Monday, 20 February 2017

Pentlands - Grim x 2

A wet, wind-blasted day and a monochrome landscape beneath moody, pewter skies. Rain batters the windows of the number 44 bus to Balerno. I hop off and strike out across the moors. The air is good and clean, the wind blowing away the cobwebs. 

Over West Kip, East Kip and Scald Law in drenching mist and I'm blown around by the wind so that I'm walking as if drunk. The rain starts and I pull my hood in tighter but the drops still sting my face. It's grim ... but in an enjoyable sort of a way.

I tick off the tops as I track eastwards and the mist clears above Allermuir. How funny to have such an east/west split in the weather in such a small range of hills. There's a view now but still the wind that sends waves of movement across the pale winter grasses. And still the grey, glowering skies above. 

Off at the far end and pick up the number 4 bus homeward, collecting Gorgie Road football fans along the way.  I jump off briefly for some shopping necessities. Into the seething masses of Saturday afternoon Princes Street. It's grim ... in an unenjoyable sort of a way.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Eildon Hills - Past present

Recently I was trying to explain to an American friend what, in my eyes at least, makes experiences in the Scottish outdoors so alive and so layered in rich contexts. I was trying to say, not very well, that wherever you go in the landscape, there is evidence of time, ancient and primeval, that you can touch and be amongst. It’s as if the past is always present.

Take for example, a recent walk in the Eildon Hills, down in the Scottish Borders, an area that’s gotten under my skin of late. The hills rise in quite a dramatic fashion above the historical town of Melrose, a pretty wee Borders town with a market square and lively High Street. The route up the Eildons from town follows the trail of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance walking route that commemorates the saint. He started his religious life in Melrose in 650AD and the trail links Melrose to Holy Island off the Northumbria Coast, St Cuthbert’s original pilgrimage shrine and final resting place.

As I climbed steeply out of town, the trail was frozen solid on this chill winter’s day and there was a dusting of snow on the tops up ahead. A patchwork of farmers' fields were laid out below, some green and some rich, dark brown having gone under the plough. The incline of the route eased a little as I gained a bealach between the North Hill and the Mid Hill, two of the three peaks that make up the Eildons. Here I touched history even farther back in time. Millions of years ago, these peaks around me were active volcanoes. The tops themselves were formed by underground eruptions. And 7000 years ago, early people settled here on the slopes, making shelved places in the hills for siting basic dwellings and using flint tools which have been found throughout the landscape hereabouts.

A short, but steep and icy, pull had me on top of Mid Hill where I was blasted by a freezing wind. At 422m it's a tiddler of a hill, but its isolated position and shapely outline make it a real Borders landmark. And in today's weather, it felt like the top of Everest. The view was gentle and rolling though today I wasn't going to linger in the wind and cold on top to enjoy it. 

I dropped off the south side of the hills into the relative shelter of the stately beech trees that make up much of the woodland here. Following a small path through the trees, I eventually contoured round the east side of the North Hill in late afternoon sunshine. The path followed a field egde along a line of beautiful, old beech trees. Below me, on the lower slopes of the hills, was the site of a Roman garrison called Trimontium. Dating from 80AD, it was named after the three peaks above. There's not much left to see on the ground today but information boards and artists' reconstructions try to bring the place back to life.

As I contoured further round the hill to pick up my outward route, Melrose appeared again down below and before long I was back amongst its shops and traffic. Before I caught my train home, there was one more piece of the past to visit, Melrose Abbey. Founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks, the abbey is now partially ruined and is all the more beautiful for it, especially today as its red standstone facade glowed in the golden rays of the sinking sun. It's said to be the burial place of the heart of Robert the Bruce though nobody has been able to prove beyond doubt that the heart held there in a casket is indeed that of the ancient king of Scotland. That mystery will for ever be consigned to the past. 

