It’s been five years since we last visited the log cabins at Strathyre and having been there on two previous occasions – 2007 and 2008 – we found ourselves booking a fourth family trip there. Staycations have been the order of the day for a while now as my work circumstances have been somewhat haphazard but with so much on our Scottish doorstep why shouldn’t a holiday at home be any less exciting than a Europe-bound flight or transatlantic jaunt. The cabins are certainly no Mickey Mouse resort.
The five-day holiday began before we set off with the usual meticulous planning from my good lady wife – it’s the Guide leader in her. We decided (she decided, I agreed) to break up the 90 minute journey to the Cabins (just outside Callander) with a stop-off at Stirling, for a visit to the castle and lunch in town (or should I say city, given it was granted that status in 2002 as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee). We planned a similar sojourn on the return courtesy of a trip to Go Ape at Aberfoyle. More on that later.
An important part of any trip of this nature is, of course, the road trip compilation. Having a car stereo that can play data CDs (I had to bin the old one when a Randolph’s Leap CD got stuck) meant I could squeeze much more music on to one CD and therefore go without changing, a bit like a one-stop strategy in F1. An all-killer-no-filler concoction, with something for everyone, was put together with meticulous care. The reverse out of the driveway to star the holiday was supposed to begin with The Go-Gos’ Vacation. Windows Media had, in its infinite wisdom, decided to change the order and the first track turned out to be…A1’s Caught in the Middle. LIke I said, something for everyone. Let’s just leave that there.
Another vital part of the holiday preparation is ensuring that there are no TV clashes on the Sky box and that it’s left on the correct channel to avoid “Failed” recordings, a problem occurred on previous jaunts away. This involved me removing University Challenge, Only Connect, Grand Designs and George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces from the Planner to limit clashes. We made sure we’d watch them in our cabin and then return them to the Planner when we got back. You may mock but these precautions are vital for family harmony. You don’t want to be within knitting needle range of Kirsty when the recording of Downton Abbey hasn’t worked.
Our first stop was the Park and Ride a trebuchet’s launch away from Stirling Castle. Having visited the city before we knew the bus from there was the best option for getting round the centre as parking is worse than Edinburgh’s (and that’s saying something). Even the small buses struggle to manoeuvre past inconsiderately parked vehicles on the slope up to the castle.
Being members of Historic Scotland, something we decided to get the last time we visited Stirling Castle, meant we didn’t have to pay a penny to get in this time. Three different trips had meant the membership had more than paid for itself. It also meant the Audio Guides were free too and we decided to get our learn on. “Do you want it in English or do you fancy a challenge? How’s your Japanese?” enquired the rather playful ticket vendor. “Your French?”, he further jested. “Comme ci comme ça“, we spontaneously replied in unison. That made him laugh.
The castle was as stunning as we remembered it last time. The audio guide certainly enhanced the experience and I’d recommend it. From The Ladies’ Lookout we learned about the King’s Knot, Bannockburn and the Birdman of Stirling (seriously, what was he thinking?). As a family we’ll look for any excuse to dress up and we fulfilled that desire in the Tailor Room. Felicity also demonstrated her years of piano lessons haven’t been wasted with a burst of Vivaldi’s Spring and Pharrell Williams’ Happy on the clavichord in the Musician room, albeit hampered by a broken key (honest, it was like that when we found it). After an exploration of the Palace, the Great Hall and the Great Kitchens we headed back out to Argyll’s Lodging, which is situated on Castle Wynd approaching the castle entrance. Having missed this on our last trip here Kirsty was keen to see this wonderful renaissance building. Entrance is free if you have a ticket to the castle.
The 17th century townhouse, owned by a succession of earls and dukes, includes a wonderfully decorated High Dining Room, the grand fireplace situated within the Drawing Room as well as My Lady’s Closet, where Lady Anna Mackenzie, the Earl of Argyll’s second wife spent many days. The building was also a military hospital until the 1960s. In 1996, after years as a youth hostel, it became a museum.
Our check-in at the Strathyre Forest Cabins wasn’t until 4pm so, after a quick lunch at the local Weatherspoons, The Crossed Peels*, Kirsty and I headed our separate ways to kill some time before our bus back to the Park and Ride. Kirsty, as is her wont, headed off a local wool shop, McAree Brothers, and Flick accompanied me to Europa Music, the nearby record shop. While Kirsty was able to get some wool – as if she’d come away empty-handed – the only thing of interest for me in Europa was a 7″ singles box set by The Action sitting in the window with an out-of-my-league price tag of £100. With copies available on eBay for £60 we moved on. Still a good shop though and always worth a visit. (*The Crossed Peels took its name from the two bakers’ shovels or “crossed peels” and is a nod to the bakers who gave their name to the street at one of the pub’s entrances, Baker Street).
It’s not unusual when we visit London to spot a celebrity or two – you can’t move for them – but we didn’t expect to see a well-kent face as we waited for the bus back to the Park and Ride but, yes, doing the school run, was none other than TV historian Neil Oliver.
The half hour drive from Stirling saw us pass some familiar sites; sites we had visited on previous trips to the Trossachs but would be giving a miss this time, namely Blair Drummond Safari Park and Hamish the Highland Coo (at Kilmahog). Our usual breaks involve buzzing hither and thither trying to cram in as much as possible but this was going to be a lazier affair, one taken at our own pace. Dexy’s “There There, My Dear” played as we passed our first Beware of Deer road sign, shortly before turned off the A84 and headed for the cabins.
The Forest Cabins are on Loch Lubnaig (Gaelic for crooked or elbow, depending on which translation you prefer). The first thing we noticed was that the approach road – built originally by the Romans (hence the straightness of it) and latterly a railway line – had been repaired. In 2010 it was riddled with potholes and it was a veritable slalom of an obstacle course just to get to the cabins with your tires intact.
We were in Cabin 5, a Silver Birch one (Golden Oak and Copper Beech are also available – I’m not sure if they’re just names or if the cabins are made from those materials). Throughout the trip we tried to recall which other cabins we’d stayed in on earlier visits. After unpacking we went through our usual holiday routine whereby Felicity runs into every room to check everything out and I try every light switch to figure out which one switches on which light or appliance or indeed switches off too. There’s always something that is turned on by one switch and turned off by another. The other challenge, which only ever affects me in our family, is working out how the shower works. While Flick and I were busy trying to instigate a power cut for the whole site Kirsty wrestled with the TV. She couldn’t get it to switch on no matter what she did. “But there’s a red light!” It turned out it wasn’t plugged in!
The other major change, which had been talked about by the staff on our last trip, was the installation of hot tubs on the verandas of every cabin, Flick couldn’t get into it quick enough. It didn’t matter than the weather was somewhat drizzly. It didn’t take me long to join her. (On the grounds of decency I’ll spare you any photos of me in the bubbles, especially if you’ve just eaten).
Holiday or not it was still Quizzy Monday and we settled down to watch Glasgow beat St Peter’s, Oxford on University Challenge followed by The String Section pipping The Wayfarers by two points on Only Connect. (Kirsty and I, alongside my mate Dave, have appeared on Only Connect but that’s a story for another day). We ended the day watching what we consider to be the worst James Bond film of the series Quantum of Solace. Kirsty didn’t mind as she got to ogle Daniel Craig. Whatever floats your boat.
Our first full day began in rather leisurely fashion. I finally worked out how to use the shower but not before I proceeded to plaster the walls with shaving gel. I had somehow squeezed the top while it was facing the wrong way. I blame the tiny sink and low mirror, which appeared to have been put in for the exclusive use of Danny DeVito. I know at 6′ 3″ I’m deemed to be freakishly tall but these were low by anyone’s standards. But I have to say that that was my only (minor) complaint of the week.
Breakfast was followed by a game of Uno on the veranda, which was won by Flick. She then used her tablet to make a video tour of the cabin while Kirsty and I had a game of Scrabble (how rock ‘n’ roll are we?) When we last visited we were greeted by FAILTE spelled out on a Scrabble board in the main living area. This time they’d reverted from Gaelic back to English with WELCOME. A lovely touch nonetheless.
I sneaked the Scrabble by 6 points although we subsequently learned there were 101 tiles in the box instead of the standard 100 (there’s a pub quiz gold fact for you). It seems an extra R had made it’s way into the box. Possibly put there by pirates.
After a lunch of soup and a sandwich we went for our first walk along the Loch. A right turn at Reception would’ve taken us back along the road we came in on and off towards Callander. We were saving that journey for tomorrow so we ventured left instead and ambled along the shore at a leisurely canter. Flick had asked if we could go “skimming scones” and this mispronunciation joke ran and ran. None of us would be breaking any skimming stones world records anytime soon. I managed four and Felicity claimed five but we hadn’t actually witnessed it. Her complaint to the Court of Arbritration for Sport is pending.
Another game of Scrabble saw me see off Flick (aided by Kirsty) 293-247. On our arrival we had seen that there was going to be a quiz in the cafe at Reception on Wednesday so we used the daily showing of The Chase as a bit of light training. We’d already agreed that the TV wouldn’t go on until 5pm when the show started. While Kirsty prepared tea (or dinner, if you’d rather) Flick and I took another dip in the hot tub. Kirsty furnished me with a gin and tonic and suddenly all was well with the world.
Reception had board games residents could borrow and there was the aforementioned Scrabble but we had also brought a bag of our own. As well as Uno (original card game) we brought Ticket to Ride (plus USA 1912 expansion), Settlers of Catan and our latest purchase Carcassone. These aren’t the geekiest of games but compared with the standard fare of Monopoly or Cluedo we’ve been entering a realm over the past couple of years that only the likes of Will Wheaton or Sheldon Cooper feel at home. We even watch Table Top on YouTube to check out the latest gateway games! While Flick watched Building Cars Live on BBC2 (I was unimpressed with it, mainly due to the endless repetition of the same bits of information), Kirsty and I played the original Ticket to Ride. I say “played” but really there was only one person in it. Kirsty romped to victory (216 to 114) amassing a whopping 16 routes in the process. I may never recover from such a mauling. I was still trying to work out where it had all gone wrong as we settled down to the latest episode of Lewis. Even he and Hathaway would struggle to help me.
Overnight the weather wasn’t great but, just like the night before, it had calmed by Wednesday morning, leaving a clean, fresh autumnal rainbow of oranges, greens and browns. Sheer heaven.
After breakfast we hired a bike for Flick. Our plan was to head to Callander along Rob Roy Way with Kirsty and I on Shanks’ Pony and Flick on two wheels. She’s only really learned to ride a bike in the last 12-18 months so it was an ideal opportunity to increase her confidence. After the main entrance road, she’d be able to cycle without worrying about cars or dogs. After a shaky start she revelled in the freedom and proceeded to whizz off into the distance, waiting for us at various stopping points as Kirsty and I caught up. We stopped for a longer break at Callander and then returned back via The Lade Inn, where we stopped for lunch. And what a lunch. The Crispy Haggis Balls (with whisky sauce) followed by the Steak and Lade Inn Real Ale Pie were simply amazing. They couldn’t have got more meat into the pie if they’d stuck a cow on the table and gave it a pastry hat. With no room for pudding we headed off to complete the journey home. Flick’s new-found confidence meant that as soon as she got on to Rob Roy Way she was off, never to be seen again until we got back to the cabins. Kirsty and I began to regret the two pints of lager we’d each had to accompany the magnificent feast we’d had as we slowly tottered the three miles or so back.
We got back around 1615 and there was time for a much-needed and well-earned dip in the hot tub before The Chase. With no need for any dinner – the lunch was that good – we walked down to Reception for the advertised quiz. This kind of quiz is what Kirsty and I generally refer to as ‘a tricky away tie’, like when your favourite football team is drawn away to play a Finnish team whose name resembles a cross between a National Insurance number and the worst Scrabble rack full of vowels. You never know what to expect. Will we be the only ones there? Will there be any quiz jumpers on show? Or maybe it’ll be so busy we can’t get a seat. We needn’t have worried. We got the last table and eyed up the opposition, a mixture of couples and families.
There were six teams including us “Trivia Newton-John”. There were five rounds: General Knowledge, Food and Drink, Disney, Sport and the Picture Round, which we were given first. We struggled with the famous faces, managing 5 1/2 but we figured (hoped?) everyone else would struggle too. We knew one actor’s surname but went wrong with his forename (hence the half mark). We only dropped one point on General Knowledge but slipped up with another 5 1/2 on Food and Drink. We came into our own on the Disney round with Kirsty pulling out a rather remarkable answer to give us a full house of 10. For some reason there were only 9 sport questions – I suspect a contentious one from a previous quiz had been removed – and we only missed out on two. I thought we would have to swap papers with another team but we were all trusted to mark our own. We had nothing to worry about because the quizmaster had sat himself on a stool behind me so he could see everything we did was above-board. He kept muttering approving sounds when he’d seen our answers. After he gave out the answers we all handed our sheets over to him. He took one look at the sheets and declared us the winners “by a lot”. No reverse order reading of the scores with team names just, “well done, you’ve won!” Nobody else congratulated us but we didn’t care, we’d won. Our prize was either a late check out on Friday or a free Twilight Walk. As we had to leave early on Friday to go to Go Ape we plumped for the Walk on Thursday night. We skipped back to our cabin somewhat joyfully having won a “tricky away tie” convincingly. (I’ve deliberately not given away any of the questions in case they’re regularly recycled by them. Let’s just say that our individual best answers were Steve Carell (Flick), Four (Paul) and, the best of the lot, Kirsty’s Paul Dukas).
We finished the night off with two episodes of Grand Designs – one old, one new – and the Champions League highlights. With WiFi and Internet being patchy at best at the site I’d missed all the football scores. I couldn’t upload my emails for two whole days but that wasn’t such a bad thing. We did come here to get away from everything after all. We noticed that one family, when they were packing their car to leave, had brought with them their XBox! Seriously?!
More wind and rain brought Wednesday blustering into Thursday. After all our walking of the last two days, not forgetting our cerebral exploits of the previous evening, we decided to have a lazy day. A very lazy day. Not used to venturing such distances by foot I struggled down the stairs to enjoy a late breakfast. Two games of Scrabble followed with me victorious in both. You’ll note we’re a rather competitive family when it comes to card/board games. We stopped helping Flick or ‘giving her a chance’ when she started hustling us at Uno, our preferred game for long train journeys.
Flick went to her room to read and listen to “pop music” while Kirsty and I moved on to Carcassone. We haven’t had this game long but we all really enjoy it. It’s easy to pick up and this version also features a couple of expansions for when you want to be a bit more adventurous. Kirsty won and we adjourned for lunch. Fully sated with soup and sandwiches Flick joined us for a game of Settlers of Catan (pictured above), another great ‘gateway’ game. This is a game I tend to struggle at with the girls taking no prisoners. On this occasion however it was Flick and I who battled for victory with me winning a very close game. We celebrated with another trip to the hot tub. Who says that a hot tub in Scotland in October is a bad idea?
The Twilight Walk began at 6pm and we assembled with the others at Reception awaiting our instructor. I’d tell you his name but he spoke like a Scottish Norman Collier. We’re relatively local and managed to cut through it to understand him; lord knows what the Sassenachs thought. We all brought torches and, let’s call him “Jimmy”, shared out bat detection monitors and infra-red binoculars amongst the group. Our host told tales about various trees and plants, about the area in general and threw in some Scottish history and politics. I’m guessing he was a Yes voter! The “Bat Navs” were used to hear the bats’ nocturnal habits as we yomped through fields and country roads surrounding the site. Why one woman thought it was a good idea to wear Ugg boots is beyond me.
We ended the expedition of almost two hours in length – it didn’t seem like it – with a camp fire at the Ranger’s Lodge and we all gorged on marshmallows on sticks around the fire while telling jokes. (Felicity – What do you call a shrimp with three eyes? A shriiimp!) A lovely end to our time at the Forest Cabins.
