As a soft grey dawn breaks over Loch Affric in the Scottish Highlands, my fiancee Alizee and I stand at the water’s edge in bathrobes, sipping our morning tea. We’re steeling ourselves for a shock — the sensory jolt of our daily dip in the icy water.
A low mist hangs over the mountains; there is promise of a golden winter’s day ahead. We gird ourselves for the leap, then jump. The cold is numbing, literally breath-taking. Every nerve-end and sinew tingles into life with the startling chill of it. And as we duck our heads under the water, we shiver and laugh.
The dogs have joined us now — my three black spaniels Ella, Inka, Luna, and our golden retriever Mabel — swimming with their noses above the waterline. We strike out into the freezing depths for just a few metres, then it’s time to swim back to the shoreline, shake ourselves off (the dogs in a rainstorm of shivering droplets) and rush into the cottage to shower.
I never feel more exultant, more thrillingly alive, than I do after this morning dip. The dogs are rugged up snugly in their little turquoise towelling coats; Alizee and I are cosy in jumpers, thick trousers and stout boots. A wood fire blazes.
As a soft grey dawn breaks over Loch Affric in the Scottish Highlands, my fiancee Alizee and I stand at the water’s edge in bathrobes, sipping our morning tea. Pictured: James, Alizee and their dog Mabel
Next there is breakfast: porridge with honey from the bees I keep at Bucklebury Manor — my parents’ home in Berkshire — then newly laid eggs and my homemade sourdough bread.
This has become our new early- morning routine, how Alizee and I have begun our day since the latest lockdown — or lochdown, as we have come to call it — sent us scurrying from London to this remote and beautiful Scottish retreat.
I am fortunate because the Glen Affric estate, where Alizee and I are staying — we came up just before the latest Covid restrictions prohibited all but essential travel — is owned by my sister Pippa’s in-laws.
The main house, a Victorian lodge built in 1857, sits peacefully on the water’s edge, looking west up the loch. There is a cottage in the grounds and this is where Alizee and I are holed up: in contented isolation in this glorious wilderness, with just our dogs and wildlife for company.
I never feel more exultant, more thrillingly alive, than I do after this morning dip. The dogs are rugged up snugly in their little turquoise towelling coats; Alizee and I are cosy in jumpers, thick trousers and stout boots. A wood fire blazes. Pictured: James with his morning mug of tea
In the week we work, of course — Alizee for a financial start-up, while I run my own businesses — but the joy is, we can both do so from our remote Highland outpost.
But our leisure hours and weekends are crammed with activity, with the rugged outdoor pursuits we both love.
There is the loch flanked by ancient Caledonian pine forests, where we sail and paddleboard — the dogs joining us, too — into sunsets so stunning they bathe the whole glen in rosy light.
Feeding the estate’s horses — Rosco, Menno and Marcus — has become a happy ritual. The dogs trot behind as we drive the quadbike, laden with hay bales, to the field where they are waiting, frisky with anticipation, for their fodder.
They nuzzle the dogs, who dart and gambol with them, excited by the sudden flurry of activity.
The great Lakeland walker and writer Alfred Wainwright once observed: ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothes,’ and this adage could not apply more keenly than in the Highlands.
The dogs have joined us now — my three black spaniels Ella, Inka, Luna, and our golden retriever Mabel (all pictured together) — swimming with their noses above the waterline
But Alizee and I, dressed in woollens and waterproofs, are never perturbed by the cold or wet. Driving polar winds and horizontal rain do not deter us from our 20-kilometre hikes and runs in the Munros, those isolated mountains that surround the glen.
Last weekend we laced up our fell-running trainers and resolved to race to the top of the nearby peak. It is lonely, rugged and challenging; there is no path, but we followed a series of little cairns (rock piles), the dogs, excited, scampering alongside us. The wind had a sharp edge and icy rain whipped up as we began the ascent.
Sleet stung our cheeks like needles and on one wind-lashed ledge Alizee could barely stand. We almost made it — within metres of the peak — when the cold and wet of the gathering dusk defeated us and we turned tail to skip and leap our way downhill again.
There’s a fisherman’s bothy — a tiny one-room hut, warmed by a log-burning stove — two miles from our cottage, where we stop to light a fire and in the steamy heat revive ourselves before the final leg of our run.
On summer nights we have slept here, bedded down on the floor in sleeping bags, and woken at dawn to birdsong.
Feeding the estate’s horses — Rosco, Menno and Marcus — has become a happy ritual. Alizee is pictured with the horses
Sometimes I think Alizee, despite her slender frame, is tougher than me: one of the reasons I fell in love with her was because she adores the wild outdoors as much as I do.
She would rather be clambering up a Scottish mountain than shopping in Chelsea, or warming her toes in woollen socks by a log fire in the Highlands than teetering on high heels down the King’s Road.
We also share a deep affection for dogs. In fact, I always say that Ella —the much-loved matriarch of my spaniel family — introduced me to Alizee.
A couple of years back, I was having a drink with friends in a restaurant in South Kensington and Ella, my constant companion, was as usual at my side. She wandered off and I noticed her stop to say hello to a slight, pretty young woman with a river of blonde hair, on the other side of the balcony.
In the week we work, of course — Alizee for a financial start-up, while I run my own businesses — but the joy is, we can both do so from our remote Highland outpost. Pictured: Alizee paddle boarding with Mabel
Ella sensed an affinity; the young woman stooped to stroke her. They seemed, the two of them, to be getting along swimmingly.
When it was time to leave, I wrote a little note and asked the waiter to pass it to the pretty blonde woman at an appropriate time. The note was, of course, signed by Ella.
And so it all began between us. Since that day — although Ella and my other spaniels remain irrevocably my dogs — Alizee and Mabel have adopted each other. Their close friendship has blossomed.
It is fitting, too, that in 1868 Lord Tweedmouth, then the Laird of Affric, bred the first golden retriever on this very spot; the most beautiful of Scottish glens. So when Mabel visits, she is coming to the birthplace of her ancestors.
And during our stay, as we isolate from the hubbub of a busy world (both from choice and necessity), the silence and proximity to nature is a balm to troubled minds.
If the weather is good, we eat outside — we often cook game, sustainably sourced from the estate, for supper — and as we munch we might glimpse an otter perched on rocks by the loch, where dragonflies flit during the summer. Pictured: Alizee looks out over the water
If you sit quietly enough, the wildlife forgets you are there. You might glimpse a shy pine marten sitting on a crag, or a rare red squirrel. We have watched the aerobatics of a golden eagle circling and swooping in a cobalt sky.
At dusk, chevrons of geese fly overhead squawking. Bats swoop and dart and a pair of night owls converse with a twit and answering twoooo.
If the weather is good, we eat outside — we often cook game, sustainably sourced from the estate, for supper — and as we munch we might glimpse an otter perched on rocks by the loch, where dragonflies flit during the summer.
Red deer have colonised the mountains and forests where, alongside the Scots pine, birch, rowan and alders grow, hosts to scarce species of lichen.
The pace of life slows here. There is no traffic to drown the songbirds and on a clear night, without pollution from street lights, you can lie on your back and count the stars.
Before bed we check the animals, do our rounds.
Back in the cottage I feed my sourdough starter — I bought it from an old schoolfriend who was raising money for the NHS by selling them, aptly titled dough-nate. Apparently it helps them thrive and bubble if you name them. I’ve called mine Lockie.
The last lockdown Alizee and I spent with my parents at Bucklebury. For this one, it’s just the two of us in a landscape of unmatched beauty where almost nothing has changed in centuries.
A tree might have fallen; a sapling grown, but otherwise we look out on a stretch of still water, dark forests and majestic mountains that have remained constant for millennia.
So for those reading this, yearning for foreign holidays, I remind you: you don’t need to get on a plane to have an adventure.
They are right here on our doorsteps if we look for them, in meadows, parks and muddy lanes; on windswept commons and hilltops.
All you need to reach them are a brave heart, waterproofs and a sturdy pair of boots.