Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Glen Tilt - The snows of early winter

In my last blog I wrote about a place that I go to regularly in the little hills above Dunkeld. Well, just another couple of train stops north is another favourite spot of mine, Glen Tilt. Stretching north from Blair Atholl, Glen Tilt winds for 30 kms into the southern Cairngorms. It’s another place of great variety with woods, fields, mountains and a wild river through its heart. I always seem to end up there just before Christmas when it’s deserted and I can feel like I have the place to myself. But I also love it at this time of year when it’s often dusted with the first snows of early winter, turning the place into something magical.

A couple of weekends before this Christmas, I stepped off the early morning train at Blair Atholl. The train had been busy, no doubt with people travelling to family visits, but I was the only passenger to alight here. I walked through the village which was still and quiet on a cold, grey morning. The only light was a smudged peachy line on the southern horizon. The only sounds were the crunch of hard snow under my boots and, in a strange juxtaposition, the quacking of ducks, more associated with the summer months. But a stream runs through the centre of the village and there are always a dozen or more mallards there, bobbing on the water or snoozing close by on the village green.

At the far side of the village, I took the high path which heads up the east side of the glen, passing through woodlands and fields, and opening up big views to the snow-capped Carn a’Chlamain, the glen’s Munro. The snow was soft and dry now and squeaked with each footstep. A little way up the glen and an easily missed footpath descended through the trees to the valley bottom and crossed to the other side of the gushing, black river. 

The track that continued north is one of my favourite parts of this walk. It keeps close to the river except on a rise which opens up views backwards, over the pines to the knobbly outline of Farragon Hill. Then soon it crosses over the top of a waterfall on a delightful old arched bridge. I always stop to peer over the parapet at the deafening flow of water below. Just above here is a high, grassy shelf, hidden from most views. It contains a cluster of half a dozen or so old shielings. The elements have worn them down over the years so now they are just collections of rectangular, low walls. Down in the glen, you’d never know they were there. It’s a nice place with open views to the flanks of Beinn a’Ghlo and in summer it must catch a breeze to keep the midges away. There was a trickle of water in the stream that today made a black streak through the snow. It was enough to fill a pot so I pitched the tent here, facing down the glen.

With the tent pitched and a cosy home to come back to, I set out up the ridge behind which leads onto Carn a’Chlamain. Not with the idea to climb it as it was already late in a short winter day, but to get a higher view of the winter landscape around me. As I walked higher, the sun broke through to illuminate patches of snow-covered hillside but there was no warmth in it. Up ahead higher on the ridge the wind picked up spindrift and swirled it around in mini tornadoes that moved along the ridge as if they had a life of their own. I gained a high point on the ridge where three cairns had been built but didn’t linger in the windchill and followed my footprints in the snow back to the tent.

I love winter camping and back at my tent, I enjoyed snuggling into my sleeping bag and warmed a pot of hot soup. As dusk descended the temperature dropped and a thin veneer of ice formed on the water in my pot. As the last of the light was fading, I heard a noise that I can honestly say I have never heard before in the hills. It was a constant bleating, not like sheep, more like the kind of squeaky toys that you give dogs. I unzipped the tent and looked around. Behind me on the ridge were about 50 red deer hinds with their young. The noise I was hearing was the young keeping in touch with mum. When I got up later in the night, the stars were out but there was no sign of the deer. Down in the valley below I saw a car move along the glen track, the orange glow of its headlights illuminating the snowy track ahead. It reminded me of the motorcycle scene in The Snowman.

Next morning, I woke to a frosted tent and a frozen water bottle, despite it overnighting deep in my pack. My gaiters, carelessly left in the porch, were like cardboard and the gas stove took a lot of encouragement to heat porridge and coffee. But I love these freezing winter mornings, enjoying breakfast in bed and watching the sun creep above the snow-covered mountains. I made it last longer with a second coffee. Double coffee mornings in the tent are special.

I packed up and walked back down the glen under sunny, blue skies. The morning was Alpine and the cold night had coated the dried summer grasses with a light frost. Lower down, where a freezing mist had formed, the grasses were bowed over with heavy clusters of ice crystals that sparkled in the sun like diamonds.  I saw two red squirrels and where a bridge crossed a side stream, there was a perfect set of their footprints in the snow along the top of the parapet. Before long, I emerged from the woods back into the village to catch my train home. How pretty it looked with the lights on the trees of the village green and its dusting of early winter snow.

