no longer a thriving fishing village. As I stared across the harbour at some rusting boats on dry land a sudden gust of wind took by cap off and it landed in the sea next to Rachel. Of course, I’d been on a trip with my daughter Rachel when I’d got the cap. For several years Rachel and I attended a weekend’s history event at Donner Pass in the Sierras, California, to trace the story of the overland trail across the mountains, and in particular the year of 1846-7 when 87 emigrants were stranded over the winter in the deep snow. Only 48 survived. We would attend lectures, reenactments and hikes during the weekend. Each year we were given a cap and this was one of mine that was now in the North Sea. It first I was upset but then I laughed. Well, this was certainly something to remember Cove Bay by. I threw up my hands at the 4 onlookers who had witnessed the incident and then went off to explore the pebbles and rusty remains of what had once been a thriving harbour.
After 20 minutes or so I head up back the cliff road, slowly. Two young ladies were just about to put on wetsuits when one of them came over to me and said “You just lost your cap?” The people on the jetty had told her what had happened. “If you wait until we’ve got our wetsuits on we’ll go in and see if we can find your cap.” Really???
I spent the next 15 minutes admiring the stone carvings on the large stone blocks lining the road that I’d missed on my way down and then watched as the girls entered the water.
I thought they had little chance in finding the cap. Surely it would have sunk by now. But within 5 minutes a sudden shout told me that the cap had indeed been spotted, and off she swam, grabbed the hat and I hurried back down to gratefully retrieve it from her hands. What a story!
Back in the hotel after a wash and brush up and a careful positioning of the sodden cap on the sunny window ledge in my room I headed downstairs to the restaurant. “Did you enjoy your walk?” asked the bartender. So I told him my story, before checking out the restaurant (tourists with children) and public bar ( locals – all men). I settled down to my chicken tenders and skinny fries in the public bar, exchanging comments from time to time with my fellow drinkers.
Sun was streaming through the window when I woke. Remarkably I’d slept a full seven hours – something I never do at home. It made me wonder whether my sleep is disturbed by the traffic noises throughout the night at home. I’d booked breakfast for 7:45 but I was raring to get the day under way and I poked my head into the dining room at 7:30. I was the first down for breakfast but later two couples came for their ‘full English.’
My taxi arrived at 8:30 and we picked up Judith and bounded at breakneck speed into the centre of Aberdeen where we were to meet Rabbie’s tour at 8:45. Once the 11 of us were seated in our 16 seater coach we were asked by our leader/cum/driver to introduce ourselves. Never for a minute did I expect that Judith and I would be the only British people on the tour. Well, come to think of it I don’t really visualize Aberdeen as a tourist destination. Our fellow travellers for the day were from El Salvador, Bangladesh, China and Denmark. Alice, our guide, runs a rare breeds farm when she’s not working for Rabbie’s and her prize pig had given birth to piglets during the previous night. Within minutes of setting off it became apparent that she was going to be one of those guides who never ever stops talking. She’s very much a historian and apart from half a dozen times during the day when she played a couple of tracks of traditional Scottish music she kept up her monologue, not about what we were seeing as we passed it but about the general history of Scotland and its historical relations with England. In the afternoon we were treated to a three part history of Mary, Queen of Scots. Our first drive of the day was the longest at 1 ½ hours and we headed North West, inland across flat arable land with scatterings of sheep and cattle. After ¾ hour I just had to block her out to concentrate on what I was actually seeing, so I put on my headphones and listened to Glass, Riley, Gabriel Kahane and Rufus Wainwright – a perfect combination.
The first stop of our nine hour tour was at the Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay where people were gathered excitedly on the waterfront to see if they could spy any dolphins but the sea creatures didn’t feel like putting on a display for the tourists today. Lovely clouds were racing across the sky and even at sea level the wind was strong. But the air temperature was still nice and warm. The pebbles here were a myriad of colours and some mosaics had been created from them.
Next stop was the Bow and Fiddle rock, an enormous sea-sculpted rock just off the coast.
We viewed it from the high cliff top and then drove to Cullen, a small town renowned for it fish soup.
The cafe most famous for this delicacy was already packed to the rafters so we opted for the Thyme Tea shop with its blend of food to eat and art and antique furniture to buy. Three people sitting on the comfy antique sofa opposite and with paintings and craftwork decorating the wall behind them it looked like a scene from a movie.
How British. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I caught a fragment of their conversation and realised they were all American. Cullen was originally a fishing village centred around a protected bay and it reminded me of Staithes with its pan tiled roofs. Some of the older cottages on the waterfront were brightly coloured and Alice explained why. I’d been wondering about that for the last four years since visiting Tobermory, the south west coast of Ireland and the Shetlands. Before the advent of lighthouses the brightly coloured buildings helped the fishermen to navigate their way back to the harbours. Thankyou Alice.
