Seeing Britain in a different light

A wild rabbit lunged from its burrow to nibble at a patchy lawn while a flock of sheep grazed on a distant hill not too far from Inverness, the capital of the Scottish highlands.

These were the splendid sights at Kinkell House, a charming country house located 16km north of Inverness on the beautiful Black Isle.

After a hearty breakfast that included eggs from the hens in the backyard and haggis, a traditional Scottish pudding made of sheep's pluck, I was ready to conquer the highlands.

Mention a vacation in the United Kingdom and the top destinations that come to mind are London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But there's a lot more to this island-nation than centuries-old castles, world-class museums and English football, if you choose to go off the beaten track.

As avid trekkers and nature lovers, my wife and I were bent on seeing Britain in a different light.

Our friendly hosts at Kinkell House pointed us to Chanonry Point, an area north of Inverness near Fortrose, where bottlenose dolphins rule.

When we got there by car in the late afternoon, there were no dolphins in sight. We were later told by the few people who drove their caravans into the area that the dolphins were more likely to surface on low-tide days.

Even without the dolphins, Chanonry Point offered breathtaking views of the Moray Firth, an inlet of the North Sea.

At the edge of the coast stands the Chanonry Lighthouse, first built in 1846. Previously manned by just one lighthouse keeper, it is now monitored remotely from Edinburgh.

Whisky region

No visit to the highlands is complete without paying homage to one of the distilleries in Scotland's famous Speyside whisky region.

After a two-hour drive to Strathspey, an area around River Spey, we arrived at the estate of whisky maker Macallan.

For £15 (S$31) per person, a guide took us through the distillation process, followed by a tasting session. A little known fact revealed was that Macallan sells what is known as "new make spirit", the first brew that contains 70 per cent alcohol before it is further distilled and aged in casks.

"The casks of 'liquid gold' can also be bought as a form of investment," our guide told us. "There was a gentleman who forgot he had a cask with us, and by the time his granddaughter found out about this many years later, all the whisky had dried up!"

Hadrian's Wall

The next stop was Hadrian's Wall, an ancient frontier built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Spanning 120km from coast to coast, the 2,000-year-old wall was meant to keep the indigenous people in Scotland at bay.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Hadrian's Wall comprises several forts and a Roman town. There was no way we could cover the entire stretch in a day, so we opted to visit Housesteads, the most complete Roman fort in Britain.

The Housesteads complex once housed 800 soldiers and their families, but with the rubble and remnants of the once magnificent fort, things looked a little underwhelming.

History buffs may disagree. After all, Hadrian's Wall was a symbol of the Roman Empire's military might and served the same purpose as the Great Wall of China - to keep out non-civilised neighbours.

The most memorable part of being there was the trek along the wall. Faced with strong winds and heavy rain, I struggled to find my footing on muddy terrain and steep slopes.

But the challenge was worth it. We were eventually greeted by spectacular views of Greenlee Lough, a nature reserve that is home to migratory birds, rare plant species and other wild life.

 

Chatsworth House

Built in the 16th century by the first Duke of Devonshire and the Bess of Hardwick, who at one point was the next most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth, Chatsworth House should be familiar to fans of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Administered by the Chatsworth House Trust, the 14,000ha estate included a sprawling garden, farmyard and a park. It was Austen's source of inspiration for Mr Darcy's residence in her famed novel.

The 126-room house was filled with an astonishing number of art pieces collected over centuries by generations of dukes.

Listening to an audio guide, we strolled through more than 20 stately rooms, wowed by the intricate Victorian furnishings and majestic artwork that graced the walls and ceilings.

The art museum experience extended into the garden, which was dotted with 12 giant sculptures of everyday objects such as a pink shoe, a red wheelbarrow and a pair of blue scissors by British artist Michael Craig-Martin.

Against the Great Fountain's 60m high water jet, which created a rainbow in the bright summer sun, the sculptures added a dash of modernity to the lush Victorian landscape.

Bollington

This small town in Cheshire, England, was where we spent the night before heading back to London for our flight home.

Though we planned to use Bollington only as a transit point, we were soon captivated by the tranquil charm of this once major cotton production centre, with several mills along the banks of the Macclesfield Canal.

At the canal - now lined with small leisure boats - we met a woman from Wales who appeared to be cleaning her brightly coloured vessel.

She said the boats were summer homes for those seeking a respite from the stresses of city living.

This article was published by, the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.


This article was first published on Sept 30, 2014.
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