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 end 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.  

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Perthshire - The cusp of summer and autumn

Autumn is in full swing now but I'm a bit behind on my blogging so here's a selection of pics and words from an off-road cycle trip with bike buddy Graham from the tail end of summer. It's a wee tour I'd had my eye on for some time that we spread over two days with an overnight wild camp. The route makes a big northerly circle out of Pitlochry, cycling up the wonderful Glen Tilt then making a rough crossing through the hills to descend Gleann Fearnach. The route itself seemed to be on the cusp of summer and autumn as Glen Tilt was warm and green still, while Fearnach had a chillier feel and a more rusty palette. 

Our ride started with a short pedal north through the Pass of Killiecrankie to Blair Atholl and the start of the cycle up Glen Tilt. Glen Tilt is a long, long glen with a good dirt track most of the way. It has a wonderful mix of pasture and woodland, gorge and high mountain.

The track was lined by rowans covered with red berries. In the lush greenery and warm sunshine it felt still like high summer.

Beyond the last trees, the glen narrows and the slopes of the Beinn a'Ghlo massif tower above. There are three Munros up there that make for a great, if long, day out on the hills.

At the head of the glen, the track narrows and then becomes a footpath as the mountains start to close in.

The Falls of Tarff are crossed by the Bedford Bridge, in remembrance of Francis John Bedford who drowned at this spot in 1879. It's a lovely remote spot and I'm sure if it was less so, the falls would be hugely popular.

Beyond the falls, we pitched the tents on a grassy shelf above the river and sipped afternoon tea sitting outside until a few lingering summer midges chased us indoors.

Next morning, with the landscape bathed in golden early sunshine, we crossed the open moors on a narrow, rough path that had us pushing for most of it.

On the far side in Gleann Fearnach autumn seemed to be creeping in already and the rowans were scarlet.

The reward for the hard push through the hills was a long and fast descent on the excellent track down Gleann Fearnach. Wild and open in its upper reaches, it later drops down into pretty woodland and fields. The track wasn't the only reward for our efforts ... there was coffee and cake waiting in Pitlochry as well.

Fact File
Route: take bike route 7 north out of Pitlochry. At Killiecrankie cross the river on the bridge and turn right. This back road is more pleasant than the B road. It eventually passes under the A9 and becomes a riverside track into Blair Atholl. Turn right on the main road into Blair Atholl then left immediately after the bridge over the Tilt. This road soon swings left under a stone arch footbridge. The entrance to Glen Tilt is just after on the right. Cycle the full length of Glen Tilt. Where it narrows and the main track turns uphill to the left away from the river, the right hand split to stay alongside the river. Cross the bridge over the Tarff and follow the footpath beyond here. About 400m later a path leaves to the right to cross the river. Take that path and follow it steeply up the other side. I've passed here a couple of times and not had any difficulty crossing the river but it could be tricky in a spate. Follow the path to Fealar Lodge and then the main track that heads south all the way to Straloch. Take the A924 back to Pitlochry. Although an "A" road, it's pretty quite and a lovely ride.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

West - Bay of Alders

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture around the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance”

These words were written by Gavin Maxwell almost 60 years ago when he first arrived at the place he called Camusfearna, the setting of his book, Ring of Bright Water.  The place was no less beautiful to me as I stood before it now. In late summer there was no snow yet on the tops and a keen wind made the sea rough, pushing white horses to the shore but all the elements of the place as he’d described remained the same. Behind the bay the steep hillside was covered with woodland and rowans heavy with red berries. The Sandaig islands floated offshore, green turfed except for the white smudges of beach at their edges. And encircling the bay were the dark, peaty waters of the alder-lined burn, the “ring of bright water”.

