driving the NC500: prelude

This is a very special episode of twochubbycubs. 

In a break from the regular blogging (when did that start?) I am going to walk you through my recent adventures around the North Coast 500. Honestly, a man gets tired of finding new and exciting ways to make a kilo of mince interesting, and sometimes it is all you can do to strike out on your own. So, settle back in your comfy chair, slip your Compeed pads off your trotters and listen to me gab in your ear about my travels. Recipes are due to restart this week, but you know, I just want to write.

First, what is the North Coast 500? Ah that’s easy, it’s 288 miles of road going around Cornwall. Can you imagine? We went to Cornwall once – even visited Lands End, don’t you remember – and it was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t Scotland. That’s what drew me to the North Coast 500 (NC500 going forward) – it’s a 500 mile or so circular trip around the top of Scotland, starting and ending in Inverness. It takes you around some utterly breath-taking places and is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. You can do it as quick as you like – some people spread it over three to five days, some take a fortnight – you do you. There’s a whole bank of B&Bs, campsites, hotels, yurts, shepherd huts, caravans and wild camping opportunities to make the most of. It’s beautifully romantic and perfect for couples.

So, naturally, I left Paul behind. Which sounds awful until I explain the timeline of this whole trip. I read an article about the NC500 on Monday. By Thursday, I was on the road. I am lucky enough to have a job which allows me to work flexible hours and a boss who is an absolute delight. Paul on the other hand needs to be around at certain times so alas, couldn’t join me. I did think about postponing it but he was very keen for me to go away. Presumably so he can piss on the toilet seat himself, I don’t know. Either way, we agreed that I could go off gallivanting by myself (he stressed that bit unusually loudly, not sure why) and he would stay and make sure the cats didn’t torch the house. He’s a good egg.

Actually, let me expand on that. He really is, and I am uniformly rotten to him on here and our social media, but how many husbands cheerfully go into work every single day to allow their partner to go carousing around the NC500 on a moment’s notice? He jokes that he’s glad of the peace and I’m sure he is, but I do know his day doesn’t sparkle without me around to moan about him not making my tea quick enough. He would do anything for me and expects nothing back. So, to Paul: thank you. I’m sorry I call you names on here, but you really mustn’t make it so easy. But thank you, I love you really, there’s a reason why we’re approaching fifteen years together and it isn’t just because I’m excited for a crystal anniversary gift.

Bleurgh, enough schmaltz. So there I am, with a week or so ahead of me with nothing planned. No accommodation booked, no trip route mapped out, no places to visit. If you research NC500 you are told in no uncertain terms that you must book your accommodation well in advance because everything is always snaffled up super quick. However, I don’t like being told what to do: if a fireman shouted at me to jump out of a burning building, I’d stay in and burn rather than respond to his curt tone. You might call that being contrary, but if you did I’d tell you to fuck off.

Two things in my favour though: Scotland had just opened up from its latest lockdown AND I have flexibility, no kids, pink pound and a sassy sense of doing as I please on my side. So planning was easy – choose a few places to stay, drive no more than 100 miles a day – and stop whenever I fancied on the way. Piece of piss.

However – I do not encourage this. This, unless you’re very lucky, will not work with you on the NC500. Places do get booked up very quickly and no more so than ever than these days when people are reluctant to travel abroad. I used hotels.com, AirBnB and the North Coast 500 website to decide where to go. Do your research!

Hark at me getting the red pen of death out. At some point, I’ll circle back onto these blog posts and add a fancy banner and a map, but now, all you need to know is that come Thursday, I was anxiously wondering how I could terminate a work phone call without it looking terrifically obvious I had somewhere to be, had thrown two suitcases full of garish clothes into my car and emptied Paul’s testicles before he set out for work. You must understand that he walks funny if you don’t: he’s like the boiler from The Shining, and not just because he leaks rusty water after you tinker with his valve. I had originally planned to drive up to Inverness that day (the NC500 both begins and ends in Inverness, as you would perhaps expect a circular drive to do so) but it was kicking into the afternoon before I was likely to get away, so I went onto AirBnB and selected a reasonably central apartment (their words, not mine) in Edinburgh which boasted floor to ceiling views of the city. Well, who could resist the opportunity to introduce oneself to Scotland that bending down naked to pick up my socks and showing off my bumhole to Edinburgh would afford? Not I. £89 for one night and the promise of chocolates left all over the place to snaffle. Deal. You can take a look here.

With one last kiss for the cats and eighty-seven checks of the house to make sure I hadn’t accidentally left a chip pan smouldering in a drawer or set the bathroom tiles on fire, I was ready to go – after a twenty minute goodbye conversation with one of three good sets of neighbours we have, of course. The others didn’t say a word, merely stared owlishly from their windows, lost in their internal angst over who may get my parking space. I gave them a cheery two-fingered wave as I clattered out of the street, and was on the road.