As for the present, I had a train to catch and the path alongside the lazy waters of the River Tweed took me back to the  Borders railway at Tweedbank for my ride home.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Melrose. The Borders railway ends at Tweedbank from where it's a short cycle, walk or bus ride into Melrose. From the town centre head out on Dingleton Road and just after the overpass look for signs for St Cuthbert's Way/Eildon HIlls which point to a path through a gap in the houses. The path climbs a long series of steps then emerges on the open hill. Follow St Cuthert's Way to the bealach and from here the routes up North Hill or Mid Hill are very obvious. To return I continued along St Cuthbert's Way for a short distance down the other side of the hill and took a faint path east through the trees just before a gate. This path eventually emerges onto a track. It's a lovely walk. A little way further on, beside two wooden seats, a Melrose Paths walkers' sign points through a gate and a path follows a field margin as it contours round the North Hill. It soon junctions with another path heading to the top of the hill - turn right here. Immediately before the next gate turn left onto a smaller path, faint at first but becomes firmer. This continues to contour round the hill and eventually joins the outward route at a waymarking three-point sign.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Gear Review - Mountain Warehouse Wanderer 20l Rucsack

Times are hard and money is tight. This is on account of me buying my first ever flat (I know, at my age!).  What this means is that when I needed a new daysack, I had to forego the array of  expensive options at Tiso in the £70-£100 range and instead check out the cheaper options at Mountain Warehouse, of all places!

I chose their £25 20l Wanderer rucsack and have to say, so far anyway, I'm pretty happy with it. The main body of the rucsack has two compartments as you'd normally find on bigger rucsacks. They can be zipped apart to make one bigger space but I've found the small easy access, bottom compartment really handy for waterproofs and dirty gaiters (bearing in my mind that my clothes are quite small). There's a handy front pocket with an internal organiser for keys, mobile phone or maps. The back system is an air mesh design and though I've not used the rucsack yet in warm conditions, I could certainly feel the wind blowing through the space between the rucsack and my back so I'm guessing it'll be effective in the hotter months in avoiding a sweaty back. The colour options were black or the more girly grey and purple I'm wearing in the photo.

Other welcome features that again you expect on much more expensive packs are good-sized hipbelt pockets, hydration sleeve and outlet, elasticated side pockets, side compression straps, trekking pole stash loops, chest strap and an integrated rain cover that packs away into a zipped compartment on the bottom. In use, I've found it to be really comfy to wear. 

The only negative is the quality of the materials and stitching which is obviously much less than top brand packs but I'm not sure in practice how much of a difference this will make. The only feature that's really disappointing is the quality of the zips which don't run really well and do feel on the cheap side. But overall, for the price, I think this is a great summer hillwalking pack or low-level winter rambling rucsack.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Fife - Mini walk on the sleeping giant

Anyone who has travelled south on the M90 towards Edinburgh will have admired the shapely outline of the long, low-lying hill that forms the south shore of Loch Leven. Its correct name is Benarty Hill but locals believe that its outline resembles a great warrior lying asleep on his back with his feet pointing east towards the Lomond Hills and his headdress stretching westwards. And so the hill is more commonly known as the Sleeping Giant. For such a wee hill in a populated landscape of fields and farms, it's got a surprising mix of pleasant approach walk, craggy ruggedness and gorgeous big views. I find myself drawn back again and again.

I climbed the hill most recently during the festive break on a crisp, breezy day in late December. My walk started in the former mining town of Ballingry whose claim to fame is to be the home town of Richard Jobson of the Skids. If you remember them then you are as old or even older than me. 

A dirt track leaves the back of town and heads out through open woodland with Benarty Hill rising steeply to the right and the pleasant waters and parklands of Lochore Meadows down to the left. From here a good path then zig-zags up through forestry. Don't be put off by the forestry. This morning shafts of low winter sun burst through the trees and in the open glades the view stretched as far as the Firth of Forth. It was lovely.

At the top of the forestry the gradient relents and a pleasant wee path makes a beeline across heathery moorland for the summit trig point. Today that same low sun picked out the contours of the hill and illuminated the shapely lines of the Bishop Hill on the other side of Loch Leven. 

From up here you can see the vastness of the loch. When you are standing down on the shore, it seems so big that you think of it more as an inland sea than a loch. Its waters were dotted with green amoeba-shaped islands and the tiny white pinpricks of swans, hundreds of swans. To the west the Ochil hills had a light dusting of snow, adding a cold, wintry edge to the view. None of these are big hills but I love the way they sit in the landscape and accentuate the open space and big skies all around.

A small path keeps close company with an old drystone dyke all the way along the top of the ridge and it's a lovely walk. I headed east along the ridge and eventually dropped off its far end to pick up a new path down to the RSPB centre at Vane Farm. It's a great place to get the loch-level view and watch over flocks of teal and widgeon in the wetland pools. In the late afternoon I trekked back over to Ballingry on the path which contours round the bottom of the great warrior's feet. The temperature was dropping and the sun was sinking way out west beyond the battle headdress of the sleeping giant above.

