Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dunkeld - 50 shades of grey

Sadomasochism: noun, the gaining of gratification by enduring pain. Yep, that pretty much describes backpacking in the Scottish winter. Lugging a heavy pack up a hill through deep snow and risking frostbite in your hands to open a packet of chocolate-coated raisins. Or dunking your head in a freezing river to rescue hair that’s gone as flat as fuzzy felt after several hours under a hat. All in the cause of soaking up the snow season. So I’m sorry if the title of this blog was in any way misleading and you were expecting some kinky, erotic fiction. The truth is that it’s only me in thermal long-johns and a sensible vest wandering the hills on a couple of grey days in January.

With a new job in the bag, I took advantage of my last days of freedom and jumped off a train at Dunkeld into a mid-week monochrome morning. As the guard will advise you in advance, there is a “very low platform” at Dunkeld which requires you to abseil from the train to alight safely. The village was plastered with fresh snow but low, heavy skies created an eerie twilight that stripped the landscape of any colour except shades of grey. I walked along the main street where the gloom was lifted a little by the warm glow emanating from the village shops - the delicatessen, the butcher, the little supermarket, the homewares store. A strand of grey wood smoke from the hearth of some cosy cottage hung in the still air.   

I keep coming back to Dunkeld, drawn there by the beauty of the surrounding landscapes. To the north you can amble endlessly through an idyllic mix of small pastures, woods and tree-fringed lochs before emerging in high, airy and rugged terrain. Up here it feels surprisingly remote, even though you’ve only walked a couple of hours from the village. In the bleak mid-winter there is a truly wild atmosphere and when I’m alone here, I feel like the only person in the world. This day I wandered for hours, snow crunching under my boots, then put my tent up in a copse of pines in the last of the useable light. In the grey January weather it was impossible to tell exactly when daylight ended and darkness began. I slept well despite the overhead rustle of birds restless in their roost.

The next day again dawned grey with a gripping cold that froze my fingers when I took my gloves off to spark up the stove. It’s always difficult to get going in the morning on cold, winter camps as the temptation is strong to stay snuggled in your sleeping bag where the inside climate is always cosy. But once I’d warmed up with coffee and porridge, I packed up and set out for the goal of my expedition, Deuchary Hill. It’s not a big mountain but today, with its pointy little top plastered in snow, it looked like a miniature Alpine peak.

I climbed up through a winter wonderland of fresh, powder snow that had settled in big dollops on the branches of the trees. The dark skies blocked out the sun except for a narrow band of peachy light on the southerly horizon. The only other colours in the landscape were those of nature’s subtle winter palette - the hints of purple in the bare birch and orange in the larch. In the cold, grey day not much life moved. A crow mobbed a buzzard. Two mute swans took off from the frozen waters of the loch. Three roe deer cleared snow with their hooves to munch meagre grazing. A lone walker lugged a big pack to the top of Deuchary Hill and ate a packet of chocolate –coated raisins.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld & Birnam Rail Station served by the Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness trains.
Map:OS Landranger 52
Route: From the train station head into Dunkeld, across the Tay, through the village on the main street then turn right on the Blairgowrie road. After 200m turn left onto the Right of Way signed for Kirkmichael and follow the track to Mill Dam. There are many possibilities for routes from here. To climb Deuchary Hill take the upper Loch Ordie path to the right immediately before Mill Dam. It’s a beautiful path especially in autumn that contours the hill. At Grid Ref NO 024 491 there is a path junction – turn right to climb the hill.
Tip: There is a great wee deli/coffee shop on the main street in Dunkeld styled like a traditional merchant, perfect for picking up nibbles for the train ride home.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Blackford Hill - One street from posh

In some ways I feel quite a wealthy person - I’ve travelled extensively and my life's been enriched by the great outdoors and wild nature. But my pocket is poor … at least until I find a new job. I’m not sure there’s much call for a hobo who cycled the globo! So most of my outdoor fun is currently limited to destinations served by a £1.40 Lothian Buses fare. Amazingly there are many mini wild adventures to be had on the city bus route and I’m not talking about the night bus to Tranent! But there is one delightful little spot of wildness not even a bus ride away from my bed. 

I’m typing at my desk nursing a hot mug of tea, trying to warm up from a long wander over Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill whose steep north slopes rise above my window in the south of the city. If my window looked out from a house in the next road to the north I would officially live in The Grange. But sadly I am ... one street from posh. At least Blackford Hill's so close that in one movement I can slip from under the duvet into my duvet jacket and through the old iron gates to a small slice of wild heaven. 

