Photographer of Families, Small People and Delightful Places. Travel and Lifestyle Writer and Blogger. Lives in Newcastle, Loves the North, Often Accompanied By A Beagle Named Holly Bobbins

Monday, September 28, 2020

Staying happy in an unhappy world

Iris rainbow, staying happy in an unhappy world, mandy charlton photography blog, photographer, blogger, newcastle upon tyne

It's hard staying happy in an unhappy world and the world we're in right now really isn't all that happy.  There are 94 days left of this year and I spoke about this on my Instagram over the weekend, it could be the saddest and most challenging 3 months of our lives, Coronavirus, climate change, Donald Trump, Boris and his conservative cronies, Brexit, my daughter being at Uni, only in Durham but not allowed to see me because she's in a new household, not seeing friends or even Looby nearly enough...

I could go on, it's just not a happy time but I don't think being unhappy is good for my psyche, it's bad enough that SAD is coming and this year due to hyperparathyroidism I can't take any vitamin D3, nor can I escape to a sunshiny place and let's not even start on the uncertainty of my photography business due to the restrictions.

Truly 2020 sucks and I cannot wait for 2021 but I have to stay happy, it's too easy a decline into bad mental health.

What is the answer?

What is the answer?  I'm not entirely sure but I know that in the last 3 months of the year good things do happen.  Let's start with the biggest thing to get excited about, Christmas!  Anyone who knows me or has followed me on social media anywhere in the last 15 years will know just how much I love Christmas, I am the Queen of Christmas and this year, I think we're going to have to go extra big on Christmas to deflect all of the collective sighs of the world.  

How to spend Christmas Day alone

At this point, it looks like I'm going to be totally alone on Christmas Day and I can't even have an open house, my support bubble all have their own families and the girls will be together with their paternal relatives, it feels like a tragedy but I'm thinking that TV will be wonderful, I can eat and drink what I want and to prepare for that I'm going to build myself a hamper of treats (like this one I just found at M&S) just for me with everything I love, maybe books, pamper stuff, chocolates, Gin (that's obvious), Champagne, maybe a new lovely throw to wrap myself in.  It's the best way I can think of to cope with the day and hopefully I will be able to see both of my daughters on Boxing Day when we'll pretend it's Christmas Day again.  Maybe we'll have the rule of 6 back by then and I'll be able to have friends over, I can hope...

Embrace Autumn

It's autumn in just a couple of weeks the full splendour of autumn will be present in all of our parks and woodlands, natures last show before it goes into it's long winter slumber and this year we need to embrace the outdoors as much as possible as it's when Coronavirus is at it's least powerful so think woodland walks, flasks of hot chocolate, toasting marshmallows, making smores, leaf kicking, wearing wooly jumpers in bright colours and more importantly just enjoying the family or friends we can actually be with, I had Sunday lunch with my support bubble yesterday and it was bliss, I'd been in semi-lockdown before shooting 3 weddings to make sure I was as healthy and risk free as possible so I hadn't seen them for 2 weeks, it felt like an age and it was just lush to be there, I think if we can appreciate the small things, we're giving our mental health the best chance to come out of this relatively unscathed.

The cosy season

The cosy season is the best season in my humble opinion, I live for twinkly lights and candles, surrounded by cosy throws and tartan blankets, even though I redecorated my home this year it's still all revolves around making your home a cosy nest to protect you from the world and now is the time to feel like you're enveloped in a safe nest.  You could (like me) try some new craft Gins or open a bottle of the good wine (never the cheap wine, wine should be savoured and drank slowly), grab some artisan nuts (stop, it, cheeky) and maybe some strong crumbly cheese or maybe a charcuterie board and pop on your favourite movie (Moulin Rouge until I die) or explore the latest box sets.  Read books, play board games, make conversation with those you're with (if you don't live alone like me, I just talk to the pets).  See this season as though you're in a bubble (many of us are) and embrace pumpkin spice everything.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts and oodles of Christmassy content over the next few months so do look out for my Christmas Gift Guide, my Foodies Gift Guide and my "12 Gins of Christmas" article.  Though I don't have all of the answers for staving off the loneliness or just getting through this awful time, hopefully having some ideas and putting our heads together, we can at least attempt to get through this supporting each other, checking in on each other and dare I say it (I hate it) Zoom Christmas parties are back on the schedule.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

What the hell is 2020?

Autumn strikes in inverness, What the hell is 2020? mandy charlton photography blog, photographer, writer, blogger

As surely as day becomes night, summer must also turn into autumn and I find myself asking "what the hell is 2020?"

Now I must firstly say that I'm currently sitting at my desk catching up on 9 days off whilst also throwing my arms in the air singing along to "Proud" and other wonderful music from my "Happy music for musical moments" Spotify playlist.  I'm happy when I'm at my desk in a way I don't think I ever was previously, there's a simple kind of joy in sending out parcels which bring delight to the recipients of what I like to call gifty goodness.  Who can even believe I'm sitting here in my home office where I have an online gift boutique?  Madness, that's what it is, that's what this whole year has been.

I've been genuinely distressed at several points of this year, I remember just after lockdown thinking I'd lost both of the businesses I had when we went into 2020 as well as being separated from my daughters for way longer than I wanted to be and that was even before I broke my arm!

Where are we now?

So, where are we now?  Well, my gift boutique certainly seems to be thriving, even in August, the 4am of retail it did pretty well by anyone's standards and I have high hopes for Q4.  I'm still not fully ready to talk about the future of my wedding and portrait photography business, it's currently just in a coma sleeping, paid work is still incredibly hard to come by and after losing between £20-30K this year, well let's just say I try not to think about it for fear I'll throw up.  I don't think there are any answers as yet, we're in a massive bloody recession, people still don't feel safe and there are so many restrictions around what I can actually do that I do question often if it's even worth it.  Dammit though, I do still love photography and I love my clients, I love telling stories through images (and words) and I still cry at most of the weddings I shoot because love is beautiful.

