Friday, April 30, 2010

Uh… Wick

[Kyle]The time came for us to leave Helmsdale. We used a trip across town to drop off our recycling as an excuse to take a farewell stroll through the little village we have come to like so well. I always get a little melancholy upon leaving a place I like, particularly if I have no plan to return in the foreseeable future. I feel so fortunate that, with our lifestyle, we are able to see and spend quality time in places off the normal tourist path that we otherwise wouldn’t ever see. The harbormaster, Alex Jappy, stood on the opposite break wall and wished us bon voyage. He also said he was sorry we had to go to Wick.

The sail was very nice. We stayed within a mile of shore, where a tailwind and a following current pushed us past cliffs of red stone capped with green turf. We flew full main and screacher. There was one brief period of about thirty minutes in the middle where the wind just wouldn’t decide which direction to blow from or how strong. We would get the sails set and as soon as the boat started moving, everything had to be redone or undone, but it passed. Soon after, the wind returned to a nice reliable tailwind for the rest of the way. The rain that we thought we would be spending the day sailing through held off until we were secure at the dock.

Right at the low tide, just before the current switched, we arrived at Wick. The harbor is enormous and heavily blockaded against the North Sea swell. It has the feeling of a big fort that has been flooded. We motored through a small entrance into the harbor, then through another small entrance into an even better protected inner harbor. It was completely calm and flat in there.

Before we arrived, Maryanne had phoned the harbormaster, Malcolm, to tell him we'd be arriving after hours and to ask where he wanted us to tie up. He told her anywhere would be okay. Once we powered through the second entrance and the inner harbor spread out before us, we understood. We need not have worried. The entire marina had less than a handful of fishing boats and us. We picked a slip in the middle of a completely deserted finger of slips and tied up.

Wick Harbour - still early in the season

Malcolm, who otherwise had things to do that night (it was 7pm), graciously came out to give us a gate and bathroom key so that we would not be trapped aboard the boat. With our new freedom we decided to have a quick orientation walk around Wick.

I finally understood what Alex Jappy meant. Wick is bleak. Wick is grim. This place, particularly in an overcast sky, feels like half Dickens novel, half Batman’s Gotham. Three and four story buildings made of gray stone loom over gray streets. No window boxes or spindly trees interrupt the transition between gray building and gray sidewalk and gray asphalt. Or, for that matter, even the heavy gray sky. The eeriest thing about the place is that it’s so empty. A place this size should have way more people milling around but it just doesn’t. I had a certain uncomfortable feeling of conspicuousness as we roamed the preternaturally quiet streets all alone. It seemed the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel. I told Maryanne I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find Shawshank Prison standing there before us. Even though it’s not, the place seems covered with coal dust. The recession has hit especially hard here. Every business that we saw looked as if they needed three more customers today or they would be going out of business tomorrow.

The thing is, In spite of all of this, I kind of like Wick. It doesn’t take long before that feeling of isolation turns into a certain comfort about having the whole place to ourselves. This place could not possibly be on any sensible tourist’s itinerary, yet I felt a certain privilege at being in this neglected corner while all of the other tourists are busy snapping pictures of The Scott monument in Edinburgh.

Many years ago, before I even met Maryanne, The first night I ever spent in Scotland was in Wick. This was not because I wanted to see Wick, particularly. I was headed for the Orkneys. The ferry left before the train arrived, so I needed somewhere nearby and randomly chose Wick. I got in late and left early. I never got a look at the place or a sense of it, but I was excited at returning nonetheless, the circle being complete and all that.

It’s not all depressing. Everybody we’ve met here has been super nice. On our first walk, a man called out to us from the sidewalk of a nearby pub and asked if we were the Americans. News travels fast, huh? It turned out he was working on a survey boat called the Chartwell and had seen us come in. He and Maryanne talked shop for a bit (she had done seabed mapping for her last dissertation) and then he gave us a five minute run-down of what’s worthwhile and what we should skip within the town.

The harbormaster, Malcolm, who, like everybody else, is surprised that we plan to spend more than one night in Wick, couldn’t be friendlier. We are already being treated like long-lost family. Without us even having to ask, he gave us the best deal he could for our stay. Our initial conversation with him reminded me of the guys in Crosshaven, Ireland. He can’t do enough for us. We need diesel - no problem. How about kerosene for the heater (hard to find) – he’ll get it. We need a part – he’ll bring it to work with him tomorrow. The guy on Chartwell said he asked him if there was a grocery store nearby and Malcolm’s response was, leave him a list, it’ll be waiting for you on the dock tomorrow.

Feeling like we really needed to pace ourselves with all that Wick has to offer, we got a late start and headed for the Old Pulteney distillery for an afternoon tour the next day. We were, of course, the only two in attendance. The tour was really well done- definitely one of the best we’ve seen. All of that experience with tours means we had a good time stumping our guide (who was very sweet) with questions. Actually, Maryanne asked all of the good questions – “How does the length of time you leave the wash in the washback affect the quality of the flavour?) I got left with the bottom of the barrel questions – “So… these floors….cement, huh?” Maryanne: “No, Dear, it’s Concrete. Cement is just the binder. It’s mixed with sand or gravel and water to make concrete.” {Maryanne: I just wanted to say that this never happened, my husband has a very over active imagination some days... :-) }.

“Right, where’s the tasting room? That’s a good one.”

Old Pulteney Distillery, where we felt the pull to partake in a tour and a tasting

It is a very nice whisky. I had been looking forward to it since first tasting it on the Caledonian Canal at The Eagle pub in Laggan a week earlier.

Following that, we had a more detailed orientation stroll around. The sun was out along with a few more people and Wick seemed slightly more cheery. We found a nearby grocery and, with careful shopping, managed to get a dinner of a giant loaf of bread and a big salad for only 50p. The cheapskate in me likes that.

[Maryanne]I intend to fully explore Wick and the surrounding area. And I shall have a busy schedule to do it all (and the other jobs for the boat) while Kyle is off at work. Already we've discovered links to many famous names.
  • Thomas Telford is prominent again (he designed and built Pulteneytown, the harbour area of Wick - he even built the channel that transports the water from the local loch to the distillery; a man with priorities).
  • There are also two LS Lowry paintings of wick scenes. Lowry was the artist referred to in the '77 song "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs" by the one hit wonders Brian & Michael.
  • Writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited (indeed he wrote of Wick, "Wick. You can never have dwelt in a country more unsightly than that part of Caithness", and "... it is one of the meanest of man's towns, and situate certainly on the baldest of God's bays.")

1 comment:

Mommy Dearest said...

I'm surprised Wick didn't remind you a little bit of Cleveland or Cincinnati. Still, with your colorful description, the place sounds full of good-hearted and friendly souls, which will brighten almost any gray day no matter where you find yourselves.

Whew...using the word preternaturally in a sentence. I'm not worthy to be your mother!

I love reading your posts. You both are becoming more and more the accomplished writers, even when I know that isn't your goal. Maybe that's what makes it so natural.

Enjoy all your wanderings and explorations of Wick, Maryanne. You'll surely leave with new friends.