Next was a stop at Portsoy another fishing village centred around the harbour and this time the fishing is still an active occupation for many of the residents. At one point in time the fishermen left these same towns and the fishing industry became totally centred on Aberdeen but in recent years it has returned to the villages and the populations in these villages has expanded. I spent the 20 minutes of our stop exploring some disused warehouse buildings taking my photos of abandoned industrial architecture as is my wont.
Our penultimate stop of the day and probably the most interesting was at Crudes Bay to see Slains Castle, now in ruins but it one of the most dramatic locations I’ve seen. It is quite literally on the cliff edge and one tower on the sea side it built directly above a gap in the cliff with a huge drop directly into the ocean.
The site is now owned by Public Works and there is no charge to see it and wander the ruined hallways, and even the cellars and towers where signs warn that it’s unsafe to climb the towers or delve into the dungeons. Alice shared with us that she’d always been too scared to go into the dungeons alone so the first time she ever ventured down there was in the company of a tour group that she herself was leading!
It was a mile walk to the castle from the car park and while Judith elected to go and find a cup of tea in the village I set off up the gentle climb through woodlands and eventually caught sight of the castle across golden fields of wheat, reminding me of the part of the Cleveland Way I walked with Anna on her trip to England in 2019. I spent a wonderful half hour exploring the ruins, but didn’t have the courage to go down into the dungeons. Some of the castle dates back to 1597 but much of it was rebuilt in 1837 following the marriage of the 18th earl to a daughter of King William lV.
Bram Stoker had visited the castle and used much of the building as a resource when writing Dracula. Indeed he came back to the village and it was while staying in the Kilmarnock Arms (which we had passed) that he began to write Dracula. Ah, here’s another connection with Anna’s visit. We spent a day in Whitby which was another place Bram Stoker visited, in 1890, which provided him with atmospheric locations for his Gothic novel. Johnson, Robbie Burns and Boswell all visited Slains castle, as did Winston Churchill – before it fell into ruins!
In 1972 the castle and its adjoining 332 acres was purchased by a building contractor for £10,000 and the first thing he did was to remove the roof to cash in the lead content which brought him more money than he’d paid for the castle and land together. I loved exploring the nooks and crannies with the weathered sandstone of the ancient walls adjacent to the cement cladding of more modern times added to prevent the ruins falling into yet more disrepair.
It was teatime by now and our final stop for the day was at Bullers of Buchan, a collapsed sea cave.
Lots of wildlife photographers with heavy cameras strewn about their persons and tripods in hand could be spotted but as far as I could see all the puffins had gone in for their tea. It was a remarkable rock formation, like a giant had taken a big slice of the rock and eaten it for his dinner.
A narrowing rock bridge separated the bite hole from the sea and I ventured out onto it as far as I dared and knelt down just long enough for Judith to try and get a photo of me perched where the puffins should have been.
Our journey back to Aberdeen was along the coast road and we were dropped off at the bus station. It had been our intention to take the bus back to my hotel but after searching in vain for the correct bus stop for Cove Bay, and even asking several bus drivers who seemed to have no idea we eventually worked out that the Cove Bay bus is run by a different operator and doesn’t stop in the bus station. Sigh! Anyway, we eventually got it sorted out and found the correct bus stop and 20 minutes later we were back in the Cove Bay Hotel. Judith had brought her Ancestry stuff that I’d been helping her with online in preparation for her meeting with her cousin the following day. We spent 30 minutes in the public bar working on the project until the juke box got called into action and so we adjourned to the quiet of the restaurant to continue our studies, somewhere along the line tucking into dinner as we worked. She left around 9:30 and we said our goodbyes.
I was awake at 6 a.m. but that was really too early for me to start the day so I listened to the radio and eventually went down for breakfast, taking my time and writing my journal about yesterday’s trip. Despite being assured at the hotel’s front desk that buses to Aberdeen were every 15 minutes I found out at the bus stop that no, they are every half hour but I was reassured by the fact that there were already 5 people waiting for a bus, and one was a local.
Once in Aberdeen bus station I found the bus to Stonehaven was already parked in the bay and ready to depart. I asked the driver how long it would take to reach Stonehaven. “Depends on the traffic” was his rather unhelpful response. “Well, roughly” I prompted. At this he carefully retrieved his timetable and consulted it diligently. “We’ll be there at 11:25 – depending on the traffic, of course.” I settled back to enjoy the 40 minute ride which in several places runs along the coast on the A90. Alighting I found myself in the centre of a much larger town that I anticipated. In fact, it took me a whole ten minutes to reach the harbour during which I passed the birthplace of the deep fried Mars Bar. Who would have thought?
Typical of this part of the world it’s grey granite that predominates and it gave the town a very grey feeling, further exacerbated today by the heavy grey clouds that appeared to be perched just above the town. Alice had told us that she’d attempting to get the adjective grey removed from Aberdeen’s nomenclature as the grey granite city and replace it it with the silver city. In this harbour town there were no garish shop signs, no flashing neon.
