Thursday, 26 December 2013

Coming up next on the outdoor diaries ...

... a campervan Christmas up north with my Belgian boyfriend! What did we cook for Christmas dinner in a campervan? Was there Brussels sprouts on the menu? Did he finally bring me some expensive Belgian chocolates?

and .... gear reviews of one-man and a two-man winter tents.

Have a great winterfest everyone!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Strictly come camping

The perfect Saturday night for many people is to be wrapped up indoors in front of the telly watching Strictly Come Dancing. But for me it’s being out in my tent in a remote, wild place in the mountains. I love my tent and there’s no place I’d rather be.

I bought my first tent many years ago with my boyfriend of the time. He was from Fife and the tent was from Army & Navy. It was cheap and heavy, one of those old A-frame style tents that took an hour to erect and even then you were left with one section of pole that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. The first meal we made in the tent was fish and the aroma lingered for the rest of the tent’s days. But we lovingly christened it “The Receptacle” and had many happy nights under its stinking canvas.

Since then camping has become my passion. Of course it’s wonderful to climb a mountain or cycle the open road but the best part of the day is often finding an idyllic camp spot, getting the tent up and making a cosy little home for the night. There are obvious advantages to camping. It gives you incredible freedom to wander at will, knowing that you always have a place to stay and that you can change the view from your door every day. It also allows you to enjoy wild landscapes with minimum impact – no need for holiday resorts or ugly hotels – so you can leave the place exactly as you found it.

Being in a tent is great for getting closer to wildlife as well. It often happens that when you gently unzip your tent in the morning, there will be deer quite close or, as happened to me when camping in Australia, kangaroos! And I’ve had frogs, toads, hedgehogs and mice come right under my flysheet. Mind you, when I'm camping in bear country in North America, I don't want the wildlife to get that close! Birds are also more likely to come near as your tent blends into the natural surroundings. I’ll never forget pitching the tents with a friend by Loch Dochard in late winter as a flock of whooper swans flew right over our heads, their underwings catching the golden light from the sinking sun.

I think camping also fulfils a basic need in me; a need to leave behind the modern, cluttered world where life is made easy and comfortable by appliances and gadgets. In camping I can live, albeit briefly, in my own world where I have everything I need on my back or my bike; where I have to walk to the river and sometimes break ice to collect water; where I am out in the elements all day and all night. 

I camp all year round but love the winter best which surprises a lot of people who imagine it must be too cold. But the tent gives you a real sense of cosiness especially when the weather outside is foul or freezing. In winter you really appreciate snuggling up in your sleeping bag or scoffing hot porridge in the morning. The only difficult thing is plunging hands into icy water to wash the pot! I remember one winter weekend camping at Corrour, a remote train halt high on Rannoch Moor. So much snow fell that the Sunday evening train home couldn’t get through. In contrast to that, I recall another camping trip to Glen Derry in the Cairngorms during a period of hot winds from Africa. I woke in the morning to discover my tent covered with what looked like custard powder but was actually sand from the Sahara.

One of the most valuable aspects of camping is that it allows you to spend longer in the wilds and when you camp out overnight in the mountains, you get a greatly enhanced feeling of being detached from the modern world and all its woes. You feel much more immersed in the wildness and the mountain. I love that feeling when the tent is pitched and the light starts to fade and you know that anybody else who might have been out there has gone home and you have the mountain to yourself.  Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain, “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.” When camping in the wilds you can experience the elements, the landscape and the creatures that inhabit them by night, as well as by day.

But perhaps the best thing about camping is lying in your sleeping bag with the tent open on a crisp, clear night and gazing up to a sky full of stars sparkling like the sequins in Strictly Come Dancing.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Trossachs - Time travel

Lying west of Stirling and north of Glasgow, the Trossachs is a picturesque area of gentle hills interspersed with an idyllic mix of woodland and water, and liberally dotted with fascinating snippets from history. As my friend Graham and I stepped off the train to explore the area by bicycle, we felt we were travelling back in time.

Our train arrived in Bridge of Allan with perfect timing as a spectacular fiery sunrise backlit the gothic silhouette of the Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig. The monument commemorates Sir William Wallace, the Scottish leader and hero of the Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s said that in 1297 he stood on Abbey Craig and watched the English troops gather below in advance of the Battle of Stirling Bridge where, despite being vastly outnumbered, Wallace led his Scottish troops to a resounding victory.

As the sun rose into a blanket of light cloud, creating a grey day that barely seemed to get fully light, we pedalled west through farmland on quiet, undulating back roads. The woodlands now were mostly bare and the landscape was painted in a winter palette of more subtle colours except for a few flashy reds in lingering hawthorn and rowan berries. Conditions were calm and still and the cycling was easy as we pedalled beside the glass-like waters of Loch Venacher, along a twisting, turning forest trail carpeted with orange larch needles. 

Our route then left the lowlands and entered more hilly terrain that funnelled wind down the gunmetal grey waters of Loch Katrine so that by the time we arrived at Trossachs Pier at the south end of the loch, it was blowing a hoolie. We battled the wind to cycle north along the idyllic traffic-free road that hugs the shores of the loch. It climbs up and down through old oak woods, still holding onto some of their russet, autumn leaves. There were some steep sections here, as roads that follow lochs and coasts are rarely flat. On the higher sections we could see a suggestion of bigger peaks amongst the pewter-coloured clouds to the north. Loch Katrine was made famous of course by Sir Walter Scott as the backdrop for his poem, The Lady of the Lake. 

The name “Katrine” is derived from the old Gaelic word “ceiteirein” meaning cattle thief. It’s an appropriate name because Glengyle, at the head of Loch Katrine, is the birthplace of Rob Roy MacGregor, the Scottish outlaw, cattle thief and folk hero of the 18th century. Close to Glengyle the road passed above a manmade promontory extending into the waters of the loch. At the end is the historic Clan Gregor cemetery. There’s not much else to see at Glengyle today, just a couple of cottages, but it marked the halfway point of our bicycle journey and we turned south.

As the late afternoon sun started to sink beyond Ben Lomond, we cycled passed the sleepy hamlet of Stronachlachar in search of our own sleepy place for the night. We turned off a quiet back road and onto a quieter forest trail that hugged the shores of Loch Chon. With little time to spare, we found a camp spot in tall, dense forestry down by the water’s edge and put the tents up in the last of the day’s light on a comfortable carpet of thick, green moss. I laid out my mat and sleeping bag, and organised my belongings into a cosy home for the night. Although it looks small on the outside, my new tent has lots of space inside, a bit like Dr Who's tardis. I cooked my supper by torchlight and did the washing up by a small stream. As I walked back to the camp spot, all I could see in the pitch black of night was the faint silhouette of the tall pines above and the warm glow of torches inside the two tents.

On Sunday morning the sun rose above the waters of the loch casting out a veil of golden light that set the trees and waterside grasses ablaze with rich colour. After coffee and porridge, we pushed the bikes back up to the trail and continued cycling south down the shores of Loch Chon. A steep little path picked a way down through the woods to Kinlochard and we pedalled alongside the sunlit, reflective waters of Loch Ard to Aberfoyle. Loch Chon and Loch Ard give rise to the waters of the mighty River Forth. It flows eastwards from here and passes under Stirling Bridge that Wallace watched over all those years ago, before emptying into the North Sea.

We also travelled eastwards, cycling out of the hills along a road that passed high above the flat, extensive farmlands of Flanders Moss. Despite the season, the fields were still a patchwork of emerald greens. We pulled off the road at Thornhill to enjoy a picnic lunch in the tiny village square. A couple of benches and a sun dial that commemorates 300 years of village history, were squeezed between the tightly-packed rows of whitewashed cottages on each side of the main street.

The mid-winter sun only just cleared the rooftops to cast its light on the sun dial. The advancing shadow reminded us that we should get moving if we were to catch our train home and not be caught out by time.

More photos on Flickr - click on the Flickr logo to the right.

