Summer hill walking in Scotland

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The distinctive shape of Morven in Caithness

Hill walking in Scotland can be a serious business, you can spend hours planning your routes, fork out a fortune for gear and tick off Munros or Corbetts, Grahams or Marilyns.  You can tackle long ridge walks, seek out those tucked away mountains where you won’t see another person all day and you can join others on some of the [rightly] more popular routes up dramatic mountains.  In winter these mountains are often covered in snow that makes the walking much tougher.  I enjoy walking in Scotland when the weather and the views are good far too much to be interested in ticking off tops.  From my limited experience, although Scottish mountains vary enormously, there are a few experiences that many share and our trip up Morven, the distinctive and yet diminutive mountain in Caithness gives a flavour of the summer hill walking experience.  Morven is just 706 m above sea level, making it a Graham, that is a mountain between 610 and 762 metres high.

It is true that not every Scottish mountain requires a long drive along a single-track road, there are some you can climb from the A9, but neither is Morven untypical in requiring almost 6 miles of driving along a narrow lane before you start walking.  Owning a campervan adds to the excitement of the start of any Scottish walk as we are often unsure if we will fit in to the car park.  I am often amazed at the inconsiderate parking of others in small car parks, when tidier parking would have meant that more cars [or a small campervan] could have fitted in.  We set off early on our Morven day and so we got first dips on the parking area that will fit just three cars [if tidily parked].

In the ‘van we often have a brew at this point but eventually we have to put on our gear and venture out on the next stage of the walk; that is reaching the base of the mountain.  The walk-in for Morven will be familiar to many hill walkers; the land rover track takes walkers over two and a half miles in to the moorland, ending at an abandoned cottage.  At least this track is easy going and good progress can be made as the next section of a typical Scottish mountain walk is the bog trot.  The soggy Caithness moorland had grassy tussocks, each one trying to turn over my ankle, and black peaty sections that might look stable but linger for more than a second and your boots are soon covered in dark mud.

Already we have walked for about four miles but haven’t really gained much height and the toughest part is yet to come.  Eventually you reach the climb and in Scotland this means a steep, almost vertical hillside.  I am the slowest hill-walker in Scotland and it is on this section that I will be over-taken by other walkers.  I plod up the hill, desperately trying not to look up, as each time I do the top seems to be no nearer than it was the last time I looked.  There is a rule on Scottish mountains that there will be at least one false summit, these catch out the inexperienced walker who will get excited that the top is within reach and will start looking forward to resting.  These false summits no longer catch me out, I never expect that what I can actually see will be the summit until I am standing on a point where the only way is downhill.  We had Morven more or less to ourselves so there were no other walkers to rush past me, highlighting how snail-like I am.  The bonus with my slow pace is that I spot the wildlife. On Morven there was a mountain hare silhouetted on the skyline, a large group of hinds in the distance, a lizard, plenty of frogs, a water vole and a grouse that terrified me as its frantic wing beats broke the silence.  There were also flowers; bright cloud berries on the summit, bog asphodel and the heather was in glorious flower.

During this slow ascent of a Scottish mountain the weather will change a number of times, either getting worse or better, the only rule is it will change.  Sometimes you have a great view from the summit, sometimes you just miss it, sometimes you are lucky enough to walk through low cloud in to sunshine on the summit and at other times the cloud just stays with you.  The uncertainty of the weather means layers are the only way to walk and these will be on and off throughout the day.  On Morven we set off on a glorious day that slowly got cloudier.  With the cloud came a breeze that was welcome, as when we were sheltered from the wind on the ascent this bought the midges out and I was grateful to reach the blustery and midge-free summit ridge.

Eventually I reach the top, feeling exhilarated and exhausted.  The exhilaration is short-lived because I know that, although the climb up seemed interminable and tough-going, the descent is worse.  By this point I don’t really care where I put each foot I am so tired but the walking now gets more technical; descending a steep-sided Scottish mountain is tricky and puts lots of weight on the knees.  The only way to get through it is to take my time, grit my teeth and once again try to avoid looking at the vast distance I have to cover, concentrating only on securely placing each foot.