There were lots of cars and at the north end of the bay a large caravan park and activity centre hug the coast. I followed the boardwalk north really enjoying the metal sculptures of various boats, many of them quite comical. Wire sea creatures filled with beach pebbles alongside inviting picnic tables had been created by local boys’ clubs and men’s sheds. A large mural with photos and fragments of colourful ceramic adorned the side wall of a shop and was the work of people in recovery.
No glitzy seafront hotels here. Most of the houses were social priority housing for retirees – quite a different concept from most seaside places.
I turned around after a couple of miles in the spot where a unique fossil was discovered in 2003. It was the oldest known air breathing animal in the world: a fossilised millipede arthropod which lived 428 million years ago- Pneumodesmus newmani, named after its discoverer Mike Newman, an amateur geologist.
I was bound for the Ship Inn on the harbour whose enticing menu I’d spotted earlier. Mussels. I mean, I can’t spend 3 days on the coast without having my favourite dish, and I have to say they were the best mussels I’ve tasted, cooked to perfection, and my table outside facing the harbour was perfect.
I even had to take my jacket off, it was so warm, despite the few sprinkles of rain from time to time. For dessert I had delicious fresh fruit kebabs – that was a new one for me. I was soon joined on the next table by a man wearing a Yellowstone T shirt which I commented on. Yes, he had actually purchased it in Yellowstone unlike the man I chatted to a few days later wearing an Oakland T shirt who tried to convince me it was in New Zealand. He even took out his phone to prove his point – and then realised he had got Oakland and Auckland mixed up! My fellow diner was a teacher of English from Spain who ordered the mussels too on my recommendation.
After lunch I headed to the museum to discover more about the famous fossil but was disappointed to find it closed so I wandered around some old wooden shacks, some of which had found new service as wood fired saunas.
Mid afternoon I got the bus back to Aberdeen and spent an hour exploring the granite city. Unfortunately the street art tour only takes place at the weekends but I picked up a map at the tourist information centre and found a couple myself.
Some of the large buildings are very impressive having their own peculiarly Scottish style of architecture. In 2017 I’d spent an afternoon and morning in the city awaiting the ferry to the Orkneys and I revisited some of the large buildings I’d seen then.
I’d been walking for most of the day and I’d have loved to jump on a city tour bus but they don’t have those in Aberdeen so I headed back to Cove Bay. I took the 3A bus, the driver assuring me it went to Cove Bay. Indeed it did, but nowhere near my hotel. I should have taken the 3, not the 3A. Another couple, from Denmark, were in the same dilemma as me so we walked back to the hotel where they were also staying.
I sat in the bar for an hour writing postcards and my journal. A few locals came in and seemed to now class me as a local, it being my third night there, and they came and joined me at my table, while the bar tender asked me if I wanted ‘my usual.’ At 6:30 I went to post the postcards in the post box outside the post office, the only shop in ‘old’ Cove Bay, and then I went to explore a track above the harbour. In that hour I only passed one rather scary looking man and a field full of pigs and their piglets. Not a single sound could be heard apart from the gentle breathing of the sea.
No people’s voices, no cars. It was quite magical. The blue sky had a smattering of puffy clouds which were now taking on the golden glow of late evening. Returning towards the hotel I passed the old terraced cottages but still not a sound was to be heard. In a little garden I discovered a statue in honour of the last fishwife of Cove Bay who used to carry the fish in a basket, walking all the way to Aberdeen market to sell them.
Fishing has been going on in The Cove since pre history. By the 18th century the village was said to be ‘healthy though somewhat chilly and the fisherfolk understanding and industrious, sober, charitable and honest. ‘ Whitefishing was the basic source of income, the fisherman going out to sea at midnight, laying their lines at dawn and returning with the catch. The fisherwife was active by 4 a.m. and her day was full of cleaning, preparing and selling the fish which she carried in a creel on her back all the way to Aberdeen. This creel could weigh up to 76 kilos – heavier than a man. In fact it usually took 2 men to lift the creel on to her back.
Meanwhile back at the hotel bar the locals were staking out their tables for tomorrow night’s live music. No amount of persuasive banter could convince the bartender to reserve the tables for them in advance– that’s a procedure only available to patrons of the restaurant – not the public bar! Eventually it was decided that one member of the group would come in to the bar at 6 o’clock and claim the two tables nearest the snooker table which would be removed and form the space for the band’s set up. Two of the TVs in the bar was tuned to the golf at St Andrews but I was able to watch France v Belgium women’s soccer on the third tv.
Back in my room I was sad to be going home in the morning and all the news was about the high temperatures expected throughout Britain during the next few day. It was forecast to be the highest temperatures ever recorded (and indeed this turned out to be accurate: 104F) and I just couldn’t face this in my second floor apartment with no outdoor space, and windows that barely open. I looked at the weather forecast for various parts of the country and decided that I’d go to Scarborough, on the East Coast whose high was expected to be around 15F less than Hebden Bridge. So it would be back home for one night, get some clean clothes, and head off again.