Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ben A'an

A mighty wind terrorised the trees lining the A84. A swirl of leaves filled the air, sun caught in vigorous death. The forecast gale had materialised. A Munro in Breadalbane seemed a punishment exercise in such conditions. But it was too sunny to do nothing. A forest walk... a lochside... a half-height hill perhaps? The solution came to us both at once.

Ben A'an in the Trossachs. Beauty without exposure. And the opportunity to explore some of the newly-opened Great Trossachs Trail, which runs from Inversnaid on Loch Lomond to Callander, home of the world's earliest recorded organised football match.

Breezy Loch Achray:


Arrival in the Trossachs is heralded by a shaggy Highland cow at Callander then the small, wooded hills of frontier country. This was the first tourist area in Scotland, made popular by Sir Walter Scott, but as he is unfashionable these days I promise not to mention him.

The intention was to repeat a previous walk - a circuit of Ben A'an and a wander along Loch Katrine, with a return on a section of forest road rebranded as the Great Trossachs Way. 

Sometimes though events conspire against plans made in the comfort of your home, and that happened here. Where was the path up Ben A'an? It has disappeared into an area of fenced-off forestry felling. 'Alternative route Ben Venue car park' said a sign. I wasn't aware there was a Ben Venue car park. We found it, and started our walk on the alternative path. Slippery, slidy, muddy... Ben A'an's modest altitude was hard gained. 

Ben A'an from the approach path:


But what a hill it is! Seemingly steep and impregnable, it is in fact quite easy. The sun was still out on the top, the only other people here a holidaying German family asking for a photo. They had climbed a hill in the Trossachs and seen a Highland cow in a field by Loch Achray. They looked like they were having a fantastic time. Well, wouldn't you?

View from Ben A'an:


We descended west from Ben A'an, a little-known route that allows you to walk a circuit rather than head back down the muddy path. I had come this way before, but this time messed up. The trick on reaching a fence is to *not* cross it at a stile, but follow it down to a stream and then follow this to Loch Katrine. Instead we crossed the stile and became lost in a wilderness of heather, bracken and oozing bog. A huge stag watched us for a while from the forest below, wondering what we were up to, before legging it, muscles rippling under his shaggy coat. It is a good thing deer aren't aggressive creatures. 

Loch Katrine from the west side of Ben A'an:


After this wrong turning the stuffing had been knocked out of me. It had started to dull over and I wasn't fully convinced I would find the right way down to Loch Katrine. (In retrospect, if we had just kept going a bit longer we would have found a way down.) So we retraced our steps back to the top of Ben A'an and down the slippery ascent route. Beaten by Ben A'an! I thought I was made of sterner stuff, but the hills always have a lesson to teach us. 'Land of heath and shaggy wood' indeed.

Did I say earlier I wouldn't mention Sir Walter Scott? Damn.

On the Great Trossachs Trail, earlier:

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Autumn Cities

Autumn. A time of year that conjures thoughts of trips to leafy areas. The waterfalls of Deeside, neatly laid out tourist trails of Dunkeld, or perhaps taking to the water in the Great Glen or the Trossachs? But there is no need to go so far. There are leafy areas in all of Scotland's cities. Why travel, when you can stroll around Glasgow's West End?

Glasgow University from Partick Bridge (source: Wikipedia):


Is there any need to go far when crisp air, welcome sunshine, and lovely views can be gained just as easily wandering around Edinburgh's Botanic Gardens and Water of Leith?

Sunny October day at Stockbridge on the Water of Leith:


When the leaves are still on the trees, the sun is out, and the air still, take advantage of it. Get outside from your city job and refresh your spirit. Soak up the vitamin D. It is the last good day of the year and should be enjoyed. There will be plenty days of rain-lashed gloom ahead.

Inverleith Park, Edinburgh:


There is something you notice though if, like me, you are drawn to leafy areas at this time of year. It is almost axiomatic that the leafier the neighbourhood, the wealthier it is. While it costs nothing to wander where you will in our cities, why should poorer areas not also enjoy the benefits of trees? I am sure there would be major health benefits. Town planners, please take note.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Gifford and the Lammermuirs

High in the Lammermuirs and the heather has turned.



This flat-topped moorland plateau is traversed by quiet roads, of which the B6355 carries National Cycle Route 1, the cycle route that follows the North Sea coast. (The A1 follows the actual coast but is unpleasant and dangerous for cyclists.) 'Allez Evans' it says at the top of a steep climb, painted on the road surface by a cycling fan.

National Route 1:


To the south, the road gradually folds you closer into the Borders, winding down with the Whiteadder towards the Merse and the Tweed.

To the north, the lowlands of East Lothian, pale with ripened wheat.



Continue pedalling and you reach Gifford, basking in rare autumn sunshine.





Is this even Scotland? It is the kind of village you would not know existed if you knew only North Lanarkshire or Clydebank. Yet in East Lothian, it is typical. Direlton, Aberlady, Stenton, East Linton, Saltoun, Gifford, Pencaitland...

Gifford Hall:


From the bar of the village hotel, the sounds of the Rugby World Cup on TV. Cyclists on the green, refuelling and adjusting their wheels.

I am more used to wishing to be in the Highlands in this weather. But if you have to spend a beautiful autumn day in the Lowlands, you can do worse than cycling round East Lothian and the Lammermuirs.

The Avenue, Gifford: