After 2 years of being “locked” in Western Australia due to the COVID pandemic, our borders were finally opened early this year and we were allowed to travel again! And aside from being delighted to finally see family again, I was also very relieved to be able to return to the UK to do some book research.
As my books are almost all set in the UK, where I used to live – but I’ve now emigrated to the other side of the world – I rely on regular trips back to help me maintain the “British” atmosphere and details that are so important to establishing the world of my stories. Of course, I can remember a lot from the time I used to live in Oxford (and draw heavily on those reminisces to write) but after 20+ years, memory can get very hazy!! 😜 Besides, things change – even in a historic university city like Oxford or a timeless place like the Cotswolds – and I like to be as authentic as I can.
Travel and the exposure to new experiences also help to stimulate my imagination and give me inspiration for my books. In fact, I never realised just how important travel was to my writing until the pandemic struck and I was suddenly unable to go anywhere or do anything for 2 years. It wasn’t the lack of social contact that bothered me, like it did many others during the early days of lockdowns. I’m actually a classic introvert in the true sense of the word: oh, I’m very sociable and happy to chat to total strangers, but being alone is when I relax & recharge, and I can happily spend hours – days – in my own company, living completely in my head, having zero social interactions, talking to nobody… and never really feeling “lonely” (a very useful trait in a writer! 😉)
So I didn’t think much at first about the lack of novelty and “adventure” in my life… but then I discovered, to my horror, that the ideas started drying up! I was having to work much harder to plot each book, straining much more to think up how characters might react – whereas previously, entire scenes would play out spontaneously in my head, like a movie that someone had switched on, and I simply had to write down what I was seeing in my mind’s eye.
I’d always been one of those people who had more ideas than I knew what to do with. I used to constantly coming up with new stories and rue the fact that I just didn’t have enough hours in the day to write every “What if?” that sprang into my head. One of the most common questions that authors get asked is “where do you get your ideas from?” and I honestly used to say that I didn’t know – they just came all the time, popping into my head suddenly and randomly, often at the most inopportune moments!
Then, for the first time in my life, I experienced the dreaded “writer’s block” and as a working author, having your imagination fail you is the most horrible, frightening experience. It’s like a chef suddenly finding that their tongue can’t taste food anymore or a sports athlete suddenly finding that their legs keep folding under them whenever they try to run…
So now I realise that ideas DO come from somewhere… from travelling and exploring unfamiliar settings and encountering the unexpected and meeting new people (fantastic for inspiring characters!). I need to experience something different from my normal life in Australia. And if I don’t keep “topping up” those experiences, the river will run dry.
So thank goodness I was able to squeeze in a book research trip on the recent visit back to the UK. In fact, I’d long had the germ of a story idea for a book set in Scotland (something slightly different from my usual cozy mysteries; a mystery/suspense thriller that I’d love to write as soon as I can find the time!), and I’d been planning to make a research trip up to the Scottish Highlands at some point… Then I suddenly thought: Why not set the next Oxford Tearoom Mystery up in the Highlands too? Gemma, Muesli and the Old Biddies could have great fun snooping for clues amongst the haggis and “heilan coos”!
And so it was that I found myself setting out for the misty Highlands aboard the Caledonian Sleeper – a sleeper train that transports you overnight from London to Inverness. Of course, it’s faster to fly but nothing beats rail travel for atmosphere and adventure! 😉 (And it’s much more sustainable too.)
There’s something so exciting about travelling by train and even though this was a sleek, modern vehicle and no Orient Express, there’s still a sense of old-fashioned Romance (romance with a capital “R”!) and adventure. In fact, we’d barely left the railway station in London before I was bubbling with ideas already…
Who was the young woman on the platform with tears in her eyes? Why did the couple in the next cabin look so shifty? Did the two men roaring with laughter over whiskies in the Dining Car really just strike up a friendship or was their loud joviality a front for a pre-arranged meeting? Was the nervous man in uniform genuinely just a new conductor on his first day – or a fake imposter? And is there really such a thing as haggis-flavoured potato crisps? (OK, that last one might not generate much story but it certainly merited further research! 😉)
After a happy hour in the Dining Car, stuffing my face with late-night snacks (yes, there is such a thing as haggis-flavoured crisps and they’re delicious!) – and surreptitiously spying on fellow passengers whilst my imagination worked overtime, I made my way back to the cabin and settled down for the night.
Sleeping in a bunk bed is pretty cramped and uncomfortable, and I woke up very tired and bleary-eyed, but there is something so magical about raising the blinds the next morning and looking out onto a view of the gorgeous Scottish countryside!
All too soon, we were disembarking at Inverness Station and I found myself surrounded by the lovely, musical tones of the local Scottish accents.
Fàilte! Welcome to Scotland!
