Monday, 28 December 2009

Scottish Training in Style

The very name Orient Express conjures up romantic notions of luxurious rail travel and is synonymous with a journey from Paris to Venice. But the same company runs a comprehensive programme of trips throughout the UK on trains such as the Northern Belle.

Given the option of travelling from London to Cambridge, Mike Souter chose instead to head north to his native Scotland to combine the journey with this year’s Homecoming Scotland celebrations

Whichever weather forecaster came up with the phrase ‘Barbecue Summer’ should have been at Dumbarton Central station to await the arrival of the Northern Belle. This was western Scotland at its wet and windy best, in a railway station which certainly lacked anything approaching a luxurious setting or facilities.

Trying to run a private train and dovetailing the schedule in with existing timetables is a hugely complex operation. That was one of the reasons why passengers, many dolled up to the nines, were lingering at such an uninspiring venue for the train which had set off originally from Edinburgh.

While Glasgow Queen Street’s impressive canopy would have been a much more attractive departure point with immensely superior facilities, non-availability of platforms and slots in Network Rail’s schedule meat that wet and windy Dumbarton was the only workable option.

In fact the Orient Express people slot the day trips into the trains’ busy schedule while passengers on longer journeys are off enjoying other activities. Our train, normally based in the upmarket surroundings of Crewe South Shed, had journeyed up from London the day before, decanting passengers to enjoy a 24-hour stay at Loch Lomond while we journeyed north to Oban.

It was slightly disappointing for all joining passengers to be handed a map giving the distances only from the point of origin. We were not, after all, journeying from Edinburgh to Oban via Falkirk High. It’s a small detail, but I would expect it from the Orient Express of the North.

For the first part of the journey, we caught only a glimpse of the views through the rain-soaked windows. Mind you, the foliage at the side of the track is so dense, that there would not have been much to see even had the weather been perfect. But we snatch just a glimpse, far below, of the Clyde Submarine Base with its Trident nuclear-equipped boats.

But, to my mind, the view is secondary to the experience of the train. We were travelling in the exquisitely decorated Alnwick carriage, configured like normal first class rolling-stock, but with wonderful inlaid woodwork and splendidly upholstered armchairs.

Nowhere on National Express do you get fresh flowers and Molton Brown accessories in the toilet plus individual cotton hand towels. Nor, sadly any more, table service in a restaurant car.

The much-vaunted Orient Express Bellini, a sparkling white wine with peach juice, arrives. Not at all to my taste, I’m afraid. We are badly in need of a coffee but it takes several requests before it appears. (It later transpires that the machinery involved in coffee production is rather antiquated and hence rather slow).

While ‘scrambled eggs wrapped in a smoked salmon parcel finished with fresh Whitby crab, Hollandaise, tomato and chives’ sounds lovely, the star turn in the brunch menu turns out to be an excellent fresh fruit cocktail.

At Crianlarich, the train heads west for Oban, the weather clearing perfectly in time to catch a splendid view of Loch Awe.

The previously-mentioned difficulty in scheduling has also meant quite a drastic change to our programme. The six hour stop in Oban originally included a trip on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Mull and a visit to Torosay Castle and Gardens.

But CalMac wouldn’t wait if the train was late, nor guarantee an on-time return to Oban, so, to fill some time, they’ve put on afternoon tea and a Scottish ceilidh in the Argyllshire Gathering Halls. It’s a good effort with a very good band and the excellent champion Highland Dancer, Eilidh MacInnes. But it’s hard to see why there is such a cachet being invited to apply for a £200 plus ticket for the official ball after the region’s main Highland Games. The hall is long overdue for a major make over. Mind you, the tickets buy never-ending alcohol and by the time the great and the good head home at 7am after a bowl of Scotch Broth, they are probably past caring.

I’m afraid my view on Oban is that it, too, is tired and in need of updating. Much as our most excellent and hard-working guide, Eileen Stewart, herself a native of the town, tries to persuade me otherwise. Oban has, to my mind, become a horribly touristic and tatty town, with too many fish and chip, jumper, stick of rock and postcard shops.

It’s significant that, long before we are allowed to re-board the Northern Belle for the return trip to Glasgow, most of the passengers are queuing patiently at the platform entrance.

Clearly there’s a bit of embarrassment at Orient Express at the change to the schedule, which caused 20% of those booked to cancel, so every couple is presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. (I suspect that, behind the scenes, CalMac will have been getting a tough time from assorted castle owners and senior Orient Express folk).

On the return journey, there’s quite a nice game terrine and an excellent cheeseboard, but the canapés are dreadful and the venison main course is overcooked, tough and looks rather lonely on the gigantic plate with its pitiful bit of potato puree.

The carriages of the Northern Belle are beautifully appointed and extremely comfortable. Service from the largely Liverpudlian and Mancunian crew is friendly without being servile.

But I can’t give a gold star to the food.

ENDS 888 words

Fact File

The Orient-Express of the North, the Northern Belle, ( runs trips throughout the country. The Oban Excursion on the Northern Belle enjoyed by Mike Souter cost £285 per person, including all meals and the ceilidh.