Fact File
Photos on Flickr.
Start/finish: Ballingry. Local buses travel every 10 minutes between the train station at Lochgelly (on the Fife circle line with direct trains from Edinburgh) and Ballingry. 
Route: Get off at the last bus stop in Ballingry at the turning circle with recycling skips. Just before here a dirt track heads west behind the last of the houses. Follow it until it meets a road. Go straight across and you'll find the obvious path up Benarty Hill. The first time I went there was a sign but there wasn't the second time. Follow this path to the trig point. The top of the cliffs is a few metres further and affords a great view across the loch and hills. Turn east on the ridge top path and eventually where the gradient of the north face of the hill eases, you'll spot a new quarry dust path below and a faint path down the grassy slope which you can use to get onto it. This excellent new path will either take you down to RSPB Vane Farm if you turn left or back to Ballingry if you turn right.  An alternative to returning to Ballingry is to pick up the wonderful Loch Leven Heritage Trail at Vane Farm and follow it to Kinross to pick up buses to Inverkeithing/Edinburgh. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Glen Tilt - Light on winter wood

I love the rich colours and textures that the mid-winter sun creates on the landscape, especially the leafless bare trees which I find just as beautiful at this time of year as in summer. In mid-winter I always try to make a trip to Glen Tilt to enjoy its varied woods in the light of the December sun, which may or may not make a brief appearance. Glen Tilt is too busy for me at other times of year but just before Christmas everybody else is at the shops (one wonders why) and I can have the glen and the woods to myself. I made my annual pilgrimage there a couple of weeks ago. I walked the high path out via Fenderbridge for big views over the woods and hills. Carn a'Chlamain was framed by winter birch, adding that beautiful purplish hue to the scene. I wandered up a side glen and said hello to the familiar, arched bridge up there. I asked it out loud how long we had known each other. It replied 21 years. Or it might have been me that said that. I ambled through the dense woodland on the main track, timing my walk to finish after dark so that I could be guided into Blair Atholl by the colourful lights of the village Christmas tree.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Trossachs - Shorty

The short winter days of December demand short days outdoors, closer to home. A place that fits the bill perfectly for this is the Trossachs, accessed by bike from Dunblane train station. I set out there for a short cycling overnighter with my friend, Graham.

We cycled away from an early morning train at Dunblane on a quiet, single-track road that climbed up into the rolling farmland above town. It was one of those grey, damp, colourless winter days but it was dry and therefore a “useable” day. 

A stiffer climb took us up and over high moor before we turned into Glen Artney, a place I’d often looked at on the map and thought “what on earth’s going on up there”. What is going on up there is a rollercoaster of a wee road that passes by farmhouses and fields before coming to a dead end at the head of the glen. A dead at least for cars but we carried on along a rough track that skirted the southern slopes of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’Chroin. How funny that you never say one of those hill names without following it by the other. They are an inseparable pair.

In most conditions the track would probably be quite fast and fun but today it was waterlogged and it felt like cycling through porridge. We passed over the watershed and dropped down to the old buildings at Arivurichardich as the sun began to sink behind the Trossachs peaks to the west. The track was firmer now and fast as we flew down into Callander. 

Darkness caught us as we pedalled west and we cycled by the beams of our bike lights along a woodland trail by the shores of Loch Venachar. The tents were pitched on a lovely grassy shelf above the water, a spot I’ve used before. As we made a hot supper, a bright almost-supermoon rose and silhouetted the bare winter branches of the trees. The night air was filled with the sounds of restless geese and ducks on the water, and a hooting owl in the forest.

Next day we hid the camping kit in the trees and cycled more lightly along the trail to Brig o’Turk whose decorated village Christmas tree cheered another grey day. A stiff climb took us up into the lower reaches of Glen Finglass whose native woodland is being regenerated under the stewardship of the Woodland Trust. There was not a ripple on the surface of the loch and the purple hue of the bare birch added a subtle splash of colour to the dreich winter palette. 

A good cycling track encircles the glen but on a short winter day, with a long ride back to the train at Dunblane, it would have to wait for the longer days of spring.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunblane train station.
Transport: Regular direct trains from Edinburgh, Stirling and Glasgow with no requirement to reserve bike space.