Fact File
Start/finish: Blair Atholl train station
Public transport: Trains on the Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness route stop at Blair Atholl
My route: Out of the station I turned right on the main street and continued to the bridge over the River Tilt. Turned left after the bridge signed for Fender Bridge and followed this road uphill. Kept right at Old Bridge of Tilt then took the next road left. Up the hill took the right of way signed for Deeside. After the cottage at Croftmore below the track I took a faint path down through the woods then turned right on the main track to cross the river by Gilberts Bridge. On the other side I turned right up the track. It crosses another bridge further on with a waterfall below it and just beyond here there is a viewpoint marker. I pitched the tent up above here. Next day I stayed on the same side of the river to return to Blair Atholl.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Dunkeld - Home from home in the hills

A track leaves the train station, creeps under the busy traffic on the A9 then follows the Inchewan Burn towards the banks of the River Tay. It turns left and says hello to the old Birnam Oak before following the river upstream to the Telford Bridge, whose pretty arches take it over the fast-flowing water. It now passes through the charming bustle of Dunkeld, whose narrow main street is lined by cafés and shops that sell slippers in the shape of pheasants. Then before long, the track has left tarmac and is climbing up into the woods. There’s a surprisingly quick transition from town to a rugged landscape of woods, lochs, pasture and craggy hills. And as you walk further and further away from town, the atmosphere becomes wild and empty, especially in the winter snows which is my favourite time to go. I don’t know technically what this area of beautiful little hills above Dunkeld is called but to me it’s heaven and a home from home, as I’m there so often.   

I was there in early November. After arriving on a late train, my friend Graham and I made an overnight camp high on Birnam Hill.  We watched a stunning moon rise from our tents.  Its initial blood red colour changed to orange and then through the rest of the night, it cast a sliver light through the woods and made nightime shadows of the trees. Next day we walked the track out of Dunkeld and climbed the little rocky peak of Deuchary Hill.  It was marvellous to be up there, soaking up the last of the autumn colours and enjoying the airy views to the bigger peaks to the north.

And I was back myself in late November. I walked far across a snow-peppered, wind-scoured boreal landscape and pitched the tent in the last of the light by a partially frozen loch. Next day, I climbed the lonely little peak of Meall Reamhar before the morning rays of the sun disappeared behind the shelf of low cloud. It felt empty and remote up here despite being only four hours walk away from Dunkeld. With snow underfoot and a heavy winter pack on my back, the walk back was more like five hours. By the time I was ambling along the main street, I needed a café. Maybe even a pair of slippers.

Fact file
Public transport: Regular trains stop at Dunkeld on the Highland line.
Route: Out of the train station follow the walking signs into Birnam which bring you out at the Beatrix Potter garden, Opposite here is a signed path to the Birnam Oak. At the river turn left for Dunkeld and cross the river on the main bridge. Continue through the main street and turn right up the A923 (there's a footpath). Then take the signed right of way to the left. This track takes you to Mill Dam and onto Loch Ordie or Deuchary Hill and a network of paths. Beyond Loch Ordie rougher paths extend north and I took these. I camped beside Loch Oissinneach and climbed Meall Reamhar from here from the bealach between it and Creag Gharbh. It was rough walking.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Great Glen - Monster ride

The idea had been brewing in my head for some time to cycle a circuit of the Great Glen. October holidays came round and the weather was settled. The route was well wooded so the autumn colours would be at their best. It was the perfect moment to go.

The Great Glen is a long, straight valley that runs between Fort William and Inverness. Formed along the course of an old fault line, it has filled with water over the millenia to create a series of lochs. The most famous of these is Loch Ness whose murky depths harbour the mystery of the Loch Ness monster. Man has added to the water in the Great Glen by building the Caledonian Canal which links the lochs together to create a navigable route that joins the east coast with the west. 

I started my cycle around the Great Glen at Fort William, stepping off a late afternoon train. With a couple of hours of light left in the day, I set out along the tow-path of the Caledonian Canal. I felt a real sense of adventure and excitement for the five days ahead. I'd really anticipated this trip for some time and somehow I knew it would be a memorable ride.

