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Cycling Home

6 September, 2010
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As I’m sure you all know by now, Nic and I plan to cycle home from the UK to Australia, starting in October.

We will be documenting that journey over at Crazy Guy on a Bike.

We intend to update this site, too, with both our cycling journey and other things but not sure (at this stage) how well we will be able to that.

Munroes and Midges: Scotland Part II

5 September, 2010

(continued from here)

Day 3: Loch Ossian to Kinlochleven

More conversation over breakfast led to a relatively late start. Initially very midgey, we broke out our stylish midge nets, only to discover that the mesh isn’t really fine enough to keep them out. Bugger. We climbed away from Loch Ossian and met up with the train line which we followed down towards Loch Treig. The landscape around us grew steadily more mountainous, and the vista from the shores of the loch was stunning. Had we made it here last night, it may well (depending on the wind) have been a pleasant place to spend the evening.

Great look. Utterly ineffective.

Talking with the woman at the hostel who had just walked up Glen Nevis, we decided against that route to Fort William. It sounded like yet more boggy, midgey walking following a river along a valley floor. We’d had enough of that yesterday and, as the weather forecast was positive, we decided to attempt a more ambitious route, following Glenn Iolarean to Kinlochleven and then crossing a range of mountains called the Mamores to drop into Glen Nevis just near the road’s end.

We turned off the main path at the point marked by this rather foreboding sign:

Sign reads: "Take Care: You are entering remote, sparsely populated, potentially dangerous mountain country. Please ensure that you are adequately experienced and equipped to complete your journey without assistance."

Immediately, we responded by following the wrong branch of a stream up the valley and then had to cut across the hillside when I decided, after much frowning at the map and scratching my head, that all the mountains were looking wrong. It certainly did feel remote, with not a soul in sight and the grand scale of valleys and mountains made us feel like a very small part of a very large landscape. After a few bends, we were over the path and had magnificent views down over Loch Chiaran towards the mountains of Glencoe, now clear of clouds.

Scenic map check.

We paused for a while to rest by the bothy. Sadly, while empty, it was filled with a lot of rubbish; despite its remoteness, it’s evidently still a bit too close to “civilisation” and used as much for pissups as for shelter. Protocol suggests that we carry litter out, but given that we don’t intend to return to civilisation ourselves for a couple of days, this isn’t really feasible. Oanh tidied up a bit and we moved on.

Our route now climbed up over some modest crags near Blackwater Reservoir, where we were rewarded with unexpected panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Our thoughts turned to camping again, with several likely spots suggesting themselves. We decided to push on however, as we anticipated a long day crossing the Mamores tomorrow, and wanted to start as near to them as possible. Unfortunately, once we dropped down to the next loch, all of the ground was impossibly wet and marshy. There wasn’t much to be done except to push on, hoping that something more suitable presented itself.

The mountains of Glencoe, with the dam on Blackwater Reservoir just visible in the lower left.

As dusk drew nearer, the wind dropped. Hoping to repeat our success of night one, we made a detour up one of the crags above Kinlochleven. Frustratingly, the entire hillside was boggy and the air remained still. Eventually, we settled on a patch that was somewhat less boggy than the rest and prepared dinner. The views were stupendous, but as the final rays of sun disappeared, midges emerged in force. We barely managed to throw the tent inner up and dive inside before we were carried off. Quite a few midges got into the tent with us, so we killed them and then ate dinner. Through the mesh of the tent, the surrounding air was dense with tiny beating wings and biting jaws. All our gear and bedding lay abandoned outside, beyond our reach.

Beautiful view over Loch Leven. Shame about the midges.

Discarding (but only after serious consideration) the notion of sleeping in our clothes, sans sleeping bags and mats, I nobly volunteered to sacrifice myself (hah!) and ventured out to finish pitching the tent and retrieve our belongings. The next fifteen minutes (seeming ten times as long) were the least pleasant of our walk. I was immediately covered by hundreds of thousands of tiny mouths that resisted all efforts at deterrence (clothing, nets, repellant). Eventually, everything was recovered, the tent fly was pitched and I collapsed into a self-pitying, itching heap.

Day 4: Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis

I woke early the next morning, with the idea that we could beat the midges up. Around 4.30am I woke Oanh, who surprisingly accepted my plan. Alas, it was not to be. These midges are early risers. It was a still and muggy morning: clouds drifted around us and mist rose off the loch below. Breakfast was entirely out of the question; we scoffed muesli bars and hit the trail, relief coming only with motion.

Loch Leven the next morning, shrouded in mist. Still midgey.

To add insult to injury, while camped at approximatley 400 metres altitude, we had to drop down 200 metres or so before beginning our ascent to the ridgeline of the Mamores. Our ascent path was up another stalkers’ track through Coire na Ba. There was absolutely no wind, and the peaks were covered in dense cloud. Only our trust in the forecast of clear weather (now two days old: an eternity in terms of British weather) suggested that this was a good course of action.