Route: Out of the train station turn right and pass in front of the Tesco shop. Turn right up Kilbryde Crescent and follow this road out of town – it’s an easy, quick escape from town. Keep following this road until it does a T junction with the B8033 and turn left for Braco. On the main road in Braco turn left then shortly take the B827 signed for Comrie. It’s a bit of a climb, then as it descends there is a signed left turn for Glen Artney. Follow the road west up Glen Artney then continue west on the dirt track which is its natural continuation. It eventually drops to the buildings at Arivurichardich. Follow the man track and cross the bridge which now becomes a better, firmer track which will take you steeply down to Callander. Turn right on the main road in Callander then left onto the A81 but follow the national cycle route 7 signs south. The route goes along the beautiful shores of Loch Venachar and we camped along here. Next day we left the route by pedalling on towards Loch Achray and turning right at a signpost for Brig o’Turk. A single track road leads from the village to Glen Finglass passed the tearoom (open Friday to Sunday).

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Corrour - Livin' the dream

The title of this blog comes from the words I shouted as I descended the empty, snowy slopes of Carn Dearg above Rannoch Moor. Empty that is except for Rob who was further ahead, charging down the slopes towards lunch break. Being up there, in the snow and the sunshine, on that beautiful day, was living the dream. Snow-streaked Rannoch Moor stretched out below us while all around the snow-covered mountains floated ethereally between the misty layer of a temperate inversion, illuminated silver in the low winter sun, and the dazzling, Alpine-blue sky.

The train had put us out the day before at Corrour, the remotest, quirkiest station in Scotland. It sits in the middle of Rannoch Moor which is in the middle of nowhere. There’s no road access and the rails in either direction head off into empty hills. That first day, we’d plodded up the slopes of Beinn na Lap and picked our way to the top in thick mist and light snow flurries. It’s one of Scotland’s easiest Munros but that day, in soft snow, it felt like hard work. We came off the hill as the sun was dipping in the west and followed a snowy path across the moor to the atmospheric ruin of Lubnaclach. 

I wish I had a pound for every picture I’ve taken of this old place over the years. The broken walls stand steadfast against the elements in the middle of the moor and all around the mountains gaze down. We scraped back some snow, pitched the tent and collected water from the river before the darkness set in. In the evening, we watched the southbound train pass after dark. You couldn’t see anything of the train itself in the blackness of night, just a long chain of bright orange squares formed by the light of the carriages glowing through the windows.

The next day dawned beautiful as early mist cleared and the rising sun cast an alpenglow over the hills. We made a hot breakfast of quick oats and honey, and watched the sun climb higher as we sipped our coffee, still wrapped in our sleeping bags. When there was a little bit of warmth in the sun, we followed a faint path through the snow then a better track before striking up the slopes of Carn Dearg in deep, soft snow. 

As we pulled onto the ridge and above the clouds of the temperate inversion, a stunning panorama revealed itself. In the west, it stretched from the Bridge of Orchy hills to the Blackmount, Glen Coe and the Grey Corries, with the massive bulk of Ben Nevis dominating. To the north, so clear was the air, that we could see as far as the sharp ridges and pointed tops of the Kintail peaks. Ben Alder closed in to the east and Schiehallion was its individual, pointy self to the south. It was one of the most beautiful days that I’ve experienced in the hills.

Tearing ourselves away from the top, we descended the west ridge, marvelling at the strange patterns created by snow, wind and ice around the remnants of the summer grasses. We made a brief stop back at the tent at Lubnaclach for warming hot drinks before packing up and walking back to the station at Corrour in the darkness of early evening. The stars came out in the night sky and the lights of the youth hostel at Loch Ossian cast a cosy glow on our final approach. 

Waiting on the platform at Corrour on a Sunday night, you’re always slightly nervous about the train turning up to get you home but thankfully, bang on time, the little front lights appeared from the blackness. Once on the comfy train, there’s time to snuggle up and dream some more.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click here.
Start/finish: Corrour Station served by Glasgow to Fort William trains … and nothing else!
Route: From the station, follow the track that heads towards Loch Ossian but take the left fork at the first split. Continue left at the next split and after a few hundred metres strike off up the slopes to the west ridge at Ceann Caol Beinn na Lap. Head northeast to the summit, close to a small lochan. We retraced our steps for the return then continued towards the youth hostel. Opposite the hostel a path heads south from the main track to the ruin at Lubnaclach. We camped here. Next day we took the path that heads northeast and then east and climbs to join the main track through to Rannoch. We followed it to the ruins at Corrour Old Lodge then headed up the slopes of Carn Dearg, following the stream here to a bealach between Carn Dearg and the spot height at 861m. We descended via the gentle west ridge and returned to Corrour by retracing our steps.