Walking with Beanie Bell on 25 April 2014

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I am walking with my good friend Beanie. Beanie and I have been friends since our undergraduate days in Theatre Studies. The second walk I did for 40 Walks was with Beanie’s daughter, Eloise. And now I’m at Walk 38. I am so immensely glad that we are here, taking time out to walk in Fortrose. We both reckon it’s probably nearly a decade since we’ve managed to spend this sort of time together (just the two of us, and for more than a few hours). I’ve never been to Fortrose (typical West Coaster). Beanie’s grandparents lived in the Muir of Ord and during the summer she and her family would spend weeks there, taking daytrips to nearby spots – Fortrose being one of them.

We alight from the bus just a bit after ten, and our first stop is to drop our overnight luggage in the Anderson hotel. The second stop is the Cromarty bakery on the High Street – one of two bakeries in what is really little more than a small village (two bars, two restaurants, two bakeries, Co-Op, Post Office, antique shop, hairdressers). I treat myself – in readiness for a long walk! – to a two course meal: a macaroni pie followed by a delicious slice of almondish cake topped with caramel icing. All washed down with a strong cup of builder’s tea. We sit on the benches outside the Catholic church, appreciating that in spite of forecasts, it’s dry (though it’s always drier here, and 40 Walks has not yet let me down).

Duly fortified, Beanie leads the way to the beach – a short walk along the High Street and down past Fortrose Academy (and a useful bench built by its pupils). We also pass by the campsite where Beanie, Jess and the kids stayed last summer – pretty empty today, but it’s still early spring even though blossoms are blooming, and the yellow of the gorse is energisingly vibrant. (Smell that coconut scent.) The skies brighten enough for Beanie to put on her cool sunglasses.

The beach is a beautifully stony, expansive and totally empty stretch of land. We survey the thousands of stones like treasure hunters, looking out for special specimens, choosing carefully the couple we commit to carrying in pockets for the duration of our walk. Many of the stones are patterned in lines etched through blocks of colour. Seaweed deposited on one has transformed it into a cheery, smiling face – a suitable icon. I pocket a stone that gleames with silver and another that calls out to me in its honey coloured smoothness.

We’re so busy stone hunting that we don’t see the group of people congregated near Chanonry Point until we’re nearly upon them. And then we notice that they are all looking out to the Moray Firth – a few of them sporting powerful camera lenses. Dolphins! Just out there! A fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing; a fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing; a fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing… We watch the bottlenose dolphins as they emerge, then dive, trying to guess where they will emerge again. Thrilling. Lucky. We aim our cameras and shoot, over and over, hoping for the best (but in the event, as we will found out later, largely failing save for a few blurred black spots). It’s difficult to tell how many dolphins there are, but we reckon on about three. (It’s early in the season for dolphins.)

Arriving at Chanonry Point and the lovely lighthouse (first lit 1846), the cold wind hits us. The point is a remarkable land feature, seeming to cut the Firth into two. On the other side of the point, the beach changes entirely, from smooth stones to fine sand, deep rusty coloured. The remains of four sandcastles resist the gusts. The long beach ahead of us, like the one now behind us, is entirely empty. (The dolphin watchers seem to disappear with the dolphins.) Steps suspended in air tell a tale of coastal erosion.

We are headed for Rosemarkie Bay, site of Beanie’s childhood forays. As we get nearer, the large rock in the distance is pointed out – a landmark of childhood that anchors memories in place. At the Rosemarkie Bay café (community owned), a number of benches, personalised with names and images carved into the wood memorialise loved ones in idiosyncratic rays. We follow the beach round the bay and I understand why this spot would be the site of choice for young explorers – interesting rock formations (for climbing) which nest clear rock pools (for fishing). I can easily imagine my younger self whiling away happy hours.

After a welcome cup of warming tea in the café, we head off on the second stage of our walk – leaving the sea and heading inland to the Fairy Glen, an RSPB Nature Reserve. The wildflowers are beginning to blossom here too, though the trees remain largely bare. The path follows burns and streams, wooden bridges leading us up to two beautiful waterfalls. Thinking of Eloise and Hector, we keep an eye out for likely fairy homes (spotting a fantastic one in the base of tree trunk). At the end of the glen, we emerge out onto the road and with a bit of judicious map-reading (ho ho) head towards a quieter B-road which – if our planning is correct – should lead us back to Fortrose.

It’s nice to emerge from the cover of the Fairy Glen into more open skies. A steep hill carries us past young a Christmas tree plantation and a very spooky bungalow (backing onto a dark forest). We are aiming for a good view over Fortrose and though we doubt ourselves, in due course the view is indeed gifted to us as the town and the Moray Firth open up below. It’s a fantastic vantage point, showing the route we’ve just walked, the point and the two bays each side of it. It’s been a long and lovely day of walking and by the time we reach the bottom of the hill, we have earned our refreshing pints – appropriately called ‘Windswept Blondes’. We two windswept blondes drink them down gratefully, sitting beside the wood burning stove of the Anderson’s. Fortrose, I will surely be back. Beanie, thank you for introducing me to the East and to a little bit of your past, as well as to your future (I know you will be back here too).

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