On a crisp morning I hauled myself up the steep hillside where overnight frost had made the grass crunchy underfoot. From the top there’s a beautiful view north to a beautiful city but, for me, the real joy is to point your face south along the axis of the viewfinder. Do this and you’ll marvel at the idea that you can be in the capital city but look out across wild hills as Blackford gives way to the Braids which blend into the Pentlands which stretch for a surprising number of empty of miles to the horizon. 

I headed south from the top, left the open scrubby terrain of Blackford Hill and dropped down into the deep, chilled valley of the Hermitage of Braid with its wild woods and fast-flowing burn. Weak sun filtered through the trees; rooks clamoured above in the canopy; blue tits, chaffinches and wrens filled the understory; and the ground floor was pecked over by a dunnock which may sound like a type of teacake but is actually a small, sparrow-like bird.  Mosses, ivy and lichens covered anything that lingered too long and logs sprouted colourful fungi. I meandered for hours along a maze of paths, passed the mallards and mute swans on the pond, before slipping back out through the gates and home for tea. 

Cosy indoors, I look back to the top of Blackford Hill from my window and say thank you for living next to its wild loveliness. I may not be posh but I do feel quite rich. 

Fact File
Lothian Buses No 41 drops you at the gates to Blackford Hill beside the pond.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Pentland Hills - Here's mud in your pie

I love mince pies. It’s as well they have a very small window of availability or I might end up with a bum as wide as the path up Ben Nevis. What I needed to cure my over-indulgence was to unwrap on Christmas morning one of those expensive vouchers for a pampering spa treatment. But, as Santa seemed to overlook this, I had to make do with the full body mud wrap, currently on offer in the boggy trails of the Pentlands Hills. 

When the first day of 2013 promised blue skies after a week of wet and windy weather, I was up, out and cycling along the Union Canal before the sun had even risen on the new year. In the darkness of pre-dawn all I could see were the illuminated lines of “cat’s eyes” that laid out a narrow passage along the towpath, like emergency lights down the aisle of an aircraft, to prevent night time cyclists from veering off into the freezing, inky depths of the canal. At Slateford I switched to the quagmire that is the Water of Leith walkway and acquired my first splattering of mud before I’d even chained up the bike and started my walk to the Bore Stane on the old route over the hills to Carlops. 

It was a beautiful morning as the low winter sun struggled to get above the Pentland peaks. It sent out faintly warm rays to melt the thin crust of ice on the puddles and drench the hills in soft morning light. I barely lifted my eyes to enjoy the view though as I was so engrossed in squelching, slipping and sinking along the mud bath of the path. Some spots were so boggy that I imagined I might sink completely without a trace. Then in thousands of years’ time, I would be dug up by scientists who would note that I was below average size for the humans of the day before examining my stomach contents to work out what I had eaten for my last meal. They’d probably be a bit surprised to see mince pies under the microscope.   

Happily a mud-splattered me did make it safely to the Bore Stane, a large rock feature that sits at the top of the pass and today marks the boundary between the districts of Midlothian, the Borders and the City of Edinburgh. It’s a pretty spot with shelter from the wind and a little copse of trees. Views north opened up to the blue waters of the River Forth, the pointed Lomond Hills of Fife and the snow-dusted Ochils. Unfortunately you can also see Livingston from here! I peered south into the low sun but all I could see in the golden haze were more layers of hills and the sun-reflecting waters of Baddinsgill. 

After a short breather, I complemented my mud spa by having my face exfoliated by the wind on top of East Cairn Hill. Beauty treatment complete, I retraced my boggy boot marks to the bike and cycled home. With a 20-mile round bike trip and a few hours of rough tramping on the hills, I’d fair worked up an appetite so … there was room for one more mince pie!

Fact File
Start/finish: I cycled from home but there's a regular 44 bus from the city to the terminus at Balerno. 
Map: OS Landranger 65. 
Route: From the terminus continue south on Mansfield Road. At the junction for Red Moss turn right onto the single track road and continue to the start of the right of way to Carlops at Grid ref NT149 632 which is signposted. Follow the very muddy path southwest then turn south when you join the main track near Listonshiels. At the Bore Stane strike west up East Cairn Hill. 
Tip: Gaiters at the ready!