Galloway: Scotland's answer to St Ives
Saturday 08 April 2006
It's early April, and I'm cruising down sunny gorse-lined lanes in an old VW camper van, en route to the blustery point where land ends. Rows of wind-blown pine trees have twisted themselves into positions even Madonna would be hard-pressed to reach.
Bright surf flushes out on wide beaches; herds of caravans are beginning to migrate towards sheltered coves. When the swell gets up, you can even spot the odd optimistic surfer heading out. The vista is so Cornish I'm tempted to pull in and order a pastie. Except this isn't England - it's Galloway, a wild county in the far south-west of Scotland.
Most people race straight past the "Scottish Riviera", as it's been rather hopefully dubbed, in a rush to get to the Highlands. In fact, Galloway is so far off the beaten track that if you play the word-association game outside the area, most people will confuse it with either a) Galway or b) the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. Yet this scenic, peaceful and - thanks to the Gulf Stream - surprisingly mild region is genuinely gorgeous.
Which is where the camper van comes in. At the risk of sounding like an M&S advert, this is not just a VW camper. This is Elsie, a shiny blue 1963 VW camper van, with cream upholstery, satellite navigation and DVD player. Camper vanning for the Big Chill generation, in other words; those who are too old to rough it but too young to admit it. Elsie has been loaned to me by Scooby Campers, an Edinburgh company that has taken six VW vans, upgraded them and is about to rent them out to the public as a fun alternative to the usual hire car.
While some of the camper vans can be slept in, the idea is that most renters will want to pull in at an upmarket "Scooby-approved" B&B at night - if you want to camp there's the option of hiring a "Scooby" tent that can clip on and off the van.
"We're trying to make the experience fun and a little bit upmarket," says founder Alistair Brabner. "Turn up in a BMW and no one will approach you, but turn up in a Scooby Camper and everyone smiles." Even the boys' toys are designed to be entertaining rather than flash. "We haven't put satellite navigation in to be pompous but to encourage people to think, 'Och, what the hell, let's get off the A9 and explore a bit'," he adds. Not that Elsie actually has sat-nav installed yet. Or the DVD player. Having agreed to an early test-drive, the most decadent facilities have yet to be fitted. What I am getting, fortunately, is heating. And a quick driving lesson.
Scooby Campers can drop the vans off anywhere in Scotland, but I'm picking mine up at Prestonfield House, one of Edinburgh's most glamorous hotels. This fits in with Alistair's idea of the upmarket camper van experience and, sensibly, it also gives access to a huge car park.
After a civilised coffee in the hotel drawing room with "meeter and greeter" Dave, who explains a bit about the van and hands me the keys, I set off for a quick practice run around the car park - and am tempted to hand the keys straight back.
Imagine Sandra Bullock in Speed and you'll get an idea of what driving an old VW camper van is like. The steering wheel is the size of a tyre, changing gears involves leaning forward so far your forehead hits the windscreen and, as for the handbrake, it is so far out of reach that you practically have to get up from your seat and walk over to it. Then there is the almighty roar of the engine (with all the bite of a small mouse).
Never mind Galloway - I wasn't sure I would make it out of the car park.
Outside Moffat, an hour or so later, however, I am a happier camper. Realising that the roar subsides a little if I stick below 40mph, I settle into the slow lane, following Alistair's advice to detour off the main roads. "It's all about relaxing, going half the distance but having double the fun," he had said before I set off and, as the "Scooby music" CD runs through its medley of Beach Boys, Andy Williams and Van Morrison hits, I am converted.
Then disaster strikes. VW camper vans, even ones with new engines and cream leather seats, are not the most reliable of machines. Halfway to Galloway, Elsie's sliding door slides open on a tight bend and no matter how many times I stop to slam it shut, it won't stay to. "It's a quirky wee door," says Dave when I phone for help. "I don't mean to be sexist but maybe you're not slamming it hard enough," he adds, offering to drive down and meet me with a replacement van. Instead, I head to the nearest garage and get them to tie it with rope.
Back on the road, Elsie and I eventually cross into Galloway. It has been cloudy all the way from Edinburgh but, true to the Riviera tag, the sun breaks out, shimmering across a delicate patchwork of water, hill and woodland.
First stop is Kirkcudbright, Galloway's answer to St Ives with itscolourful townhouses, jangling yacht masts and higgledy-piggledy artists' studios, spiralling out from a ruined castle to the bay beyond. At the turn of the 20th century this town enjoyed its heyday as an artistic colony, playing host to Charles Oppenheimer, James Guthrie, Jessie M King and Samuel Peploe. EA Hornel is the most significant of these artists now: the building he lived in, Broughton House, has been restored by the National Trust and recently re-opened to the public.
Heading deeper into Galloway, there are even more parallels with Cornwall. In the eerie Machars district there is said to lurk a local version of the Beast of Bodmin. The tale of the "Galloway puma" was fuelled by Canadian tourists who saw the cat and thought it similar to animals they had seen back home. Then there is the harbour village of Portpatrick, which, with its shoal of fish restaurants, is Galloway's less chi-chi answer to Padstow. Further west is Logan Botanic Garden, an outpost of the Edinburgh one and home to a surprising variety of subtropical plants. Who needs the Eden Project when you have 40 species of gum, 150-year-old tree ferns , bamboo and a Brazilian gunnera bog on your doorstep?
There is one more stop to be made before returning to Edinburgh. The Mull of Galloway may be Scotland's Land's End, but on a sunny spring day there are no ice-cream vans, no souvenir stalls and no coach parties. Just a small visitors' centre, an RSPB reserve, acres of soft, springy heather and an elegant white lighthouse designed by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather.
As I wander over to the cliff edge, I'm hit by a fierce, briny wind and the sight of mountainous surf rolling in on the rocks below. On a clear day you can see west to Ireland and south to the Isle of Man. Today, though, the wind puts paid to any long-distance views. Standing in the sunshine, with only a few hardy seabirds for company, it feels not so much like Land's End as the end of the world. Which is one thing you can't say about Cornwall.
Scooby Campers can be booked from next month, starting at £250 for a long weekend, or from £475 a week ( www.scoobycampers.com). For an extra £30, you can order a "Scoobyhamper" of local produce. If you want to pick up your camper van in Galloway, Prestwick airport is an hour away, Edinburgh three hours away or you could arrange to be met at Dumfries train station.
National Rail enquiries:08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).
Chic two-bed cottages on the friendly Galloway House Estate, Garlieston, start at £205 a week (01988 600694; www.gallowayhouseestate.co.uk).
Three nights at a six-bed lighthouse keeper's cottage at the Mull of Galloway starts at £200 through the National Trust for Scotland (0131-243 9331; www.ntsholidays.com).
Broughton House, 12 High Street, Kirkcudbright (01557 330437; www.nts.org.uk). Open Thursday-Monday noon-5pm, Easter to October; non-members £8.
Logan Botanic Garden is 14 miles south of Stranraer (01776 860231; www.rbge.org.uk). Open daily 10am-5pm between 1 March and 31 October; adults £3.50, children £1.
Mull of Galloway visitor centre (01776 83068; www.mull-of-galloway.co.uk). Open daily 10am-4pm April to October; free. The lighthouse opens weekends 10am-3.30pm April-September; adults £2, children £1.
Dumfries and Galloway tourism: 01387 253862; www.visitdumfriesandgalloway.co.uk
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