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.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Perthshire - Amber

Hidden away in the woods and rugged landscapes above the pretty village of Dunkeld is one of Scotland's best wee hills, Deuchary Hill. It's only 511m high but its position on the southern boundary of the Highland edge provides great panoramas across the rolling Perthshire countryside and the bigger hills of the Grampians to the north. It's also a gorgeous walk to the top through a varied mix of wood, pasture, lochan and hill. In late autumn colours, it’s especially beautiful. Rob, Graham and I headed up a couple of weekends ago to soak up the last of the autumn amber.

The village was decked in bright autumn colours for the annual music festival that takes place at this time of year, Perthshire Amber. The colours of the streamers matched the rich, natural tones along the banks of the River Tay.

I love the pretty buildings of Dunkeld, its old cathedral and the smart little market square at its heart. The white building in the picture is the Taybank Inn, home of folk music and good food.

Our route up Deuchary Hill soon left the village and started to meander up through the autumn woods. In places the track was carpeted with orange larch needles.

Before long we were picnicking at Mill Dam, enjoying its calm waters and lochside trees.

As the track wound higher, the views opened up and ahead Ben Vrackie, above Pitlochry, had a dusting of snow.

Eventually, after a long, meandering approach walk, the top of Deuchary Hill was in sight and the path skirted a high level lochan before making the final steep climb to the wee summit.

There was a wonderful surprise when we all pulled up onto the top as a stunning panorama of snow-covered hills was revealed on the northerly horizon.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld served by Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains.
Route: Walk north along the main street in Dunkeld then turn right up the A923. After 300m take the track signed to the left for the Glack and follow it to Mill Dam, a nice picnic and photo stop. The path up to Deuchay Hill leaves to the right just before Mill Dam and is signed as Upper Loch Ordie path. The path contours north round the hill through pleasant woodland with good open views. After 3.5km at Grid Ref NO024 492, a path crosses the route. Turn right uphill and follow the path to Lochan na Beinne. The top of Deuchary Hill is now in sight ahead. Continue on the path beside the Lochan and up the final steep section to the top. For a different and shorter route back, pick up a narrow path that heads southeast from the top. It's not obvious at the top itself but the start can be spotted just ahead. The path drops steeply then joins a bigger track. Turn right on the bigger track and follow it until it joins the outward route.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Glen Strathfarrar - Three seasons in three days

Tucked away north of the Great Glen and west of Inverness, Glen Strathfarrar is long, meandering valley that reaches deep into the hills. Along its length it does in equal measures farmland, woodland, pine forest, lake, river and high peaks. Its climax is the beguiling mountain of Sgurr na Lapaich, whose rocky, pointed nose rises above the lush greens of ancient Caledonian pine forest. The glen is best enjoyed by cycling in along the quiet, single track road which is closed to public traffic and setting up camp for a few nights to immerse yourself in its wildness.

And that’s exactly what I did. I spent three very different days up there in late October. On the first day the air was still and the sun shone like summer. I sweated up the steep slopes of Sgurr Fhuar-Thuill along an excellent stalkers’ path that eased the way. The path stays in the bowl of the coire the whole way so that you don’t get any views until you finally step onto the ridge. And what views. 

The air clarity was perfect and the mountainscape was crisp and clear. Layer after layer of hills stretched as far as the eye could see to Torridon and Coigach and north to the isolated peak of Ben Klibreck. The clear skies persisted and in the evening the stars above the tent looked like the proverbial scatter of diamonds on black velvet. Stags rutted close by through the dark hours.

The next day was winter. A freezing fog hung low in the glen coating everything in a numbing cold and a hoary frost. Even the bike and tent were ghostly white. The sun’s rays eventually chased away the fog but didn’t warm the day much. I clambered up the steep slopes of Sgurr na Lapaich. The head of Glen Strathfarrar is a relatively remote place and, like yesterday, I had the hill to myself. The summit rocks remained coated in thick frost and were blasted by an arctic wind. I put up a ptarmigan which was already mostly in its white plumage for winter and a red fox high on the hill.

On the third day, I stayed low and ambled through the autumn woods as the first gales of the season passed through and shook the trees. In the low-angled autumn light, the bracken-covered hillsides were copper-coloured and the silver birch shimmered gold against the cobalt sky. The rowans were mostly bare except for clusters of punchy red berries while the riverside alders denied it was autumn  and remained dark and green and leafy. Flocks of fieldfares flitted across the treetops and the light played across the hillsides, illuminating patches in turn.

Next day I was blown back down the glen by the persisting autumn winds. They shook the leaves from the roadside birch trees and sent me off in a shower of golden confetti.