Fact File

Start/finish: Bridge of Allan train station served by regular Edinburgh/Stirling – Dunblane trains. 
Maps: OS Landranger 56 and 57. Sustrans National Cycle Network Lochs and Glens North map is also useful for the section along Loch Venachar. 
Route: From the rail station in Bridge of Allan turn west on the main road then take the first left onto a farm road signed for Carse of Lecropt. Follow this delightful single track road which has some lovely views to the B824 and then into Doune. From there take the deserted B8032 towards Callander which joins the A81 (quiet). As you approach Callander don’t go all the way into the village – take the unclassified road to the left signed for National Cycle Route 7/Invertrossachs. Follow NCN7 signs to the far end of Loch Venachar but where they are signed to the left to start climbing to Duke’s Pass, instead go straight on. Stay on the main track, hang left when you see a cottage and join the shores of Loch Achray. The main track turns left and uphill – a footpath leaves it on the corner. Cycle along the footpath to join the A821 (quiet) and follows signs to Trossachs Pier. Cycle up the waterboard-owned, traffic-free road on the east shore of Loch Katrine and follow it around to Stronachlachar. At Stronachlachar take the B829. You can stay on this road to Aberfoyle. We left it to join a forest track to the right signed for Aberfoyle that passed along the south shore of Loch Chon. We camped in forestry along here. At the far end of the loch hang right at a cottage then take the left hand fork. Take a footpath marked with a blue marker down to Kinlochard and continue to Aberfoyle on the B829. From Aberfoyle take the A81 and A873 to Thornhill. There’s some traffic here but not too bad. At Thornhill take the B826 to Doune and then retrace the outward route to Bridge of Allan. 
Tip: This is a great wee weekend trip. The return fare is only £16, you don’t have to book bicycles on the train, provisions are plentiful as are the coffee shops!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Alps - Arrochar, not French

On the west shores of Loch Long above the village of Arrochar is a cluster of rugged, shapely peaks called the Arrochar Alps. For years I have travelled north on the train up the other shore and completely ignored them in favour of farther away places. Perhaps it’s because at that point, about an hour out of Glasgow, the catering trolley comes through the train and I’m distracted by the promise of hot tea and other goodies. Or perhaps it’s because I always imagined Arrochar to be full of hordes of daytrippers from the city, walking along the waterfront eating ice-cream and chips. Whatever the reason, I finally decided last weekend to find out what was going on up there in the Arrochar Alps.

West Coast Motors may sound like a second-hand Glasgow car dealer but it’s actually the bus company that runs a service along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond and up to Arrochar. As the bus trundled north, Jim the driver entertained passengers with local history and folklore and was even kind enough to drop me right at the start of the walk up into the hills. On a chilly morning the path zig-zagged up through forestry, eventually climbing above the clouds of a temperate inversion to reveal views to snow-dusted Ben Lomond.

Higher up, the path shook off the trees, crested a ridge and made me stop in my tracks and shout out loud to nobody, “wow”. Here was my first close view of that iconic mountain, the Cobbler. It’s so named because its rocky pinnacles are said to resemble a cobbler bending over his last but I thought it looked more like a raging bull with two great horns. In its early winter garb of powder snow and frozen cascades, it looked especially beautiful.

But I was heading for different mountains and the path continued to climb, squeezing a way through two giant rocks called the Narnain Boulders. The boulders are glacial erratics, stranded here when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated. They are famous as a much-loved overnight doss for Glasgow climbers in the old days. Of course, that was when hill folk were made of sterner stuff, not like today’s namby-pambies who stay in B&Bs back down in Arrochar. With ice underfoot and a heavy pack, I made glacial progress up the mountain, eventually popping out at a high, flat place called Bealach a’Mhaim. It was rocky, icy, wind-scoured and exposed - a perfect spot for base camp.

With the tent up, I shouldered a lighter pack and skipped up my first peak, Beinn Narnain. As I gained height, the patches of snow and ice amalgamated until finally the last few hundred metres were gripped in hard snow and I strapped on the crampons for the first time this winter. The clouds of the morning inversion had dispersed and the sun had broken through, picking out a panorama of snow-capped peaks and the glinting waters of Long Long far below. The air was cold and crisp and clear. I stayed up there, breathing it all in, until the numbing temperature forced me back down to the tent. As I left the top an old man in a bobble hat was on his way up, moving slowly and doubled over his walking pole like a cobbler over his last.  I asked if he would take my photo and as he did so he told me that he had climbed this mountain many times. Given the effort the ascent had caused him, I guessed this might be his last time up here and I felt sad.