What Happens Next?

What happens next is anyone's guess really, I do know that the one thing I have fallen in love with again is writing about my life and more specifically about travel so when Abigail asked me if I wanted to go to Gdansk next Monday for a minibreak, first I questioned how I was old enough to have a daughter who wanted to take her mum on a minibreak, then I accepted with much gratitude, I've had a Polish guidebook on my bookshelf for at least 2 years, I literally can't wait to go to Poland, to soak up the culture and to spend time with my daughter before she goes off to Uni in a few weeks.  I will, of course, take many photos and write a few words to go with each on both here and on Instagram and you can bet that my soul will be full and happy and nourished because travel fills my cup until it runs over and soaks everyone else it touches with love and enthusiasm.

The best adventures are yet to come...

Ways to support my writing

If you have enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to support my writing I'd love a virtual coffee
I also have a lovely Facebook group I'd love you to come and join 
You could also come and follow me on Instagram to keep up with my adventures, I really am grateful for all
of your love and support.
Oh and of course, you could just treat yourself to something lovely from Philomena's Boutique, my gift boutique
which is diverse, sustainable and totally lush!


Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Scotland By Rail Part 5 - The Best of the Highlands

Packhorse bridge, Carr Bridge, Highlands of Scotland, Scotland by Rail part 5, the best of the highlands

As the sun rises 9 days after I departed from home, I'm sitting on the train at Inverness having seen the best of the highlands and waiting to be spirited back to Newcastle.  Last night as I watched the sun setting over Inverness, I cried, happiness that it has been such an amazing trip and sadness that it was over.  Coming to the north of Scotland for 9 days is the longest trip I've taken since a trip to Gran Canaria for 2 weeks in 2013.

Long trips are always worth it!

Long trips are always worth it!  When you get to a destination it takes you time to acclimatise, time to feel settled but by the end, you almost feel like a local, you have sussed the best trips to take, you know where the best restaurants are and you know your way around, the little shortcuts, the best photo spots that maybe someone who's only there for a couple of days hasn't figured out yet.

It's not always possible for me to take such a long time away from my desk but you can be sure I want to do it as often as I can in the future.  There are so many places I want to visit and I'm finally getting to the point of having a life which is flexible enough to do that.  It's weird, I guess that it's taken a pandemic and change of career to enable that to happen.

Loch An Eilein, Rothiemurchus Estate, Highlands, scotland by rail part 5, the best of the highlands, mandy charlton, photographer, writer, blogger

Highlights of the Highlands

I'm not sure where to start with my highlights of the highlands, I could write endlessly about some of the things that I've done, but, dear reader, I know your time is precious so I'll try to be succinct and just round up a few of my favourite highlights - 

They're just a few of the things I really loved about this trip to Scotland by rail.  I never did make it to Wick, the public transport situation just made it too awkward by the time I'd been to Thurso, John o Groats and the stacks at Duncansby and Ullapool, I've wanted to visit Ullapool for years and still never made it so at least I know I have things to come back for and really, I'd love to do the whole of the Northcoast 500, either with a friend in a campervan or on an organised trip or tour.

There's also the west coast of Scotland which I've not done a lot of, I've extensively toured the Southwest coast of Dumfries and Galloway and I've done Ayr, I've even been to Ben Nevis and Fort William although it was so many years ago (Looby was about 6 months old) that I really can't remember a lot of it.

I wonder if there's such a thing as the ultimate tour of Scotland where you see the best of the whole of Scotland, I'd love to do that as well but finding a friend who can take long enough off work and planning an epic long trip around the whole of Scotland is going to take some doing, for a start they'd have to deal with me for however long it takes, nominate yourself if you fancy it.

native scottish woodland, highlands, scotland by rail part 5, the best of the highlands, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger

What is the best tour of Scotland?

"What is the best tour of Scotland?" I hear you ask, well, for me I'd have to say that my favourite trip I took was the ultimate tour of the Isle of Skye with Wow Scotland but I did also love the trip to Glen Affric and the visit to the Cairngorms with Rabbies, they were all completely different in their makeup, The Ultimate Isle of Sky tour is a full-on 12 hour day but it's also the most photographically perfect day ending as the light softens so you get that perfect view of Eilean Donan Castle from the Kyle of Lochalsh.  Yesterday's tour of the Cairngorms with Willie from Rabbies was like going out with your dad in the 80's when on a Sunday afternoon he'd ask "Do you fancy a run in the car?"  Willie seemed to set his own schedule so be warned, it's quite possibly never the same trip twice.  

How much do tours of Scotland cost?

Tours of Scotland vary in cost depending on how long they are and where they depart, I found them to be really reasonable and you should expect to pay around £30-£40 for a one day tour of the areas surrounding Inverness or between £70-£90 for a one day tour to the Isle of Skye which is a much longer day and also much further away as you have to cross the Highlands from east to west.

Should I visit the Highlands

So, as I make my long journey home and if you're asking yourself "Should I visit the Highlands?" it would be a resounding yes from me,  it's actually around the 4th time I've been to the highlands although my first time making it to Thurso.  I would not hesitate in coming back, doing more trips and tours and just taking time to really soak in the atmosphere of this wonderful region.  Inverness may have a population of less than 100,000 (the exact number varied depending on which tour guide told me, from 50,000 to 100,000) but it definitely packs a punch.  Scotland will fill your heart with joy and no matter how long you stay there for, it will never seem like long enough.

Ways to support my writing

If you have enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to support my writing I'd love a virtual coffee
I also have a lovely Facebook group I'd love you to come and join 
You could also come and follow me on Instagram to keep up with my adventures, I really am grateful for all
of your love and support.
Oh and of course, you could just treat yourself to something lovely from Philomena's Boutique, my gift boutique
which is diverse, sustainable and totally lush!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Scotland by Rail Part 4 - The Isle of Skye is Enchanting

Scotland by rail part 4, the isle of skye is enchanting, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger, solo travel in the Uk

The Isle of Skye is enchanting, it's the kind of place where you cry tears of happiness because you can't believe the beauty right in front of your eyes (or was that just me?). It's the kind of place that creatives yearn for and troubled souls crave to calm their anxious minds.  Skye in parts is so unbelievably beautiful that you never want to leave.

