Sunday 21 April 2013

Iona to Lindisfarne - a Long Distance Walk

Inspired by a recent trip along St Cuthbert's Way, and a question I asked Hamish Brown at a talk he gave recently (I asked "what is your favourite LDP in Britain?" and he answered, "the best one is the one you make up for yourself.") I imagined a route not from Melrose to Lindisfarne, but all the way from Iona, a tribute to the Ionan monks who founded the Lindisfarne monastery, a grand pilgrimage across the width of Scotland.

The more I thought about this route, the more excited I got about the high quality of both the scenery passed through and the walking, much of it on established paths and trails.

Iona Beach:

It's map time. If you have them, get OS Landrangers 48,49,50,56,64,72,73,74,75 out. Now imagine a route like this. Spend the night on Iona, exploring the island and monastery, visiting the bay at the back of the ocean and climbing Dun I.

Dun I view towards Mull:

Next day, get the ferry to Fionphort and walk past the tidal island of Erraid to the amazing sands of Traigh Geal, the best beach on Mull.

Sound of Iona near Erraid:

Accomodation might be difficult on the next stretch, a long and involved but high quality two-day walk along the southern shore of the Ross of Mull, either visiting the Carsaig Arches, or keeping to the clifftop high above and descending to Carsaig at the Nun's Pass, before further shoreline walking to Lochbuie and Moy Castle.

Carsaig arch:

After Moy, walk inland to Mull's longest glen, then over the Corbett of Dun da Gaoithe and down to the ferry and facilites at Craignure.

Oban ferry and Duart Castle:

Refresh in Oban, gateway to the islands, before taking backroads and paths to Loch Nant (or via Deadh Choimhead - there's no obvious single route out of Oban) and swing north for Taynuilt.

Loch Nant (©Patrick Mackie, geograph):

Beyond Taynuilt, take to the SE shore of Loch Etive, where two options appear. The finer, longer, but more off-route trail leads into remote Glen Kinglass and the beautiful country around Loch Dochart, before picking up the West Highland Way at Inveroran.

Loch Etive north of Taynuilt:

Alternatively, head into Glen Noe, down to Stronmilchan near Kilchurn Castle, a short road tramp, then forest/hydro trails and a short boggy moorland section south of Ben Lui to meet the West Highland Way at Inverarnan.

Loch Lomond near Inverarnan:

Then it is the West Highland Way then Kelvin Way all the way in to Glasgow.

On Kelvin Way, Glasgow West End:

Glasgow can either be enjoyed as a stop in itself, visiting the Scottish mainland's only undamaged pre-Reformation cathedral, or scurried through, picking up the Clyde Walkway all the way to Lanark and the Falls of Clyde.

Falls of Clyde, New Lanark:

I'm not sure exactly how the route would then go - perhaps over Tinto and a little bit of road walking - before picking up the John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles.

Tinto from Broughton Heights:

A pleasant walk along the Tweed to Innerleithen, then onto the hills again over Minch Moor on the Southern Upland Way to Melrose.

Melrose Abbey:

Finally, the 62 miles of the St Cuthberts Way over the Cheviots to Lindisfarne, waiting for low tide, to cross barefoot to Holy Island.

Lindisfarne sands:

This isn't the only possible route. Certainly the coastal approach to Lindisfarne from Berwick is very fine, and the Tweed is a good river for walking along. The whole thing would be around 280 miles and likely take around two and a half weeks to walk.

As I currently don't go on long walks, I like to imagine them... where would your pilgrimage be?

Sunday 14 April 2013

Ben Lawers

Snow, the mountaineer's catnip. Whilst a summer hill is all fine and well - you can do a lot more, stay higher longer, and more easily tackle technical routes in summer - the best memories, when I look back, almost all involve snow, bumslides, the iceaxe chinking off rock and ice, the stimulation of cutting steps or using the axe to haul up or balance, spectacular early sunsets,  frozen hands photographing some unearthly scene of spindrift - you get the idea.

Beinn Ghlas from Ben Lawers:

For me snow -and ideally a little bit of mixed rock and ice, nothing too serious - is what it is all about. I wrote earlier about my first trip necessitating an ice axe this winter. I was very keen to get another high trip before this superlative winter ended, and the opportunity came last weekend.

Beinn Ghlas from the lower path:

This year there has been loads of snow - almost too much of it if the incidence of avalanches is any guide - but worried about a recent thaw, we decided to go high. The 9th highest hill in Scotland, in fact - Ben Lawers. Ben Lawers is easy (unless the route over An Stuc is tackled), and the start is at 400m above sea level. We would still climb 3,700ft though as we wandered over 3 Munros, a good workout in snow conditions. High on Beinn Ghlas I detoured off-piste to tackle a small but steep rocky area, the snow suddenly hardening, the axe in hand and pleasure sweating out of every pore in blinding sunshine. This is what hillwalking is all about!

Looking back on Ben More and Stob Binnein:

On the sunny summit of the first Munro, Beinn Ghlas, we met skiers, a couple of dogs, and an old man, well, equipped. "I started walking when my son took me up a Munro for the first time for my birthday," he said. "I was 76."

"How old are you now?" I asked.

"81." he replied. 81! We were faster than him on the ascent of Ben Lawers, but not that much faster. Good work for an octogenatrian!

Ben Lawers from Ben Glas:

Cliff faces were plastered in layers of rime ice, sign of a long, hard freeze at these levels, but as the day warmed up and we headed up Meall Corranaich, third Munro of the day, lumps of snow slipped off south-facing rockfaces, skating down the snowbanks below with a glassy, shimmering sound like pebbles in undertow. I had been all for heading back over Beinn Ghlas but Alastair said no, there is a contour path visible in summer that goes round Beinn Ghlas' northern corrie and avoids a reascent. A group ahead of us seemed to be having a little difficulty with steep ground at the far side of the corrie so we dropped low, enjoying the sight of shapely cornices and tiny figures high above. Everyone else today on this popular and busy hill seemed to have crampons, some even had helmets. Neither of us used crampons and Alastair didn't even get his axe out all day. These are easy hills if you want them to be.

Descending Ben Lawers:

On Meall Corranaich we decided the detour to Meall a' Choire Leith was not work the effort and left the day's total at three Munros. We headed straight down to Lochan na Lairige, and a steep snowbank turned our downhill slog into an enjoyable bumslide, looking at the cracks and swirls in the ice on the reservoir below.

Ice Loch:

The road was overwhelmed by drifted snow and we walked back down it, traffic free. It was only once down that Alastair noticed the redness of my complexion. "You're burnt!" He said. I peered at his temples. "You too..."

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Easter Eildons

Whilst friends of mine whooped it up in the West Highlands on one of the best winter hillwalking weekends in living memory, I was equally happy visiting family. However a walk was on the cards: and on Easter Monday we devised a cunning circular route near Melrose of promising variety: riverside, hill, forest, a historic abbey, Roman ruins, and one of the best bookshops in the country.

Old and new Tweed road bridges:

We started at the car park for the Leader viaduct viewpoint just off the A68, the approach to this disused railway viaduct reachable, but crossing the viaduct itself not possible as it is padlocked. The rebel in me stirred. How tempting to climb the fence and cross the Tweed!

Leader viaduct:

After the viaduct comes the large Roman camp of Trimontium (named after the triple-peaked Eildon Hills, in whose shadow this camp lies). There are informative boards around the camp, though much imagination is needed to see in today's vestigial bumps a bustling camp and amphitheatre. A museum in Melrose Abbey is much more interesting, full of artefacts dug up from the site. Eildon Hill North rises above, stepped with gigantic Bronze Age ramparts, a likely site for Beltane celebrations for a wide surrounding area. A Roman signal station is built on top of the ramparts, which raises interesting questions as to what happened to the previous use of the site...

Newstead door:

At the edge of Trimontium nestles the picturesque village of Newstead. The whole Melrose area is surely one of the nicest in the Borders. I used to think that the reinstated Waverley Line (that incidentally has destroyed my local cycleway - not happy about that!) would improve the prospects of Galashiels, but on reflection what will probably happen is areas like Melrose and Eskbank that are already well-to-do will increase in affluence, and the benefit to places like Galashiels or Gorebridge wil be marginal.

Melrose Abbey:

Nice abbey, anyway. One of maybe only two pre-Reformation statues remaining sits high on its walls. Our route then joined St Cuthbert's Way on its first leg from Melrose to St Boswells over the Eildon Hills.

St Cuthbert's Way up Eildon Hills:

A great spot, climbing the Eildons, thinking about Bronze Age Beltaners, Age of Saints pilgrims, and Victorian industrialists. The view back the other direction towards Galashiels is reminsiscent of the urbanised dales of West Yorkshire, milltowns climbing the hills above steep river valleys separated by moorland.

Gala from Eildon path:

The high point of St Cuthbert's Way tempts you up Eildon Mid Hill.

Eildon Mid Hill:

We walked south, a glimpse of the distant snowgirt Cheviot, then plunged into forest reminiscent of that around Bennachie, passing the vast pile of Eildon Hall - traditional home of the eldest sons of the Duke of Buccleuch.

The Cheviot and Newton St Boswells:

Newton St Boswells, site of the HQ of Borders Council, was low key after all this posh countryside, but St Boswells itself more like Melrose. By the time we reached the Tweed it was getting late, nobody else about, red deer jumping into the undergrowth at our approach and a startled heron reluctantly spreading its wings and laboriously beating the air away from us. Ducks quacked on the river and the path disappeared. I can't recommend this last leg of our circuit upstream of Monksford, as progress was laborious and blocked by a landslide. It appears that the local landowner does not want to encourage walkers. A shame as this stretch of the Tweed below Scott's View is lovely, and neighbouring landowners do not have similar objections.

Tweedside near Old Melrose:

After struggling along the riverside for a while we beat up the steep bank to Old Melrose, site of the original abbey of Melrose but now a private house, and made for the A68 and the nearby Leader viaduct viewpoint, the traffic an unpleasant shock after a lovely day of varied country walking. A great day's walk though and, if it were not for the missing path from Monksford to Old Melrose, a Borders circuit I would heartily recommend.

Monday 1 April 2013

White Easter - Assynt Holiday

The snowdrops are still going strong, the crocuses have pretty much frozen to death, and the daffodils wait, patiently, to bloom. Will spring happen all at once this year?

White Easter, 2013:

This year's white Easter takes me back to my student days and another white Easter. 1994. Harry, a Brazilian, Joe, a German, and I headed up north for a week's bothying in Joe's Trabant, even then a cult classic with papier mache bodywork, but a small, cramped, and drastically underpowered car for hilly Highland roads.

Trabbie in Glen Forsa:

"Snow on the beach!" gasped Harry as we penetrated the far north and saw the northwest coast. He couldn't get his head round it. Beaches were for beach football or posing in swimwear. Not making snowmen. "Snow on the beach!" he laughed. We passed a signpost. "Summer Isles!" he chortled gleefully. Finally we reached Lochinver, where I was relieved to get out and stretch my legs. Joe shouldered a sack of coal and took his sleeping bag under one arm and we walked in the gathering dusk to the bothy, with snowy, bullet-shaped Suilven drawing the eye like a magnet. Inside, we got a fire going in the cosy wood-panelled room.


Next day was beautiful, the snow down to sea-level, gleaming in morning sunshine against the black river. Hulllooooo! We approached Suilven, its long profile becoming apparent, and scrambled up the steep, snowy slopes. Is is better to see Suilven from another hill, strange, fascinating Suilven? Or is it better to be on Suilven? There and then we took the latter, revelling in the view of lochan-studded snowy knobland below us leading to the sea and Stac Pollaidh.

Sunbathing on Suilven, Easter 1994:

At the bothy we cooked and bantered and as we left, I wrote 'Today is worth a week of rain!' in the bothy book. And that is exactly what we got. After a first, glorious day, the rest of the holiday was a washout, a sodden, waking nightmare, traipsing from bothy to river-fording bothy, cabin fever mounting, growing increasingly crotchety in each other's company, Joe's sleeping bag falling into a river during one crossing.

Finally, I pulled out the ace I'd been keeping in my pocket. Intelligence from a friend about a bothy that could be driven to. We arrived full of anticipation - and it was locked. Joe cracked. He rummaged through the Trabbie's toolkit and attacked the lock with a screwdriver, managing to unscrew the lock's facing plate. It was clear once we got inside that the bothy had not been used in months. It had bunk beds but they were badly mildewed. We attempted to get a fire going but the damp walls sucked all the heat out of it. Sleep was difficult and unpleasant - next morning we discovered we had all dreamed of a warm roaring fire and good company. It was time to go home.

Breaking in after four nights of rain:

Aye, nothing like a week's bothying in winter to engender appreciation of home comforts!