Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Beinn Dubhcraig - Up close and personal

"Small but perfectly formed" is how I might describe the crowd that arrived for the latest adventure talk about the trans America cycle that my friend Graham and I have been performing around Scotland. After a busy show the previous night at Mull Theatre, we had our smallest audience so far in Oban. However a smaller crowd made the show very up close and personal, allowing us to be more natural, relaxed and open. We both agreed it was the best show we've done and our audience went home happy. As usual, we took advantage of being away and next day headed out for Beinn Dubhcraig above Tyndrum. 
South of Tyndrum, at the foot of the mountain, an old track meanders beside the railway line, rising and falling over the mounds and troughs of a rough landscape moulded by glaciers. As it turns south a boggy, indistinct path leaves it, crosses a river and enters an ancient pinewood, Coille Coire Chuilc, whose Gaelic name means Wood of the Reedy Corrie.  The path meanders up the lower slopes of the mountain, picking a way through the Scots pines and sometimes crossing open meadows with head-high bracken and yellow swathes of bog asphodel. It keeps close company as it climbs with the upper reaches of the river which tumble over rocky escarpments in gentle cascades. In high summer the air is filled with a sweet, woody aroma and the sound of rushing water is always close at hand.

Higher up the path shakes off the forest and emerges into the shallow corrie below the peak. Up here on a clear summer’s day, my view stretched for miles to endless layers of mountains but my eyes were drawn more to the landscape up close. Delicate bell-shaped flowers of harebells hung in clusters by the edge of the river, looking like little blue fairy lights. In the boggy places the fluffy heads of bog cotton nodded in the breeze. On the final rocky ridges of the mountain, thyme and lady’s mantle created a colourful carpet of small, delicate flowers.

With the late afternoon summit in the bag, the tents were pitched on a high bealach beside a lochan, almost as high as the mountain itself. When dense cloud and rain blew in on the evening weather front, the world was reduced to the immediate vicinity of the camp. I kneeled by the water’s edge and peered into the murky shallows for a close up view of the microcosm of the lochan.

Large, fat tadpoles sprouting new back legs wriggled away to hide themselves in the mud. Water boatmen, a type of beetle with legs that look and work like a pair of oars, paddled frantically in all directions. The pool’s top predator, a large dragonfly nymph, patrolled the shallows for prey. And above the water an adult dragonfly buzzed around, its blue iridescence adding a dart of colour to the grey evening.

All of which just goes to show that sometimes it pays to get up close and personal, even if it’s with a mountain.

Fact file

Start/finish: Tyndrum Lower Rail Station, served by Glasgow/Oban trains, Citylink buses nearby.
Map: OS Landranger 50 
Route: Close to the station pick up the West Highland Way Path and follow it south to the stone arch bridge over the River Cononish at NN345288. Cross to the other side and follow the track round to the right. A little bit after it crosses the railway line, it bends south and here there is a boggy path marked by a small cairn heading down to the river and the pinewood. The river crossing here can be tricky and even impossible in spate – as we discovered on the way back out after a night of rain. On the other side of the river pick up a defined path and follow it all the way to the lochans on the bealach between Beinn Dubhcraig and Ben Oss. From here it’s an easy hop to the top. 
Tip: As you'll be walking on part of the West Highland Way, you'll need a T-shirt that says "I'm NOT doing the West Highland Way". 

You can still catch the adventure talk at Glenmore, Birnam and Helensburgh. Click here for details.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pitlochry - Pump my ride

Heatwaves and high summer are not my favourite things. These last few days I’ve been more sweaty than a Sun reader taking an IQ test. It seemed the only way to escape the heat was to take to the water again in my inflatable canoe. 

I stepped off the morning train at Pitlochry and, despite it being quite early, I drew a small crowd as I pumped up the canoe. They fired lots of questions at me – how far was I going; what kind of kit was I carrying; was I an expert at this sort of thing? I must have looked to them like some sort of outdoor adventurer setting out on a big expedition. The truth was I was only going out for a few hours paddling on the sheltered waters of Loch Faskally. 

I slipped the canoe into the water and paddled away from the dam, away from my irrational fear of being sucked down inside it. I followed the long, sinuous line of the loch north. At times the black, peaty loch looked deep and bottomless but at other times the canoe glided through the shallows and I could see the sandy floor, rippled by the water and dappled by the sun. In the middle of the afternoon, when it got too hot even out on the water, I pulled the canoe out onto a little beach and wandered in the cool, shady forests. 

When I headed back towards Pitlochry late afternoon, a headwind had picked up. It created waves large enough to lift the front of the boat out of the water which makes for fast paddling. I came alongside three guys in a small, motorised fishing boat also heading back. We glanced at each other across the water. No words or signal were exchanged. We all just knew … that the race was on. I paddled like never before, fast and furious. I gave it everything I had until my arms felt like they were going to drop off. I was light and fast. They were three big blokes in a flat-bottomed boat. Their tiny motor struggled. 

In the end there was no contest. We were flying, me and my ride.

Fact File
Start/finish: Pitlochry Rail Station served by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness trains.
Map: OS Landranger 53
Information: From the train station walk towards the main street but turn left before you get there, heading passed the public toilets (handy for changing into dry pants after your paddle). Cross under the railway bridge and continue passed the amusements to a car park at the lochside. There are good in/out places here and it’s less than five minutes walk from the station. I know there's somebody out there reading this and thinking "that's not a canoe, it's a kayak" which is technically true but I like the word "canoe".
Tip: If you’ve time to spare before your ride home, the new John Muir Trust place, Wild Space, is worth a visit. It’s on the main street at the junction with the road down to the station. At the moment there is a beautiful exhibition of photos of Scotland. Also a great selection of Scottish nature books for sale.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Edinburgh - The daily commute

Work! Love it or loathe it, we all have to do it. Over the years I’ve made it more bearable by commuting to the office by bicycle. That way, in my overly simplistic mind, work becomes the part of the day in between playing outside on my bike. One very snowy winter I even skied to my office in the city centre. But the other day I had a new idea for commuting to work … my canoe!

I live in Blackford on the south side of Edinburgh and my office is at Hermiston Gait, on the city’s western edge. The Union Canal forms a waterway between the two in the heart of the city. So the other morning I headed out for the office a little earlier than usual. A short walk through the quiet streets of Morningside, with my blow-up canoe rolled up inside a backpack, took me to the canal near Polwarth and after twenty minutes I was pumped up and ready for action. 

The Union Canal doesn’t quite compare to the crocodile-infested waters of the Zambezi River which has been my most exciting canoe trip to date. But it seems that no matter where I am, I always get a real sense of adventure when I slip the canoe into the water and cut the surface with my first paddle stroke.  Though I usually have to strongly resist the desire to hum the “Hawaii 5 O” theme tune.  I had that feeling of adventure even here on the city canal. I suppose the necessity to make it to the office before the nine-thirty meeting added an extra frisson of excitement. 
It was a beautiful morning as I slipped the canoe into the calm water and paddled west, slaloming between the pond weeds and cruising by the yellow flag irises. The Union Canal was built in 1822 to carry goods, especially coal, into the city. Like most canals it fell into disuse as the railways expanded but these days it’s experiencing a revival for recreational use and the enjoyment of a slower pace of life. 

One of the challenges of building the canal was taking it over the Water of Leith at Slateford and here the builders, with advice from that great engineer Thomas Telford, created the 60-foot high Slateford Aqueduct. Crossing the aqueduct by canoe was a slightly surreal experience as I paddled along, high above the busy streets and commuter traffic. West of the aqueduct the canal entered a quiet section where tall trees and thick shrubs obscured the surrounding city. My world was reduced to this watery ribbon of wildness. 

After a couple of gentle curves the canal became more urban again as I paddled into Wester Hailes with high-rise flats towering overhead and noisy buses overtaking on the adjacent road. But even in the concrete jungle, moorhens picked their way around the water weeds and a family of mute swans cruised the shallows. Just beyond Wester Hailes the canal leaves the city and heads west into green countryside towards Linlithgow. It's here that my commute by canoe ended. I hauled the canoe out of the water, rolled it up and walked the final stretch into the office.

It’s fair to say that a canoe is not the quickest way to get to work but it certainly adds a twist to the daily commute. 

