Three weeks and as many seasons in Scotland

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A mistle thrush in the snow

Mr BOTRA and I have visited Scotland at Easter most years since 1981 [apologies if I’ve told you this before but it does tell you something about me].  I love going to Scotland and having been so often I am used to the variable Easter weather and the need to pack for every season.  On previous trips we have had both heavy snow and warm sunshine [shorts and t-shirts needed] and every weather in between.  This year’s holiday was no exception.

We used to go to Scotland for a week but now we are retired [yippee] we can go for longer.  An early stopover was the lovely Sunnyside Campsite in Arisaig; we scrambled over the rocky bay in evening sunshine watching an orange sun go down behind the islands of Rum and Eigg.  Only a few days later we reached the top of Fionn Bheinn [933 metres high] in low cloud and snow and getting no outstanding view for our efforts.  This was particularly annoying because walking up the mountain we had been mostly in sunshine and had needed sunglasses to deal with the glare from the snow.  It took a long time to get out of the cloud on the descent but once we had visibility again we relaxed throwing snowballs down the steep slope.  We moved across to the Black Isle and on a dull cloudy day decided on an easy walk up Cnoc Fyrish a small hill [just 453 metres high] with a folly above Alness.  As we climbed up the paths it started to rain and even on this small hill the rain became snow as we got higher.  At the summit [again no view] we were in a winter wonderland and we played in the deep snow and built a snow robot that waved at us as we left the hilltop.  A few more days later we were in shirt sleeves as we walked over the Corrieyairack Pass.  Next a cold snap rolled in and we were wrapped in every layer we owned and still felt the sharp chilly wind as we looked around the impressive Linlithgow Palace on our way south.

We had perfect weather for a stunning short walk from Blair Atholl in to Glen Tilt.  From the car park we followed attractive paths through woodland, stopping to watch agile red squirrels high above our heads.  We emerged at a view point with a panoramic view along the glen.  It was so peaceful and sunny here we kicked off our shoes and practiced our tai chi forms on the soft grass and in the fresh air before walking back down to the village with its splendid white turreted castle.

This year [as a birthday gift for our son] we booked a wildlife guide for a four-hour wildlife watching trip for us and son and daughter-in-law to give us a better chance of confidently spotting golden eagles.  We spent a morning with John from Highland Nature based at Nethybridge and we experienced dramatically changing weather in the four hours we were out.  John proved to be an excellent guide who took us to Strathdearn along the river Findhorn and revealed all manner of wildlife to us.  As we set off it started to snow heavily and there was little visibility as we watched red squirrels scampering up and down the pine trees.  We stopped to see golden plover and other waders by the river before continuing to the head of the valley.  Stopping in the car to watch some sikka deer on the hillside we were entertained by a large horse in the field next to the road that was desperate for some attention.  We wound down the windows to get a better look at the sikka deer and the large working horse insisted on putting its head through the window, blocking our view!  We also spotted red deer on the hillsides and a group of feral goats sheltering in woodland.  The mistle thrush I managed to catch a photograph of [above] was singing on a fence post as we drove down the single-track road.  At the head of the valley John spotted a mountain hare on the hillside and we watched it through the scope quietly nibbling the surrounding grass that was showing through the snow.  The snow shower eventually moved on and the valley was transformed by blue skies and sunshine in to a magnificent landscape blanketed in snow, bright in the sunlight.  We saw a couple of golden eagles [helped by the younger and alert eyes of our daughter-in-law] making their way over the mountains, as well as a red kite, a goshawk and a peregrine falcon.  On the river we watched a dipper marking its territory with song and the common gulls that nest here wheeled overhead.  It was a fascinating and wonderful morning and I learnt so much from someone that is regularly out watching the local wildlife.

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Sunshine on the way up Fionn Bheinn
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A Scottish challenge: crossing the Corrieyairack Pass in snow

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Heading up the Corrieyairack Pass

Okay, I admit it, I laughed when Anthony sank to his waist in the soft snow near the top of the Corrieyairack Pass, silly me as minutes later it was me that was floundering in the deep snow.  Frustratingly, the snow would take our weight most of the time and then without warning one of us would cross a particularly soft and deep patch and down we would sink.  Walking on this unpredictable surface was hard work and really not what we needed on a long day of 33 kilometres of walking but the sun was shining and I was achieving an ambition so didn’t complain.

We were tackling the Corrieyairack Pass, a remote old route that stretches across the Monadhliath Mountains in Scottish Highlands.  In 1731 General Wade was responsible for constructing military roads across Scotland to enable troops to move quickly around northern Scotland and the Corrieyairack was part of his route from Fort Augustus, on the shore of Loch Ness to Laggan and Ruthven Barracks.  It is now so long ago that I can’t remember when I first noticed this old road on a map but from the moment I did I knew I wanted to walk this route one day.  This was the day.

We had left our campervan at 07.00 on a glorious morning, the mist hanging in the valleys and the promise of sunshine in the air.  Our cheerful taxi driver told us stories about living in this part of Scotland and joined us in gasping at the beauty of the mountains reflected in the loch as he drove us to Garva Bridge where we intended to start our walk.  From here it is 28 kms to Fort Augustus and 500 – 600 metres of climbing.  The tarmac road continues a little beyond Garva Bridge to Melgarve where there is a tidy bothy with a fire and a wooden sleeping platform and a room called General Wade’s office.  Cars are not allowed beyond Melgarve and we got in to the stride of the walk from here enjoying the isolation and peacefulness and the feel of the sun on the back of our necks as we took turns in spotting red deer on the hillsides.  We had packed our rucksacks for survival in wintery weather but it was so warm we could have walked in shorts and sunhats.

Today the Corrieyairack is also crossed by pylons and these giant structures punctuated most of our route.  At each stream I found what remained of the old stone General Wade bridges; a few of them are intact but many are gone.  At Allt a’Mhill Ghaibh we had been expecting to have to paddle over the burn and were pleased to see a new wooden bridge had been constructed.  By the corrie that gives the pass its name the route becomes steeper and General Wade constructed the road in a series of zig-zags.  In early April weather after heavy snow the week before these were under a few feet of snow and so we tackled the hillside directly rather than taking the easier graded zig-zags.

The top of the pass is at 770 metres (2,526 feet) above sea level and this exposed spot caught the wind and the snow was frozen and shone blue with ice crystals.  We needed some of those layers we had been carrying here while we admired the view.  This was breathtaking; snow-clad mountains stretched from left to right to our north and we struggled to take it all in, looking for any familiar shapes among the multitude of mountains.  I posed for a photograph grinning at having achieved the top and tried to take in the beauty and the remoteness of where we were.

We had some difficulty route finding from the top with so much snow underfoot but in the clear conditions we headed left and eventually picked up signs of the familiar old road running parallel with the pylons.  After the excitement of climbing up the pass our slightly longer descent could have felt a bit of an anti-climax but the Corrieyairack had kept some surprises for us.

We were delighted to spot three mountains hares in total; one sat by the old road, its long ears twitching alertly as we froze and watched before it scented us and hurried away.  The hares were still in their white winter coat and soon disappeared in the snow.  Once we were off the snow the route finding was once again easy and here there were wooden posts beside the track to mark it.  With no one around we sang old songs as we descended and the panorama of mountains slowly disappeared.  We stopped to rest by one of Wade’s stone bridges and on the bridge at Allt Lagan a’ Bhaihne we met the only other people we had seen since Garva Bridge, four cyclists on their way over the pass.   I asked them where they were from, ‘Holland, said one, ‘You keep saying that,’ said another sitting opposite and explained, ‘We’re not from Holland we’re from the Netherlands.’  They asked about the snow conditions at the top and told us about their Scottish coast-to-coast route.

On the lower slopes of the Corrieyairack we saw red grouse flying low across the heather and nearer to Fort Augustus strips of heather were being burnt, the acrid smell didn’t encourage us to stop and rest.  The end was in sight as we got our first glimpse of Loch Ness spreading out to the horizon.  It was now the early afternoon and starting to cloud over after the bright blue start to the day as we passed the pink Culachy House.

The last section in to Fort Augustus is a pretty walk by the river and through a peaceful old burial ground.  We arrived in Fort Augustus very tired and in our weary confusion failed to notice the bus stop and therefore watched the 15.12 bus to Inverness drive by.  At Fort Augustus’ main bus shelter we checked for the next bus and found we had over an hour to wait.  As we were dallying a tourist from Taiwan approached us for help and even in our befuddled state we managed to sort out her public transport needs (ask any of my friends, I missed my vocation as a travel agent).  We watched three boats climbing up the series of locks on the Caledonian Canal and decided we had time for a drink before catching the next bus.  On entering the nearest pub the bar man recognised two exhausted walkers and suggested a pint each, how could we refuse.  In Inverness we feasted on chips in the amazing and popular Charlie’s Cafe, a real greasy-spoon of a place with motorbikes on display above the tables and started to revive.

The 18.45 train from Inverness got us to Newtonmore at 19.45 and we walked back to the campsite in the dusk.  Every single muscle in my legs ached but despite the pain I was happy, I had at last walked over the Corrieyairack Pass.

Practicalities:

The Walk Highlands website has a description of the route.

We used Gerry’s Taxis in Aviemore and he was on time and friendly.

We stayed at Invernahavon Campsite near to Newtonmore.  They have some lodges and cute wooden caravans as well as pitches for tents and motorhomes.

We walked a total of 33.5 kms.  Garva Bridge to Fort Augustus is 28 kms (Melgarve at the 6 km point, the top of the pass at 12 km, the hut at Blackburn at 18 km and you reach the road at 24 km).  This took us eight hours to walk, other people could certainly do it in less time.  From Newtonmore Railway Station we had a further 5.5 kms to walk back to the campsite, this took us an hour.

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Nearly at Fort Augustus
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Reaching the snowline

A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

You can’t get too much winter in the winter

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Lowther Castle in Cumbria is a stunning ruin

Retirement has completely changed my experience of winter and given the season a different character that is new and refreshing.  I have always dreaded the winter and would become quite low in November as the days got shorter and colder.  But now we are retired and no longer tied to just two days of freedom we can take off for a day trip or camping tour as soon as sunshine is forecast.  This flexibility means that winter starts to feel like a succession of fantastic frosty and sunny days and is suddenly much more enjoyable and fun.  Last week we spotted another window of opportunity to make the most of the blue skies and we headed north.  After some mooching around the border city of Carlisle with its red sandstone castle and marvellous museum, we visited the dramatic ruin of Lowther Castle whose roof was removed in the 1950s to save the estate from crippling taxation.  The castle and gardens have been recently opened up and are a fantastic place for a day out at any time of year.

We returned south via another ruin, Shap Abbey.  Set in an idyllic and peaceful valley the remains of this ancient abbey are open to the public, although only one tower remains from the original buildings.  From the village of Shap we had views to the Lake District fells dusted in snow and in the sunshine the north-west of England showed off its most beautiful side.

We popped in to Preston for old times sake and were pleased to see the hot potato and parched peas stall [the original street food] was still doing business in the Flag Square.  Continuing south to the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire we had a great day walking in more sunshine.  Then the weekend arrived and with it the drizzle.  We met friends for a pub lunch and a walk and had a lovely afternoon thanks to excellent waterproofs but it would have been better if the fine weather had blessed those working folk too.

PS the quote is from Robert Frost.

 

 

Winter sunshine & walking in the Peak District

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Near Birchen Edge above Baslow in Derbyshire

The forecast was for a cold and sunny few days and so with nothing in the diary we were able to hop in to the ‘van and take a couple of nights in the Peak District to make the most of the fine weather.  We stayed at the Caravan and Motorhome Club Chatsworth campsite which is in a peaceful walled area in Chatsworth Park.  We gave the stately home a miss and walked through the glorious countryside but if you did want to visit it is very near to the site.

On a sunny and frosty morning we walked out of Chatsworth Estate to Baslow, where after a coffee, we climbed through woodland and out on to the open moorland behind the Robin Hood Pub on to Birchen Edge.  These Peak District edges are glorious places to walk, with views over the crags in to the valleys below, I always enjoy the lofty feeling of walking along these distinctive features.  On Birchen Edge we passed Nelson’s monument, a tall thin stone pillar on the rocks.  This was erected by a local business man thirty years before the more famous monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square.  Our walk took in not one but two of these stunning Derbyshire edges.  After a boggy section of moorland we followed the track towards Baslow Edge, finding the Wellington Monument that celebrates the 1815 Waterloo victory.  We walked along the top of Baslow Edge and as the sun started to set we returned to our pitch via one of the many paths under the crags.