Book an organised tour

I went to the Isle of Skye on an organised tour with Wow Scotland, when you are travelling alone I find one thing which helps massively is to plan things, often if you want to remote places where there's not a regular bus service organised small tours are the best way to make sure you see as much as you can pack into one day.  Of course, it can be a little restrictive as you're subject to someone else's agenda but I'd much rather do that than risking not seeing somewhere at all and to be honest, on small tours, I find that the guides always know the best places and often they go to special photo points that the average tourist might not be aware of.

Getting to the Isle of Skye from Inverness and back is a full 12 hour day trip but the journey from the east of the Highlands through to the west and onto the Island is spectacular, you feel so tiny amongst the great Munro's and mountain ranges, there simply is no landscape the same as the highlands, yes it's got similarities to the Lake District but there's just something extra special about the Scottish Highlands.

Scotland by rail part 4, the isle of skye is enchanting, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger, solo travel in the Uk

Pack those snacks

Now what I will say is that the day was long, our one and only stop long enough to grab food was at 11.15 in the pretty village of  Portree with it's iconic painted houses in the harbour.  We didn't get back to Inverness until after 8pm so pack those snacks, I had an anxiety attack in the afternoon and I think it was to do with my eating, I ate way too much sugar in the morning and then when my blood sugar plummeted I ended up with shaky legs having an anxiety attack and not being able to walk all of the way to the fairy pools,  it was a fair distance and my catastrophising mind told me that I would get lost, have an accident or just not make it but I still had a lovely time and sat in one of the most beautiful places on the whole of the Isle of Skye for a while.
Scotland by rail part 4, the isle of skye is enchanting, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger, solo travel in the Uk

Isle of Skye tour highlights

There's honestly so much to see and do on the Isle of Skye that you could spend a week exploring, for instance, one of the Isle of Skye tour highlights was a stop to see the Old Man of Storr, now if I had been visiting and not on an organised tour I would have wanted to go there and get close up as there is a trail and it's such a spectacular rock formation, I reckon if you could get up close in the golden hour the photos would never disappoint. I also loved the Fairy Pools and would like to go back and see them up close when I'm less anxious.  Portree enchanted me with it's painted houses which are iconic and seen on so many calendars of Scotland, you never know, I might do my own calendar of pretty places I've visited over the last few months, there have been many.
Scotland by rail part 4, the isle of skye is enchanting, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger, solo travel in the Uk

Inspired by the Quiraing

The Quiraing is a landslip on the Meall na Suiramach, the northernmost summit of the Trotternish Peninsula of the Isle of Skye.  Rob, our tour guide said that no matter how often he went up there it never looked exactly the same because the light was constantly changing.  We were actually so lucky when we were there as the skies were clear above and you could see for miles.  The Isle of Skye is known for its mists which roll in and out so if you go, just be aware that you might not be able to see quite so far as I did. 
Scotland by rail part 4, the isle of skye is enchanting, mandy charlton photographer, writer, blogger, solo travel in the Uk

Eilean Donan Castle

The absolute highlight of my day wasn't even on the Isle of Skye though, Eilean Donan Castle has been on my wishlist since 1986 when I first watched Highlander, yes Christopher Lamberts Scottish accent was deplorable but to me, it's still one of the greatest movies of all time... 

"I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal". Which by the way is quite similar to "I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old and I'm the man who is gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?"  Clearly, I like an epic immortal Scotsman but you knew that already didn't you dear reader?

Suffice to say Eilean Donan Castle lived up to everything I'd imagined and the only thing that would have made it better is if I could have gone inside but it was right at the end of the tour and the castle was closed, still, it's a good excuse to come back and it did mean that the light was soft and beautiful, this photo is definitely going on my wall.

After Eilean Donan castle we also stopped off quickly at Urquart Castle but honestly, it just paled into comparison for me, I'd already peaked at the Kyle of Lochalsh with Eilean Donan.

More tours of the Highlands

I've since booked another couple of tours for the rest of my trip, both are with Rabbies , tomorrow I'm going on a tour to Glen Affric, Culloden and Clava Cairns and on Tuesday I'm going on the Cairngorms national park and Speyside whisky tour and you can be sure I'll report back to tell you what they're like

How much do tours of the Highlands and Islands cost?

I actually think tours are always reasonable because you get to see so much over the course of the day, The Ultimate the Isle of Skye day tour cost £74, the others were between £30 - £40 and I literally booked those on a whim this evening as today I walked over 20km and went on a trip to see the Moray Firth dolphins with Dolphin Spirit which cost me £19.50 and I didn't see one dolphin, I did see the heads of about 3 seals but I guess you take your chances with wildlife cruises and it was still a lovely boat trip.

Whatever happens over the next couple of days you can bet that I'm going to be shattered when I go home on Wednesday, I always go home from trips more tired than when I got there but is it even worth travelling if you're not going to squeeze every last inch out of them?

Ways to support my writing

If you have enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to support my writing I'd love a virtual coffee
I also have a lovely Facebook group I'd love you to come and join 
You could also come and follow me on Instagram to keep up with my adventures, I really am grateful for all
of your love and support.
Oh and of course, you could just treat yourself to something lovely from Philomena's Boutique, my gift boutique
which is diverse, sustainable and totally lush!


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Scotland by Rail Part 3 - John O'Groats is Inspiring

Scotland by Rail part 3, John O'Groats is inspiring, The Duncanby Stacks, Mandy Charlton Photographer

John O'Groats is Inspiring, that's actually a lie, John O'Groats is full of souvenir shops selling magnets and postcards but the area around John O'Groats is life affirmingly inspiring!

How to get to John O'Groats from Thurso

At the time of writing the bus timetables have recently changed to introduce more services, I got the number 80 bus at 8.30 from just next to Santander in Thurso, the coach sized bus navigates the tiny and often unmarked roads leading towards Wick and John O'Groats with skill.  It takes around an hour for the journey and may well be one of the prettiest bus trips I've been on and possibly the most remote too. The buses are maybe once every couple of hours so make sure you don't miss the one you want.   The bus drops you off at the John O'Groats bus stop which is next to a technicolour hotel and a craft and souvenir village, from the bus stop/car park,  it's just a few steps to the famous sign and as it was so early in the day, I didn't have to wait long for my photo.

Scotland by Rail part 3 - John O'Groats is inspiring, the famous sign by Mandy Charlton Photographer, writer blogger

The walk to the Duncansby Stacks

The best thing to do when you've had your photo is to avoid the souvenir shops (although I did buy a fridge magnet for posterity) and take a walk in an easterly direction to the Ducansby Head Lighthouse and the Duncansby Stacks.  It's about a 6-7km round trip and it's sorted of marked out in the way that the Scottish are like "ah well, you'll find it if you keep walking." Please say that in a Scottish accent and you'll know what I'm talking about.
John O'Groats is Inspiring, Sannick Bay near Duncansby  Head by Mandy Charlton, Photographer, Blogger

The walk itself takes you along the cliff tops of the very edge of Great Britain, any further you'll be in the sea, fascinatingly Shetland is still another 152 miles further north and one day it's a journey I need to go on.  On a clear day depending on when you're there you may spot Dolphins, Seals, and even Orcas (May/June is migration time) but today all I saw were sheep and seabirds.  Before you get to the lighthouse you'll also pass Sannick Bay, a white sandy beach with azure blue waters, I marvelled at the same kind of clear blue waters you get overseas, of course, not quite the same temperature as the Cote D'Azur.
John O'Groats is Inspiring, The Lighthouse at Duncansby Head, Mandy Charlton Photographer, blogger

The Duncansby Head Lighthouse is the true most northeasterly point of Great Britain although John O'Groats gets all of the credit (probably because the car park is bigger and the lighthouse is up a hill).  It's at this point when you reach the Lighthouse that you take a right and just keep walking the half-mile to see the 2 huge Duncansby Stacks rising from the North Sea, there a few things that take your breath away in life but seeing these for the first time is one of them.  It feels so otherworldly, so end of the earth, that this is the exact experience you imagine when you plan a trip to the very top of the map.  It's not the most challenging of walks though walking up the hilly road towards the lighthouse will burn a few calories and by the time I completed my return trip back to John O'Groats, I was in need of a cuppa and thanks to a cabin I managed to acquire a very reasonable coffee and some super cheap chips (for a tourist destination).

Scotland By Rail Part 3 - John O'Groats is inspiring, Duncansby Stacks, Caithness, Mandy Charlton Photographer

After I recovered I had a little time to kill as the next bus home wasn't until 1.40pm, (clearly they've been scheduled for half-day trips and really that's what you need if you want to factor in the walk) so I browsed the John O'Groats Brewery which isn't yet fully complete but I did manage to acquire a little bottle of local gin which I'm going to save for a special occasion.  

A Very Big Achievement

All in all, today for me felt like a big achievement, just to make it over 400 miles from home via rail and coach on my own when I sometimes can't even leave the house makes me feel like an invincible superhero.  I've been through a big period of transformation in these last few months and although I will always have anxiety, I'm really starting to feel so much more adventurous and like I have a whole new lease of life.  Sure, life is going to have its challenges still but I'm feeling pretty stable and ready for my next adventure.

Ways to support my writing

If you have enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to support my writing I'd love a virtual coffee
I also have a lovely Facebook group I'd love you to come and join 
You could also come and follow me on Instagram to keep up with my adventures, I really am grateful for all
of your love and support.
Oh and of course, you could just treat yourself to something lovely from Philomena's Boutique, my gift boutique
which is diverse, sustainable and totally lush!


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Scotland by rail part 3 - Thurso is cold!

Scotland by rail part 3, Thurso is cold, mandy charlton photographer, blogger, scottish travel

Thurso is cold, 13c cold, Britains most northerly town feels like it's closer to the arctic and indeed Scotland's most northerly islands are actually closer to the arctic than they are to London. I'm not a big fan of the cold so to feel the brisk wind and the autumnal chill in the air did not please me greatly.  Mainly I've brought with me T-Shirts so I may have to purchase another jumper.  I also smelled those first outdoor autumnal scents,possibly a testament to the most northerly situation of Thurso and also the fact that we enter into September next week.

Last night I wrote about the differences in Coronavirus polices when travelling in England and Scotland, well, I have an addendum from the far north.  I'm staying at Thurso House, a cosy bed and breakfast near the beach in Thurso, it's the most expensive room of my trip at £70 per night but breakfast isn't available at all due to Covid and when you check out you have to strip your bed and put it along with the towels in a bin bag which you then tie up!

I did meet the owners earlier and they're lovely and also super helpful.  No information in the room that I could see but I did find a map and they'd kindly had the bus timetables printed out for me as they're all irregular due to COVID.  I really thought all of the variants in policies were down to staying in a different country but now I have no idea as it seems to vary from place to place.  It's great that each place wants to keep us safe I just wish there was a standard set of guidelines so you knew what to expect when travelling.

Scotland by rail part 3,Thurso is cold, Mandy Charlton, photographer, blogger

The Far North Line

This mornings journey to get to Thurso from Inverness was everything I had imagined and more.  The station at Brora was one highlight as the train goes down the main street right in front of people's front doors on it's way into the Highland village station.  Altnabreac station was literally in the middle of nowhere, I couldn't see a single house, just barren heather covered hillsides. Apparently when you travel on the far north line you can see lots of wildlife like stags and seals but I think they may all have been hiding today.

