Thursday, 26 April 2012

Canoeing: The New Doing the Munros?

I blame Hamish Brown. Years ago, when Hamish's Mountain Walk came out, Munrobaggers were a rare and ridiculed breed: bearded, bespectacled oddballs, trainspotters who got their ticks from cairns instead of railway platforms. Hamish broke that stereotype and the SMC guides, Muriel Grey, etc, rode the subsequent Munro wave. Nowadays, Munrobagging is mainstream. Normal, good looking people who deodorise bag Munros. Partly this is because of the improvement in the appearance and comfort of outdoor clothing. Largely it is because of the greater convenience and speed of modern cars and roads. But mainly it is because of the great increase in knowledge around the Munros, the landscape and process demystified, taken apart, analysed, and put back together again with an obvious path made from thousands of footfalls and magazines and popular websites (some with GPS tracks!) devoted to the subject. Munros mean £££s.

But if you want to write a book about the Munros, then I'm afraid you are too late to get in on a good thing at the ground floor. The golden age of expansion is over and only the glossiness of guidebooks remains to be improved.

So, given that the Munros are gone, what else remains? I thought that The Weekend Fix might hit a new readership gagging for fresh material about the Marilyns: but it seems that the Marilyns remain a niche interest, lacking in baggers, still awaiting their HM Brown or A Wainwright.

I fell into conversation on this subject recently with a keen hillwalker who wants to write a book about her travels by bike from Glasgow to China. Well written travelogues are always in vogue, especially if she has some interesting pictures of foreign lands. But Bill Bryson apart, I can't think of any that are big sellers.

What was needed, another man announced, was for someone to write about the new Doing the Munros. But what would that be? I predicted that, with the likes of the Caledonian Canal being promoted as a canoe route, the varied and interesting coasts, and the rise in the number of experienced hillwalkers looking for a new challenge, that it would most likely be kayaking that takes off in the next few years. He, in contrast, reckoned that wild swimming was going to be the big up and coming thing, and the first person to write a proper guidebook to wild swimming spots in the Highlands would do well. (Mountain biking is already with us of course, but unless someone escapes the confines of the laid out trails like Glentress or Seven Stanes it is going to be pretty dull to read about.) So what do you reckon is going to be the new Doing the Munros? Canoeing? Swimming? Mountain biking? Something else??

On the Caledonian Canal:

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Lindisfarne on Foot

Back in October 2006 I walked from Dunbar to Tynemouth along the coast (you can read a trip report at Scottish Hills if you are so inclined). However I missed out a key section of the walk - from Berwick to Lindisfarne. This walk has always attracted more than the landward alternative between Berwick and Bamburgh. The walk to Lindisfarne follows an ever-expanding stretch of sand out to a romantic tidal island: the landward route entails a dull inland detour to avoid a coastal marsh. If doing the walk to Lindisfarne as part of a continuous coastal route, the problem of getting from Lindisfarne to Bamburgh remains. The solution is to swim across the bay or, for the less suicidal, see if a local will take you across by boat. I feel sure that is the best way of walking between Berwick and Bamburgh.

Berwick-upon-Tweed on a sunnier day:

We parked the car at Beal and took the bus to Berwick, one of the most fascinating towns in Britain and subject of a future post! The day was grey and still, and we were soon at Scremerston, the narrow beach backed by geologically interesting low cliffs, miniature waterfalls on the rock layers fingering out to the sea between the sands.

Beyond Scremerston things opened up and we had the beach entirely to ourselves, enjoying walking along the waters edge. A wide and deep stream (North Low) barred progress, but I could see footprints further up the beach. Somebody else had crossed here, so we made confidently for the prints... and my heart sank to realise they were hoof prints. Not having a horse's long legs and four points of contact, we were forced back to the tidal zone to pick our way across barefoot, the water numbingly cold. What would have happened had one of us slipped, fallen into the freezing water and been carried to sea? Would the undertow have got us? Or would it be easy to outsmart the gentle surf and uncertain underfoot conditions? The perils of coastal walking, distant from solid land, vigorous water on all sides and gulls in the grey air.

Leaving land behind for the stretch out to Holy Island:

Having negotiated North Low, we stuck close to the land's edge to Goswick Point, then struck straight out across wet sand towards Holy Island, acutely conscious of the distant roar of surf.