Well, in theory. The drive from where I live up into Edinburgh is an easy 115 miles straight up the A1 and, taking into account my need to stop and empty the crisp packets from the passenger seat once and a while, I was hopeful to arrive for about 5pm, which would give me more than enough time to fuss all the cushions, decant their toiletries into my suitcase and stare wistfully over to Arthur’s Seat. However, I managed to get four miles up the road before realising that I’d left my work laptop at home. As I said, work were being incredibly supportive of my whim – they always are – but even they would probably suck their teeth at me going off-grid for a fortnight without so much as a promise that I’d bring back some shortbread. Work essentials reacquired, and a few moments of pause where I double-checked I hadn’t absent-mindedly plugged the Instant Pot in and filled it with fireworks, I really was off.

NC500

 Destination: somewhere North of here

The original plan was simply to shoot straight up the A1, but here’s the thing – it’s a terribly boring drive for the most part and one that I do almost every month. I considered taking the A68 up through Jedburgh which offers far better views and a chance to pose by the England/Scotland border rocks. One of our most treasured photos of each other is us standing there, Paul with chocolate on his face and me with a full-on erection that I’m trying desperately to hide under my hoodie. We were young, in love and full of the giddy spontaneity that being together for fifteen years knocks straight out of you. Deciding that I couldn’t re-enact that picture on my own without ending up on a register, I instead chose to drive up to Wooler and cut over to the A1. Besides, the road would take me near a bookshop that I’d been meaning to visit for a while, and frankly, after twenty minutes of driving, I needed to rest.

Mindful of the fact I didn’t want to deviate without good cause, I rang ahead to the bookshop to enquire whether or not they had the particular book I wanted in stock. After enough time passed to make me wonder whether he had gone to print a fresh copy for me, the chap came back and excitingly told me that they did indeed have the book and I could pop along at my earliest opportunity to pick it up. Excellent! The only books I had bought for this trip was a Stephen King novella, a book about how to deal with psychopathic behaviour and a book all about how to survive in prison, none of which exactly lent themselves to reading comfortably in a restaurant by myself without the chef locking away the knives ‘just in case’. After twenty minutes or so of staring at the back of a logging lorry and twenty minutes of swearing at the driver, I pulled into the bookshop to pick up my book. It would be a matter of moments, surely?

No. Having introduced myself as the bloke who had called twenty minutes ago, the chap behind the counter denied having put the book aside, or indeed, having the book at all. I explained that we had talked on the phone only minutes earlier, an act which he also seemed incredibly surprised by. So surprised in fact that he doubled down on his denial and instead chose to tell me we hadn’t talked on the phone at all. I can’t deny I wasn’t hurt: I have a voice that lights up a room, albeit because most people rise to their feet and start looking for the exit, and I thought our telephone tête-à-tête had been full of gay laughter and memorable exchange. I was insistent that I hadn’t had a mild psychotic break and that I had absolutely spoken to him – I recognised the way his nose whistled when he was thinking – but his pained face told me not to explore the topic any further and I left, book-less and almost an hour behind schedule. I may have accidentally knocked a plant-pot off his windowsill as I departed. I was off to an excellent start with my mission to charm all I came across.

Speaking of those I’ve come across previously, heading into Edinburgh was a veritable storm of salacious offers, filthy messages and photos that aren’t nice to talk about. See, the last time I was in Edinburgh properly was for Bearscots, which is a fabulous event where every gay man who has a credit account with Jacamo goes to gawp at others just like him. This was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID which I think we can all agree was the cruellest consequence of the pandemic. Paul and I had a merry old time there when we went, not least because I got to wear a leather kilt and have people coo at my back hair. That’s understandable, it is magnificent: I look like a wet ham joint that rolled behind the cooker. I’ve kept in touch with lots of people I met there and when I mentioned I was going up, my phone went off like a widow’s marital aid. However: this was to be a holiday all to my own, and I mostly keep my hand on my ha’penny these days, so I politely declined the lot. Mind, I hadn’t realised at that point exactly how long I’d be away from Paul’s church-bell-ringing touch, so perhaps I’d been a little hasty. Live and learn.

That point about the ‘on my own’, though. I confess something to you now – for the days before I left I was incredibly anxious about striking out on my own. I’ve been with Paul for almost fifteen years now and haven’t spent much time away from his heaving busom, and for those rare occasions I do, I usually have something else to distract me, like work. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my own company, though: I’ve always been a fairly independent person and, growing up in the country, used to making my own fun. But regular readers also know I suffer with two tendencies which would play on my mind: health anxiety and endless catastrophising. Unless I keep on top of both, I can find myself lost in lurid scenarios where my heart bursts from mild exercise or I knock my head getting out of the car and Judy Mallett my way off the face of the Earth. Anchored to my usual safety measures – Paul, the cats, even twochubbycubs to some extent – I’m fine, because they serve as distractions. But me, alone, with just my thoughts and all the Billie Eilish songs I could muster? Could be a different story. That said, a couple of years ago I made the decision to do anything I was scared of should the opportunity arise because frankly, the alternative is never living. Far better to try something and fail than sit at home and wonder what if. Which, in my case, usually goes ‘what if that fluttering eyelid is actually a brain stem tumour, James – what if?’ More on that later.

Finding the apartment was no trouble at all, but finding somewhere to bloody park was. The listing had reassured me that parking would be a doddle with plenty of free parking space outside, but this simply wasn’t the case, with yellow lines everywhere. I drove up and down that cobbled street so many times that I almost brought myself to orgasm. I did sit and wait whilst an elderly couple fussed and struggled into their car in the vain hope that they were about to free up a parking space, but they were clearly one of those pairings who drive somewhere, take out their egg sandwiches and sit enjoying the view over their dashboard until the sweet caress of death takes them away. There was one other space – a tight little parallel park job between cars whose owners had clearly parked up with blindfolds on – and I thanked the good people at VW for installing park assist on my new car. However, I was so delayed trying to figure out how it worked that by the time I had started backing into the space, an Uber Eats driver had shot into the space before me and missed my back bumper by a whisker.

Words were exchanged, and fiery ones at that. He pointed out my lack of indicating, I enquired whether he thought I was sitting in the middle of the road to rest my clutch. Luckily, in his haste to criticise my driving skills, he forgot to monitor his own and ever so gently, but oh so delightfully, reversed into the car behind. I bade him a cheery goodbye at that point, and you must understand that my smirk at his misfortune was entirely accidental, and drove off a little further down the street, noticing that I could park on the single yellow lines as long as I was out of the apartment by 8am. As I planned to get on the road first thing this wasn’t an insurmountable problem so I left my car, waited for the angry Uber driver to disappear over the horizon, cursed the fact I had packed so much, and made my way to the apartment.

Can’t complain about anything – I even managed to take the best photo I’ve taken of myself in years in the lift on the way up too. It’s the little things.

NC500

Unapologetically slutty.

The apartment was spotlessly clean, was equipped with everything you could need and they had indeed left Lindt chocolate everywhere, though this did give me a moment of panic that I wouldn’t spot one in the bed, sleep on it and leave it looking like I’d performed a dirty protest in the night. Which was silly in retrospect, because I’d always just use the towels for that. I have to say, I love staying in an AirBNB – for the most part, they’re so much more homely than a hotel and full of nods and winks to the owners’ personalities. For example, this one was full of charming little tchotchkes that even I liked, which is quite something as I’d happily live in the white room that Betina and Max created in Absolutely Fabulous if I could. However, due to the fact you are rated as a guest, there is a pressure to leave the place looking absolutely spotless lest your AirBNB profile is ruined by ‘left a skidder like a landslide on the toilet pan’ or something equally distasteful. I like to try and leave it exactly how I found it so it almost looks like no guest has been it at all, though the fetid combination of my shoes and flatus always give the game away.

NC500

There was the small matter of the creepy haunted doll that would slash my throat if I blinked.

I decided to try and have an early night given I had a long drive to Inverness to start the NC500 in the morning (not actually that long, but there’s so many places to stop on the way) but stepped out for an evening walk in the hope I’d tip my calories back into a deficit. Edinburgh in the early evening just reminds me how much I want to live there (well, no, I want to live in Glasgow, it’s like Edinburgh but you do seem less likely to be accosted by chinless gap-yah students trying to pull you to see their two-person eight-hour comedy act on the Richmond Bread Riots). I did a little bit of shopping, then decided to head back for the night, keen to get away in the morning before everyone else and, most importantly, before the traffic warden had a chance to do his worst. I had the first of many disappointing showers on this holiday then retired to a bed that felt slightly unusual, not least because I wasn’t being gently tipped to a snoring, farting hippo by the cruel force of gravity.

NC500

Adventure beyond.

That seems like an excellent place to leave it. I hope this gives you an idea as to how these trip reports are going to be – you’ll get about 300 words of useful content and the remainder will be me waffling on about absolutely nothing. But: I’ve got some tales to tell, and we’re off! Part two soon. Would always love your feedback!

J

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