If you haven't done the rail journey between Inverness and Thurso, I really recommend taking the day to do it, yes it takes 4 hours but it's incredible.  You're so close to the coast you can almost dip your toes in the water and at points you're so high and remote you wonder why they decided to put some of the stations in place.  The train was not busy but there were other passengers, with only 4 journeys a day there seemed to be more locals than tourists on the train and arriving in Thurso there were maybe 20 people getting off the train.

Thurso, Britain's most northerly town

If you're expecting a large sprawling metropolis when you get to Thurso you'd be mistaken, it may be Britain's most northerly town but it's much more like a large English village.  It feels like stepping back in town, i'm not sure if it's much quieter than usual but arriving on a Wednesday afternoon to businesses which were closed for a half day felt very like staying with my granny in the 1980's.  That's not necessarily a bad thing of course, I came for a gentle pace of life and that's what I got.  I did a lovely riverside walk that took around an hour and then I added on a trip to the ruins of Thurso castle, accessible by walking through an inauspicious industrial estate but worth the walk.

Scotland by rail part 3, Thurso is cold, mandy charlton photographer, castle and rail travel

Thurso feels remote, you stand at the end of the harbour looking out to the nearby Orkney Islands and you feel like you're standing at the end of the earth and in a way you are, you know all those lumpy bumpy bits that stick out on the map of the British Isles, well if you come to Thurso you can say you stood on them, this is literally where the map runs out and any further you'll be swimming in the cold clear waters of the Pentland Firth.

Tomorrow I plan to get the bus to Wick, To John O Groats and I'm going to walk from John O Groats to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head, the northeasterly point of mainland Britain, I hope to feel like I'm standing on the edge of the world.

Ways to support my writing

If you have enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to support my writing I'd love a virtual coffee
I also have a lovely Facebook group I'd love you to come and join 
You could also come and follow me on Instagram to keep up with my adventures, I really am grateful for all
of your love and support.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Scotland by Rail, part 2 - Inverness is quiet!

Inverness is quiet, scotland by rail part 2, mandy charlton photographer, blogger

Inverness is quiet! Sleepier than I can ever remember, a lot of the Scottish gift shops are closed, the Citybus tour isn't running, the bars and restaurants are half empty even though the governments "Eat out to help out" scheme is currently running.  If there's one good thing for me it's that Inverness feels safe and empty but this cannot be good for the city which relies so much on tourism during the summer months.  

The differences between Scottish and English Coronavirus Procedures with regards to travel

There are subtle differences between England and Scotland in their post-lockdown Coronavirus procedures.  For instance, when I stayed in the Lake District throws and cushions were not allowed on the beds, the buffet breakfast was gone and all of the information leaflets were removed from the hotel rooms.  Not so in Scotland, I have cushions, I have a throw, I have copious amounts of touristic brochures...

What I did find weird was that I went to the Visit Scotland shop this morning to buy a book of local walks and they were only giving out free information and not selling anything, when I was in the Lakes, you could buy a book of walks but all of the leaflets were cleared away.  Someone needs to decide which way is the right way.  I did end up getting the books that I wanted from the local Waterstones and I have earmarked several walks for when I'm back in town at the weekend, I'm really hoping the weather picks up too as I want to go on a  boat trip to spot dolphins in the Moray Firth.

I had been hoping to do the City sightseeing tour as it's a good way to while away an hour and you can hop on and hop off but I think they've probably just decided it's not worth it given the lack of tourists. Maybe this will change over the weekend, I had issues finding somewhere with 5 nights availability and currently, I'm due to stay somewhere way out of the centre, I am trying to change it now I know where it is but it's down to whether they have the kindness in their hearts to let me change it to a closer, safer hotel.

Today has been a good day, I love the Ardentorrie Guest House in Inverness where I currently am, I would have come back here again if they'd had availability as it's lovely and the view from my window is beautiful, even if it's raining currently.

When I said I was coming to push myself, I really meant it, today I've walked ten and a half miles. This morning I went down to the Ness Islands, The Botanic Gardens and all through the city centre and it was lovely.  I sat on the edge of one of the islands just listening to the waters of the River Ness as they babbled and bubbled over the rocks.  

the view from room 2 at the ardentorrie hotel, inverness, scotland by rail part 2, mandy charlton

The Botanic Gardens was also delightful, it's free entry, they have a safe one-way system and it was so quiet I couldn't feel anything but safe, plus I was amongst the glorious flowers.  The only part of the gardens still to open is the tropical house and well that just makes sense when you think of the conditions in tropical greenhouses. I last visited the gardens in 2014 and they're still just as beautiful today.

I also went to a pub for a late lunch/early dinner,  now this is massive for me, I would never usually go to a pub on my own, I have way too much anxiety but because of the quietness, I thought I would give it a go so I drank Gin on my own in a pub with lunch, possibly for the first time ever.  I'm so proud of myself!

Getting ready for the Far North Line

Tomorrow I leave for Thurso on the Far North Line, my journey may only be taking me another 81 miles but it's a 3 hour and 43-minute journey on this line, crazy when you think about it but it does go through some pretty remote places, if I remember my trivia right, I think there's a stop which only gets used by about 180 passengers a year!!  The train travels along the coast and in some places, there's just one single-track line, to me this is fascinating. Indeed one stop is just for a castle so it only gets used in the summer, it's really things like this which make me so enthusiastic to be finally travelling it and yes, you can bet,  I am going to tell you all about it.