Eventually, we managed to pause long enough to cook breakfast, which restored our spirits somewhat. The midges tracked us down before we could make coffee though, so we continued uncaffeinated. Fortunately, as we climbed, the clouds lifted, and occasionally we got clear glimpses of the pass we were aiming for. The sides of the corrie got increasingly steep and the path zig-zagged precipitously until, suddenly, we were on the pass: a broad sweep of grass, scattered boulders, and — mercy of mercies — a breeze!

Rejoicing on the ridge.

Rejoicing, we cast off our packs and boiled up water for coffee. Checking my watch, I noted that it was only 10.30am: it felt like we had already done a days worth of exercise. Four hours of climbing with barely a pause for breath left us well knackered. We sat back a while, relaxing in midge-free splendour and enjoying the views. While there was still plenty of cloud around, it was moving, and so we were treated to ever-changing vistas as the various peaks appeared and disappeared.

The ridge between Am Bodach and Stob Coire a' Chairn, along which we would soon be walking. If you look real close, you can see two people in the middle already.

Considering our options from here, several routes down into Glen Nevis presented themselves; we decided on one of the longer, but less steep, paths, hoping it would be kinder on our knees. Eventually rested enough to greet the idea of further climbing with eager anticipation, we set off toward the summit of Stob Coire a’ Chairn. On the ridge, the path was broad, clear and relatively easy, and the surrounding views were sufficicent to distract us from any residual discomfort.

Oanh on the summit of Stob Coire a' Chairn.

The next mountain along the ridge is Am Bodach. The OS map shows the path traversing below the summit, so I figured it must be a more technical ascent and that we would skip it. (Ideally, I could have done more research on this section of our route…). As we approached, we saw other people scrambling up what, from our perspective, appeared to be sheer rockface. “Aha”, I thought, “that must be the technical ascent, the turnoff to the traverse should appear soon”. Next thing I knew, we too were picking our way up a steep, though easy, scramble, this route evidently being a bit more heavily used, and hence clearer, than the one marked on the map. It was actually rather fun doing some proper scrambling, although we would have been happier without full packs.

Stob Ban, one for next time.

The summit, alas, was currently within cloud, so no views; however, there was a small cluster of people up here, grumbling good-naturedly about the inaccuracy of the forecast, so we had an opportunty to canvas opinion about the safest route down to Glen Nevis. Turned out our current choice was the best. I suppressed a pang of envy when I realised that everyone else had several more summits ahead of them for the day, while our path led mostly down. However, this was the sensible option — we’d been going for about eight hours already and were both starting to flag.

After following the ridge line for another hour or so, we reached the turn off for our descent path. What followed was several hours of fairly gruelling downhill. The path was reasonable, but worn down to bare stone, which exacted its toll on the soles of our feet. Distractions took the form of rushing streams, more wildflowers and butterflies, and contemplation of a pub dinner.

Our descent route, through Coire a' Mhusgain to Glen Nevis.

The final remaining barrier between us and aforementioned dinner was about five kilometres of tarmac. It was hard to think of any less pleasant way of ending our walk. As we came off the mountain, our path intersected with that of two blokes who strode past our increasingly feeble shuffle. Intercepting them in the carpark, we asked whether they were heading towards Fort William (given that the road goes nowhere else, it was a fairly safe bet). They apologised that their car was currently full of camping and climbing kit, but offered to rearrange and squeeze us in too if we were happy with a tight fit. Happy? Ecstatic!

They were from Southampton too (small country) and worked at Calshot, the centre where we have occasionally gone indoor climbing. They kindly offered to wait while I dashed in to enquire about availability at the Glen Nevis YHA (success!) A shower before we caught the overnight coach back home the following day was imperative.

Soon after, much cleaner, we enjoyed great beer, delicious burgers and friendly service at the Ben Nevis Inn. Walking back to the hostel, we saw rows of head torches bobbing their way down the Ben Nevis path.

Day 5: Glasgow

With a whole day ahead of us before our coach departed, we decided on a slight change of plan. We were walked out and, while the scenery around us was still beautiful (and the weather was the best we had) we realised that we’d drunk our fill of the highlands on this occasion and any more would seem anticlimactic. After a bit of research, we decided to take an earlier train back to Glasgow, stow our bags, and spend a bit of time exploring the city.

Wandering slowly into Fort William, we stocked up on antipasto lunch ingredients but failed to find anywhere open for coffee. The train journey was fantastic. We passed through some of the areas we had recently walked through and gained a new perspective on Loch Treig. By the time the journey was over, we passed through so many stunning landscapes that I was a bit jaded and buried my head in the newspaper.

Loch Treig again, from the train (the Glasgow to Fort William line is simply stunning).

