Although Lewisham is a very inspiring place, particularly when the soft, autumnal dusk casts a romantic shadow over the wheelie bins and graffiti outside TKMaxx, I felt that I needed to get away from London. Last week was reading week at Birkbeck, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read (and write) somewhere completely different. My boyfriend and I discussed destinations such as New York, Mexico and Wolverhampton, but eventually settled on Scotland. The decision was a financial one: the cottage was free, and the thought of passing up a freebie makes my hives flare up. My friend, whose aunt owns the cottage, assured me that I’d be well and truly set for a week of literary creativeness as the three-hundred-year-old cottage was half an hour from civilisation down a single-track road, with only a few sheep and the Atlantic Ocean for company. There’d be no phone reception, no TV and no internet. So with Rabbie Burns’ poetry booming around my head and a CD of ‘80s one-hit wonders booming around the car, we headed north.
My boyfriend hates SatNav. He thinks it is making us stupid and less likely to survive nuclear warfare/zombie attack, so it was with some trepidation on my part that we set off from Oban – the nearest point of civilisation to the cottage – towards the Isle of Seil down single-track roads in pitch-black darkness with me reading the Ordnance Survey map upside down. I love maps, but they do not love me, so I unfortunately took us on the scenic route to the cottage via Armaddy Castle and Gardens. It’s a shame we couldn’t actually see the castle and gardens, due to a) the sleet, and b) it was 9pm. After a lengthy fight in what I assume was a field (I couldn’t see a bloody thing) we found the right road and stumbled across the cottage. It was lovely. We were so exhausted we just fell into bed in our clothes - we had no choice, it was freezing. I went to sleep imagining all of the lovely prose I would create with my bemittened fingers over the coming days.
Next morning, we shuffled out of bed, me wearing my puffa coat, dressing gown and fourteen pairs of socks, and had a look outside. I think it’s fair to say the neither of us expected there to be a mountain in the garden. We were speechless. The cottage was perched on the edge of an old slate quarry with the Atlantic twinkling on one side and Ben-something-or-other round the back. No wonder people write poetry about Scotland! This was magnificent! Feeling inspired, we rolled back inside to light the fire and get on with some work. What a great place to work on our individual projects! The other half’s an architect and had some housey things to draw in crayon (I always imagine him working with crayons, not sure why), and I wanted to crack on with my college work and start writing up an idea that’d been knocking around my head for ages. First we had to light a fire . . .
Having been bought up in London I have had very little to do with open fires. We have always basked in the warm glow of a combi boiler and radiator, and as I wear a lot of man-made fibres I prefer to keep well away from naked flames. This shouldn’t have posed a problem as my boyfriend never gets bored of telling me that he was bought up in the countryside (AKA the outskirts of Birmingham) and assured me that he could ‘knock up a fire in no time.’ He turns into some sort of Ray Mears/Bear Grylls type as soon as we leave London and starts eyeing up roadkill with a view to turning it into pizza topping. I noticed that overnight he’d acquired a ginger beard and a pair of fingerless gloves. Three hours later he was still fannying about with damp kindling while I tried to convince him to get a packet of firelighters involved. Either his bushcraft skills had lapsed or the coal was faulty. By the time we got the fire going my fingers had frozen into a pair of useless claws so I couldn’t even get my laptop open, never mind attack the keys with my ice-pick mitts.
We didn’t fare much better the next day as we decided to climb the mountain in the garden. As mentioned, I hail from London, so my mountaineering abilities are limited. I did climb Mt Fuji by mistake once, and vowed, as I stood in Hakone National Park outside Tokyo with bleeding feet, that I would never venture up another one. However, Ben-something-or-other didn’t look too Fuji-esque, and the view from the top was apparently spectacular so off we popped. I soon found out that a pair of £2 wellies from Lidl do not hiking boots make. They were about as malleable as two blocks of wood. It was like trying to scale a mountain with a chopping board attached to each foot. Despite this handicap, we made it to the top after a couple of hours, and the view was indeed awe inspiring. We started back down the mountain full of enthusiasm for an afternoon’s writing/crayoning. Unfortunately, a deep mist set in and we got hopelessly lost. I imagined us on one of those programmes narrated by Michael Buerk about idiots who climb mountains in flip flops in November then freeze to death while waiting for Prince William to come and rescue them in a helicopter.
We didn’t die, but it was dark by the time we got back down. Sadly, the rest of the holiday continued in this fashion. We had power cuts, the ancient cooker wouldn’t work, the car nearly slipped down a quarry and I kept being distracted by otters.
I didn’t write a word all week.