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Great Scottish Adventure, Scotland by Rail - Part 1

The river ness,inverness, scotland by rail part 1, mandy charlton, photographer, blogger

Around a month ago I travelled the Lake District by public transport and on Monday I set off to the do the same thing in Scotland, it's a journey that will take me more than 260 miles (as the crow flies) or 416 miles (driving distance) to the town of Thurso on the far north coast of Scotland. The great Scottish adventure is something I've always wanted to do, I've been to Inverness twice and every time I get off the train there I wonder just what it's like on the Far North Line.  Although I've yearned to do it for years, I've never had the time or flexibility in my schedule, 13 years of wedding photography doesn't leave a lot of time for anything else but as we all know, 2020 is a very different kind of animal.

Running Philomena's Boutique has given me a much more flexible schedule and with the girls, both grown up I'm no longer needed to be around, even Holly Bobbins has other plans and she's off to the Lake District with my friend Robyn and her family, I've mentioned previously she's a very special dog.  

The Schedule

I'm actually still at the planning stages (and yes, I know, I leave on Monday) but this is the plan so far and I'm going to include the costs, I'm really good at planning travel and often end up with absolute bargain rail fares and hotels - 

Monday - Newcastle to Edinburgh - £13

                 Edinburgh to Inverness - £25 first class

Mon-Wed a guest house stay in Inverness with breakfast included £94 at the Ardentorrie Guest House ( I booked through and saved £30 by paying in advance at their genius rate for frequent travellers).  I always check the hotel or B&B's websites before I book as sometimes you can save a few pounds by booking direct and sometimes it's cheaper to go through a hotel booking site, it just depends so do shop around and if you can do it in an incognito window (one which doesn't save cookies) you are more likely to get bargains

Wednesday - Train to Thurso - £35 return ticket, you can do it for £26.40 but the weekend trains were bus replacements so I decided to just stay until Friday.

Wed-Friday - guest house stay - Thurso House, a guest house which you literally open the front door and you're on the beach - £140 (Thurso and Wick were both expensive for accommodation because they're small and it's the summer holidays, in winter you could knock around £20 a night off that price)

Friday - Wednesday - Staying at the Craigmonie Hotel in Inverness so I can base myself there but also explore the whole of the Highlands - £260 including a full Scottish breakfast

Wednesday - Inverness to Newcastle - £45.50

So I make that £612 for a 9-night trip which is cheaper by far than going overseas and the biggest solo adventure I've ever done in my whole life.

Now I should also point out that me, travelling alone is cheap, I can access single rooms, I rarely eat out in the evenings and I take my own bamboo cutlery and just pick up salads and snacks from the supermarkets.  When I was in the Lakes, I rarely even ate lunch and walking is cheap, you can see the most amazing things on big walks and it costs next to nothing.

If you are young you can cut down on costs further with a railcard if you're a student or if you have kids, or even if you're over 50 in some cases, Scotland has a railcard for the over 50's (4 years and counting...).  If you wanted to travel at real bargain prices, you could even stay in a hostel but for me, I'm 46, I'm travelling on my own and I do have chronic anxiety so it's one step too far.  There are also options for bus tickets like in the Lake District but I haven't decided if I'll need one, probably at least one of the days as I want to go to John o Groats although the town of Thurso is actually farther north, it's just that John o Groats gets all of the credit and that's where the "end to enders" start, I should say now, I neither have the time or the fitness to walk from John o Groats to Lands End, I know I like a challenge but...

Whilst some things are the same as the Lake District this time, there's one big difference and that is, I'm taking you all along with me.  I'll be writing each and every day about my adventures, I didn't take my Macbook away when I went to the lakes but I want to write on the go.  When I try and write things afterwards, I get bored, I'm the first to admit that by the time I get back, I'm already planning my next adventure, always keep moving forward I guess.  I also just write better in the moment and so you will be able to follow my adventures on here and also on Instagram where I'll be using Instagram stories as I go about my daily walks and wanders.

I haven't decided when I am coming home yet but I do have a small commitment on the 6th September so I know I have to be back before that, in all probability I'll take 7-10 days and I have some Airbnb  (if you sign up to Airbnb via that link we'll both get £16 off our next journeys) credit to use for the final leg if I don't want to stay in a B&B.

Great British Adventure Map, Marvellous maps, scotland by rail, mandy charlton photographer, blogger

Money-Saving Tips for Travel

* Don't just have the train companies app you're travelling with, sometimes you can find hidden bargains on the Trainline app
* Before you book on also check the hotel website in case they can offer a better price, companies pay a lot to be listed on Airbnb etc so sometimes the best prices are going direct but also sometimes it's the exact opposite as sometimes the various aggregator sites have hidden discounts too
* Use Honey, Quidco or similar so you can also get cashback on your purchase, these little things all add up.
* If you are travelling slow, also check the local bus routes as they can work out so much cheaper than the train and Scotland is so beautiful you'd have so much thinking time as you amble through the countryside passed lochs and mountains.

Because I'm going next week, if I do eat out during the day I will definitely be taking advantage of the governments Eat Out to Help Out scheme which is also available in Scotland, if you're just having a sandwich, soup and cake it's pretty easy to bag yourself a lunch for around a fiver.  There are also lots of ways to save on attractions, sometimes regional guides in tourist information shops have vouchers for cheaper tickets.  I'm generally just going to do lots of walking and the best thing about that, it's free, also in Scotland, there is the right to roam which opens up all kinds of possibilities.  Generally, I just stick to well-known routes though as I may be a seasoned traveller but I also have chronic anxiety.

Whatever next week brings I will be writing about it every day, and each day I make it to places I've never been is another virtual kick in the teeth for anxiety, it doesn't matter what happens in life as long as we keep moving forward and that is exactly what I plan to do.

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

How to Holiday in the Lake District using Public Transport

How to holiday in the lake district using public transport, mandy charlton, photographer, writer, blogger, travel

A few weeks ago I went to the Lake District, my first solo trip there and being a non-driver I'm reliant on public transport.  To be honest, I'd always thought you had to have a car to get around the lake district but no, it's totally possible to holiday in the Lake District using public transport and I'm going to tell you how.

Now I must add that when I was there, even though it was July, the buses were still using the winter timetables due to the COVID pandemic so had I have gone a week later I would have had even better options and routes and on a much more regular basis than once an hour.

I started my week away by travelling from Newcastle to Penrith by train on the Northern Rail line, it costs just over £30 for a ticket, takes around 3 hours allowing for connections as you have to change at trains at Carlisle and then Penrith is just one stop.

I feel I must point out that I arrived in Penrith early on a Sunday and the town was shut, there was literally nowhere open and even when we're not mid-pandemic it seems like the Cumbrian town of Penrith really doesn't have a lot going on, especially on a Sunday but in saying that it's a great place to locate yourself if you're looking to explore the northern part of the Lake District.

The number 508 bus goes from the Penrith bus station if you want to visit Ullswater, the northernmost lake in the Lake District, I'd chosen to walk to Aira Force, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the UK, owned and managed by the National Trust, the 508 bus stop is just at the entrance and passes by at least once an hour depending on the time of year.  The waterfall is very popular and can get busy but there is a one-way system in place to help with social distancing.  I'm not going to pretend it's an easy walk up if you, like me, are chunkier than a KitKat Chunky but it's well worth the time to climb right to the top and you'll feel like an elite athlete all day afterwards, you'll even be able to have cake guilt-free!

After I'd climbed Aira Force I was going to get the bus to Glenridding but instead, I decided to walk the 2.5km along the beautiful Ullswater Way, walking along an official walk makes you feel like you've gone semi-professional and it's an easy, well-signposted route you cannot get lost on so perfect if you're just starting out as a hiking enthusiast.  Glenridding is a beautiful little village which looks like a ski-resort and it's from here you can get the Ullswater Steamers to the other edge of the lake where the village of Pooley Bridge lies.  Currently, due to the pandemic, you have to book the day before online and, quite interestingly even if you're a single person you have to pay for 2 adults because of the seating restrictions.  This was a no-brainer to give it a miss this time, I'd already done the same journey in the past with Holly Bobbins and Harriet so it was no loss to give it a miss on this occasion.  If however you're in a couple or a family and you've not done it before then go for it, I really recommend it, it's a beautiful boat ride.

One of my top money-saving tips is that you download the Stagecoach app before you go to the lakes and then look for the Northwest Explorer ticket, a 7-day ticket is going to cost you £30 and it means you have unlimited travel for 7 days all over the northwest and beyond, it even extends down to buses to Chester and up on buses to Newcastle, it's a massive money saver and it's the only ticket you'll need to get around.

Later in the week on my travels, I relocated to a B&B down in Keswick, I got the X5 which takes around 44 minutes and it's a lovely scenic route as most bus routes are in the lakes, it certainly makes a difference to travelling around the city at home, the bus runs once an hour during winter and every half hour during the summer.

Despite Keswick not having its own train station it's one of the best places you can locate yourself when holidaying in the lake district using public transport.  Everywhere is just so convenient whether you're walking, getting the bus or even taking the boat from one side of Derwentwater to the other, I love Keswick, its a town full of dogs, it's got the prettiest gift boutiques (perfect research for Philomena's Boutique) and it's one of the friendliest towns you could ever hope to visit with so many places to eat and drink. 

The best bus route I found was the 555 bus which runs from Keswick to Lancaster stopping at some of the most scenic places in the whole of the Lake District, often the stops might look like deserted places in the middle of nowhere but that's because they're usually on popular walking routes.  There was a day when I got off the bus at Grasmere and decided to just walk to the next place, I felt safe because I knew there was always a bus which could get me back again and on that day I ended up walking to White Moss where I then connected with a walking route around Grasmere Lake back to Grasmere Village which is, of course, famous for Grasmere Gingerbread made to Sarah Nelson's famous recipe and the only place in the world where it's made and sold although if you can't get there right now, you'll be delighted to know that they do have an online shop (you can send me some to thank me).

One of the loveliest places in the lake district for me has to be the scenic town of Ambleside, home to Stock Ghyll Force, another waterfall I accidentally climbed when I got off the bus and just happened to see a sign saying "Waterfalls, this way" I famously accidentally walk up big hills all the time, I hate it too but whenever I reach the top, it's always worth it, even with lashing winds and rains are in my face!

if you get off the bus at Grasmere you can swap to the open-topped 599 bus which takes you all the way down to Bowness on Windermere. If you go there, beware, it gets incredibly busy but do check out the Christmas in Lakes shop, well only if you love Christmas because it's Christmas there all year round, on the day I was there,  the sun was blazing, it was a heatwave and it felt like an out of body experience or like watching a Californian Christmas movie, I'd go there again tomorrow though!! 

In my week on my solo trip to Penrith and Keswick I never once ran out of things to do, there were buses I couldn't get because of the pandemic affecting the timetables and though I didn't have Holly Bobbins with me, if I went back I would love to take her because it's just so dog friendly.  The lakes are so good for clearing your mind, I walked so many miles and I forgave myself for my mistakes as well as eventually coming to terms with the fact that the pandemic and lockdown changed my life, we all know now however that what happened to me, actually, it was for the best because I love running an e-commerce gift boutique with all of my heart, it's diverse, sustainable and totally lush!

if you're feeling bunged up or life is getting you down but you've always thought you could never visit the lakes because you didn't drive, I hope I've proven that not only is it possible but it's also an amazing solo adventure to have for your mind and your body, just don't eat all of the gingerbread!


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Spiralling, ASD and Me!

Selfie of Mandy Charlton, Spiralling, ASD and Me

I felt compelled to sit down and write this from my heart, it's been a difficult week in a turbulent month, in an impossible year.  I like constant, predictable, I love organised fun!  Call me Autistic, call me ASD or if you don't know me, you'd probably call me uptight.  (I'm actually fairly laid back and liberal for an uptight person).
I think I may have mentioned in my last blog post that I can't cope with stress, or maybe I just thought it, either way, I was speaking to the mental health practitioner at my doctors because I've spiralled a lot this year after getting my life back to a constant again.

Spiralling or shutting down is quite common in lots of people who might have different types of brains, in some people, with the stress they will shut down completely, in some children they will shut down so much it's like they're catatonic, the brain overloads itself and crashes like an overloaded computer.  In some people, like me, the opposite happens, I literally spiral into an overwhelming depression which can lead to screaming, crying, shouting, shaking, panic attacks, suffice to say it's not a whole load of fun.

What I want most from life is to be like other average people, to be a good mum, a good friend, to be someone who can calmly deal with situations when the chips are down but as I get older, more self-reflecting and as I reach out for help from other wiser people experienced in autism and mental health I'm starting to realise, there is no cure for the spiral, there are a million coping methods but just as not breathing properly is a sign of asthma, the spiral is a symptom of my different brain and it's probable that it will never change because it's part of who I am.

The biggest coping strategy I have is to not get stressed so, for instance, I only listen to happy music, watch happy, joyous things (don't get me wrong, I love a good crime drama) but in real life, I try where I can to avoid difficult subjects and difficult circumstances and it's not because I don't feel anything, it's because I feel too much. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I cry at brass bands, tv adverts, stories about animals, I sometimes struggle with just feeling the emotion of the whole world.  Or I feel the emotion and stress in friends and then because of the ASD I catastrophise which makes me believe it's me, it's all my fault and I'm a terrible human being.

I wish, right now, that it wasn't the way that it is, I really would give everything and anything to be a normal mum and a normal friend, it's heartbreaking because as much as I perpetually do try to grow as a person part of me still can't accept that I will never be the mum my children need or someone who it's easy to be friends with.

Despite all of this, I do have a heart full of love and no one is more loyal to friends than me, no one wants to be a better mum more than me and no one wants to be able to give and receive love as normally as I do.

I've decided to completely rule out even thinking about dating until I have fully worked on myself, I could never have a relationship with anyone until I come to terms with who I am, it's not fair to them or me and I'm quite prepared to stay single for the rest of my life if I have to rather than to try and manufacture things that aren't there.

In a world where no one is perfect, why do I feel so imperfect?

Monday, July 13, 2020

How to look after your rented garden

If you’re lucky enough to rent a home with an outdoor space - be that a modest balcony, a small paved area or more - it’s important to take good care of it. It can be difficult to put your heart into a space that technically isn’t yours but when you rent, you need to remember that you’re still paying for a property to be your home. Why not treat it like one?

I can’t speak for everybody, but you wouldn’t let your kitchen become impossibly untidy and covered in grime… So why let that happen to your garden? 

What are the tenants' responsibilities for a garden?

There can often be a little confusion amongst tenants on what within their rented garden is their problem, and what is their landlords. Whether you’re a keen gardener or you really can’t be bothered, you’ll want to know the ground rules and where the boundaries lie.

In simple terms, as a tenant, it is your responsibility to keep your garden looking as lovely as your home. That could be simply keeping the paving swept and free of weeds and mowing the lawn, or lovingly tending to beds of plants - as long as it’s not a total bomb site then you’re doing your job. Your landlord is responsible for anything where there is a level of expertise required such as pruning tall trees, maintaining a pond or if you come across an issue that’s not your fault, such as a rotting fence. 

Your landlord may even choose to hire a gardener to save themselves the headache of trusting their tenants to look after a garden. This usually comes with a slightly higher monthly rent, but it does mean you’ll always have a lovely garden to enjoy in return.

In most cases, however, the tenant is responsible for maintaining an outdoor space to at least an acceptable standard. Your landlord will have to allow for fair wear and tear but if supplied plant pots, furniture or garden gates get damaged then they will be able to deduct money for the repairs from your deposit - just as they would for anything inside the home. A good landlord will have the right landlord insurance in place in case of garden damages or neglect but it’ll be you that loses out. It’s all about respect and looking after the space as you should.

Why look after your garden?

If you’re not naturally green-fingered, then that’s ok. There’s plenty of ways that you can keep gardening low maintenance and easy but you’ll be surprised at how much you can get out of being in the garden. I think the coronavirus lockdown has taught us all that, right? Being outdoors is so important for our mental health - especially if you live in the city so in many ways, creating the right city garden is more important than a leafy suburban one. It creates a space for you to unwind, for local wildlife to thrive and improves the quality of your air.

So, what can I do to improve my city garden?

With that in mind, there’s so many tricks and hacks that you can implement in your city garden, whatever the size. For instance, encourage birds into your garden with feeders, birdhouses and baths. There’s not a lot that’s more relaxing than hearing the birds singing and even more so if you can see them fluttering about your garden. 

A garden should be a relaxing space where you can go to unwind at the end of the day. Could you invest in a water feature? Water features have been proven to reduce blood pressure and stress levels to improve your physical and mental health - something we could all do with at the moment, let alone those of us living in fast-paced cities. It gives your garden a sense of calm and tranquillity. They’re particularly suitable for gardens in busy, built-up areas as the right style of water feature (something with a bit more power such as a water blade) will help to mask any traffic and outside noise. It’s also so much easier than you’d think to have a water feature installed as you can power them through your mains, solar power or by a battery.

One of the most important aspects of having a garden is making it an extension of your home. You want it to be somewhere that you can sit and enjoy a book or your morning coffee, or somewhere you can eat dinner with friends. That’s why a living space is so important. Find a spot to add in some garden furniture. There’s so much out there so whatever space you’re working with, you’re bound to find something that’s perfect. If you don’t have much of a paved space, deck chairs and egg chairs work well. If you have a balcony, fold-out furniture that you can tuck away when it’s not being used is the perfect option.

Never underestimate the importance of a garden. When you’re renting, it’s you who will lose out if you neglect it and it turns into a jungle. Gardening doesn’t have to be time-consuming but if you dedicate a little effort into keeping your outdoor space nice, you’ll reap the rewards.

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