Glasgow was bustling with happy strollers and shoppers all making the most of the glorious summer weather; we joined them (well, the strollers at least) and meandered down Sauchiehall Street, marvelling that a city that spends so much time in rain and gloom did outdoor living so well. Eventually we discovered that we were near the Glasgow School of Art and decided to see if there were any exhibitions open to the public. It was already closed, but we managed to squeeze onto the last tour of the day and enjoyed a marked change of pace, learning about the whimsical design experiments of Charles Rennie Mackintosh; such as a stairwell that grows dark and foreboding as you climb upwards, and yet unexpectedly light and airy as you descend into the basement; and the magnificent library, designed to resemble a forest glade.

Glasgow School of Art. The tall windows illuminate all three levels of the beautiful library.

A bit of art deco.

After a bit more strolling, we had a relaxed dinner of antipasto (more!) and pasta at an Italian Restaurant called Antipasti before we made our way back to the coach station, and thence home (and thence, for me, straight back to work, but that’s another story).

see here for all the photos

Munroes and Midges: Scotland Part I

30 August, 2010

Scotland!  So near and yet so far; all the while we have been in the UK we have constantly intended, but never quite managed, to spend time exploring its mountains and glens.  Finally, we realised that time is slipping away and it is now or never (or at least, not in the near future).  To be sure, August is not the best time: it has a reputation for rain, and for hills filled with tourists, midges and deer stalkers.  But we can’t be picky.  Looking at some maps, I spotted a largish patch of road-free territory accessible by rail at either end, and plotted a route from Dalwhinnie, in central Scotland, to Fort William, on the west coast.

The adventure began with transport options.  Timing and price were against planes and trains and we eventually settled on the overnight coach which, while not sounding especially appealing, at least had the advantage of low price and early morning arrival time.  As it turned out, it wasn’t too uncomfortable, and we both got quite a bit of sleep (though would have got more with eyemask and earplugs).  To say that our fellow travellers represented an interesting cross-section of society would be an understatement.

Day 1: Dalwhinnie to Ben Alder

Glasgow was just waking up for a sunny workday as we arrived, grabbed a light breakfast, and switched from coach to train.  The scenic journey saw blue skies replaced by rain, and we were the only people to disembark at Dalwhinnie, a quiet village with a few cottages, a hotel, a distillery and a primary school (currently on break).  Crossing the rail line, we began the long walk in towards Ben Alder Lodge.

Our first ten or so kilometres walk was along the estate road into Ben Alder Lodge. Easy going, but a tad dull once the novelty of dense pine forests had worn off.

Despite the fact that Scotland has incredibly progressive attitudes towards access (you can pretty much walk and camp anywhere), the fact remains that every inch of land is owned by somebody.  One of the uses to which this land is put is deer stalking, which serves the twin purposes of earning the estates some income, as well as keeping the deer populations at sustainable levels.  Hypothetically, walkers and stalkers can co-exist, but as we were walking at the beginning of the peak stalking season, I was a bit concerned about making sure that we co-existed at a safe distance.  The Hillphones service provides information on stalking activities for some regions, but unfortunately not those of primary concern to us.  I managed to track down phone numbers for a couple of the estates and had called up Ben Alder while in Glasgow that morning.  The friendly woman on the phone reassured me that no stalking was currently occurring, but that everything was wet and midgey.   Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Anyway, the first ten or so kilometres of our walk were along the road to Ben Alder Lodge.  This ran alongside Loch Ericht, backed by smooth green hillside and surrounded by dense pine forest.  We passed a couple of grand, turreted mansions on our way in (one possibly the original gatehouse) and noted that the mountains ahead of us were periodically covered and uncovered by drifting clouds.  While initially dramatic, the charm of pine forests soon palled, and we were glad to climb away from the loch and leave the estate road behind us.  Switching to a well maintained stalking path, we could see herds of deer in the distance, and the landscape began to feel much more remote.

Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe (the river) with the flanks of Carn Dearg (the hill) in the background. Ah! Back in Gaelic lands again!

The ground around us was wet and boggy, but the path itself was quite dry, being protected by trenches dug on either side.  Also, despite the occasional showers that passed overhead, the river levels seemed to be quite low.  This was encouraging, as we weren’t anticipating too many bridges out here (there are a large number of river crossing on the OS map marked “Ford”).

We passed by Culra Bothy on the far side of the river at about 4pm but, with plenty of daylight left, decided to push on up to a small valley containing a loch that we spotted on the map between the mountains Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil.  The valley sits at about 700 metres above sea level, and I had an idea that there would be more breeze, and so hopefully fewer midges, at higher altitudes.

As we climbed, the rain intensified, and the bothy began to seem like a more attractive option.  Although I know that we are well equipped and prepared for all sorts of circumstances, I’m always a bit apprehensive when walking in a new area whose topography and weather patterns I don’t really know that well.  I figure that this potentially excessive concern is why we do so rarely end up in any sort of serious trouble.

