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Wonky Walking

Adventures on foot when living with disability and chronic illness

My heart is broken

Two weeks ago, my darling husband Rich – soulmate and partner in crime, passed away after suddenly falling ill three weeks previously. He was two days away from his 38th birthday. Whilst I gain some comfort from having been with him at the very end, sadly he’d never regained consciousness, so we didn’t get to say goodbye properly. He drew his last breath to his favourite song – Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, and I was holding him all the while.

Rich always made me promise that I’d continue the projects we’d started and planned if something did happen to him, so in the future I will be continuing to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. I’ll also be doing something to help those who have been bereaved at the wrong stage of life, and like me, don’t have conventional family support networks of their own to call on. Over these last five weeks it’s been friends, old and very new, who have been picking me up off the floor each day.

I want to write a great deal more about Rich and how he’s impacted, and will continue to impact on my life, but will probably create a new blog to do that. I will however continue to write up the trips we’d already completed here, and this will take a while as there’s at least nine months worth. We always tried to fit in as much as we possibly could, knowing more than most, that life can be so very short. Except that even then we still thought we had more time – at least two or three more decades, to have adventures together. My job now is to create more memories on Rich’s behalf, and to pursue the plans that we’d made, all the while with his philosophy of life – that there is no such thing as impossible. I love you Rich, always and forever.

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Wild blueberries

Wanting a car-free day after all the adventure of getting to Lapland, we decided to walk from the house to something which we’ve discovered is common throughout Sweden, even in remote villages – an illuminated running trail. It seems that most communities have at least one, and they are fabulous, consisting of a maintained circular footpath, usually though woodland, and street lights. Nothing more, nothing less. Given how long it stays dark for during the Winter months in Sweden they’re a brilliant idea, and as someone who researches women’s experiences of fear and violence in the great outdoors, I think that they’re definitely something that we should see more of in the UK.

The illuminated trail in Batskarsnas, sited in an area full of glacial erratics, and the lichen that reindeers most like to eat, also had the added benefit of being riddled with wild blueberries. Forget supermarket blueberries, which to me always taste musty, the wild ones are delicious. We nibbled as we walked along, and vowed to come back in the next few days with a tub to collect some for breakfast. Half way around the trail we came across a beautiful lake called Bondtrasket, complete with a wooden shelter, fire-pit and picnic table. There was even a mug left out for thirsty travelers. We’d not packed a towel but again decided that we’d come back soon for a spot of extreme paddling.

We cut back to the house through the village in time for a late lunch and nap. We’d already said goodbye to Esa and Katerina, the house owners earlier that morning, when they’d presented us with a whole rhubarb cake before heading back to their home in Tornio, Finland. They even left the keys to their apartment and told us to help ourselves to anything we needed, yet again demonstrating just how generous Laplanders can be.

We’d bought a chicken to roast for dinner that night but only then realised that there weren’t any tins to roast it in, so out of desperation I decided to try poaching it. Oh my! Why have I never poached a chicken before?! It was a revelation – tender and moist, and made for a fantastic chicken and veg stew. So now I need to buy a giant poaching pan back home.

Batskarsnas

Yet another reason why we love the Scandic hotel chain – we always sleep well. After enjoying the breakfast buffet, and yes we had Swedish meatballs, we drove a few miles up the road to Lulea’s ICA supermarket. This was definitely the biggest ICA we’d ever been in, and we struggled to shop properly because there was just too much to choose from! Eventually we cobbled together a few days worth of food and headed north east to destination number two – a village called Batskarsnas, about 40km west of the Finnish border. The roads were blissfully quiet, with no other cars in view for most of the trip, making driving a pleasure in Sweden, something which for me it rarely is in the UK. We’ve even named the hire car – she’s called Skog, Swedish for ‘forest.

Esa and Katerina, the Finnish owners of the big yellow house, use the downstairs as their holiday home. We’d chosen it simply because we’d fallen in love with the apartment on Airbnb, and because it wasn’t in the guidebook – which usually means that we want to go there more. It was built 100 years ago and lived in by three generations of the same Russian family before they sold it five years ago. It still retained a lot of its original features, making it wonderfully quirky and cosy. Batskarsnas is a very quiet village and used by several Sami families as their Summer residence, but sadly we’d arrived a little too late in the year to meet them.

After unpacking and lunching on pickled herrings (they always taste better in Scandinavia), we headed out for a stroll to take in the sea air and views, only returning as it got dark and our tummies started to rumble.

Pickled herrings

Swedish Lapland

Going to Lapland has been one of the dreams. Rich went dog sledding there a few years before he met me, and raved about it, and I’ve been desperate to see the Autumn colours, so we decided to go out last September as Autumn comes early so far north. Unfortunately we’d not expected Rich to have eyelid surgery 3 weeks before, and for his left eye in particular to still be in a bit of a mess. We’d subsequently find out that the surgery had gone wrong and that he’d need corrective surgery (it’s all good now thank goodness), but at the time we packed a copious amount of antibiotic drops and eyelid wipes, and hoped for the best. If we waited for perfect health we’d never travel, as it’s not going to happen for either of us. All in all it meant that it had been a tough few weeks, and that we were desperately in need of some Swedish air, and hospitality.

By the time we arrived at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport a migraine had set in. Trying to find somewhere quiet to lie down in terminal 4 was almost impossible, so I just popped my earplugs in and tried to get as comfortable as possible. Fortunately the drugs had kicked in towards the end of the flight to Lulea, and I was able to drive the hire car the few miles to the Scandic Hotel – our favourite hotel chain ever, mainly because they have proper windows you can open, mattress toppers you can move onto the floor if the bed is too soft, and the world’s best breakfast buffet selection, including a whole gluten free table. You can even have Swedish meatballs. We’d stayed in a Scandic on our first trip to Sweden two years ago, and fallen in love with it, so much so that if they ever open any in the UK, we’ll be going there just for the food.

Rich insisted on wearing his crocs down to dinner, mainly to annoy me because he knows I consider them outdoor shoes, and get irritated at people wearing outdoor shoes inside. But Swedes are very casual in their dress and approach, and no-one batted an eyelid. We opted for the dinner buffet menu rather than a la carte as we were too tired to wait around, or even really make sensible food choices. Rich normally has trouble eating because of the damage caused to his throat and tongue during one lot of brain surgery (that almost killed him, but that’s another story), but he went back to the buffet table for four helpings. A member of staff came over especially to advise him that if he wanted ice cream to end the meal, he’d need to be quick as they were starting to clear up! Just one of many reasons why we love Swedish people (and why I’ve since started learning the language) – they tend to be more observant than usual. Or at least more observant than most other Brits. Ignore anyone who says that Sweden is very expensive too. Yes it probably is in Stockholm, but elsewhere the average price for a dinner  for two with drinks is £35.

Rich has become quite the connoisseur of Swedish ales

North Uist at dawn

Starting our journey south meant getting up at 5am for the early ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig, on the Isle of Skye. Had we known that we’d be blessed with several sightings of herds of deer on the road and around the bothy at this time, we’d have been getting up extra early every day! They calmly crossed over the road in front of us, and would then turn back and look at us from the side of the road. Next time we’re up in Scotland we must make the effort to spot creatures before most humans stir.

We were one of the first cars at Lochmaddy’s teeny tiny ferry port, so after parking up I got time to explore and take pics of our ship – called ‘Hebrides’ no less. As with the incoming journey two weeks ago, we were delayed going back, but wasted no time in heading for the Mariners restaurant for a full Scottish breakfast, after two weeks of eating porridge. After docking we drove to Broadford for fuel and the loo, and then to Spean Bridge for a picnic lunch in the car. Rich had warned me that Spean Bridge was a tourist honeyspot and it was indeed heaving, so we bought take-away coffees and moved on. Neither of us like crowds.

Despite the heavy traffic – it being the last Saturday of the Easter holidays, we arrived at the village of Arrochar just after 3pm. The website doesn’t do justice to our base for the night – Fascadail House. It’s absolutely stunning. Our room was more of a suite than a room, and had a gorgeous garden view. It was also a balmy 11 degrees C outside so it felt positively tropical compared to the Uists. After much needed naps and showers in a bathroom that wasn’t freezing, we headed into the village for a late dinner at The Village Inn. Fortunately we’d booked a table earlier that afternoon as they were turning people away when we arrived, but service was slow because they were so busy and seemed to have too few staff, and my portion size was disappointingly small. We didn’t want to hang around after the main’s so ambled back along the loch shore and ate chocolate for pudding back in our room.

We both slept extremely well – again always a sign of a fabulous B&B for me given that I often have trouble sleeping, and bagged the window seat in the breakfast room with a view of the loch. I had to have Loch Fyne kippers, which were delicious, the smell of which then got other guests asking for them. Unfortunately for them I’d had the last ones. Lucky me. I’m always suprised that people say they don’t order kippers because they’re worried about the smell, but to me they smell less fishy than fresh fish. Anyways.

Hot smoked salmon

Our last day at the bothy. After cleaning out the fire I settled down to read whilst Rich had a lie-in. It’s the peace and quiet that we’ll miss. Whilst we live in a town, it’s in a quiet part of town fortunately, but it’s still urban nonetheless and we’re both better in remote places. Holidays such as this, where you have to wrap up warm to go outside to the fridge, and where you appreciate having access to a stove for heat, make you appreciate the simple things in life, and remind you that this is still more than many people live with.

Just after noon we headed south to North Uist’s one and only pub – the Westford Inn. Neither of us could face what we’ve been eating for lunch pretty much every day for the last 2 weeks – corned beef slices, edam, and crisps, with some olives thrown in as the vegetable component! These are all easy for Rich to eat when he’s tired though, and so we do what we can to limit choking episodes, and keep his weight up. Thanks to a mum-in-law brainwave we also pack sachets of Deliciously Ella baby food. When Rich is cold and tired he often can’t eat solids at all, so these sachets mean that he can get some fuel inside quickly, without having to resort to disgusting gels. We all agree that the sachets are absolutely wasted on babies!

We were the first diners to arrive and were served quickly. Rich opted for scampi and chips, whilst I had salmon and seaweed risotto. The portion sizes were huge, and Rich’s double cooked chips were sublime. Had we known the food was this good we’d have come down sooner, but it made for a lovely treat on our final day, and we’d heartily recommend if you’re driving around North Uist.

Once sated we headed back to the Hebridean Smokehouse to stock up on vacuam packs of hot smoked salmon as gifts, before taking one last walk along Hosta beach. There was a little van full of collie dogs parked up when we arrived, and they all bounded over for cuddles. Wherever we go we seem to attract the daft dogs and cats. Rich seemed not to have realised that the tide was coming in and managed to get wet feet and trouser legs. It’s easy to see how people get into trouble in the sea here as the waves and currents can be ferocious. The surf on this side of North Uist is definitely best admired from afar, unless you know what you’re doing with a surfboard. I wouldn’t mind trying bodyboarding or stand up paddle boarding, but with my dislocating knees and Rich’s lack of cochlears, normal surfing is out of the question unfortunately.

Griminish

We’d planned to walk up a hill called Burabhal today, but locals advised us that the stepping stones would be submerged, making the route too precarious for Rich with his balance issues. Whilst I’d be happy to fish him out of the water, getting hypthermia would not be an ideal way for us to end the holiday. Instead we drove 5 minutes north and parked at the top of the track to Griminish, which we’d been told was another beautiful bay.

We started by walking down to Callernish pier, not having realised that it’s still very much a working pier, and got talking to two fisherman, one of whom was from Cornwall. They fish for shrimp, and fish farm feed, and had an amazing display of lobster pots and other paraphernalia. They proceeded to regale us with tales of local feuds which we found fascinating – it’s all going on on North Uist! They found it hard to believe that people could be nice to each other in church on Sunday, and go back to hating each other on Monday. Fortunately just as they started telling sexist jokes their boss turned up so they quickly got back to work, and we continued up the track in search of the stone monument. Alas the local laird has built a new estate here and prohibited access. We got as far as a field of friendly horses, had cuddles with them, and then decided to cut our losses and turn back rather than traipse over land where we clearly weren’t welcome, especially as Duncan the bothy owner had told us tales of walkers being shot at on the island. Lo and behold we again ended up at the world’s best Co-op in Sollas, where the mini creme eggs were finally on sale a good few days after Easter, marking a perfect end to the walk.

Vallay

A slow start to the morning consisting of tryptans and my frozen gel pillow – essentials that I have to pack for any trip as part of my migraine management strategy. Fortunately I felt human by 10am so we decided to head down to the nearby hamlet of Paibeil as we’d seen a postcard of the beach there and it looked absolutely stunning. We parked in an old stone cattle enclosure on the track leading down to Baile Mor, and indeed were greeted by a magnificent stretch of sand. As there aren’t any designated picnic or parking areas though it appeas to not be on the tourist trail.

We walked north west to the promontory – Masgeir, and then on the Airigh Nighean Allein, all the while watching the birds. We saw only one dog walker, but otherwise had the place to ourselves. At 3 pm we headed back to the bothy for a late lunch, in time to cook a chilli before this evening’s adventure. Duncan, the bothy owner, had arranged to take us on an excursion to Vallay – a tidal island. You have to know the route across the sands and so we opted to travel in his car, rather than submerge ours. Whilst I’d have driven over at about 20mph, Duncan, much to Rich’s delight, got his rickety truck up to 50mph. As it had no back seats Rich had to literally sit on a pile of rubble in the back, and I could hear him squealing with delight as we bounced over the still wet sand!

We parked near Vallay House so that we could explore the ruins which would have made quite a home in its heyday. It must have been a nightmare to heat though, and would explain why most rooms had two fireplaces, and the walls were so thick. North Uist is not known for its balmy weather. We were then taken on a whistle stop tour of some of Vallay’s magnificent beaches – without a doubt some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. No one lives on the island now, it’s privately owned and is just used for grazing. Definitely not a bad place for the coos to live though.

Back at the bothy for a late dinner in front of the fire, you can tell that we’ve settled into bothy life as we decided that we wouldn’t bother to take showers tonight because we’d risk getting cold again. Rich says that washing is over-rated. At least it is when it’s cold out. And cold kills the bugs. Apparently.

Lolling around Lochmaddy

Rest day! Hurrah! After a leisurely breakfast we headed off the to the North Uist metropolis that is Lochmaddy. We parked in the Arts Centre, and then crossed the road to the Lochmaddy Hotel for a much anticipated lunch out. There are only so many packed lunches of cheese and salami slices that we can tolerate. We were surprised to find ourselves the only diners, but when we spoke to the bar owner she said that this was still too early for most tourists, and that they don’t really get the numbers until the school summer holidays. Our meals were tasty, good size and good value.

Whilst Rich settled the bill I quickly walked over to look at the teeny tiny ferry port. We then explored the Arts Centre gallery as there was an exhibition of the work of local photographers which I’d read about before coming out to the hebrides. I also bought another book as I’d almost finished my last one, and I can never be without reading material – I usually get through 6 on a two week trip.

After visiting the mackerel mosaic behind the Arts Centre, created by Rosalind Waites, the women who taught me to mosaic no less; and the ‘High tide, low tide’ sculpture by Christine Boshier, we moved the car to the village hall and followed the trail to ‘The hut of the shadows’ – a camera obscura designed as a small turf-roof bothy. We tried our damndest to see the picture of Loch nam Madadh that’s supposed to be projected onto the wall, but I’m guessing you need actual sunshine outside, so we saw nothing. It still made an enjoyable way to explore Lochmaddy though. It’s a very small place with just a bank, a small shop, and a post office as well as the hotel and arts centre, but it felt like a town compared to where we’ve been staying on the hill.

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