Eerie nonscape on the traverse to Holy Island:

It was almost an anticlimax to reach the links and dunes of the northern end of Holy Island. It was too early in the day for the walk to end. Why not continue to the pretty village of Lindisfarne, its castle and ruined abbey? The atmosphere of Holy Island is so haunting, that it is not surprising to discover that Lindisfarne Abbey was founded by monks from Iona in 634, another place of great spiritual resonance. The 7th century Anglican King Oswald of Northumbria had sheltered amongst the Gaels of Dalriata away from his dynastic enemies, and on taking the throne at Bamburgh decided to introduce into his own kingdom a monastery run on Ionan lines.

Lindisfarne lasted as the primary Christian centre in Northumbria until 664, when the Rome-backed bishop in York persuaded a later king to adopt Roman, rather than Ionan, forms of tonsure and Easter calculation. York then became the primary seat of Christianity in Northumbria, which in those days stretched from the Humber to the Forth. A new stone abbey was built at Lindisfarne, then fell into ruin. A castle was later built on an abrupt rock to keep an eye out for marauding Scots.

This Iona of the east, the St Michael's Mount of the north, Lindisfarne is a place to actively hope the tide will come up, stranding you overnight. But, running, we made it back across the causeway to our car in Beal, wondering - should we have tarried just half an hour longer?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Roslin Glen Adventure

For a while now I've wanted to see if it was possible to do a circuit of Roslin Glen, the gorge on the River North Esk between the villages of Roslin and Loanhead. If so, such a route would surely be a contender for top 100 walks in Scotland status: it is short and no mountain walk, but for interest hard to beat, a dipper-heavy river gorge with two castles, sandstone cliffs, a path formed of a river level rock ledge, a cave associated with William Wallace, and the famous Roslin chapel.

Accordingly I started at Springfield Mill near Polton, the river quiet, the sun up, and followed a path leading uphill. There was no way of accessing the river from this path, so I had to loup a gate (sorry) and cross a field, watched by horses, to enter the trees. Then the fun really started.

The way was overgrown and uncertain. I had seen a path marked on the 1:25,000 scale Pathfinder map, but it didn't seem to exist. At least the undergrowth was dry, as my steps cracked dry twigs and I wrestled with low-hanging branches, aware that below me was a steep fall to the roaring river.

Several scratches later, my speculative progress was rewarded as I stumbled across a bend in a path. I chose the downhill bend towards the river. The path had a well-made, Victorian feel to it. A footprint in mud made it clear that someone had been here recently. A rock-cut seat proved that at some time, somebody had invested considerable effort in this forgotten path. I enjoyed the sight of people on the other, public side of the gorge, unaware of my existence.

Rock-cut seat and the secret path:

The path rose and suddenly I was underneath Hawthornden Castle. This, the Midlothian Neuschwanstein, is a writers retreat and it is not possible for the public to access it from the road. Its situation on a rocky bluff high above the river, surrounded by trees, lends a fairytale quality. It was built in the early 15th century and extended in the 17th.

On the other side of Hawthornden Castle I passed through a door. The opposide side said 'Private, No Entry'. Oops. Is Exit allowed?

On the other side of the door some Victorian railings look over the river at its most spectacular point. What a place this is!

Esk gorge:

The path then divides. Which way? Down was impenetrable: up involved negotiating a number of fallen bushes. But up was the correct route: there were occasional duckboards, showing that somebody has been maintaining this route in the last few years.

Then I heard voices nearby. They weren't coming from across the gorge: they were closer. As they came round the corner the lead man exclaimed "a person!" He shook my hand in astonishment. "I've been coming here for twenty years, and you are the first person I've seen on this side of the river!" They loved this stretch of river and recommended I look at Wallace's Cave. I hadn't been sure about visiting this, but in the end it was easy to find.

William Wallace, so the story goes, hid in the cave at some point between losing the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and his capture at Robroyston in 1305. Perhaps he was here around 1302's Battle of Roslin, a skirmish between English and Scots knights?

By now I was getting close to Roslin Castle and Chapel, though still inacessible on the other side of the river.

Roslin Chapel:

The path took me up to the roadside and I followed it down to the car park at the bridge over the River Esk. Suddenly there were people: locals at this car park, and foreign tourists wandering down from Roslin Chapel.

Roslin Castle:

This is this fulcrum of the walk, where you can stop at the cafe at the chapel for a cup of tea, take a look round the chapel, and wander over the stone bridge to the castle, largely ruined, with restored private apartments built on top.

Roslin Chapel has always been an interesting place, with its ornate carvings, Sinclair connection and whiff of the knights templar. It remained fairly unknown however until the film of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was released. The climax of the film is at Roslin and now it is on the international tourist map. It was not that busy however on a sunny April weekend.

