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!