Inverness is known as the “capital of the Scottish Highlands” and sits at the northern end of Loch Ness, where the River Ness meets the waters of the Moray Firth. It’s a beautiful historic city, surrounded by lochs (lakes), mountains and castles but unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore it properly. Instead, I was heading south to the one of the most famous places in the world for myth and mystery…
This wasn’t the first time I’d been to the famous home of the Loch Ness monster – I’d first visited back when I was still a student at Oxford – but the magic and mystique hadn’t changed.
Most tourists and all the big coach tours take the road which runs along the northern shore of the loch, passing through Drumnadrochit, but I’d heard that the road along the southern shore is much better. It’s quieter, with less traffic but with just as many stunning views and several “hidden gems” along the way that are free of the tourist hordes.
The first of these “gems” was Loch Ness Beach (also known as Dores Beach) – situated right at the northern end of the loch and with a sweeping view down the length of the long, narrow lake that stretched to the horizon. It was breathtakingly beautiful and tranquil there, with a deserted pebbly beach where you could wade in the ice-cold waters, if you were brave! 😉
And there I met one of the famous quirky locals – the “Nessie Hunter” himself; a.k.a. Steve Feltham, who gave up his job, house and girlfriend to come and live in a makeshift van on the shores of Loch Ness and become a full-time monster hunter (yes, you read that right!). From the time he first visited the loch at the age of seven, Steve became fascinated (I think “obsessed” might be a better word!) with the mythical inhabitant of Scotland’s most famous loch and he devotes all his time to seaching for “the beastie”.
He’s been searching for 31 years now (since 1991) – I must say, he’s a very patient man!! Still, no matter how crazy you might think that is, you sort of have to admire someone who dares to give up everything to follow a dream so passionately and whole-heartedly, don’t you?
I would have loved to have stayed longer and pestered him with more questions but sadly, there wasn’t the time as we had to press on.
We hadn’t been driving long, though, before we discovered another “hidden gem”: the lovely hike to the Falls of Foyers.This is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Highlands. In fact, the Falls have been a visitor attraction since Victorian times and have even inspired a Robert Burns poem.
The well-worn track certainly attested to centuries of footsteps and it drops fairly steeply down the side of the gorge (going down is a lot easier than coming back up!), but the views of the Falls made all the effort worthwhile…
The track actually runs all the way down to the shores of Loch Ness, but we had to forgo the longer hike and instead, turned back after the Falls. I was starving by the time I finally climbed back up the gorge and regained the road.
Luckily, we discovered a fantastic place not that far away from the Falls. The Camerons Tea Room and Farm Shop turned out to be of my favourite places on the trip. It was homely and cosy, and had food to die for (and offers luxury self-catering accommodation too!)
I ordered a home-made leek and potato soup and – oh my God, I still dream about that soup to this day! Unlike the more common creamy version (which I normally avoid), this came in a clear broth form, with chunks of tender potatoes and fragrant leeks, accompanied by freshly-baked, crusty bread.
I know Scotland has a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants but for me, this simple dish in this rustic little tearoom was food heaven. (By the way, the copious amounts of pepper was me – I like my food spicy! 😉)
And as if their scrumptious menu wasn’t enough, I was thrilled to find that the Camerons Tea Room also had a resident herd of “Heilan coos” (Highland cows). SQUEEEEE!!!
Meeting one of these hairy bovines had been top of my Scottish bucket list and I’d heard that they can actually be quite hard to find sometimes, despite thinking that you’d easily see them roaming across the countryside. So to find a friendly herd almost within touching distance was a wonderful unexpected treat!
Honestly, these cows don’t look real! With their woolly coats, distinctive horns and that adorable fringe (“dossan”) covering their big, dark eyes, they look almost like enormous stuffed toys – don’t you think?
Despite the popular image, Highland cattle actually come in a range of colours, including black, grey, white and even brindle. Black used to be the most common colour, but apparently, Queen Victoria took a fancy to the ginger “coos” on a visit to the Highlands and so after that, herds were selectively bred for redheads!
Whatever the colour, all Highland cows have the remarkable hardiness that the breed is famous for, with their long double coats perfect for withstanding the harsh conditions of the Scottish Highlands. They’re mostly kept for their meat, which is lower in cholesterol than other types of beef, but I would think that they’d be popular as pets too! After all, they’re supposed to have temperaments that match their cuddly appearance – docile and amiable, and sometimes even approaching walkers in search of affection!
One handsome chap certainly came up very close to me to say hello – and he posed very nicely for a photo! Except for his colour, he reminded me so much of Ferdinand, the sweet, lovesick bull in my Bewitched by Chocolate Mysteries.
Ohhh…. I would have loved to have taken one of those cows home. But since I don’t live on a farm, I had to be satisfied with a cuddly replica I found in a shop in Fort William. 😉 It was actually a doorstop (and weighed a ton) but I happily lugged it all the way back to Perth, just to have my very own “heilan coo”!