We also took in a lovely walk around Longstone Moor, a beautiful limestone ridge that is criss-crossed by paths.  This area was once a thriving lead mining area but is now a quiet and less visited spot among the bustle of the Peak District.  The area around Baslow is lovely but it does get plenty of visitors and finding space to yourself is near to impossible on a fine day.  On Longstone Moor we met no other walkers and we had a sense that the space and fresh air was just ours to enjoy.  We did find the crowds when we popped in to the Packhorse Inn for a swift half.  This charming pub in Little Longstone had welcoming warm fires and is happy to serve walkers with muddy boots.

 

Discovering the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District

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Beautiful Blackwell Arts and Crafts House above Windermere

In retirement our winter trips are being dictated by the weather forecast rather than the weekend and this freedom is liberating.  With some cold sunny weather forecast last week we baked a cake, packed some warm clothing and set off for the Lake District.  Windermere is easy to get to from Salford and we were soon soaking up the views along the lake from Orrest Head, pottered by the Windermere and seeking a cosy pub to warm up in.

In the afternoon we visited the lovely Blackwell Arts and Crafts House.  We had been here before many years ago and since then the staff and volunteers have been busy and many improvements have been made.  Built by M H Bailie Scott as a holiday home for Edward Holt, this is a beautiful example of an Arts and Crafts house that retains many of its original features that, in keeping with the movement, are both decorative and practical.  The door handles are leaf-shaped, the window catches are interesting.  There is attractive stained glass and plaster work too but just as important, the atmosphere is relaxed, rather than stuffy and visitors are encouraged to linger.

After being a holiday home the house became a school and then offices before being bought by a Trust in 1999 and it opened to the public in 2001.  The White Drawing Room has slender columns with decorative capitals, a sunny aspect over the lake and is a room where the sunlight dances around the room.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the 1880s and spread across Europe and America.  As the V&A writes:

‘It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.’

The Arts and Crafts Movement has strong links with the Lake District.  The three founder members, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Phillip Webb were supported by  George Howard from Naworth Castle near Carlisle and he used William Morris’ wallpapers in many of his properties.  John Ruskin, a Lake District resident, strongly influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement.  He considered machine-made items to be dishonest and that craftmanship was linked to dignity.

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Tile detail from a fireplace at Blackwell

Caithness in northern Scotland, so much to see

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Dramatic sea stacks at Duncansby Head

We had raced through Caithness on our way up to Orkney and we were determined to linger on the return leg of our trip as there were so many things we wanted to stop and see along the way.  Of course, we climbed up Morven, the highest point in Caithness, and that was certainly a fantastic day but we did plenty of things that required less exertion.  The coastal scenery of Caithness is hard to beat.  The sea stacks at Duncansby Head on the north-easterly tip of Scotland are dramatic and worth the mile or two of walking from the lighthouse to see them.  We also visited Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, where after a wet morning the sun started to emerge and sea mist flowed over the cliffs; the beauty of it was mesmerising.

Following the coast we sought out some of the historical sights of Caithness.  In the cliffs south of Wick are Whaligoe Steps, 330 flagged steps that zig-zag down to a rocky harbour inlet.  The climb up and down the steps is beautiful in summer, surrounded by wild flowers and with views down to the harbour.  The steps date back to the late 18th century and the harbour was used until the 1960s.

Inland we took the single-track road to the remote Loch of Yarrows Archaelogical Trail, which was a bit damp under-foot after the rain and where there are ruins of burial cairns and a broch.  I learnt that stones in Caithness are not arranged in circles, they have rows and U-shaped arrangements.  We wandered around the 22 rows of short stones [less than one metre high] of the Mid Clyth stone row and at Loch Stemster we  walked the U of the isolated Achavanich Standing Stones.

We explored more recent history at Badbea, north of Helmsdale.  The stones that mark the houses of the former village are perched on rough and steep hillside above the cliffs.  Why would anyone choose to live in this spot that has no shelter from the north sea winds you wonder?  The interpretation boards told me that this wasn’t a choice.  In 1840 the people were cleared from their farms in the valleys to make way for sheep and this inhospitable land was all that was available.  The people tried to scratch a living but within 60 years they had all left and the ruined buildings are now a reminder of how rich landowners exploit and mis-treat the people.

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The bottom of Whaligoe Steps