Travel light, said McMum, and she was right. Who wants to be weaving in and out between wheelie suitcases of station platforms with bobbly bits on the concrete to stop people from slipping? Not I, said the fly, especially with the Green Goddess on my back.
Serendipitous timing meant that I was travelling to Inverness First Class, which was luxury apart from listening in to conversations between some seriously snobby people; I thought that I would sleep but the view from the window was so fabulous that there was no way that was going to happen.
The East Coast Line (can't bear to mention that horrible man's brand) takes in one view after the other, from the southern flatlands, through Yorkshire, past Durham City with its cathedral and castle and deep well of red brick terraces; crossing the Tyne over the bridge with the view of more bridges to dear old Newcastle Central Station (there used to be a recording booth on the concourse where you could record a vinyl flexi-disk for five shillings). Then the train glided up to Berwick, past Alnmouth and Holy Island in the distance, over the Tweed where you can spot swans as little specks of white, far down below. It is still a beautiful stone-built town clasping the cliffs and looking eastwards towards the North Sea and it twinkled in the afternoon sunshine. Suddenly, we stopped and the burnt smell of emergency brakes filled the carriage.
Four young ginger cows with blunt juicy noses watched us from their field. A train had broken down ahead, and we had to go backwards to a part of the rails where the points could be changed so we could overtake it. The cows watched, not even chewing; the train reversed, and then moved forwards again. The cows were entranced. Reality agri-TV had finally arrived in the borders, and they were the first to enjoy it.
We slid into Edinburgh Waverley and I remembered the many times we'd disembarked there with the Offsprogs, first as babbies, then as toddlers, then eventually teenagers, to visit McMum and McDad. It's so peculiar no longer to have that base in Scotland; at one point we all knew Edinburgh as well as we knew London. The train headed north, and further north, through Pitlochry where McMum and McDad used to come and pick us up (often sloshed), off the train with the empty Thermos that had been filled with Gluhwein. Up through the mountains, where the glaciers have carved the landscape into drama after drama, the sky providing the lights and the reflections in the lakes, the footlights; rainbows, half rainbows, tumbling, surly clouds. Spotlit mountain tops and dark valleys provided camouflage for deer and electricity pylons defiantly carried cables across the most hostile-looking landscapes (the fallen pylon is particularly evocative of some industrial metal animal skeleton that has been left to rot in nature's time).
The train was an hour late into Inverness but luckily the hostel was close by.
The bus journey from Inverness to Ullapool went through more gorgeous mountain terrain. I have driven that journey many times but you don't see as much with your eyes on the road. The sick bag detail on the bus was a comical touch.
In the main street, a little wispy Nordic-looking girl was busking with a fiddle. She looked as though she was going to be blown away by the wind and indeed she disappeared for a while, only to reappear in an alleyway somewhere else ten minutes later. A convoy of six brand-new tractors roared past, bound for the ferry terminal. Ullapool harbour is industrial-vehicle heaven.
Anne Wood had offered a room to stay, and later Sot Otter (who organised the gig), came by and we headed for the rehearsal of the choir she has set up, Three Sheets to the Wind. It's impossible to describe the wonderful feeling of listening to a choir rehearsal where everybody wants to be there, everyone wants to sing their best and everyone trusts the choir leader. Being immersed in that lovely sound of human voices interacting with each other, it's a luscious experience. It's a large group (yet not everyone was there) but they are also disciplined and so committed yet so relaxed at the same time. They are pitch-perfect and hold their harmonies simultaneously as solidly as rock, but as lightly as feathers. I think that experience has been one of the highlights of the year!
So we went round to the Argyll Hotel, and after a quick sound check, the choir sang their four numbers, finishing with a really rousing version of Oh Happy Day that gave the western winds a run for their money. They got a massive round of applause and I reckon they will have a bunch of new people joining them after that performance, including the barman!
Sot had taught them the backing vocals of Women of the World, and from their seats they sang the choruses (I'm sorry I played it a bit too fast!) and also the 'She's a Femme Fatale' bits of Femme Fatale which Karen led from the sofa after making a long journey, I hope the first of many adventures for her. They also joined in singing The Sea, and made it a very special night. Thank you so much to Sot, and to the choir who deserve to be heard far beyond the walls of the Argyll Hotel. What a complete privilege!
It was great to see Robbie there, where he's working on the campsite, and also great on the way back to catch up with a few people over coffee, here and there.
I reckon I've travelled around 3000 miles so far on this tour by car, bus and train and of course on foot. Big thanks to everyone who came to the gig, massive thanks to Sot, and I am happy to say that all the Femme Fatale CDs were sold, which means more money for Refugee Action. It can still be downloaded from here, or bought from either me or the Charlie Tipper Conspiracy at gigs: