Monday, 5 March 2018

Trossachs - Before the Beast

Before the Beast from the East cast its white breath over the land, I'd been for a wander in the Trossachs, west of Callander. The hills had been lovely at that time as they were capped with snow, not blanketed, while the glens and woods were free of snow. I like that contrast. It makes our hills look more beautiful and more dramatic. The Trossachs capture that beauty well with shapely little peaks rising from loch and forest. I'd planned climbing a shapely little peak myself but too long a walk in, on too short a winter day with too deep snow, put paid to that. I turned back before the top and retreated to the glen in the gathering dusk. It was disappointing but I quickly reminded myself that a wander outdoors and a night out in the tent are never wasted. And the moments of winter light had been stunning.

Fact File
Start/finish: Callander
Public transport: Trains to Stirling then bus to Callander from Stirling Bus Station which is adjacent to the train station. There is Demand Responsive Transport in the Callander area which is what I should have used to cut down on the long walk from town. With hindsight!
Route: Picked up National Cycle Route by the river in Callander and followed it west out of town along a lovely stretch of old railway line. After it crosses the A821, I left it and picked up the Great Trossachs Path west towards Brig O'Turk which is signed. It's a lovely walk through scrubby woods and climbs high up the side of the hill for great views. The path eventually junctions with the routes into Glen Finglas and around Brig O'Turk. I camped in Glen Finglas then returned to Callander along the south shore of Loch Vennachar - turn right along the A821 at Brig O'Turk then left into the entrance for the Byre Inn. Go straight on, over the bridge, through the farm then left at the next track junction. This continues to Callander. At Gartchonzie you can turn left up the minor road to rejoin the outward route and that's nicer than continuing on tarmac.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Speyside - Boreal

I’m not sure why but “boreal” is one of my favourite words. The dictionary has its meaning as “relating to northern regions” so maybe I like the word because I am a lover of the north. When I think boreal in Scotland, I think of grey, still, clagged-in winter days wandering through ancient birch and pine woods. There’s something about remoteness in the word and it would be cold with an edge to the wind that feels like a breath from glaciers long gone. But if the low winter sun would poke through, it’s ethereal light could cast a veil of magic over the place. I have a deep-seated need to be in these boreal landscapes. So early in the year, I wandered along the Spey Valley to lose myself in its boreal-ness.

On a quiet weekend when the snow had temporarily retreated, I walked from Boat of Garten to Kingussie, picking up my friend Graham in Aviemore along the way. We followed a network of paths and tracks that meandered through the valley and barely left the old woods at all. The cloud was low and scudded across the tops of the Cairngorms. Where we walked through birch, drizzly mist had formed droplets on the fine twigs that reflected back the world in their little spheres.

Our route skirted the quiet waters of Loch an Eilean and Loch Gamhna and popped out at Feshiebridge where we followed a thin trail up-river. Although not remote, it felt wild here, enhanced by the fact that we barely saw a soul. The walk felt like a long ambling meander but we did have a destination for the second night out in tents – the Uath Lochans. The lochans are glacial kettle holes, formed by a chunk of ice carving off and sinking in the sediment. Our trail pulled in there mid afternoon. 

We hid our heavier camping kit in the trees and made a fabulous walk up and over Creag Far-Leitire. A short pull led to a high level path that snaked along the top of the crag which forms a backdrop to the lochans. At its southeastern extremity there is a stunning view over the lochans and the boreal landscape that they inhabit. There are four lochans and from up high they looked like a giant dinosaur’s footprint that has filled with water. Water that today was iced over in swirly patterns.

After a quiet night at the lochans, we picked up the Badenoch Way to continue through the woods to Kingussie. I like this stretch of the walk. It flirts with the outskirts of the hamlets at Insh, Inveruglas and Drumguish. Here wood smoke from cosy homes filled the air and, peering into back gardens, we had a brief glimpse of somebody else’s life. 

The old arch of Tromie Bridge signalled the last few miles of our walk as we pushed open the gate and entered Tromie Meadows. But what a lovely last few miles. The trail wandered across the fields then left the river and climbed a wooded rise where young birch encrusted with lichens are regenerating. The rise gave views over the watery world of Insh Marshes. Too soon it seemed we were almost in Kingussie and walking below the atmospheric ruins of Ruthven Barracks.   

The old barracks date back to 1721 and stand at the head of the valley on a large mound created by the retreating glaciers. They are bounded on the south by the sub—Arctic realms of the Cairngorms and on the north by the Monadhliath. As I looked up at the ruins under a glowering sky threatening snow, I thought, like myself, they sat well in this northern, boreal landscape.

Fact File
Photos on Flickr click HERE
Start: Boat of Garten
Finish: Kingussie
Public transport: Train to Aviemore then local bus to Boat of Garten. Bus stop opposite front of station. Train back from Kingussie.
Route: National Cycle Route/Speyside Way from Boat of Garten to Aviemore. Starts opposite the shop/post office. Aviemore to Inverdruie along the ski road then picking up a path on the other side of the car park that enters the woods and continues to Lochan Eilean. Round the north shore of Lochan Eilean then the south shore of Loch Gamhna but picking up a branch in the path to the left which continues passed a bothy then onto Feshiebridge. Crossed the river at Feshiebridge then took the right of way up the west bank. It eventually passes between houses and hits the glen road. We turned right on the road then next left onto forest track for the Uath Lochans. The main track into the lochans continues behind Creag Far-leitire and meets the Badenoch Way which we followed into Kingussie. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Glen More - Ski funday

I feel like I'm in a Christmas card. The world is white under a dump of dry, powder snow. I clip into the skis and love the feeling of gliding along trails that meander through woods whose trees are plastered with snow. It's wonderful to hear the skoosh of the skis and feel the chill snow down my neck when I brush against low-hanging branches.  At the day's end, the tent goes up in the trees and I stare up through the tall, thin trunks at a sky speckled with stars.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stirlingshire - Old year, old ways

The final outdoor act of 2017 was a wonderful winter wander along old ways in the countryside of Stirlingshire. A little gem of a walk.  I'll do it many times again.

We started by following an ancient route north along the Allan Water. Called the Darn Road, it dates back to Roman times. In more recent history, relatively speaking, it was a favourite walk of the author Robert Louis Stevenson whose family took holidays in Bridge of Allan. A cave a little way into the walk was said to be his inspiration for Ben Gunn's cave in Treasure Island.

On a cold winter's day there were pockets of even deeper cold by the river. Here the rich tones of the bare winter branches and the rusted grasses were muted by a thick layer of frost that sparkled in the low December sun. 

Before we dropped into Dunblane, the old route became enclosed in stone walls that blocked out the modern world from view, making it easier to tune into the echoes of ancient footsteps. I liked a story from the past that I read. The landowner of the day had angered local people by diverting the Darn Road and building a wall across the route. It was said that the men he employed to build the wall secretly took it back down again every night.

A little further on and the rooftops of Dunblane came into view backed by the dramatic snow-covered peaks of Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Ledi. We ambled through the pleasant streets and gawped at the cathedral before popping out on the far side on more ancient routes. We were on the Old Doune Road now where it crossed Murdoch's Ford. It was here that King Robert II's grandson, Murdoch, was captured by English forces. 

The Old Doune Road meandered across winter fields and passed cottages with Christmas trees in the windows. All the while snow-covered mountains provided a rugged backdrop to the pastoral scene. It soon joined the Doune Trail, an old railway line converted to a walking and cycling track. It's deep cut passed through bare winter woods before emerging into the fields and the village of Doune itself.  

My friend and I have our own old ways, one of which is using buses and trains to get to our walks. And so we jumped on the bus to take us back the way we came.

Fact File
Start: Bridge of Allan
Finish: Doune
Public transport: Train to Bridge of Allan. Bus back from Doune to Stirling for a train home.
Route: We turned right out of the station at Bridge of Allan then left up Blairforkie Drive. As the roads rises we took a path to the left between the houses which continued alongside the Allan Water. It reaches a bridge where there is a sign for Dunblane. It eventually pops out at dual carriageway at Dunblane. We crossed and took the first right which heads down to the main street. At the top is the cathedral. Ahead is the train station. We crossed to the other side of the train station and turned right to then turn left up the Old Doune Road opposite Tesco which continues as track and path once it leaves the houses. This is now the national cycle network and can be followed easily into Doune.

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.