Beinn Narnain means “hill of notches” which I am prepared to accept is a reasonable description of the nobbly, rocky terrain in its upper reaches. But I’m at a loss to understand the name of the next peak I climbed, Beinn Ime, which translates as “hill of butter”. Perhaps in days gone by it was known that cattle grazed on the slopes of Beinn Ime provided particularly fine dairy produce. Beinn Ime and its neighbouring Alps, being so close to Glasgow, are quite popular but one advantage of camping high on the mountain is that you can beat everybody else to the top. 

So it was on Sunday morning that I had Beinn Ime all to myself and the thought crossed my mind that it doesn’t get much better than this - trekking along a ridge of pristine snow, crampons biting into the hard surface, on a perfect winter morning of clear skies and snowy mountain vistas. 

I ambled slowly back down to Arrochar in the gathering dusk as drifts of woodsmoke from its cosy cottages settled above the trees on a windless afternoon. Arrochar was not full of hordes of daytrippers but was dark and quiet and peaceful as I walked along the waterfront. It was too cold for ice cream but I couldn’t resist eating chips.

More photos on Flickr - click on the logo on the right.

Fact File
Start/finish: Arrochar by Citylink/West Coast Motors buses between Glasgow and Inverary or Oban.
Map: OS Landranger 56
Route: Heading out the west side of Arrochar on the A83 there is a Forestry Commission car park on the left - the bus driver will drop you here if you ask nicely and the start of the path is immediately opposite. Follow the path up through the forestry and when you reach a track by a transmitter turn left then a quick right. Ignore the left hand fork for the Cobbler higher up and keep on the path to its end in Bealach a'Mhaim where the routes are rougher. From the bealach it's a straightfoward climb up the northwest ridge of Beinn Narnain and the south ridge of Beinn Ime. 
Tip: The Fish and Chip shop in Arrochar must be the quaintest in Scotland and on a cold evening you can sit inside with hot tea.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dunkeld - The bag lady

Goretx Paclite. Goretex Pro. Hydrophobic down. Softshell and Activeshell. With so many high performance fabrics available to keep us dry in the outdoors, there was really no excuse for ending up with plastic bags on my feet the other weekend.

Bike buddy Graham and I were cycling in the hills above Dunkeld, soaking up the last of the autumn colours and getting a good soaking into the bargain. On a grey day we powered our way up the Queen's Road, lingering a short while by the glass-like waters of Mill Dam. 
Beyond here we sploshed our way along water-logged tracks and trails, and when heavy rain came on, we were already so wet that it didn't really seem to matter. They say this is good weather for ducks but even the ducks around here felt the need for extra rain protection and had sprouted very strange feather headwear. We almost fell off our bikes laughing at them. 

High up in the hills and woods after a grim afternoon of rain, mud and pushing bikes, it was tempting to stay in the cosy bothy, put the fire on and dry out but we pushed on and put the tents up on a carpet of golden needles below a copse of larch trees.

It was still wet next morning and I realised I hadn't packed my waterproof Sealskinz socks. Readers should  note that Sealskinz are completely synthetic and that no animals were harmed in the making of this blog. Without them, the only way to at least start with dry feet, was to put plastic bags inside my shoes. 

As we cycled back down and passed again the ducks, I could see their beady, little eyes resting on my feet. I knew they were thinking "who's laughing now".

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld Station served by Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains
Map: OS Landranger 52
Route: Fom the station cycle down into Birnam and turn left on the main road. At the next junction turn right and cycle through the main street in Dunkeld. At the far side turn right onto the A923 then take a quick left onto a forest road signed as a right of way to Kirkmichael. Climb this track to Mill Dam and continue to Loch Ordie. Pass in front of Loch Ordie Lodge following a track around the loch but at the east end stay on the main track and head away from the lochside. Take the left split in the track and follow it north behind Capel Hill. It becomes increasingly rough and then a footpath. Progress is hard here but the woods are lovely. Follow this trail north to Lochan Oisinneach where you'll find a gorgeous camp spot on a little knoll above the water with a copse of larch trees. Follow the trail which becomes a better track as it turns south passing Lochan Oisinneach Mor and returns to Loch Ordie. Retrace outward route
Tip: The tracks and trails above Dunkeld are great for cycling with lots of route options. I only had to do some pushing because of the conditions underfoot and because my pannier bags were catching on tall trailside heather where the trail was very narrow.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Loch Tummel - The Milk Tray man

“You can't come down here … there’s no access cos of the show” said the hi-viz security guard as he pulled over Bart’s van. We were on a dark, forest road trying to get to a nice, quiet van spot by Loch Faskally for a weekend of canoeing. Mr Security must then have clocked us as sporty, outdoor types and said “… unless you’re with the canoeists …”. I had no idea what he was talking about but said that we were indeed planning to take to the water in canoes. He shouted into his crackly walkie-talkie and let us go through. So it was that we made it to the loch and on the way got a free, sneaky view of the Enchanted Forest light show.

Next morning, the “canoeists” turned out to be rowers … hundreds of them! Rowers can be quite troublesome, especially on canals where they take up the entire width and can’t even see where they are going! We decided to abandon Faskally and instead drove around the corner to Loch Tummel. It was a really lucky move as we found an idyllic spot to park up for the weekend beside a quiet, sheltered bay with a spectacular panorama of autumn woods.

I like canoeing but my main reason for getting out on the water this weekend was to see what Bart looked like in a body-hugging wetsuit. Quite nice, actually! Dressed head-to-foot in tight, black neoprene he looked like the Milk Tray man. As I changed into my watersports gear, Bart might have hoped I would look like Pamela Anderson in an episode of Baywatch – sadly, he was disappointed. We pumped up the canoes and launched them onto the glass-like waters of the loch. There was not a breath of wind so that strands of mist lingered in the trees and on a grey, rainy, clagged-in day the place had a secretive, primeval atmosphere.

Next day, we were pedalling bicycles instead of paddling boats and set out along quiet, single-track roads that wound their way around lochs, through autumn woods and over the shoulder of mist-shrouded Schiehallion. On his visits to Scotland, I have been introducing Bart to an aspect of British culture that he finds quite bizarre and that is the coffee and cake stop when you’re out on a bike tour. Bart tells me that nobody does this in Belgium and if he suggested it to his bikey mates, they would think he had gone bonkers! Apparently in Belgium only old ladies and men of a more feminine disposition visit tearooms! This day we stopped on our bike ride at the tearoom in Kinloch Rannoch and ordered a huge wedge of carrot cake with two coffees. As you can see from the photo, Bart seems to be integrating well into this aspect of British culture!

As I didn’t have cake, I was really needing a sugar hit by the time we cycled the last few undulating miles back to the van. I hurriedly threw open the van door but I was disappointed - the Milk Tray man had not visited or left a chocolatey gift, and the only thing waiting on my side of the bed was a wet patch from the hole in the roof.

Fact File
Start/finish: Loch Tummel. We were in the van this trip but you can get there by a short cycle or walk from Pitlochry which is well served by buses and trains.
Map: OS Landranger 52
Route: There are lots of spots along the road on the south shore of Loch Tummel (signed for Foss) where you can put canoes in. We chose the first spot after the dam beside a small bay - it was gorgeous. A little way along the loch from here there are small islands that you can paddle out to. For our bike ride we continued along the Foss road to Tummel Bridge then crossed the river to join the B846 to Kinloch Rannoch. From Kinloch Rannoch we took the road that climbs up to Braes of Foss then rejoined the B846 before turning off again for the road along the south side of Loch Tummel to return to our van spot.
Tip: In autumn, the Foss road on the south shore of Loch Tummel must be one of the most beautiful bike rides in Scotland. It was idyllic.