Bravehearts under wet canvas

28th July 2000 at 01:00
NOW if you're reading this, you are clearly not sunning yourself on the Bermudan strand, nor edging your yacht round an Aegean headland. But whether this is because you're poverty stricken, a TES Scotland swot, or just happily hanging out at home, the beleaguered Scottish Tourist Board is delighted you are here.

Delighted, in fact, that anyone is here, since tourist figures have slumped appallingly, and guillotines sway over STB heids' heids. The strong pound, high petrol prices, nasty weather and rotten service - all are variously held to blame. But what are the facts? Can the Scottish Experience be both memorable and cheap?

Our intrepid research team (me, my 11-year-old and her giggly friend) tested out the coalface experience of today's holidaymakers in a classic July setting - the camping and caravan site of a seaside resort. Amid, in fact, the genteel charm, fine beaches, massive rocks, golf courses, fascinating single-track railway and beach balls of North Berwick.

It's a smashing place normally, our neat secluded camp-site had excellent facilities, and we could have had an idyll. Apart from two enraging Scottish traits. It rained in sheets all weekend from the time we rolled in and the cafes where any sane person might expect tae eat therr tea had all closed by 5.30 - except for one, where they said they weren't usually open so late.

The world of caravan and camping occupies a parallel universe. A friendly one, but full of mystery and unspoken knowledge. Initiates sit at breakfast in the perspex-windowed porch of exotic tents with more mod cons than your average hoose; plastic pipes of all colours and descriptions flow from their caravans to mysterious equipment; the grizzled, weatherbeaten old basic camping wizard is always there too.

He pops up, gravely concerned, to reinsert my pegs in the right holes, hammering them in with his magic mallet, dousing the leaping flames from my meths stove which threatened to annihilate the entire camp-site in 20 seconds.

A remarkable achievement of mine, I felt, in the midst of a flood.

Let's be honest though. Camping in the rain is dire, and no STB initiative is going to overcome our nation's natural gifts from God - except perhaps gigantic, infltable, covering domes. The kids never help with anything, always running off to play pool or cover their clothes in soaking wood chips from the play area, and you're left to do all the work.

Packing gear and putting it into car - three hours. Unpacking and erecting gear at camp-site - three hours. Trying unsuccessfully to sleep - seven hours.

Repacking gear and putting it into car - three hours. Unpacking, washing and replacing at home - six hours. Personal time: reading in the car, drinking wine from a plastic bottle - 30 minutes. Walking round the back of the caravans between showers and gazing out to sea: 30 minutes.

What to do after I'd packed up, though? Vital to seaside towns in bad weather (yet, grimly, so often missing) is an indoor attraction which is both interesting and open. North Berwick is at least blessed with the new, much discussed Seabird Centre. This is, as the kids would say, a "cool" place.

The most revolting task you'll have is to sniff and guess what horrible smells might be (like reeking guano . . . surprise, surprise).

There are hands-on activities beyond count to absorb your charges while you flee to the newspapers in the decent non-exorbitant cafe. They include peering through powerful telescopes at unsuspecting anglers, rubbing brasses of puffins, cracking shells with pretend curlews' beaks, and guiding those star attraction cameras which bring close-up "live" footage of seabird colonies on the Bass Rock or Fidra.

I'm sorry though, but the rivetingness of watching in close-up 2,000 identical gannets or gulls endlessly sitting about on rocks quite passes me by. This risks a lynching, because (a) birdwatching has an enormous following; and (b) as the great railway bore, I'm calling the kettle black-headed - having just attended an enthralling fanatics' convention in the middle of nowhere at Riccarton Junction, where there are neither trains nor buildings left to watch.

Now that's the sort of activity holiday the STB could market for enthusiasts all over the globe - complete with its terrifying, esoteric approach by car through waist-high wildflowers on the trackbed. Alas though, I'm just off for more punishment - a pre-booked, seaside holiday in Sussex.


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