The real name of the place is Sandaig and it occupies a remote spot in a quiet corner of the land on the Glenelg Peninsula. Rob and I passed on our September cycling holiday. Like thousands of people, the book had enthralled me, evoking as it did a sense of a simpler time and a wilder world. I’d always wanted to visit the place where the story had played out. It was a beautiful place as written but with very palpable undertones of melancholy that mirror the tragedies and sadness which were to follow after the book's success. I was especially moved by the memorial erected by Gavin Maxwell to his favourite otter, Edal. The inscription read “whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature”. An epitaph or a mantra for the mad modern world.
It had been a convoluted and let’s say, interesting, journey there by bicycle. The train had put us out a few days before at Connel and we’d followed a wonderful disused rail route, now opened as the Caledonia Way. At times it hugged the seashore and at other times it meandered through woods and fields. Heavy showers of rain passed over and made the place damp and drippy.

A rough section of the West Highland Way had then taken us down into Fort William before we enjoyed an easy pootle along the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry. It felt still like the summer in the sun and the warmth and the midges. Midge-sucking machines at the campsite at Invergarry made little impact on the hordes of them. A café in Edinburgh has just started serving insect brownies, part of tackling climate change so that we get protein from insects instead of farmed meat which has a huge environmental impact. I wondered if the sucked-up midges in the machines at Invergarry were therefore baked into garibaldi biscuits instead of dead flies.
We cycled west along the longest cul-de-sac in Scotland, the 22 miles of single track road to the tiny outpost of Kinlochourn. The last couple of miles were spectacular as they plummeted steeply to the village which sits at the head of Loch Hourn, a long wiggly finger of sea loch that reaches deep into the hills. Our exit from the dead-end was a tough push through hills and river gorges to Corran, another delightful outpost with end-of-the-road charm and a sense of being far from the modern world.

We slept well at our wild camp spot by the river which was lucky as the road onwards to Sandaig and beyond to Glenelg and Skye was a rollercoaster of steep and ups and downs. The old ferry onto Skye, the Glenahullish, laid on more charm for us. Built in 1969, she’s the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world and pootles back and forward in summer between Glenelg and Skye.
If you want to enjoy the delights of the Glenahullish, you’ll have to cycle over the big pass in these parts, the Mam Ratagan. We crossed northwards, the easier direction, and were rewarded with a stunning panorama of Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail. I love the legend of the Five Sisters. The story goes that the five sisters were originally seven, but two brothers sailed into Loch Duich from a foreign land and were smitten by the youngest two sisters. Their father refused to allow them to marry before their older sisters but the brothers swore they had five older brothers who they would send back to marry the other sisters. The two brothers sailed off with their new brides, never to be seen again. The five remaining sisters waited... and waited... and were eventually turned to stone to preserve their beauty for evermore, forming the mountain ridge along Glen Shiel, with its five prominent peaks that we see today.

We left Kintail eastwards by another tough, remote mountain pass and lingered a while in the old Camban bothy, joined by a hiker from Montana, of all places. I’ve cycled across Montana and it was funny to be in this desolate spot in Scotland trading place names that most people have never heard of. The Montana man complained of the lack of sun in Scotland. We didn’t linger too long though before pressing on for the welcome woods and easy tracks of Glen Affric. The rain caught us before Cannich and the outside modern world caught us before Inverness.

More phtotos on Flickr - click here.

Fact File
Start: Connel on the Oban train lined
Finish: Inverness
Route: Take the Caledonia Way cycle route north to Ballahulish and continue to Glen Coe and Kinlochleven. Cycle the West Highland Way route to Fort William - join it via the road to Mamore Lodge and leave it Blar a'Chaorainn to take the road into Fort William. Use the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry and the road to Kinlochourn. Take the steep, rough and difficult hill path through to Corran. Cycle north from Corran to Glenelg. We made a short detour to Broadford on Skye via the Glenelg ferry then returned to Glenelg to cycle over the Mam Ratagan to Shiel Bridge. We cycled into Glen Affric via Gleann Lichd and another steep and difficult hill pass. From Cannich we took back roads into Inverness but you can also pick up the top end of the Great Glen Way.