With an 11am appointment at Go Ape in nearby Aberfoyle (half an hour away) we were up and about early. We had an extra-large breakfast to (a) fill us for Go Ape as we’d be ‘busy’ during lunchtime and (b) to use up food so we wouldn’t have to take it home. Despite this there didn’t seem to be anymore room in the boot on the homeward journey than there was on the way there! We had to check out by 10am but we were on the road by 9.30am as others were still struggling to pack away their Playstations (probably). We weren’t playing games, for a change.
There were two routes to Aberfoyle/Go Ape and we decided to let the SatNav decide which one we’d take. With time to kill we were glad it took us the slightly longer route, round the north of Loch Venachar, as opposed to the south. The views were truly stunning, as they’d been all week. The last three trips to the Forest Cabins had been in April and this was our first autumnal visit. I imagine that at any time of the year, in any kind of weather, the Trossachs looks amazing and so it was proving.
Felicity had been to Go Ape a few weeks ago with her godfather Gary and his girlfriend Catriona. We hoped this would give her confidence and she could “lead” us round, showing us what to do. We needn’t have worried about her; it was us adults I was more concerned with. We arrived in plenty of time and enjoyed a coffee in the cafe while soaking in more of the magnificent vistas from across the site, including people Zip Wiring out on to the course and others flying back in similar fashion. However our nerves weren’t helped by what looked like someone having got stuck and having to pull himself back along the wire. He looked suitably sheepish when he got back.
We were part of a big group and after we were fitted with our harnesses and the safety drills and rules were drummed into us we embarked on our “adventure”. Felicity being the youngest had to go first in our group of three, with the supervisory adult next. She wasn’t allowed to be more than one platform ahead of us at any one time.
The first leap of faith was taken and I soared through the air like an eagle only to make to make a somewhat undignified crash landing into a pile of woodchip. I tried to follow the instructions given to us by Hannah as to how to land properly – depending on which direction you’re facing – but they went out of the window and I was unceremoniously dumped on my arse! It wouldn’t be the last time. In fact I didn’t make a single decent landing. Neither did Kirsty. I saw Flick execute at least one good ‘running’ dismount.
There are five zones to get through before you return to base and we took our time. So much so that the 12 o’clock group caught up with us. The couple – mother and daughter – were very patient with us as we muddled through the various stages. Any doubts I had about Felicity evaporated as she went from platform to platform with ease while Kirsty and I crawled along. I felt the pressure of being “the man”, especially as an ex-matelot, to set an example. If Flick went the difficult route – a couple of sections had Easy or Extreme options – I would have to go too. Thankfully she took the short cut when the Extreme choice of stirrups was available. However, she went for it on the Tarzan Nets on Stage 4 and I followed suit. It wasn’t as bad as I thought but it showed me that I don’t have enough upper body strength and I need to sort out my fitness. But I did it and I was proud of myself. I was also proud of Kirsty for making her way round the course. She had a couple of ‘wobbles’ but showed remarkable bravery. Flick was simply fearless. Yet, what I can’t understand, is how she can whizz around a treetop course like this, making death-defying leaps and crossings and yet still won’t do a full length dive at swimming lessons. Hmm.
We stopped off at The Forth Inn in Aberfoyle for a well-earned late lunch and a pint (shandy for the driver), which we could barely hold because we were still shaking so much from our traumatic exertions high in the trees. Between courses I was able to use the pub’s free WiFi and catch up with a gazillion emails. We finally got home around 5pm (just in time for The Chase!) after an exhausting but exhilarating day. The whole holiday was wonderful. Very relaxed, at our own pace, with no hustle and bustle. You really don’t need to go to Mallorca or Aiya Napa or Disneyland when you have so much on your own doorstep. It was our fourth trip to the Forest Cabins and we’d have no hesitation in going again. We’re not the most outdoorsy people but there’s plenty more to do for those who are, especially with Ben Ledi behind the cabins.
As I posted on Facebook upon our return, “Love going on holiday. Loved the holiday. Loved coming home”. Sums it up perfectly.
P.S. When we last went away we came back to eight of those “brand new boiler” scam messages on the answering machine. We had a bet as to how many there would be this time. K went for four and I went for three. There were indeed four messages (“brand new boiler”…”brand new boiler”…”brand new boiler”…) but K’s joy was short-lived as the last one was a PPI one.