Fact file 
Start/finish: I put the canoe into the canal at Ashley Drive where there are helpful put-in places and got out close at the Calder Road bridge, again there is a helpful in/out place. 
Information: I have a Gumotex Solar one-person inflatable canoe which packs down into a large backpack. It weighs about 11 kilos but by the time you’ve added the foot pump and other kit, it’s quite a heavy package so you can’t walk too far with it. It takes about twenty minutes to put the whole canoe together including the detachable tracking fin which keeps it straight in the water. The canoe is very easy to handle. I use a paddle that breaks down into three pieces. Inflatable canoes are perfect if, like me, you don’t use a car as you can take them on buses and trains – it’s just a piece of luggage. They are also especially useful if you are doing a non-circular journey and need to hop on transport to get back to your start point.

So far, it’s never punctured!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Dumfries - Life and bicycles

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” I love that quote by Albert Einstein. To me it means that to be fulfilled in life you have to keep moving forward and trying new things. It forms the opening slide in the talk that my friend Graham and I are currently touring Scotland with, sharing the story of our 4000-mile bicycle journey across America.

Talking of trying new things … if you’d told me several months ago that I would be performing a stage show in front of audiences of a hundred people, I would have said you were crazy. I’m really a rather quiet type, preferring to be in the shadows and on the edges, rather than in the limelight and centre stage. During the planning of the tour, the thought of having to do a stage performance to a big audience filled me with fear and worries of failure.  And in the run-up to the very first show, I felt sick with nerves while throughout the performance my knees wobbled like jelly. But I stepped outside my comfort zone and took on the challenge. I’ve now done half a dozen shows to very appreciative audiences in places as diverse as Arbroath and Dumfries. Not only am I starting to feel like a polished professional, I’m even enjoying the experience. I’ve stretched my abilities and tried something new. As a result I’ve grown as a person and discovered a whole new side to myself. 

As we’ve been travelling around the country with our talk, we’ve taken advantage of the time away to get into the local outdoors. The other week we had the privilege of performing in the Theatre Royal in Dumfries, Scotland’s oldest working theatre and once frequented by the likes of Rabbie Burns and JM Barrie. It was also not far from Dumfries in the village of Keir that Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the man credited with the invention of the pedal-driven bicycle, lived. So it was appropriate that the day after our talk we headed out from Dumfries by bike for a delightful ride in this quiet corner of the countryside crammed with little gems.

On a cool, blustery morning we pedalled Bromptons over the multiple arches of the Devorgilla Bridge. Built in the 15th century, it’s the oldest bridge of this style in Scotland. The bikes then took us out of Dumfries and south alongside the muddy waters of the River Nith towards the salty waters of the Solway Firth. Our four wheels spun past old harbours with fishing boats drawn up as we enjoyed sunny views to the emerald slopes of Criffel, the highest hill in this area. We took a quick peak at the turrets and water-filled moat of Caerlaverock Castle which looks as if it belongs in a faiytale.

The Bromptons rattled along quiet roads through lush farmland, skirting the edges of Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve. The reserve is a stunning place to visit, especially in the winter months. You can enjoy the spectacle of whooper swans whose trumpeting calls carry for miles across the countryside and thousands of barnacle geese in straggly skeins silhouetted against a December sunset. We then put the Solway Firth at our backs and turned our wheels north to cycle back to Dumfries. We whizzed through its old town centre of narrow streets and alleys and at the top of the High Street, tipped our helmets to the Rabbie Burns statue. 

We didn't cover many miles but that day we had such great fun zipping around by bike. There’s something about riding a bike, especially a Brompton, that gives you an incredible sense of joy and JF Kennedy summed it up when he said “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

Fact File
Start/finish: Devorgilla Bridge, Dumfries
Map: OS Landranger 84
Route: From Devorgilla Bridge follow signs for National Cycle Network Route 7 south along the River Nith, at first on a bike path and then on the quiet B725 road. Follow this road to the hamlet of Bankend, passing Caerlaverock Castle and the road to the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust centre before you get there. Don't follow Route 7 to the right here but carry straight to return to Dumfries on a very quiet road.
Tip: If you'd like to see the adventure talk on tour, the next venues are Oban, Mull, Glenmore Lodge, Birnam and Helensburgh - dates and ticket information are on the website at where you can also buy a DVD of the film about the trans America trip.