Thanks for your letters of concern wondering where I'd got to. (Your list of poisonous creatures indigenous to South America was a nice touch. As were the instructions on how to rob a bank in Spanish which you cribbed from Butch Cassidy). As it turned it out, Sarah took the news of my meeting with Steve remarkably well and didn't feel the need to harm me. She was just glad he wasn't still here when she got home. As a result, I didn't have to sit on the naughty step for any great length of time. I did, however, get sent to Balamory as penance. This was a bit like being sent to Coventry but involved taking the entire family with me and having to endure much more singing.
Tobermory (where Balamory was filmed) is only slightly easier to get to than the dark side of the moon. We spent most of Saturday travelling. We took the train to Glasgow, changed trains there for Oban, got the ferry to Craignure and then rode a fairly scary bus round the island to the land of PC Plum and Miss Hoolie.
The kids spent a lot of the journey arguing over whether we were going to Tobermory or Balamory. Fraser was for Tobermory, Marie was for Balamory and Lewis is at an age inbetween where he wasn't quite sure. He understood that they made Balamory in Tobermory but couldn't quite grasp why we didn't bump into Spencer during our stay. I think the whole trip messed with his head. Fraser struggled to recall the name of the island on which Tobermory is situated until be came up with a handy memory aid: Mull as in Mull-ti-player. (He's not addicted. No. No...)
There is a point an hour or so north of Glasgow on the train where the world ends. Houses become scattered, mobile phones give up and the sheep start walking around on their hind-legs because they think there's no one around to see them. The scenery is beautiful but sometimes desolate. The track becomes winding, hilly and overhung with trees. We were surprised when some branches caught the side of the train and sent wet leaves raining in through the open window. Marie looked on the bright side. "Salad!"
When we reached Oban I realised the low level of my expectation when I said with genuine excitement, "Look! There's a Woolworth's!" To be fair, there was also bowling next to the station but we didn't have time and went for a quick tour of the shops instead. Fraser scored a small stack of Pokemon books in Oxfam. In Blockbuster I noticed that they rent out entire DVD box-sets for between £5 and £7 for a week. I thought, 'Wow! Wish we had a Blockbuster near us.' Then I looked at an entire season of 24 sitting on the shelf. Twenty-four episodes in a week. That's more than three a day. That can't be healthy. Maybe it's a good thing there isn't a Blockbuster close by...
The short ferry trip across to Mull was fun and brought back memories of childhood. In particular, I was reminded of a sight-seeing ferry in Spain I went on with my family when I was about seven. On that occasion we were sitting on the top deck and it started to rain. Everyone else ran for cover. We, however, being British (or just hopelessly optimistic) put on our waterproofs and got steadily soaked. The captain took pity on us, invited us into his little control booth and played us Max Bygraves tapes. (I didn't say fond memories...)
The ferry to Mull had soft-play. It was more a padded cell with squishy shapes, really, but it was sufficient to keep the kids amused for half an hour. A couple of mums were having a conversation and, in a Twilight Zone moment, one of them mentioned how she'd rented an entire season of 24 for a week and gone slightly mad. Spooky.
Near the gangway of the ferry was a stack of leaflets giving advise on how to drive on single track roads. I should maybe have taken one for our bus driver. We had some 'entertaining' moments on the forty-five minute drive to Tobermory as we whizzed along the narrow, twisty, up-and-down road which frequently ran along beside water. At least we've found travel sickness pills which work on the boys, though. (They're called Joy-Rides).
As for Tobermory itself, it's pretty and there are plenty of restaurants but there's not much else to it. The whole place is built on an incredibly steep hill which made exploration difficult. We did find a small swing-park but we had to leave in search of plasters after Fraser went down the slide using his brother's head as a mat. There's a children's farm but that was too far out of town to be realistically walkable. Buses are few and far between. Even half the Balamory houses have changed colour.
We stayed three nights and any longer would have been stretching things. Waiting to catch the bus home, an old man chatted to us. In the middle of his life story he said, "What do you think of the place. Bit of a dump, eh?"
This was somewhat off-message compared with the official tourist leaflets which advertise a child-friendly town. Considering there's very little for children to do and there's a frequent lack of pavements, I'm not entirely sure what they were getting at. I guess 'Tobermory - child-friendly' sounds more appealing than 'Tobermory - usually free of ogres, witches, bear traps and Super Nanny'. Apparently, in the height of Balamory fever, the town was swamped with toddlers. Goodness knows what they all did. Tobermory certainly isn't a dump but it's more a place for wildlife spotters and hard-core OAP hillwalkers. It's not really somewhere you'd find yourself passing through, either. The locals must have been pretty bemused by a sudden influx of under-fives hoping to stalk Josie Jump. The toddlers' parents were probably equally bemused by the lack of locals. Our first meal was served by an Eastern European, there was a South African behind the till when we bought groceries and the Indian restaurant, although good, was somewhat surreal. Not what we'd expected.
After we'd discussed Tobermory, I told the old man at the bus stop that we'd taken the ferry across to Kilchoan for a day out.
"Did you go to the place where they sell teas?" he said. "It's quite nice."
This is akin to asking someone who has just come back from Niagra if they went to see the waterfall. In Kilchoan there are views, a few houses and the place that sells teas. It is, indeed, quite nice.
We returned to the gleaming metropolis of Oban - a place where it is possible to order three glasses of milk at the same the time without a waitress looking shifty and making excuses about the boat/bus/airdrop not arriving until four.
We had a while to wait for the train so we went and had lunch. There was no one else in the restaurant so they put us on display in the window to attract other customers. Unfortunately, Marie took one bite of her food and was promptly violently sick. This was probably not the kind of advertisement they were looking for. The manager didn't look impressed. I decided to distract him with a Spanish bank robbery. "Donde esta la caja?" I demanded. He didn't seem to want to tell us where the safe was, however. Sarah pointed a loaded toddler at him. "Manos arriba!" I said, raising my own hands in the air and making for the door. He was suitably confused. We beat a hasty retreat (and left a big tip).
We got home exhausted, only to discover water welling up from beneath the floor. Two days later and we still don't know where it's coming from. Marie is still ill as well and having very disturbed sleep which means I'm having disturbed sleep. I think it's some kind of test of parenthood. Correspondence may be intermittent for a few days.
Yours in a woman's world,