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland

ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London. ScotRail offers day return trips from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban for £23.70 per person. For details, visit


Champagne all the way on the Northern Belle

The Northern Belle offers a high quality dining experience

Oban is very much a working harbour

Scratches on a carriage from trackside bushes

Serving cheese in the Alnwick coach

The table setting for dinner

Stewards welcoming passengers aboard

All photographs Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com


With Scotland this year marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of poet, Robert Burns, with its ‘Homecoming Scotland 2009’ campaign, travel writer and broadcaster Mike Souter is one of many Scots who was delighted to have been lured back to the land of his birth. Especially as he was doing much of the travelling by train - his favourite mode of transport:

I can’t think of any other cities in the UK which give me such a rush of nostalgia as Glasgow. Having been brought up just eight miles outside, the memories of the city, especially its river, are deep inside the core of my being.
Sixteen floors up in the Crown Plaza Hotel, it’s amazing just how much has changed in the thirty years since I lived here. Then, my little flat on the Broomielaw, from where steamers used to set sail for the New World, was one of only six on the riverside. Now, gleaming apartment blocks are springing up all over.
The impressive Glasgow Queen Street station is just minutes away, giving fast access to the east and the north. Unusually for me, I have not planned my itinerary for today and, as there’s an imminent departure of a service for Aberdeen, I decide to join it.
I am impressed with ScotRail. All the trains I have used over the summer have been spotlessly clean, on time and with courteous and helpful onboard staff. This service is no exception.
I like Stirling and rate its’ castle well above that in Edinburgh. Apart from anything, the history in that part of Scotland, with William Wallace, Bannockburn et al, just oozes from every stone.
At Perth, I decide to continue on the coastal route towards Aberdeen. The line crosses the River Tay at Dundee, then hugs the splendidly scenic coast through Carnoustie and all the way to Aberdeen. The wetlands at Montrose call to me to get off, or ‘to alight’, as ScotRail signs and announcements rather quaintly seem to call it.
Several hotels in the area are announcing ‘high teas’. It’s an expression from my past that I had completely forgotten. But it’s lunchtime and I need a quick snack before heading south to Arbroath, where I have decided to spend the afternoon. Frosts the bakers entices me with a traditional Scotch Pie, which has as tasty a minced lamb filling as I have had in ages. Back aboard the train, dessert consists of an equally yummy rhubarb tart, washed down with ‘Scotland’s other national drink’, Irn Bru.
I’ve never been to Arbroath, but it turns out to be a lovely little town with a nice promenade and fishing harbour. It’s almost compulsory to purchase the local ‘smokies’, which cost £6.60 for two pairs. William Spink, who has been visited by Rick Stein, shows me around, while his daughter also sells me some wonderful oak smoked salmon.
I don’t think much of the town’s new visitor centre, where spending a penny now costs considerably more, but the nearby signal tower museum is not only free to enter, but has its own free loos. I want to climb up the tower, but I am told it has just been struck by lightning and ‘it’s only Norman Atkinson who can permit entry’.
Callum, an old chum from Primary School, has settled in Edinburgh and, as it’s the time of the Festival, I accept his kind invitation to visit. VisitScotland are at pains to remind me that Edinburgh has LOTS of Festivals and there’s probably one running as you read this. But THE Festival, especially the Fringe, is what attracts me and I am not disappointed.
I am guided round the City by Callum’s son, Drummond, who darts among the throngs on the Royal Mile, making me worried we will be parted. But he is never really far away and makes a close rendezvous when his tummy demands lunch to be served.
I have booked to see old favourites ‘Instant Sunshine’, making their 36th consecutive appearance. A surprise hit is a comedy show, ‘Sunken Luggage’, which we just happen upon. It’s what you do at Festival time.
It’s time to head north, this time taking the left fork at Perth to head north towards Inverness.
I am travelling with David Lang, a Canadian photographer brought up in Singapore and who is actually Scottish. At Culloden, we are both impressed by the splendid new visitor centre where we learn about the famous battle of 1746 that effectively ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite uprising.
While Culloden has been much improved by the stunning new visitor centre, both David and I find a visit to the nearby Bronze-Age Clava Cairns to be an even more memorable experience. Just HOW they moved all the huge rocks and standing stones is beyond comprehension.
It’s a gorgeous day, so we take a boat trip with Inverness Dolphin Cruises on to the Inner Moray and Beauly Firths. Pods of dolphin abound, the commentary is excellent and it’s just been a splendid day. The Corner Grill provides absolutely excellent sustenance, while bottles of ale from the local Black Isle Brewery wash everything down very nicely indeed.
It’s on the Black Isle that we discover the Munlochy Cloutie Well. This is a wood, where people tie bits of cloth to trees to bring them good luck. Very odd.
David heads off to Forth Augustus while I explore Cromarty. The court house is very disappointing, while the next door ‘Hugh Miller’s House’ is much more interesting. The sculpture in the garden is especially impressive. I have never heard of the bloke, but he made his mark in the 19th century as a geologist and evangelical Christian.
Driving back to Inverness, I stop to marvel at the incredible views across to Invergordon and Nigg Bay, where giant oil rigs far below look like dinky toys.
Dinner is at the Rocpool Reserve, the Roux Brothers first restaurant in Scotland, but the theme of ‘French country cooking with a Scottish twist’ doesn’t work for me. The restaurant just seems to be muddled about what it is trying to do.
Next morning, Jacobite Cruises has kindly invited me to sail with them on Loch Ness. The boat is mostly full of Italians, all wrapped up against some pretty incessant rain. But Captain Robin, who spends the end of the year as Santa Claus (he’s the spitting image), has a wealth of tales to keep me entertained as we peer through the steamed up windows towards Urquhart Castle.
At Drumnadrochit, I find a drowned rat by the side of the road. This
turns out to be Johannes, a very wet and cold German scout, whose
clothes literally steam as the car heating system puts some warmth back
into his body.
It’s slow going along the Great Glen, but outside Fort William the weather clears sufficiently for it to be worth taking the Nevis Range cable car. Loads of folk are taking up mountain bikes; there’s a VERY scary looking track back down.
We are given a tour of the Ben Nevis Distillery, now owned by a Japanese company, the highlight of which is when the manager takes us to the boardroom which Mel Gibson used as his changing room during the filming of Braveheart. Johannes is thrilled when he is given the opportunity to try on a kilt.
But there’s not a moment to linger, because we have to be at Fort William station to meet the Mallaig entry in the ‘World Cloutie Dumpling Championship’. This is being delivered by the Lancashire Fusilier steam train, which runs trips on what must be the most scenic rail route in Britain.
There’s nearly 40 entries this year, with the proud winner being named at the evening’s well-attended ceilidh at Lochaber College, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Since the college was opened in 1998, youngsters from the area no longer have to leave the Highlands to continue with their further and higher education.
The ceilidh is great fun, the Cloutie Dumplings are enjoyed by all and the College has pulled out all the stops to give a truly Scottish welcome.
Next morning, I catch the train south, enjoying the wonderful scenery through Rannoch, Bridge of Orchy and Crianlarich as I reach the end of my circuit by train. Since leaving school, I have travelled to many far flung corners of the world. But, despite the uncertainty of its weather, Scotland will always be home.
1363 words

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland
For more information on visiting Inverness and Fort William this autumn, log on to

For more information on Highland Homecoming part of the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations, log onto

ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. Its Strathclyde services cover the largest commuter network outside of London. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London.