Following the riverside ledge:

This side of the glen is well-tramped, known territory: after my earlier adventures it was easy to forget that this side is also a glorious walk: up from Roslin Castle, down along a riverside rock ledge that floods at high water, cliffs towering above, then up again onto the cliffs.

From the top of the cliffs Hawthornden appears on the other side of the gorge.

The Midlothian Neuschwanstein

What a tremendous walk! The path falls back down to the river, heavy with wild garlic, wood sorrel and the first bluebells of the year, birdsong in the trees and ducks in the river.

Finally the path climbs Hewan Bank, with the option of following an old railway line between Roslin and Loanhead, or down a beaten earth path back to my bike at Polton. I was delighted to prove that it is possible - albeit with some route-finding difficulty and across private ground - to make a circuit of Roslin Glen.

Riverside path

This walk is only a few miles long. But if you fancy trying it, allow - if you are rushing it - the entire afternoon.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Skylark

A moorland in spring, the soft wind tousling my hair and shafts of sunlight in the gaps between clouds. I lie back in the heather, luxuriating in warmth, the first time in the year the weather has made stillness possible on the hillside. I stare at the boundless sky, heather scratching my cheek, and then I hear it. The song of a skylark. My heart leaps a little, as it always does.

A while ago I read Shelley's 'Ode to a Skylark'. 'hmph,' I thought, 'I can do better than that.' I started writing thoughts and lyrics down, but when I came to write the lines:
The singing stops: he falls to ground.
The lady skylarks gather round.
I stopped in disgust. Percy B can rest easy, for now at least. But what neither I nor Shelley quite captured was the simple joy of the skylark's song. To me it is the soundtrack to the best of places at the finest time of year: it is the keynote to happiness and freedom.

Get yourself up to a moorland on a fine day in spring or early summer and hear it for yourself.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Pictish Stones of Forres: Rodney and Sueno

The carved symbol stones of the Picts are one of Scotland's unique contributions to global culture (like brochs, the tower house and golf) but remain little known outside their heartland, stretching from Angus to Easter Ross. Growing up on the west coast I had no knowledge of them. They are a localised, north-east phenomenon. Anyone from the west coast seeing a Pictish pattern might easily think to themselves, 'oh, an old Irish design'. Hopefully this post will abuse anybody else of that notion.

Two excellent examples stand near the pretty wee town of Forres. The first, the Rodney Stone, is slightly taller than a human. It was discovered in the churchyard of Dyke in 1781, and moved to its current site in 1842. Why Rodney? They didn't have Only Fools and Horses in those days, but they did have a war with France, and Admiral Rodney in 1782 beat a French force in the West Indies. Who knows, if the stone had been discovered in 1805 it might have become known as the Nelson Stone.

The Rodney Stone west face:

The age of these stones is not precisely known, carbon dating being no use on stone. They are generally believed to date from between the 6th and 10th century AD, but arguments have been put forward that the earliest date from when the Romans still occupied southern Britain.

Certain symbols appear on Pictish stones with great regularity, and the Rodney stone's eastern face has a typical collection. A pair of fish; the 'swimming elephant' or Pictish beast, a uniquely Pictish chimera; and a Z-rod and double disc.

Reverse side of Rodney Stone:

The symbols on Pictish stones form a visual lexicography the meaning of which has now been lost: the z-rod, the v-rod, the crescent, the double disc, the mirror, the comb, a boar, bull, wolf, raven and 'Pictish beast' being the most common - it has been suggested that the symbols represent the talismans of different tribes that may have originally been tattooed on bodies, or, in the case of the mirror and the comb, that they represent a high-ranking woman. As with much to do with the Picts, speculation fills in all-too-frequent gaps in knowledge.

While the Rodney stone is only slightly taller than a human, Sueno's Stone is an absolute whopper.

Sueno's Stone, like Rodney's Stone, is not originally named. It was traditionally thought to commemorate an 11th century battle against a force led by Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark. Scholars have recently shown this to be false, but the name remains. What is clear is that it seems to show battle scenes rather than the more usual abstract shapes and animals.

Another theory has it that it commemorates the nearby death of King Duff in 966 or 967 (the old chronicles disagree on the exact date), when he came north from the old Scottish heartland around Perth to fight the men of Moray. King Duff's body supposedly remained lost and the sun disappeared until it was found under a bridge - perhaps a total eclipse can be used to determine the exact date? There was a partial eclipse on 20 July 966 - and another on 10 July 967. So that is no help!

Sueno's Stone is the tallest of all the Pictish stones, but intriguingly, the 16th century map-maker Pont reported that there was a similar one nearby. What a tremendous find that would be!