Fact File
Start/finish: Beauly train station
Route: Most people don't start climbing these hills from Beauly but I cycled in from the train station there which possibly has the world's shortest platform. The back road over Fanellan Hill is a lovely way to go then the quiet road down Strathglass to Struy to start the cycle up Glen Strathfarrar. For Sgurr Fhuar-Thuill I took the track to the right of the road about 1.5km after Braulen Lodge. Higher up it becomes a super path for walking, passes above the lochan, contours around the coire and pops out on the ridge a little west of the top. I used the same way back down. For Sgurr na Lapaich, I continued over the two dams at the head of the glen to the end of the tarmac, crossed the river by a bridge at the mini hydro plant and picked a steep way up through the birch trees to Carn na Saile Leithe. From there it's a long haul up the northeast ridge but there are views all the way. The last section is really nice. I went down the same way. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Glen Falloch - 150 plus

At this time of year there can be days of exceptional beauty in the Scottish hills with crisp clear air and a soft autumn light that picks out contours and ridgelines. I hit it lucky with a couple of days just like that in the hills at the top end of Loch Lomond.

The two-day trip started at Inverarnan with the bus putting me out at the famous Drovers Inn. Situated at the north end of Loch Lomond, for over 300 years it's hosted cattle drovers, travellers and famous guests such as Rob Roy. It claims to have numerous ghosts such as the little girl in a pink dress that mysteriously appeared in a family photo that had been taken on a mobile phone in the hotel. Enquiries by the hotel had confirmed that no children were staying on that night.

Close to the Inn a path climbs up steeply beside the Beinglas falls. Below the falls, the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond were showing the first hints of autumn colour and alongside the waterfalls sparkled and created rainbows in early morning sunshine.

Above the falls, the route crossed boggy ground before climbing onto the ridge of Beinn Chabhair. It's a wonderful walk up here along a good path that twists and winds between rocky outcrops and opens up the view down the loch, its waters thick and silvery like mercury. The Crianlarich hills close in nearby but the mountain panorama is dominated by the graceful lines of Ben Lui, the biggest peak in these parts. 

A walk that seemed longer on the ground than it looked it on the map, eventually had me on the top. Beinn Chabhair is 933 metres high, it means Hill of the Hawk and it's my 150th Munro. After celebrating that milestone with a Primula cheese sandwich, I dropped back down off the hill and picked up the northbound West Highland Way as it headed up Glen Falloch. 

Over the years I think I've walked most sections of the Way as useful links between bus stops and peaks or train stations and glens. One day, when I'm too ancient and stiff for slogging up hills, I might walk the whole lot in one. Then I'll look forward to being old and eccentric, and walking with an umbrella, and paying my campsite fees by counting out coppers from my coin purse.  

The Way is quite close to the main road through Glen Falloch but dense woods obscure the traffic from view and the gush of the river through gorges or its gentle murmur over stones mostly masks the sound. I pitched the tent by the river and watched the sinking sun paint the peaks pink.

Next morning my camp spot was engulfed by a low-level freezing mist that had laid the first frost of the season. Somewhere above the mist was my next peak, An Castiel, the Castle. The West Highland Way took me a little bit further north before I struck upwards across rough slopes. A long, sweaty slog put me above the cloud and on the airy ridge of An Castiel, livened by a couple of interesting rocky sections. The sun shone but the top was scoured by a bitter wind so I didn't linger over the view of layer after layer of misty ridgeline. A bealach to the north of the top offered an easy route down and a long meander back alongside the river. The deer grass was starting to turn fiery orange and the occasional rowan added a blaze of scarlet. 

To save a plod along the main road in Sunday afternoon traffic, I hitched a lift into Crianlarich at the hillwalkers' car park. I had to share the back of a van with a damp spaniel. Mind you, at least the dog had taken a bath in the river at the end of its walk. I, on the other hand, had not which was possibly why I was consigned to the back.

Fact File
Start: Inverarnan by bus from Glasgow
Finish: Crianlarich for the bus back to Glasgow
Route: From the bus stop cross to the other side of the road and follow the footpath to the bridge/track that goes to the campsite in about 500m. Immediately after the bridge follow a sign and footpath to the right that skirts the campsite rather than going right through. When it comes round to the wee wooden cabins on the campsite, walk up the side of the last cabins to find a stile over the drystane dyke at the back. Follow the footpath all the way to Lochan Beinn Chabhair. As the path approaches the lochan, it swings to the left and uphill to join the ridge where it becomes much firmer. Follow it to the top. I retraced my steps as far as the top of the climb above the falls then took a path heading northwest which is now a track. It eventually drops down to join the West Highland Way. Next day I stayed on the West Highland Way until it crossed the A82 about 1km after Derrydarroch and continued up the road which has a wide verge here. About another 1.5km further on there is a large hillwalkers' carpark and at the north end there is a stile over the fence. The path here joins the track alongside the River Falloch. At a sheep fank, I left the track and climbed up grassy slopes to Sron Gharbh - a footpath forms higher up. Follow it along Twistin Hill which is a gorgeous walk, to the top of An Castiel. I continued southeast from the top and left the ridge at the bealach between An Castiel and Beinn a'Chroin, descending into Coire Earb and following the rover downstream. Back at the car park it's about a 2km walk into Crianlarich to catch a bus or train if you don't hitch a lift.