For details, visit

Hugh Miller Birthplace
T: 0844 493 2158

Inverness Dolphin Cruises
T: 01463 717900

Nevis Range
T: 01397 705825

Culloden Battlefield
T: 01463 790607

Jacobite Cruises
01463 233999

Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow
Advance purchase including breakfast is £81.
00800 8222 8222

Glenmoriston Town House, Inverness
01463 223 777

All photos: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

The lovely Lunan Bay, south of Montrose
William Spink sorting out freshly cooked Arbroath smokies
View of the wetlands at Montrose station
Dolphin pictured in the Inner Moray Firth
One of the re-enactment staff at Culloden poses as a French soldier
The River Ness just upriver from the town
The winning entry in the 'World Cloutie Dumpling' championships
Rannoch Moor
A masque-seller on Edinburgh's Royal Mile
The view from my room at the Crowne Plaza, Glasgow

You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at:

Homecoming Scotland Part One


With Scotland this year marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of poet, Robert Burns, with its ‘Homecoming Scotland’ campaign, travel writer and broadcaster Mike Souter is one of many Scots who have been lured back to the land of his birth:

Thoughts of my childhood start even before touchdown. FlyGlobespan thoughtfully gives me an outstanding view of the Campsies and Blanefield before final approach over Milngavie and the River Clyde meandering out to sea. How that river courses through my life like a raspberry ripple through ice cream!
Travelling with hand luggage means that I am on the bus to Paisley within 20 minutes of touchdown although, at £1.60, the fare seems pretty high for the very short hop. Roll on the Glasgow Airport rail link!
Paisley’s Gilmour Street Station is an impressive structure, sweeping round a curve, with some lovely old windows, wooden mouldings and wrought iron work reflecting its Victorian heritage.
My first port of call, Gourock, is only forty minutes away. I am impressed with the cleanliness and punctuality of the ScotRail train. But I am in for a shock when we arrive at what used to be one of the Clyde Coast’s loveliest stations. Years of neglect and underinvestment by Network Rail and its’ predecessor means that Gourock is now run from portakabins, the glass roof long gone and the wrought ironwork rusting to decrepitude. How I could have wept. But there is no excuse for the litter. Nor for the station supervisor in his secure area ‘public not admitted’ having custody of the only key to the toilets.
It must be forty years since I took the CalMac ferry to Dunoon, to watch two of my brothers participate in the athletics meeting as part of the Cowal Games. I can bring back the memory of the 1000 pipers to this day.
I follow the sign to the tourist office, walk through the town centre, follow another sign back to the seafront with bag in tow, but never actually locate the information centre. (Locals tell me it’s on the prom and easy to find!).
But I have time to recall happy trips on Salar, an old wartime torpedo recovery vessel, owned in the 1960’s by a friend of my parents. I last saw her in Rothesay, looking very unloved.

Visit Scotland has kindly booked me into the Dhailling Lodge, a lovely little guest house on Alexandra Parade, nearly in Kirn. Afternoon tea is served in a splendid drawing room overlooking the prom, which gives you the chance to look at the menu for dinner. Very much a home from home with a great welcome from hosts who go the extra mile to make their guests feel welcome.
My visit to Dunoon is somewhat curtailed by the driving rain, but my walk through the centre certainly whets my appetite for a return visit.
Back at Gourock, the queue for the bus to Largs grows ever longer. The timetables have apparently changed and, when the bus arrives an hour later than expected, the poor driver has to deal with a load of angry pensioners using their concession tickets. I think I am the only passenger who actually parts with money, £3.70. But the McGills coach is warm, modern and the coastal views through the rain lashed windows are outstanding.
We pass Gourock’s outdoor swimming pool. Despite the conditions, people are actually using it. It may be heated to 84 degrees, but with lead-grey skies it really does look chilly.
Off Largs, HMS Hurworth is practicing minehunting, another reminder of my 38 years with the Royal Navy and Reserve as well as many visits to the Clyde on warships. Despite visiting Rio de Janeir, Sydney and Hong Kong, there is actually no river passage in the world quite as special as this one.
It’s my first ever visit to Millport and I am surprised to find that Cumbrae is only five miles from the mainland. A bus connects with the ferry for the 15 minute journey to the centre, £2.70 return.
Millport wraps itself around the waterfront, with Kames Bay being especially picturesque. It’s as if time has stood still with Victorian properties looking much as they would have done 100 years ago. I’d happily spend a few days exploring; next time, for sure, I will bring my bike.
I have time to explore Glasgow. I started my journalistic career at the art-deco Scottish Daily Express building in Albion Street, now apartments. With respect to subsequent owners, I’m slightly grumpy that it is now known as the Herald Building.

The City Chambers offers free guided tours. Although I have been inside on many occasions, especially during my time with Radio Clyde, when do you actually look at a place when you are either working or attending receptions? Some of the marble and ceilings is outstanding; we are lucky that there is nothing going on in the debating chamber, so I can be a councillor for a short while. I vote to bring back trams!
I have another reminder of Radio Clyde at the top of Buchanan Street, where stands the statue of Donald Dewar, who I saw often at Anderston Cross when we broadcast from there.
The joy of a rail pass is that you can make spot decisions about a destination. I was intending to go to Stirling, whose castle I rate well above that in Edinburgh. But there’s a train to Aberdeen about to depart, so I will go to Perth.
En route, we pass some really pretty countryside before arriving at what is a very attractive and well-maintained station complex.
I have two more treats in store. One is a lovely traditional afternoon tea at Goodfellow and Steven in the High Street; the other is seeing the beautifully restored carriages of the Royal Scotsman train, with its stylish Great Scottish and Western Railway livery. Dinner is being prepared and I think about becoming a stowaway, but I am sure they would notice. One day, maybe.
The line from Perth to Edinburgh passes some of the nicest scenery I have seen so far, although the heavens open as we cross the Forth Rail Bridge. ‘Just a wee bit of rain’, exclaims a fellow passenger. In fact, although there has been quite a lot of rain during the trip, it’s mostly been short, sharp showers and I haven’t had my umbrella up once.
It’s been too windy.
In Edinburgh, Princes Street is an absolute mess, but it’s all in a very good cause. Trams are coming! (Memo to Glasgow City Council).
I’m only passing through the Capital, because I want to take my first train trip to North Berwick. As a youngster, I used to caravan there with the family of a school chum and we used to have an Inter School camp at nearby Scoughall.

The train creeps into the station at just over walking speed. The driver tells me that it’s on quite a steep hill.
The town is just as I remember it. Not that I actually remember it at all. But, like Millport, it’s retained much of its historic charm. The promenade and links area is beautifully maintained, while the harbour is busy with fishing boats, leisure craft and orange survival-suit clad folk taking trips to the Bass Rock.
Having visited the very helpful tourist information centre and the nearby excellent public loos (with many well-deserved awards), I choose the Grange Restaurant in High Street for lunch, where three courses, at £8.95, is outstanding value.
I select a very tasty liver and brandy pate, a lovely mix of pork with black pudding with a good selection of vegetables, plus a very naughty bread and butter pudding. Service and food is excellent, but I am not keen on the paper napkins and tablecloths.
It’s back to the west, for my final ferry trip, this time to Arran. If there is one single place which brings back memories, this is it. From scout camps and family holidays, to running the press side of NATO exercises and visiting on warships, this is truly like coming home.
I am delighted to see that the Caledonian Isles is busy, the delights of Arran clearly not fading in the modern consciousness.
Goat Fell is hiding under a little hat of cloud; but I have been up there and probably still do have the t-shirt somewhere.
In a week, I’ve only used public transport. Every train has been bang on schedule, it has all been very modern roiling stock, the carriages have been spotlessly clean and it’s all been very impressive.
Even Globespan’s eight hour delay as a result of an aircraft bursting tires in Alicante – and their parsimoniously mean £6 food voucher - can’t spoil things.
If VisitScotland wanted to invoke memories, they have succeeded. Mind you, I haven’t thought about Burns once.

ENDS ` 1412 words

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland

Caledonian MacBrayne is the largest fleet in Scotland operating 31 ships which sails to 24 different destinations off Scotland’s west coast, with some of the most spectacular coastlines and landscapes in the UK. From Arran in the south to Lewis in the north, the network covers some of the most beautiful and dramatic places in Scotland. Website: Telephone: 08000 66 5000
ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. Its Strathclyde services cover the largest commuter network outside of London. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London.

For details, visit

A Broad and a Mill


For the first time in six years, Berney Arms Mill, one of the tallest of its kind, is easily accessible to the public. We sent award-winnning travel writer and broadcaster, Mike Souter, on to the Southern Belle on the inaugural trip from Great Yarmouth:

I have lived in Norfolk for 28 years but Berney Arms has not, until now, reached the top of my places to go list. Apart from anything, its’ isolated position at the southern end of Breydon Water at the entrance to the River Yare, means it has been almost impossible to reach except by boat or on foot.

In any case, over the past six years, it has been closed completely, but now, after a refurbishment costing some £150,000, English Heritage has re-opened it. Even so, the only chance you will get to see inside this wonderful part of East Anglian heritage is on Mondays until the end of August by taking a trip on the splendidly restored passenger vessel, the Southern Belle.

Peter Jay at the Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus told me during my researches for my six-week series on the Broads which you will be able to read each Saturday from 1 August that, ‘I must include a trip on the Southern Belle’.

I am delighted to have had the recommendation, because the former Cornish river vessel on which skipper Steve ‘Tug’ Wilson has lavished much love (as well as £150,000 of his savings) should be regarded as one of Great Yarmouth’s maritime jewels.

Any other port or area which had this lovely vessel as part of its’ tourism package would be giving it a great deal of support. The fact its’ potential appears to be being almost completely ignored by the authorities saddens and frustrates me greatly.

The craft has plenty of upper-desk space for its’ maximum load of 100 passengers, with a large awning to protect passengers from the elements. Down below decks, there is more seating in the attractive main saloon. Varnished wood is the theme here, as throughout the boat, where can be found the excellent ‘Earls teashop’. On the inaugural trip last week, Kairin Shawcroft from Lowestoft was dispensing perfectly-brewed cups of tea and coffee, yummy home made cake and a wide variety of freshly made sandwiches.

I was impressed with how easy it is to board the Southern Belle. Helpful crewmembers were on hand to ensure safe passage on board. It’s just a pity that a town with the maritime heritage of Great Yarmouth cannot offer a more attractive embarkation point than that offered at Havenbridge House. Especially as the Port Authorities charge £1 per passenger for the privilege!

Southern Belle offers a wide variety of different trips, including Breydon Water and to see the Waveney Valley andd Oulton Broad. The Berney Windmill Tour leaves the quayside at 11.30am and 2.15pm each Monday until August 31st. The round trip takes around two and half hours as it sails out along Breydon Water.

This is undoubtedly potentially the most tricky part of the Broads Network on which to navigate, with, as an example, a yacht hired from the Hunter Yard at Ludham, recently having a pretty nasty argument with Vauxhall Bridge when she failed to cope with a strong tide.

But ‘Tug’ Wilson, the skipper, has years of experience and, as this is his third season on Breydon, has a great deal off knowledge of as well as respect for the strength of the tides.

The route passes close by Burgh Castle Roman Fort on the opposite bank to the Berney Arms Mill. This third century Roman fort, which I had visited only the day before, is remarkable in its size and well worth a detour if you have transport. The Fort is another local attraction in the care of English Heritage. Most passengers just watched the world going by, just marvelling at the beautiful and tranquil surroundings, as we made our graceful passage. But the journey also gives any keen bird watchers the opportunity to see Avocets and Marsh Harriers to name just a few of the birds seen out on the RSPB marshland area that surrounds the mill.

Berney Arms was built in the mid 19th century and was originally used to grind clinker, a constituent of cement for the adjacent cement works that used to sit on the same river bank. The mill also took clinker from the brick works that used to sit on the opposite bank at Burgh Castle. Bizarrely, the same night as the cruise, I was unexpectedly taken to see the remnants of that!

Berney Arms is a Tower Mill and stands proudly at just over 70ft (or 21m) on the river bank with seven floors, all of which are accessible to visitors on these specially scheduled trips. However access to the upper floors is by steep ladder style stairs and for this reason English Heritage is not allowing access to under-fives.

Simon Tansley, who is visitor operations supervisor for English Heritage properties in the Great Yarmouth area, was also on board the inaugural trip. He told me that he’s delighted to be able to offer access to Berney Mill after its six year long closure: “The conservation work on the mill has taken longer than we would have ideally wanted but the mill is now looking great with its sails back in place.” A sentiment with which I entirely concur.

English Heritage has spent over £150,000.00 on the conservation work at the mill over the last few years. The work has seen the replacement of the four sails, plus the fantail. There has also been extensive repair work to the mill cap, as well as re-tarring of the exterior walls and a complete overhaul of the mill mechanism.

Although the sails won’t be turning for the foreseeable future, the mill is in complete working order. After the closure of the cement works at Berney Arms the mill was converted to a drainage mill, pumping water from the marshland back into the river by use of the large scoop wheel which can still be seen alongside the mill today.

At the top of the mill, the view of the surrounding area is quite stunning and the circuitous nature of some of the rivers and channels are clearly evident.

I was thrilled to have had the opportunity both of travelling on the Southern Belle and being able to see inside the mill itself.

On the way back to Yarmouth, I shared salty sea tales with ‘Tug’ Wilson. Even the Breydon Bridge seemed to be impressed, almost seeming to be raising itself in salute as we headed back alongside.

The Southern Belle is a delightful way to see the Broads and Rivers of Norfolk and North Suffolk and I thoroughly recommend a trip.

ENDS 1209 words

All photographs: Mike Souter,


The boat trips are currently the only way to see inside the mill and these can be booked by calling Tug Wilson, the skipper of the Southern Belle on 07906 020225 or by contacting the Tourist Information Office on Great Yarmouth sea front. Further information is also available on the English Heritage website;

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Surprising Thetford


There are probably thousands of East Anglians who wouldn’t dream of visiting Thetford. Straddling the border between Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t had the best of press in recent years. But, as MIKE SOUTER reports, it’s actually a town that offers a wealth of surprises:

For most of us, Thetford is just one of London’s overspill towns, with a bit of a reputation for social deprivation, large council estates and, despite a bypass, a place where we get stuck in traffic jams on the A11. There’s not much in that little list to persuade us that, in fact, it’s one of the region’s most historic towns and well worth a visit.

I first ventured there more than 25 years ago. In the run up to Radio Norfolk being launched in 1980, the town council put on a bit of a do to welcome the new broadcast team to the area. Subsequently, a chum from my broadcasting days became the catholic priest in the town. Stopping off for a meal or a cup of tea as I drove up and down to London was my first real introduction to the town.

I was somewhat startled then, when my old chum from my five-a-side footballing days, Stuart Wright, achieved nationwide publicity when he announced the commissioning of a £20,000 Captain Mainwaring statue to mark the town’s long association with the BBC TV series, Dad’s Army.

Apart from knowing that Stuart had given up a well-paid accountancy job to become a house-husband, that he would choose to cycle rather than use his car and that his trainers were invariably held together with Araldite, I didn’t have any real perception how the name Thetford runs through him rather like the writing in a stick of rock.

Born and brought up in the town, as were his father and his grandfather, who was a lighterman on the Little Ouse. Stuart is 44, a Town Councillor, chairman of the Dad’s Army Museum, a board member of the Keystone Development Trust, a governor of the Norwich Road school and on the Thetford Grammar School old boys’ committee. No wonder he hasn’t any time to go to work!

With all those hats to wear, it’s not at all surprising that he is passionate about his birthplace and firmly believes that it has as much tourism potential as any other towns and cities in the region.

We start our tour at the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nunnery Lakes Reserve. This 200-acre reserve, with its’ proximity to the town centre is my first big surprise. We start the tour at the picturesque Nuns’ Bridges, adjacent to the former St. George’s Nunnery and where the town’s ducking stool used to be sited. Irrespective of the 60 species of bird that breed on the reserve, the whole area is an absolute delight. I’m also surprised at just how much totally unspoiled riverbank is so close to the centre of town; the Rivers Thet and Little Ouse both meandering through. Actually inside the BTO’s headquarters, we stop briefly to look at part of the ruins of the 15th century conventional church of St. George.

We pause at one of the many splendid information signs, where Stuart explains just how historic a part of the world we are exploring. Historians know that there was an Iron Age Fort in the town 500 years BC. In AD48, the Romans invaded; we are actually standing on the likely location for the historic crossing of the Icknield Way. Thirteen years later, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, led a revolt against them. At the time of the Domesday book, Thetford had a population of 4,000, making it the 6th biggest town in the country.

There are now some 28,000 folk living within five miles of where we are standing and, despite it being a glorious day, we’ve hardly seen or heard a soul.

As we make the short walk towards the town centre, I am told about Thomas Paine, perhaps Thetford’s best-known son. Born in 1737, Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Age of Reason’ gave him worldwide renown, especially in the United States, where he played an active part in the Revolution. Reflecting that fact, it was American money that financed his statue. There’s also a statue to the Maharajah Duleep Singh, who took up residence at Elveden Hall in 1863 after the British annexed his Kingdom of the Punjab. Another name from the town’s past is Captain W.E. Johns, author of the Biggles series of books, who flew with the Royal Flying Corps from the First World War airfield at Snarehill.

The Burrell Museum is housed in the factory’s former paint shop, where you can still see the markings of the Belfast firm who fabricated the building. During the First World War, Burrells employed 400 workers, some tenth of the town’s population. The company closed in 1928; there’s now a fascinating collection of steam traction engines and associated memorabilia.

Hardly pausing for breath, we pass Thetford Grammar School, founded around AD670 and said to be one of the oldest education establishments in Great Britain.

There’s a bonus when we find somebody’s at home at the Old Gaol, which dates from 1796. Sue Ward and Simon Hopkins are busy restoring the building into self-catering holiday accommodation, which should be open for business early next year. Sue shows us how they have cleverly incorporated many of the original features into what will undoubtedly become a hugely popular, but very quirky, place to stay. I know of nowhere else where it will be possible to take a shower in a former prison cell!

I’m glad of a break for lunch, because we have already covered a lot of ground. But I am given no time to dally, there’s a lot more to see!

For 30 years, the kitchen garden beside the Fison family home at Ford Place lay overgrown until a local community group took it over and restored it to something like its former glory. Now it’s a delightful spot to linger and reflect. Another is the King’s House Gardens, behind the building used as the Town Council offices and where Henry 1, Elizabeth 1 and James 1 are all said to have visited.

Onwards and upwards, literally, where, at Castle Hill, Stuart scampers to the top, leaving me trailing in his wake. At 81 feet high, this was the tallest medieval earthwork in Great Britain. There have been earthwork defences here since around 500 BC. It is yet another surprise in a day full of them.

It’s at the Dad’s Army museum that I get a real sense of the buzz that is clearly being generated in the town. This hugely successful, and oft-repeated, BBC TV series, was filmed in and around Thetford between 1968 and 1977.

In December of 2007, after a lot of hard work, a small museum at the town hall was opened. Now expanded and attracting visitor levels approaching ten thousand a year, there are hopes to develop even further, with a tearoom high on the shopping list. On June 19 next year, the much-publicised Captain Mainwaring statue will be unveiled on a site in the town. Friendly and enthusiastic volunteers give me such a sense of joy that I purchase the complete Dad’s Army series on DVD for Michael Timewell, the boss of Kelling Heath Holiday Park, who I know is a great fan.

We have a flying visit to the lovely 15th century timber framed house that houses the Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life. But you’ll have to travel to the British Museum to see the original pieces of the famous Thetford Treasure, the priceless hoard buried locally in Roman times but found only thirty years ago.

Our final port of call is the Cluniac Priory, founded some 900 years ago. Of all the places we have been to on this trip, this is the only one I have been to before. With its’ extensive ruins, it’s certainly well worth a second trip.

It’s been quite a tour and I am exceptionally grateful that Stuart has fixed up for us to have a cup of tea with some of his friends who literally live on the doorstep of the Priory’s 14th century gatehouse.

Even now, as I write this, I am still astonished by the sheer scale and quality of what Thetford has to offer. Spend a day or two discovering for yourself; I can’t believe you’ll not be just as surprised.

ENDS 1367 words


The best website for Thetford is

The tourist information office is housed within 2New Horizons Travel Agency in the Market Place, has brochures and will give you local information. 01842 751975


All photos: Mike Souter. SouterMedia.Com

A lovely road roller at the Burrell Museum in Thetford

A tranquil river scene within half a mile of Thetford Town Centre

A typical example of how old worked stone has been re-used alongside flint

Stuart Wright, wearing his hat as chairman of Thetford's Dad's Army Museum

The roof of the Thetford Guildhall, made famous in the German Paratrooper episode of the Dad's Army TV series

The ruins of Thetford's 900-year-old Cluniac Priory, one of the largest monasteries in East Anglia

Thetford Grammar School, believed to date from the late 7th C, is one of the oldest seats of learning in Great Britain

The Iceni Tribe probably built the earthworks surrounding Thetford’s Castle Hill, the largest medieval earthwork in the country

Thetford's history is well represented on information signs such as this

You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at:

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Google Friend Connect

Cruising Without the Crowds


With 38 years full and part-time service with the Royal Navy, you might think that MIKE SOUTER has had enough of messing about in boats.

Far from it. In recent years he has travelled on some of the world’s best-known cruise lines. When the opportunity came to travel back to his home in Spain in a ship that takes just over 100 guests, he jumped at the chance:

Wanting a change from the vast cruise ships that carry thousands of folk, I consult with Andrew Davies, who works for Fred Olsen subsidiary, Go Cruise.

Andrew suggests I have a look at the itinerary of ‘Island Sky’, one of eight former Renaissance Cruise Line vessels, which is chartered by Noble Caledonia.

She carries a maximum of just 116 passengers.

I dig out my copy of the excellent Berlitz ‘Cruising and Cruise Ships’, a must-have book before you reach any cruising decisions.

Not only is it an interesting read, it is a no-holds-barred report on the quality of each vessel, its’ strengths and weaknesses, cabin sizes, entertainment, passenger to crew ratio and much more.

I pay the deposit, then the balance and, for several months, I dream.

Day One - Plymouth

Today is as wet as it could be. I have stayed with friends at their lovely house near Exeter. After a most convivial lunch with them and my former Royal Navy colleague, Nichola, who now does the PR for the RN College at Dartmouth, we drive down to meet the ship.

Island Sky is berthed at Millbay docks, the port from where Brittany Ferries leave and, despite it being boarding time, we are told to wait in their pretty soulless and uninspiring lounge. I appear to be, by about 15 or 20 years, the youngest passenger.

Dockers are loading all the bags on to a flat bed lorry, giving everybody’s luggage no protection at all from what can only be described as a tropical downpour.

When boarding starts, I make a beeline for my cabin. It’s VERY spacious indeed, all mahogany-effect wood, brass and mirrors. The bathroom even has a very classy teak-decking floor. I like it a lot.

Nineteen films are scheduled to be shown and I am keen to see at least half of them during the voyage.

I set off to explore. There’s a nice lounge, where afternoon tea is being served and, one floor up, a bar and library. The restaurant is a couple of decks below and it’s far too wet to explore the promenade and observations decks.

As we partake of tea and cucumber sandwiches, the crew is loading all the suitcases on board. Back at my cabin, my laptop case is sodden and, were it not for my daily paper, which has absorbed its’ own weight in water, the computer might not have survived.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Gina, my Filipino cabin steward. She quickly scoops up all my wet possessions to take them to some secret drying place on board.
As we set sail, the rain mercifully clears and we are given a grandstand view of Plymouth Sound and the Hoe.

I have never known a crossing of the English Channel like it. Drawing only three metres and high for her length, Island Sky is clearly a lot better suited to calmer, tropical, waters.

Soon after leaving port, the information desk is doing a great trade in seasickness tablets and little paper ‘mal de mer’ bags have been strategically placed around the ship.

While Island Sky can take 118 passengers, there are a lot of single travellers onboard, so there are just 68 of us, two more than the crew.

The night is one of the worst I have ever had at sea (second only to a winter trip from Great Yarmouth to Schevingen on a shallow-draught Norfolk Line ferry). I sleep only in fits and starts, grabbing the edges of my king-sized bed on which, bizarrely, there is only a single duvet. At one point, I make one step from the bed to the bathroom, covering about 15 feet in one roll-assisted giant leap.

Day Two – At Sea

At 0600, I use all my nautical experience to have a shower while not falling over, then head for the bridge. The Russian Chief Officer, Alexsey, tells me there’s been a gale force seven, with waves of up to 20 feet. I like Island Sky’s ‘open bridge’ policy and become a regular visitor.

I join one of our guest lecturers, Gordon Corrigan, for breakfast. He’s been retired as an army Major in the Royal Ghurkha Rifles for 11 years and is now a military historian. We have a comical meal, which involves catching most of the contents of the table before it slides off on to the floor. We note that there are less than twenty guests in attendance.

By mid morning, Island Sky is not corkscrewing quite so crazily and there’s a good attendance in the lounge for the first of our ‘Enrichment Lectures’. Doctor David Cordingly was head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, among much else, and naval history is his specialist subject. His lecture is about Lord Cochrane, a British Naval hero about whom I knew precisely nothing, upon whom the Master and Commander Books were based,.

Inspired by the excellent talk, I now have an autographed copy of David’s book, Cochrane the Dauntless.

After an excellent lunch, I participate with enthusiasm in what we used to call in the Navy, ‘a deck head survey’. Gina and the head housekeeper, Mario, have replaced my single duvet with proper king-sized sheets and blankets.

Before dinner, Gordon Corrigan gives an excellent talk about the Peninsular War. It’s in a very different style from this morning’s lecture, but equally stimulating.

We are supposed to be meeting Captain Georg Thomsen at a welcome cocktail party and dinner, but the weather has put paid to that. The open seating in the restaurant means that I have already met and chatted to lots of different passengers. There are retired doctors, solicitors, teachers, nurses and military folk, together with some very successful business types. After last night’s storm, most folk opt for an early night.

Day Three – La Rochelle, France

Hurrah! A much more comfortable night and, at 0700, we are already alongside in La Rochelle. I’m looking forward to seeing the WWII submarine base, but, for some inexplicable reason, it’s not allowed.

There are included guided tours in most of our ports, with optional trips for those who want to venture a bit further afield, often accompanied by our guest lecturers.

La Rochelle is one of the biggest ports for leisure boats in France; there are literally thousands of yachts in port. There’s a lovely historic and pedestrianised town centre, plus a charming port area with the original guard towers still intact. I thoroughly enjoy the maritime museum, housed in a former weather ship and a trawler. The afternoon market is as colourful as any I have ever seen. It’s simply a delight.

Quite a few of my fellow passengers have confessed to me that they arrived on board with secret stocks of alcohol, so I head to Monoprix for a few purchases of my own.

Our third lecturer, Richard Nurick, has spent fifty years in the wine trade and knows his onions. Well, his grapes. I’ve chatted to him already at mealtimes and his knowledge is truly encyclopaedic. A few samples of Loire Valley wines are just the thing before we go to change for our postponed welcome cocktail party and dinner.

There’s a little scroll-type object on my bed, tied up with a red ribbon. I am to be among the chosen few to dine with the Captain tonight. It’s one of only two evenings where a jacket and tie is requested (there are never black tie evenings) and I wish I had my Naval uniform with me. Captain Thomsen is ex-German Navy and latterly commanded their wonderful sail-training vessel, the Gorch Fock.

There’s a change to our programme. Apparently a sandbank has moved, which means we can’t get to St. Jean de Luz later in the week. But the bonus is that, instead of spending tomorrow at Arachon and travelling by bus to Bordeaux, we now have time to travel all the way up the River Garonne and dock right in the city centre. Brilliant!

Day Four – Bordeaux, France

I’ve been up since the crack of dawn. The pilot boarded at midnight for the 60-mile passage up the Garonne River. I’ve never before been to Bordeaux and to berth right in the middle of the town is such a delight. Just a few steps away from the ship is a splendid modern tram service so, armed with a day ticket, I criss-cross this splendid city till I drop. There’s so much wonderful architecture and grand avenues
that it’s almost too much to take in. Bordeaux is simply superb.

The water feature in front of the Bourse is magnificent, changing from a pool to a fountain, then a water spray. I vow to return.

Most people decide to take dinner tonight on the lido deck, watching the banks of the Garonne go slowly past. It’s just delightful. In my cabin, Gina has decided to sculpt one of my towels into an elephant. At least, I think that’s what it is.

Day Five – At Sea

There’s something under the door this morning. It’s a birthday card. I am 56 and some clever person in the purser’s office has spotted the date on my passport. There’s a little note to ask whether I’d like my special day marked at dinner. It’s one of many nice little touches that have greatly impressed me on board.

Richard Nurick lets us sample cognac and armagnac before lunch and, prior to the evening meal, David Cordingly tells us about ‘The Wooden World: Ships and seamen from Columbus to Nelson’.

In my cabin, there’s an ice bucket with a nice bottle of bubbly, so I invite retired Royal Marine colonel, Nick Thompson, his wife Tessa and Captain Thomsen to help me polish it off. Except Nick, poor man, is under doctor’s order’s not to drink alcohol and has to make do with a diet coke.

I still have not managed to see a film on the in-cabin movie channel.

Day Six – La Coruna, Spain

Almost all of the passengers are taking a trip to Santiago de Compostela, one of Catholicism’s major pilgrimage sites. To compensate for our cancelled visit to St. Jean de Luz, the trip, which includes lunch at Santiago’s wonderful parador, is being given to everybody on a complimentary basis.

I’ve got a lunch appointment. Captain Thomsen has kindly allowed me to invite a Spanish Navy friend on board. Commander Nanclares is the base commander at Ferrol, where, last summer, I did my last job in naval uniform for NATO. I have needed to get his full name for security purposes.

My chum, who I know simply as Pachi, turns out to be Francisco Javier Pérez de Nanclares Pérez de Acevedo.

Day Seven – Leixoes, Portugal

I stroll the short distance into town, where I enjoy the fish and vegetable market and a much nicer cup of coffee than that available onboard.

There’s an early lunch before a tour of Oporto, that’s included in the voyage price. The town lies astride the River Duoro, with pretty steep hills either side. The riverside area of Ribeira, with its UNESCO world heritage status, is a bit touristy for me, but interesting nevertheless. Local youths are amusing the visitors by leaping from one of the bridges.

At Graham’s Port, much is sampled and I am among very few on the tour who purchase a bottle to lay down for Christmas.

Day Eight – Lisbon, Portugal

I love the sail up the River Tagus into Lisbon. There’s an included tour, but I have had enough cathedrals for a while, so decide to buy a day pass for the comprehensive tram and metro network. I’m glad I did; I had forgotten just how hilly Lisbon is!

We only have four hours ashore, which is a pity, because Lisbon deserves a lot more. With ports coming thick and fast, I think a day at sea would perhaps have been welcomed by most folk rather than a rushed port visit.

Day Nine – Cadiz, Spain

We dock right beside the historic centre. A lot of Spanish-based expatriates don’t bother with Cadiz, which is a pity. Founded in 1100 BC, it’s one of the most historic cities in Europe. The main parts of interest are all very walkable, with a lovely promenade.

Day 10 – Seville, Spain

I am asked to be tour guide for Nick and Tessa Thompson, a task I am delighted to accept. We are berthed almost beside the wonderful Plaza d’Espana, which is being superbly restored to its original 1929 glory. We manage to get Nick a free ticket (proof of retirement age required) for entry into the Royal Palace, the Alcazar, where we enjoy a very decent cup of coffee and a wonderful stroll in the extensive and delightful gardens. I ask two local police officers where to take a typically Spanish lunch and we repair to the cool of a restaurant interior for a nice selection of tapas. Nick ignores the doctor and, for the first time in a week, enjoys a beer.

During a Spanish wine-tasting back on board, Richard Nurick is impressed that I am well acquainted with ‘Ribero del Duero’. ‘Most Brits don’t get much beyond Rioja,’ he tells me.

Day 11 Seville, Spain

Island Sky has called at 7 ports and sailed a distance of 1653 nautical miles since leaving Plymouth.

I’m impressed not only with the fact that my 70Kg of luggage has found its way onto the quayside, but that it is perfectly lined up.

It’s what I have come to expect. The staff on Island Sky has been superbly efficient and keen to please. There’s been no stuffiness, ships’ officers mingle freely with the passengers, the information flow has been good and I am hugely impressed.

Small ship cruising might not be for everyone; but for me, the chance to mix and mingle with all sorts of interesting folk, especially at mealtime, was brilliant. There were no big shows, bingo or quizzes, just a bit of piano playing by the excellent Robert Fuchs.

As I board my high-speed AVE train for the two-hour journey home to Malaga, I pick up the one book that I have opened since leaving Plymouth ten days ago.

I never did find time to watch a film.

ENDS 2356 words


Mike Souter booked his cruise through Go Cruise, who offer substantial discounts on brochure prices. 01952 402301.

For full details of Island Sky’s programme and all other cruises offered by Noble Caledonia, call 0207 752 0000

The Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2010 is priced at £16.99.

All photos: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

Bordeaux Bourse and pool
Ferdinand the Navigator in Oporto
La Coruna Town Hall through arch
Cepe mushrooms and wonderfully fresh vegetables in La Rochelle market
La Rochelle Harbour and Towers
Lisbon tram and post box
Plaza d'Espana, Seville
Island Sky alongside in Leixoes

All photographs: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at: