... 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!