On our Scottish holiday, as well as climbing Morven, we walked up two other hills.  Ben Rinnes, at 841 metres high is a popular Corbett in Banffshire where the parking is also limited.  The summit gives great views and with a well-marked path and only 500 metres of ascent it is achievable in a short day.  We also climbed Lochnagar, a splendid and popular mountain above Loch Muick that has plenty of parking.   We took the direct route up the mountain, pausing to enjoy the fantastic viewpoint over the corrie before climbing steeply up above the crags.  We descended down the lovely path by Glas Allt that is quieter and easier on the knees.  After a tiring day of around 12 miles the walk back along Loch Muick seemed to go on forever and if I hadn’t started a game of i-spy-meets-name-that-tune [try and think of a song title that includes something you can see around you, eg River Deep Mountain High] I may never have made it back.

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The crags of Lochnagar

 

Orkney the place for perfect holidays

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The tidal island of Birsay in the north-west of the mainland

There are not too many places I return to over and over again [aside from local favourites] but the islands of Orkney off the north coast of Scotland is one such place.  Our recent holiday was my sixth trip to Orkney but the first in a campervan and what a difference having the ‘van meant.  On previous visits we have been based in one place, all trips radiating out from that base.  With the ‘van we travelled across the Churchill Barriers from South Ronaldsay to the north of the mainland, staying in a different place every night and getting a different feel for these wonderful islands.  In truth the journey from the wonderful Skerries Bistro and Tomb of the Otters in the south to Birsay in the north is only 40 miles but then why rush around Orkney, there is so much to see, so many different bays to explore and despite repeated visits there are still parts of even the East and West Orkney Mainland that we haven’t yet visited, never mind the other islands.

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Orkney stone buildings at Wind Wick

You can expect weather on Orkney and it is always colder than I remember.  We have been here when the winds are relentless, on one visit we had a week of constant fog and we have had days of rain as well as fine and sunny weather.  This trip was blessed with days of sunshine and what I noticed most was the sky.  Orkney lies low and nothing gets in the way of the views of the sky, it is vast and hard to miss and the blue sky appears infinite.  On this trip I got used to the feeling of space that those enormous skies give and I found myself missing it as we returned south.  During the day we walked and drove under these skies and every evening we sat on a shore or a cliff enjoying a different view to watch the sun go down over the Atlantic, the red sky promising another fine day.

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Houses on the sea front at Stromness

Orkney is always a great place to visit for wildlife and despite it being early August we saw plenty of birds, including puffins, black guillemots and gannets from the boat.  On the cliffs we saw fulmars and kittiwakes.  We watched seals bobbing in the sea and sitting on the rocks at Birsay.  We searched for elusive otters and short-eared owls [we had to wait until the Scottish mainland before we spotted the latter].  Many come to Orkney for the incredible archaeological sites and we had timed this visit to see the dig at the Ness of Brodgar.  I found the excellent guided tour very interesting, the site is so intriguing, and we contributed by adopting a square of the dig.  We also made our first visit to the Banks Chambered Tomb, where our guide was a natural story teller who bought the site to life.  We watched boats in Kirkwall and Stromness, we beach-combed at Birsay and at the lovely bay by Kirkhouse Point, we explored the cemeteries at Burwick and at Kirkhouse Point and we walked up Marwick Head to the Kitchener and HMS Hampshire Memorial and thought about the 737 people who lost their lives off the coast here in 1916.  Of course we ate Orkney ice-cream and drank Orkney beer whenever we could.

It isn’t just the range of things you can do in Orkney that make it possibly the best place for a holiday, it is the tranquility and calmness of the islands.  Even though I am a relaxed retiree these days I still enjoy slowing down our lives for a while on these beautiful islands.

 

A weekend at the Upton Blues Festival

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Sometimes it rains at festivals

If you have never been to a festival and [this probably goes without saying] you like the blues, then the Blues Festival at Upton upon Severn is an excellent first festival experience.  The Upton Blues Festival is a free festival, that is every gig is free for anyone to attend, and plenty of local day visitors come along to enjoy the music available.  But to get the real festival experience you need to take your campervan, caravan or tent and camp and our campervan is a perfect place to sleep in at a festival.  At Upton the performers are paid from the receipts from the campers who pay £10 a night each to use the flat Fish Meadow that is just ten minutes or so walk from the venues.  The festival also gets money from parking charges for day visitors, sale of beer and merchandise.  As well as the campsite, the festival committee runs two main stages, one by the river and one on the meadow across the town and an indoor acoustic stage and the Meadow Stage is a fantastic place to lie in the sun and listen to good music.  There are also around ten smaller stages in the pubs of Upton upon Severn that are self-funding.  Upton is a relaxed and friendly festival that has none of the corporate blandness or size of other festivals and you can always find some excellent music and get in to your own groove.

Upton Blues has grown over the years and in 2016 over 20,000 attended over the weekend and this year around 4,000 people camped in Fish Meadow.  The first festival was held in 2002 but Mr BOTRA and I didn’t get there until 2014 by which time it was already a well organised and large event.  This year was bigger than ever but the camping facilities held up well, even in the inclement weather, and we never had to queue for a toilet!  I love Upton because of its size and atmosphere, because tarmac roads link the stages [rather than a sea of mud] and you won’t find yourself unable to see the stage because the person in front of you has someone sitting on their shoulders or is waving a huge flag.  The Upton crowd is a friendly and chilled out beast that isn’t there because its the thing to do.

The music at Upton covers the whole spectrum that is called the blues and we saw some great bands this year and as usual there are a couple that stand out.  The high energy blues of Dr Schwamp was just what we needed on a damp Friday night.  They are a great party band with plenty of variety in their set and we’ll certainly look them up again.  We also loved Sons of the Delta who played on the boat on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I shut my eyes and imagined I was on the Mississippi.

You don’t have to do anything but listen to the blues at Upton but we did fit in a walk along the river Severn on Sunday morning.  We enjoyed finding parts of the the town we hadn’t seen before and exploring the countryside around Upton.

The festival feels like it is part of a bigger community and gives a lot back to the town, not just in income for the businesses over the weekend but also improving local amenities from the surplus.  We like to support the local economy when we are there and now have a list of must-do activities when we are in Upton.  We splash out on an Indian meal one evening and we always visit the Pudding Shop to sit outside and enjoy one of their fantastic steamed puddings during the weekend.  The only difficult decision is whether to have apricot, ginger or blueberry pudding.

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Camping on Fish Meadow

 

 

Why bother travelling?

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Italy

Migrating Miss’ thoughtful and interesting blog post on why people travel got me ruminating on my own reasons for enjoying travelling and for deciding to become a travel writer and blogger.  I am interested in my local area and I appreciate the many different reasons why many people would prefer to stay at home.  Maura Kelly is right, just looking through Migrating Miss’ reasons for enjoying travel, many of them are existential:

  • To Learn
  • To Challenge Myself
  • Be anonymous
  • Because life is too short
  • To know myself
  • To feel
  • Experience Cultures
  • Have adventures
  • Meet People
  • To Not Look Back & Wonder

Some of these reasons resonate strongly with me.  I am very aware that ‘life is too short’ and I don’t want to ‘look back and wonder’ but then travel isn’t for everyone, some people feel their place in life is where they are and have no need to wander the globe and yet for me travel is an urge, even a necessity and it is a big part of who I am.

I enjoy learning and I certainly learn best when the learning is reflected in the place, geography and culture I am in.  On our trips we like to stop to explore historical sites and learn about why places are culturally important and for me this learning has more relevance when I am standing on the spot.  Looking over Culloden Moor I can feel some of the pain of the soldiers as the Jacobite uprising fell apart; I got a sense of the long span of human history when I walked in the steps of the pilgrims at Delphi and finding the layers of history in the city of Berlin is a thrilling experience.

But thinking about why I love to travel also got me mulling over how I see and experience and in this I am concerned with my observations moving on to interpretations, while appreciating that my own way of seeing a place as a white British woman will be individual.  I try to be mindful of my surrounding and I am delighted when I manage to see the familiar as if it were new and walk down a nearby street with new eyes.  But in truth it is arriving in new places when all my senses are really heightened.  Everything happening around me can feel strange and inexplicable and I am bombarded by new smells, colours and sounds and my brain will be trying to interpret the meaning in the landscape and the way people use the space.  In my own culture, in the north-west of England, I take so much for granted; I know how to use the bus, can identify the crops in the fields and understand the language people are using and my brain will take short-cuts as it doesn’t need to make sense of even the smallest detail.  I can be creative about what I see anywhere but insight can sometimes get lost in the humdrum day-to-day.  Travel opens up my imagination, offers new perspectives and encourages my brain to make new connections.

What has become clear is that for me the buzz that I get from this sensual surge and unfurling of my imagination in these new places has become addictive and after a short time at home I am ready for another fix.

 

 

 

 

Back where you belong

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Can you spot the shiny new wing and bonnet?

It took eight weeks to fix our campervan after the Greek tragedy and what a long eight weeks they were.  For two of those weeks the ‘van was making its way back from Greece, another two weeks were spent sitting around while firstly the body shop did the estimate, then the insurance company assessed the damage and then we waited for parts.  The repair took three weeks and the final week was spent in daily anticipation that the ‘van would be fixed only to be informed sometime mid-afternoon that there was another problem.  One day it was the airbag, another a mechanic put too much weight on the oil filler and broke it off, another day the ABS fault was lighting up.  Every day we were packed and ready to roll but each day the new fault required more parts and another wait on tenterhooks.

We were so pleased to get our blue Renault back and we went straight from the body shop to a campsite.  We would have camped in any weather but as it turned out we were blessed with glorious and sunny weather and the Cheshire countryside proved to be perfect for a few days cycling.  But first we spent a sunny afternoon cleaning the accumulation of Greek and garage dust from the van interior.  I emptied every cupboard reminding myself what goodies we had left in there, having a little weep when I found the tins of giant Greek beans in tomato sauce and the bottles of dark Greek olive oil.  Despite the mixed emotions, somehow this process healed the weeks of separation and made the ‘van feel like ours again.

In Cheshire we discovered The Whitegate Way, a 10 km cycle route on an old railway line and we cycled around Delamere Forest.  We relaxed and took life easy feeling that our life was back on track again.

We followed this with a weekend camping with friends on the Staffordshire / Cheshire border and then more sociable camping in Derbyshire.  We didn’t travel far and we didn’t need to, we were just content to have our campervan back where it belongs.

 

I am missing the #vanlife even when it is camping on the doorstep

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The Peel Tower on the moors above Ramsbottom

While we are off the road I have been missing being in our campervan so much and this got me thinking about what it is about travelling in the ‘van that I love so much.  I get a big thrill from exploring new and beautiful places and learning about cultures and history as we go but what I have realised is that our van life is more than exotic foreign travel, being out and about in the ‘van is just comforting and relaxing in itself.  Our campervan [and its previous versions] is ingrained with so many happy memories, as soon as I climb up the step in to the cab I feel enveloped in cosiness and where we take it doesn’t necessarily matter.  Just at the moment I am really missing that feeling of well being.

I am always telling people how lucky we are to be living in Greater Manchester because we have so much beautiful countryside within easy reach.  Only an hour or so in any direction and we are in stunning places and we tend to alternate our weekends between Yorkshire, the Peak District and North Wales or Cheshire.  But this winter we took camping near to home to the extreme and didn’t even leave Greater Manchester.  Life had been more hectic than usual and our ‘van had looked sulkily at us each time we left to catch the tram for yet another social occasion or cultural event.  The Renault was itching to have a run out and we were missing camping so we chose to squeeze a night in at the Caravan Club’s Burrs Country Park site just 30 minutes from home.  We arrived in the dark, which is always disconcerting and so had little idea what our surroundings were like until the next morning.  With an extension agreed with the wardens beyond the usual 12.00 leaving time we set off for a walk to nearby Ramsbottom along the river Irwell path; a river that also flows within spitting distance of our home.  Our walk was accompanied by cheerful toots of the steam trains on the East Lancashire Railway.  Ramsbottom turned out to be another world from Salford, this foodie heaven was full of cosy independent cafes and delis and we sat outside the church in the unseasonably warm weather savouring a perfect bag of chips each; they were that faultless combination of crisp outside and soft and fluffy inside.  The artisan market was in full swing in the cobbled market place but we decided to shun shopping for the steep walk up the hill to the landmark Peel Tower on the moors, built to commemorate Robert Peel who was born in nearby Bury.  Here we savoured the fresh air and wide views before descending back to the Irwell valley down the steep old cobbled road.  Leaving the campsite in the mid-afternoon, just half-an-hour later we were back among the urban neon of Salford Quays.

Our van life is always about glamorous places but I love it!

 

Top tips for travelling around Greece in a campervan

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Looking down on Epidaurus
  1. We found that Greek roads were mostly in good condition, with just some exceptions.  There are many new motorways [either only just opened or about to be opened] and these are excellent.
  2. Tolls are payable on Greek motorways at seemingly random toll booths.  The toll payable for campervans and motorhomes is more than double the amount for cars and using motorways can get expensive.
  3. Greece has a high number of road traffic accidents [there are thousands of road side shrines to victims] and we did see some poor driving such as over-taking on bends, in fact double lines in the centre of the road were generally ignored, but the driving was no worse than other European countries.
  4. Campsites are clustered around the coast and tourist sites and there are huge areas of the country that have no campsites.  Officially wild camping is not allowed but it is generally tolerated locally and the best advice is to be discreet.
  5. The standard of campsites does vary but we found them mostly good to very good.  As in many other European countries, don’t expect toilet seats or toilet paper but we did enjoy lots of good hot showers.
  6. Much of Greece is hilly and steep and walking shoes and poles are useful if you want to be active.
  7. Some of the historic sites you might want to visit involve walking up hills too.
  8. Greek food tends to come as a meze style meal; that is individual dishes arrive when they are ready and are meant to be shared.  Take care as it is easy to over-order in Greece as portions tend to be large.
  9. We never spent more than €30 on a meal for two in Greece.  We are both vegetarian and this keeps the cost down but the main saving is with the wine, compared to other countries; 500 mls of the house red was generally just a few euros.
  10. Lots of people [but not everyone] is able to speak good English [they learn in school from a young age] but we found it useful to have a few words of Greek and it was appreciated when we used these to say good morning, please and thank you.  We made our own flash cards to learn about 40 phrases.
  11. Road signs are mostly in the familiar English alphabet as well as the Greek alphabet and this makes them easier to read.  But it is worth learning your Greek letters and how these are pronounced for the signs that are only in the Greek alphabet.  By the end of our holiday it was becoming normal to read p as r and r as g!
  12. We took the Blue Guide to Mainland Greece and the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness guide to Athens and the Mainland.  The Blue Guide gave us comprehensive historical information and was complimented by the information and photographs in the Dorling Kindersley.
  13. We also took the Cicerone guide to the Mountains of Greece which was invaluable for walks and the Oxford Paperbacks Flowers of Greece and the Balkans: A Field Guide [currently out of print and only available second hand].  This was a fantastically useful guide for landscape and walking ideas, as well as for flower identification.
  14. Greece has few large out-of-town supermarkets and the most familiar name you will see is Lidl.  Other supermarkets are smaller than you may be used to and generally don’t have a large car park, which can be problematic in a motorhome.
  15. Fresh bread and fantastic cakes are available from the many bakeries, these generally have space to park while you pop in and drool over the selection.
  16. Greece has more petrol stations per head of population than any other country [this isn’t an official figure but it must be true].  These petrol stations are generally family run and are often accompanied by a cafe.  Even small villages can have two petrol stations so no excuse to run out of fuel.
  17. Greece is beautiful and it is worth taking the time to explore it.
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Orange trees near Epidaurus