The first section of canal was easy cycling and mostly flat except for the slight inclines at the locks. The margins of the canal here were lined by beech trees whose autumn leaves added rich, russet tones to the scene. As I pedalled north, the mountains were soon crowding in, providing a rugged backdrop to the gentle atmosphere of the canal.

As dusk descended, I pitched the tent in the woods at Gairlochy, right at the edge of the waters of Loch Lochy. Through the evening,  I pondered how a loch came to be called "lochy". The still waters reflected a grainy, grey light while the lighthouse winked on and off through the long October night. 

Next day, on a wet  morning, I continued cycling north, along the canal and forest tracks. Some of the route here followed a disused railway, part of a grand plan in the 19th century to run trains through the glen. It was a dream to drift along here, deep in the woods, on a carpet of golden birch leaves. The place was in its own world, and so peaceful and still without a soul around. It was a contrast to then emerge from this into bustling Fort Augustus, at the south end of Loch Ness. 

To continue north, I cycled the quiet back roads along the south shore of Loch Ness. It was a monster of a climb out of Fort August here but the reward was to be in a magical landscape, dotted with sapphire lochs and autumn woods that shimmered gold in the low October sun. This network of single track roads stayed high above the waters of Loch Ness before dropping eventually into Inverness on a skinny ribbon of tarmac that corkscrewed down through the trees. 

On the outskirts of the city, I turned tail and started my journey back by picking up the Great Glen Way, a long distance footpath that runs along the north side of the loch. Although it's a walking route, I knew that it could be cycled for most of its length. I couldn't cycle the first part out of Inverness however and had to push up a steep, hot hill. I had company though as I chatted with a local walker heading my way. We talked about the hills and how the city had changed in the years we'd both known it. 

Back on the bike, I cycled a little further that evening before pitching the tent in pinewoods at a beautiful high place in the company of old trees. Grouse gargled close by at dusk and after dark, the clouds glowed orange from the lights of Inverness below.

The grouse welcomed in the new day as I watched the sun rise and gradually flood the tent with light and weak warmth. The route continued south that day on forest tracks and footpaths through the woods. It climbed high again above the blue waters of Loch Ness. It was a tough ride for a wee lass on a loaded bike but the sun shone between showers and made rainbows above my route to cheer me along. 

I was happy to eventually be pulling back into Fort Augustus to repeat the easy cycle to Fort William of my outward leg. In the late afternoon, I found myself back on the wonderful old railway line and said out loud "I could ride up and down here forever". 

I didn't ride forever but lingered for another night out in the tent.  Near the old ruin at Leitirfearn, I pitched at the edge of Loch Oich under the canopy of big, old beech trees. In the inky darkness out on the loch, I could see the lights and faint form of a large sea-going fishing boat that I'd watched earlier, navigating the locks. It passed by silently, pushing its wake to shore and ruffling an otherwise still loch.

As I took the tent down on my final morning to cycle the remaining miles back to Fort William, I couldn't believe the size of the enormous slug that had attached itself during the night to the underside of my flysheet. It was determined not to leave and I had to detach it with a tent peg. As it slunk away, I smiled to myself. I reckoned I'd encountered the true monster of these parts.

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Fort William
Transport: Train to/from Fort William. 
My route:  North out of Fort William I cycled national cycle route 78, also known at the Caledonian Way, to Fort Augustus. It uses canal tow-path, a small stretch of back road, forest track and the fabulous old railway line. This route continues to Inverness along the quiet roads on the south side of Loch Ness although I used some different but similar roads here. At Inverness I picked up the Great Glen Way heading south - an easy place to pick it up is as it crosses the Ness Islands as the cycle route passes by here as well. The Great Glen Way is signposted back to Fort William. It uses footpaths and forest tracks and passes through Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston before heading into Fort Augustus. Where the route uses a path through the forests before Abriachan, you'll come across Abriachan Eco campsite and cafe. It's a quirky set up that's well worth a stop. From Fort Augustus the Great Glen Way uses the same route as the outward cycle route on the Caledonia Way back to Fort William. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Cairngorms - If you go down to the woods today

It's October and that means gorgeous autumn colours in the Scottish outdoors and that means I want to be down in the woods enjoying those colours. The north side of the Cairngorms, such as the Spey Valley, is peppered with woods linked by great off-road cycling trails so my friend Graham and I strung the trails and woods together into a three-day mini tour.

Arriving by train to Aviemore in mid-afternoon, we cycled north along the wonderful Speyside Way section to Boat of Garten. It swoops and undulates across heathery moor and open birch woods that were gold against a cobalt sky. 

A back road then took us to Carrbridge. Usually a quiet road, it was busy today as the village was hosting the world porridge making championships. We lingered a while at the precarious arch of the old pack horse bridge above the River Dulnain.

We followed the River Dulnain upstream on tarmac then track into a beautiful landscape of birch woods giving way to pine woods that themselves gave way to rolling hills. The tents were pitched by the river under the canopy of the granny pines above.

Next day we headed to Slochd Summit taking in the old Sluggan Bridge. The original bridge here was part of General Wade's military road but washed away by floods in 1829. The new bridge is still very old, built as replacement. The birch woods here were stunning, golds and greens that contrasted with the punchy reds of rowan and fly agaric. 

From Slochd, we turned back for Carrbridge and headed onwards for Boat of Garten, an off-road route this time, through the woods. We skirted the quiet waters of Loch Garten, quiet without its ospreys and attendant tourists, then cycled over the Ryvoan Pass through the forests of Abernethy.  

Another fine stand of pines provided another woodland camp spot in Rothiemurchus. Up early next morning, we cycled to Loch Insh and watched the rain pass over while nursing mugs of coffee. Then cycled another gorgeous section of the Speyside Way form Kincraig that took us back to Aviemore through the woods again.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Aviemore
Transport: Trains to Aviemore
Our route: we used the Speyside Way to Boat of Garten then turned left on the main street and followed the on-road bike route 7 to Carrbridge. At Carrbridge we turned left at the old bridge, still on bike route 7, and continued passed Sluggan Bridge to camp. There is road to the right a little further which becomes a dirt track then crosses a bridge. We took a trail to the left before the house which passes into the woods. Beautiful ride up this glen and great camp spots. Next day we followed the off-road bike route 7 to Slochd then on road route back to Carrbridge. We took the off-road route 7 to Boat of Garten then cycled on to Loch Garten and Forest Lodge before cycling over Ryvoan Pass. We took one of the many trails around Rothiemurchus to find a camp spot. Last day we cycled around Loch an Eilean then on the back road to Kincraig before returning to Aviemore off-road on the Speyside Way.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Trossachs - The green loch

Lochan Uaine is a common Gaelic name throughout the Scottish hills and means, the green loch. Perhaps the most famous Lochan Uaine is in Glen More in the Cairngorms. Surrounded by ancient pine woods, it's a dazzling aquamarine. Local folklore says it's that colour because the fairies wash their clothes in it. But I'm also going to re-name Loch Ard in the Trossachs and call it the green loch. On a day when the light of the sun, already low in the late September sky, reflected the lochside woods, the water appeared a vibrant pea green. How wonderful to be out on it in the packraft, my paddle cutting through the water with each stroke. I navigated little bays and rocky islets, and pulled into the woods to avoid a heavy downpour of rain. Each drop created a "plop" on the water and sent out concentric circles across the surface. The loch was not green then but the colour of the depths. However, the sun returned, Ben Lomond emerged from the clouds and I again floated on my green loch.

Fact File
Start: Aberfoyle
Transport: Train from Edinburgh to Stirling; bus from Stirling to Aberfoyle (a nice wee journey).
My route: From the bus stop in Aberfoyle turned left on the main street and continued to Milton. Crossed the bridge here and entered the Loch Ard Forest. The track soon split and I turned right. Just after the eagle sculpture is a small path heading down to the loch. There's a good space here for inflating the raft and putting it in.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Dumfries, Galloway and the Borders - Southern Cross

September is one of my favourite months and I usually stick a week's leave in the diary to get away cycling to catch the tail end of summer. At this time, there are the last of the rich greens in the landscape and blue skies filled with clouds of swallows and martins, about to embark on their own September journey. This year I cycled in the south of Scotland, starting at Ayr and crossed Galloway, Dumfries and the Borders to end back home in Portobello. It was a journey through rich farmland and rolling hills, along meandering back roads that dipped regularly into pleasant wee towns with numerous cafes serving up coffee and gluten free cakes.

The start of the cycle looked very much like the end! This photo of the bike on the first day at Ayr promenade on the west coast could as easily pass for Portobello in the east on the last day as I rolled up to my front door.

Soon out of Ayr, I cycled to a place I'd always wanted to see - Electric Brae. It's famous for its optical illusion so when I was pedalling uphill, my legs knew it was up but my eyes were sure the road was going downhill! The coast road here also gave lovely views across a shimmering sea to the rock of Ailsa Craig.

Beyond Electric Brae the road left the coast to climb through the Galloway hills to Newton Stewart. I was using national cycle route 7 here and every now and then would pass a marker. The back road that the route uses was beautiful, especially as it passed through the Wood of Cree, still green and fresh like early summer. The road popped out eventually into Newton Stewart, a busy wee town with a lovely clock tower.

Beyond here I cycled onto the Machars, a peninsula south of Newton Stewart that dips into the Solway Firth. It has a special character all of its own and standing stones at Duntroddan. There were great little back roads that all seemed to lead to Wigtown, famous for its numerous book stores and annual book festival. 

Back on route 7, I cycled eastwards now using a helpful stretch of disused railway line. The line itself was flat of course but, as you'll see below, the access was not! The route then climbed back into the hills and more rugged landscape above Gatehouse of Fleet. It's a smart little town with neat rows of cottages and a working water mill.

Beyond Gatehouse the route passed closer to the seas of the Solway Firth again as it dipped into Kirkcudbright, a lively town with a working harbour and vibrant arts culture. It'll be most memorable to me though for the huge slice of gluten free carrot cake that it served up.

It was time to head inland again on a high road to Castle Douglas before following an old military road into Dumfries. As you might expect of a military road, it was poker straight on the map but what that didn't reveal of course, was that it was a real roller-coaster of a ride.

From Dumfries my route followed the waters of the River Nith before turning east again along the Solway coast to Annan. I camped a night near here and listened to the geese coming in at dusk to roost on the salt flats and I listened again to them leave in the morning. It's such an evocative sound that heralds the change of seasons.

At Annan I left the coast for the final time and cycled inland to pass into the Borders at the town of Langholm before cycling a high pass into the Ettrick Valley. It was a beautiful slice of pastoral life in this quiet nook of the country. In the morning golden sunshine bathed the landscape as I set out on my final day cycling home to Portobello.

There were four climbs to take me to Innerleithen and then through the Moorfoot Hills. The final pass closed in around me before opening up again to a view of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills. I was on national cycle route 1 now and followed its winding course until I came upon familiar trails and the final run home. 

It's nice to cycle all the way home from a trip, eventually coming upon routes that you use each day in normal life. It makes you see things in a new light as you approach them from a different angle, both physically and metaphorically. And it's nice to have crossed from one side of the country to the other, soaking up everything in between.

Fact File
Start: Ayr Train Station
Finish: Portobello, Edinburgh
Route: From the train station I headed straight to the promenade to pick up national cycle route 7. It uses some bike path but mostly back roads to Maybole and then passes through the Galloway Hills to Newton Stewart. I left the route to cycle round the Machars for a half day - there are brilliant, empty single track roads here. From Newton Stewart route 7 uses a bike path on a disused railway line to Creetown then continues on mostly back roads to Dumfries and along the Solway Coast to Annan. Quirky and cheap camping at Mossdale on the route before Powfoot - right at the beach with birds all around. From Annan, I used back roads to Langholm, then passed into the Ettrick Valley from Eskdalemuir (which now has a fabby cafe with gluten free caramel apple cake) and then over to Innerleithen on back roads. From Innerleithen to Porty I followed national cycle route 1 on back roads to Bonnyrigg and then on cycle paths. I used two wild camps then formal campsites at Creetown, Mossdale and Wardlaw in the Ettrick Valley. The Mossdale and Wardlaw sites were lovely - highly recommended.