The rain cleared again as we reached the valley (Bealach Beithe) and we spotted another herd of deer moving slowly across the flank of Ben Alder opposite us.  From this angle, the ridge up to the summit looked eminently achievable, but the top was still covered in cloud, and it was too late to consider it today.  The previously firm path turned much wetter where it ran alongside the loch.  The ground surrounding us was not suited for pitching a tent upon.

First sight of Loch a’ Bealach Beithe, by which we were hoping to camp.

Otherwise, the valley was beautiful: still, peaceful, with the smooth and concave side of Beinn Bheoil to the south and the rocky cliffs of Ben Alder to the north.  The loch’s surface was ruffled by a gentle breeze and gaps in the cloud granted occasional glimpses of blue skies and sunshine.

Intuition suggested that the far end of the loch, where it is fed by a small stream, might be drier, so we pushed on.  Sure enough there was a small raised hummock about a dozen metres square that was drier underfoot.  We settled in, pitched the tent and cooked up macaroni with tuna for dinner.  The breeze kept midges away without making us too cold.  Clearing skies intimated stars, but at this northern latitude, it seemed the sky wouldn’t get sufficiently dark.

Oanh stirring dinner.

Day 2: Ben Alder to Loch Ossian

The day began with a steep and rough descent towards Loch Ericht.  Following a gentle stream interrupted by numerous small waterfalls, we spotted more deer on the ridge line.  The weather was clearer, although the distant peaks were still cloudbound.

We had extensive views across Rannoch Forest — one of those “forests” with not too many trees, and rather a lot of plain.  What trees there were to be seen were clustered in small, hospitable looking groves along the shore of the loch.  Far below us, I spotted a couple of tiny figures making their way across the plain.

As our route swung around to the north before climbing back up to the next path, we decided to spare our knees some of the descent and veered off the path, hopped across the river, and made our way along the hillside.  It was pretty uneven underfoot, with many ankle-twisting holes hidden by waist-length grass.  One positive aspect of summer is that flowers were still in abundance: mauve heather, purple harebells, spiky red bog asphodel and silky bog cotton grass (note the emphasis on “bog” oriented species).  Fortunately, no ankle-twisting occurred, and we were soon back on another excellent stalkers’ path.

Odd, ground berry; currently unidentified.

Eyebright.

Harebell.

After a slow ascent up the valley, the path we were on turned back towards the bothy.  We left it once again to struggle over the next patch of rough, boggy ground down to the valley floor, where we picked up a new path towards Corrour Lodge (a new estate).

We encountered our biggest river crossing here, and spent a few minutes wandering up and down the banks looking for the easiest crossing point: about seven or eight metres across, but only ankle to calf deep.  I got across reasonably drily; Oanh (whose gaiters are a bit too big) less so.

Oanh wrings out socks after an ankle-deep crossing.

The river wound extensively down the valley, and while the surrounding hills and corries (steep-sided circular valleys) were pretty, we were a bit exhausted.  The path either followed the bends of the river, or climbed and descended over adjacent hills, making for slow progress.  We also started to notice the presence of midges, dissuading us from standing still for too long, as it didn’t take long before they tracked us down and swarmed about our face and ears in an infuriating fashion.  Fortunately, they can’t really keep up with walking pace.

Late in the afternoon we reached Corrour Lodge, at the eastern end of Loch Ossian.  Passing through a gate, we were instantly in another world: the various buildings of the estate constituted almost a small village, and we were back on well-graded dirt roads.  The sky cleared as the sun fell lower, transforming dull greens of the hillsides into bright emerald.

First views of Loch Ossian.

My equanimity was spoiled somewhat by a growing concern about where we would spend the night.  Much of the ground (apart from the road!) was either densely forested, incredibly steep, or very boggy.  The bothy beside which I had hoped to camp was still some distance away, further than we wanted to walk and we were clearly deep in midge territory.

Loch Ossian has a youth hostel at its western end, and we began to wonder about asking whether we could camp there.  I had actually attempted to book beds a week earlier, but found no availability.  We eventually decided upon a strategy: ask whether we could stay there (expecting a “no”) and then see if they will let us camp as an alternative (with appropriate abject looks).  When we arrived at the hostel, I wandered around taking photos in the evening light while Oanh enquired.  As it turned out, our bluff was called and they did have beds.  At this stage, despite lugging a tent around, the prospect of another midge-free evening persuaded us to happily part with our £16 each.

The YHA at Loch Ossian is rather unique, being accessible only via a mile-long hike in from Corrour train station, which itself is the most remote train station in the UK, being approximately twenty kilometres from the nearest road!  The hostel is entirely powered by wind and solar power, and very ecologically friendly in all respects.  We passed an enjoyable evening, chatting with a Spanish-Australian family from Barcelona on a holiday entirely planned by the 16 year old son, a Scottish woman who had walked in from Fort William along one of the paths we were considering, and a 71-year old ex-mountaineer turned munro-bagger.  Everyone was quite excited about the prospect of the meteor shower forecast for that evening, but unfortunately the clouds rolled back in and it was a no show.

see here for all the photos

Continue to Part II!

Farewell Tour of the North – Part II: York

27 July, 2010

We caught the bus from Leeds over to York on a steaming hot afternoon and easily located Si and Mel’s newly purchased house. Having a local guide in a touristy town like York is a boon as Si was rapidly able to direct us into all of the nice pubs and past all of the tourist traps. We collected Rob from the station later in the evening and established our plan for the following days over a few pints of Si’s home-brewed nettle ale. (Nic, Rob & Si make lots of plans over a few pints …)

Our first outing was by train to Scarborough, to walk some of the coastal path in North York Moors national park. An initially overcast morning soon gave way to blue skies and sunshine as we left the beach behind and hit the cliff tops. The scenery was stunning, with waves crashing against dramatic rocky outcrops to our right, rolling wheat fields to our left, and a profusion of birds and butterflies all around us. One particular species that caught our eye was the vivid Cinnabar moth (as later identified by Oanh, to us it was just the black and red bug), swarms of which covered purple thistle flowers.

The only downside of the dry, breezy, summery conditions was that we found ourselves suffering from varying levels of hay fever.

The Yorkshire Coast nort of Scarborough.

Cinnabar moth on thistle.

Friday, we set off for the Yorkshire Dales, where we had a room booked in the YHA at Grinton Lodge, a former shooting lodge in Swaledale. Arriving at a vacant reception, we stowed our food in the kitchen, whipped up sandwiches for lunch and set off onto the Hackerton Moor. Despite a bit of confusion regarding which path we were (or weren’t) on, we managed to stumble along the top of the ridge, battered by wind but surrounded by stunning views of wheat fields, buttercup-filled meadows, and grey stone barns and walls.

Every so often we would pass short two-metre lengths of waist-high stone wall, rows of them separated by twenty metre gaps stretching up and down the hillside. Eventually we realised that they were for grouse shooters to shelter behind, and the probable reason for having them all in a row was that, much like a driving range, having everybody shooting from the same place and in the same direction is probably a Very Good Idea.

We also came across a small hunting lodge with one of its doors swinging ajar. Curiosity got the better of us and we poked our heads inside to discover, on the wall, a stuffed grouse (normal enough), but on the table, a stuffed sheep (decidedly weird and just a little bit creepy).

Shortly after, we descended to the River Swale, and made our way back along the floor of the valley. Several village pubs intervened between us and our hostel, but we persevered and made it home in the end.

Swaledale, near Grinton Lodge (our YHA).

A scenic, if windy, spot to pause for lunch.

The next morning, we waited for the school groups to clear out of the way before enjoying breakfast overlooking a stunning Dales vista. We drove further up the valley to the small village of Muker, from where we set off on a rather crowded path through meadows alongside the river. Eventually, everyone but us crossed over to the other side of the river, and peace was regained. The path climbed beside the river past dramatic gorges that I’m sure must, in wetter times, house equally dramatic waterfalls. Now they were but mere trickles.

After pausing at Keld for coffee and cakes, we circled back over the top of Kisdon Hill for more stunning views. Difficult to say more really: just magnificent scenery.

Breakfast with a view too!

Further up the River Swale, currently running very low.

Oanh was there too, just mostly behind the camera.

Typical Dales scenery: stone barns and steep hills.

Typical Dales humour (it was too, the pub).

Back in York, we resumed our tour of York’s finer drinking establishments, including the York Brewery, which would be impossible to locate without local knowledge: down a back street, past some trash cans into an alley, through an unmarked door and up a flight of stairs: a tiny pub atop the brewery serving a variety of ales brewed on site. An excellent Italian dinner was followed by a hilarious (to us) game of drunken charades in a pub and a walk home interrupted by assaults on York Castle and the city walls.

Perhaps as a consequence, Sunday morning began somewhat slowly. Oanh and I had a train mid-afternoon, so we went for a gentle circumnavigation of York, visiting some of its green spaces (including Simon’s allotment) before making our way to the station and thence home. All in all, a fun, if rather exhaustingly active visit to the north (and a resolution that, should we ever return to the UK, we should live up near the hilly bits…)

More photos here.

Farewell Tour of the North – Part I: Leeds

19 July, 2010

When accepting a job in Southampton, I reasoned that the mountains of north Wales and Scotland would not be so far away, and envisioned weekend walking and climbing their peaks. As it turned out, the northern realms of Britain turned out to be a bit further away, and a disinclination for air travel or driving combined with prohibitively expensive rail fares kept us, for the most part, closer to home.

On balance, this restricted range hasn’t been altogether a bad thing. We have greatly enjoyed exploring Hampshire and surrounding counties in more depth and at a slower pace, by bicycle and foot (together with the occasional rental car). We have spent more time revisiting the nearby attractions of the New Forest, the Isle of Wight, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons, discovering sights and routes that are a bit further off the beaten track.

During longer holidays, we have also visited Snowdonia, Northumbria, the Cotswolds and other further flung regions (though not, unfortunately, Scotland beyond a brief incursion into the southern abbey towns — we hope to rectify this soon). As our time here draws to a close we begin to realise that only a finite number of weekend remain, and there is still lots of pre-departure planning to do. Not every place can be visited. Not every sight can be seen. (Our mantra to stop us from tryng to do too much!)

Last week, using my work meeting in Leeds as a focus, we spent some time in Yorkshire, enjoying the hospitality of James (fellow PhD student from Queensland) and Nadia in Leeds, and Simon (former workmate from Southampton) and Mel in York. Weather-wise, we couldn’t have picked a better week for a holiday. England has been enjoying heatwave conditions: our first “proper” Summer since arriving here.

Leeds

We spent Saturday morning travelling up to Leeds by train. After collecting us from the station and feeding us, James took us out to Harewood House, a stately home just north of the city boundary. In light of the clement weather, we eschewed the house itself in favour of strolling around the grounds and gardens. Harewood has a fine collection of rare and exotic birds (“rare and exotic” for the north of England, at any rate). We had the opportunity to marvel at flamingos, toucans, java sparrows, macaws and other oddities. Of course, the only photos that we took that really turned out successfully were of the more humdrum pheasants and turkeys. Oh well, didn’t stop us trying. In addition, multitudes of wild birds congregate in the grounds, ranging from water birds on the lakes through to flocks of huge buzzards circling and soaring overhead.

Nadia eventually joined us for coffee, ice cream and further exploration of the Himalayan Gardens. Oh, and Harewood House officially has The Coolest Kid’s Playground In The World. Unfortunately, we were all above the age limit.

Harewood House

Us, with the extensive grounds of Harewood House in the background. Not bad for 15 minutes out of Leeds!

Alarmed pheasant at Harewood.

Colours of Harewood.

Sunday dawned bright and clear again. After some consultation with the internet, we decided to drive over to the village of Clapham on the south edge of the Yorkshire Dales and hike in to Ingleborough Cave and Gaping Gill. The peak of Ingleborough itself was also a more ambitious option. Our walk began in a small Clapham Cafe, where James almost got us thrown out by asking for tomato sauce for his cheese and onion pie (he swears he was only joking, but the look of shock on the face of our chef/waitress was a sight to behold). We appeased her with exuberant praise for her scones which, having just emerged from the oven minutes earlier, well deserved it. Duly energized (and caffeinated!), our walk proper began with a gentle climb through Clapham Wood. Following Clapham Beck upstream, we were glad of the shade afforded by oak and beech trees. The water level was remarkably low: evidence of the current dry spell.

Emerging from the wood, we followed the stream a short distance further to arrive at the entrance to Ingleborough Cave. The next tour was not for another 40 minutes, so we decided to explore further above ground, and visit on our return journey. The path took us up through a narrow gorge (Trow Gill) occupied by several rock climbers. Climbing out of that, James left the path and set off straight up the steep, grassy hillside to see what lay beyond. I followed and the views were stupendous. Unfortunately, I’d left the camera with Oanh, so had to beckon her and Nadia to follow us up.

Disinclined to return to the path at this point, we struck off across the hill top in the vague direction of Gaping Gill, our next landmark (or at least, so we hoped). All we really knew about Gaping Gill was that it was a Very Big Hole. However, in this area, there are any number of potholes and shakeholes, leading to some confusion about whether we would in fact be able to distinguish which one was Gaping Gill. Knowing that a stream fed into it though, we dismissed numerous smaller holes and, sure enough, Gaping Gill was unmistakeable (it was fenced off and had a signpost, for a start).

Gaping Gill is where Fell Beck descends beneath the earth for a distance of a mile or so before re-emerging at Ingleborough Cave. Apparently, two days a year, the local potholing club sets up a winch to lower people the 100 metres down to the base but, alas, today was not one of those days. Nonetheless, we spent some time exploring around the edge and gazing into the misty depths.

Returning to Ingleborough Cave, we discovered that once again we had mistimed our arrival to fall between tour times. Clearly it was a quiet afternoon however, as they offered to take us down regardless. Our guide was fantastic, offering an informative and personal account of the cave (he was from Clapham and had been guiding here for a decade or so). Decidedly nippy underground though.

Despite the glorious sunshine very few people were out and about: they were watching the England -v- Germany World Cup match.  When we emerged from our cave tour, our guide got on the telephone to find out the result.  England was out, humiliatingly so, having lost 4:0.  Oh dear.  I, however, was quietly hopeful that this would mean the St George’s flags that were everywhere would be put away.  We returned to a sombre Clapham and had a rather late lunch at a very friendly little pub, where the locals seemed to be consoling themselves about England’s loss by discussing whether or not to burn the flag!

Our pleasantly shaded woodland walk to Ingleborough.

Entering Trow Gill, Nic gazes wistfully at climbers (been a while since we’ve done any of that).

Gaping Gill, a hundred metre deep hole in the ground. The river disappears here and reappears about two kilometres away.

One of the locals.

Monday, James and Nadia had to go to work, so Oanh and I took a bus out to the town of Ripon, from where we walked the five or so miles out to Fountains Abbey, a world heritage site and apparently one of the largest ruined abbeys in the country. Somewhat alarmingly, our walk took us in past a large lake that was currently bereft of water and full of bulldozers; dredging and de-silting apparently — fortunately the disruption was limited and we were soon exploring the water gardens established around the site of the ruined abbey in the 19th century (when having a romantic ruin on your property was all the rage). We joined a walking tour for the abbey itself: sometimes we’re OK using our imaginations, other times it’s nice to know what the piles of rocks you’re looking at actually were. We realised that we’ve obviously learnt something during our time in England, as a lot of the history conveyed to us during the tour was quite familiar (basically the circumstances under which the abbeys were founded, grew and eventually dissolved by Henry VIII).

Fountains Abbey.

The magnificent vaulted arches of the lay brothers’ range.

Lots more photos of Harewood House, Ingleborough and Fountains Abbey.

Continue to Part II!

On New Bikes to the Vale of Pewsey

6 July, 2010

We have new bikes!

Nic's New Bike (Oanh's in the background).

We recently spent rather extravagant amounts of money on new bikes. To be fair, we do intend to ride them a long way. But, lots of money nonetheless. Our new bikes are the Dutch-made Santos Travelmaster, which we bought from Alasdair and Shelagh at MSG Bikes in Lancing, West Sussex.  The purchase process was impressively thorough, involving three visits to the store during which there were many measurements taken, plans discussed, component options evaluated, bikes adjusted and cups of tea drunk.  Our initial evaluation is that the effort of an ergonomic fitting will pay off: we recently took our new bikes out for their first loaded ride and discovered what a joy a good (and well-fitted) bike can be.

Our destination, hastily rearranged several times at the last minute due to booked out campsites, was the Woodbridge Inn, near Pewsey in the north of Wiltshire. Interestingly, a pub not so far from Wilcot, and Orcheston, where we have whiled away pleasant evenings on previous cycle rides.

Our outward route took us up alongside the River Test as far as Stockbridge, where we ventured over the hills, via Danebury Iron Age Hill Fort to Bulford, and thence up the River Avon to Upavon. Mostly, it’s all little lanes ans bridleways twisting around cute villages which we pieced together into a relatively quiet route to our destination.

Danebury Iron Age Hill Fort proved a scenic spot for a lunch break (and to give our legs a rest from the hills!). We had tried to cycle here last autumn but a string of punctures and short daylight hours resulted in us turning back, so it was great to reach it at last. We briefly explored the remnants of the fort, walking along a path atop the outer walls. Apparently, it is possible to see seven other hill forts from Danebury (the tallest in the area), but without the assistance of more signage (or more time poring over the map), we were unable to pick any out!

A flock of very special Manx Loghtan sheep inhabit Danebury; apparently they are a similar breed to the sheep that would have been farmed there in Iron Age times. Sadly, none were close enough for us to photograph, though we could see them in the distance and discern that they were indeed slightly different to the usual sheep one encounters (shaggier and browner, mostly).

Nic at rest at our scenic lunch stop; Special Sheep in the background.

From Danebury, we rode over the western edge of Salisbury Plain, through which we had cycled previously on a cold, winter’s day. This occasion was very different. In gorgeous sunshine we cycled up and down hills, through lovely villages full of thatched cottages and blooming gardens, and past forbidding-looking military camps, the River Avon always nearby though rarely visible.


One of many pretty cottages along the Avon Valley


Neat Strip of Wildflowers

Several kilometres of our day’s ride were along bridleways, that is, a path that can be used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, but not by cars. The first stretch followed an old Roman road; while rough and bumpy in parts, the slower rate of progress was more than compensated for by the tranquillity of leaving the traffic far behind.  However, bridleways are a bit hit-and-miss: sometimes they are well made and solid underfoot, but sometimes they are churned up, muddy, overgrown paths, all but impassable on a bike. Our second bridleway was of the latter sort: it got narrower, stonier and eventually, so overgrown that we could no longer see the path for nettles and brambles. Sadly for me, I tumbled off my bike right into a patch of nettles. I was most put out, partially because I’d come off the bike, but mostly because the patch of nettles I fell into was no more than a metre wide; it was clear either side. Also, the day being lovely and sunny, we were both wearing shorts. Our lower legs were therefore thoroughly nettle-stung, which made for a bit of discomfort that evening (but no worse than that).

The campsite at Woodbridge Inn was lovely and peaceful. A stream full of leaping trout wound around the edge of spacious, tree-sheltered fields. We pitched right beside the stream, which on inspection of the map, turned out to be the River Avon! We passed the evening at the Woodbridge Inn itself, indulging in delicious burgers out in their beer garden. Fellow campers feasted upon smoked trout they had caught that day!

Our new, subtle green, tent beside the River Avon.

Our return route was similar to our outward route, although we gave the overgrown bridleway a miss and exchanged Danebury hill fort for a journey down the River Wallop, along the way fulfilling our long held ambition of visiting the village of Nether Wallop (whose we name find childishly amusing).

Pleasant bike path, shortly before the village of Newton Tony.

Much giggling ensued.

We aimed to arrive at Stockbridge for lunch, knowing there would be a selection of eating places that would be open on Sunday, as Stockbridge is a bit of a tourist attraction. I’m not entirely sure why or how Stockbridge became a tourist spot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly picturesque little village, through which the river Test runs, but we passed many picturesque villages. Very few of them attracted coaches of tourists, and most were eerily, and perhaps a little sadly, quiet. The question is: which came first: the shops catering to tourists, or the tourists? I speculate that Stockbridge had always been a market town and just learned faster than most to exploit its charms. Whatever the reason, we had a delicious lunch of baguettes and sugary soft-drink to fuel us on our final stretch home.

The rest of our ride was initially along the Test Way – a secluded bike path which runs alongside the River Test – and then retracing our route alongisde the main road to Romsey.

The view over Stockbridge.

We had a wonderful weekend and felt very confident in our steeds. We learned a few things (like, maybe we don’t need two cameras…) Best of all, we were both very comfortable on our bikes. I’m even quite optimistic about how much space we have to pack all that we will need to be mostly self-sufficient for 12 or so months through varying climates and terrains. Big bike ride, here we come!

Nic, happy with new bike!

Click on the picture to see to more photos!

Tring!

16 June, 2010

Nic ic currently in Brisbane.  The rule is: if one is away, the other must walk a section of The Ridgeway, England’s oldest road (allegedly)!  Truth be told, I decided that a walk would be in order and a friend living in London, Sally, was keen, too.  The Ridgeway happens to be very accessible by public transport as well as having hills. The other option was to walk along the Basingstoke Canal but I decided this would be much too boring and/or not much fun if it was raining.

I plotted a weekend in Tring in Hertfordshire, which would allow us to walk to Ivinghoe Beacon, the highest point along the Ridgeway and also its endpoint. So, Nic has done the start and I have done the end of the Ridgeway.

The station names (or village names) on the train line to Tring were most evocative and charmingly English. First, Imperial Wharf and Kensington Olympia: where, surely, the upper classes must live.  Next, Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard, where earthy, ruddy cheeked farmers rub shoulders with estate owners and, finally, Bletchley, where a slovenly man sits nursing a pint in a rundown pub, stomach spilling over grubby trousers. The almost 3 hour train journey sped by.

All went smoothly, with Sally’s train from London arriving shortly after my train from Southampton. After dropping off some excess weight at Pendley Manor hotel, posh sister hotel to the cheaper one that I had booked us into in the centre of town but which was about a mile and a half away from the train station, Sally and I set off to locate the start of The Ridgeway. It was very easy! We walked briefly along the road and saw a sign, “To the Ridgeway – Public Bridleway” and the ubiquitous acorn symbol (to indicate that it is a National Trail). Shortly after, there were signs to Ivinghoe Beacon, saying it was a mere 5 miles away.

The first part of our walk took us through a mixture of woodland and open hillsides. The weather was kind: bright and sunny, with a lot of clouds but no rainclouds (yay!). It wasn’t long before we popped out onto our first hill, with views over all of Bedfordshire and with our goal clearly visible in front of us. This part of the walk to the Beacon was wonderfully rewarding – the views were lovely, the little ups and downs interesting and not too difficult or steep, and the occasional woodland gave us a nice break from too much sun.

From quite early on in our walk, we can see our goal: Ivinghoe Beacon (the last hump in this pitcture). Our walk is mostly along the hilltops.

Atop the Beacon, we had 360 degree views and also saw the chalk lion on Dunstable Down.

We had lunch of homemade quinoa salad with feta on the Beacon and then backtracked a little before heading into a forest to return to Tring station via the Bridgewater Monument and village of Aldbury. This part of the walk was a mostly flat meander through woodland. The woods were lovely; lots of old oak trees and beeches.

Crawley Woods, near Aldbury.

It was kind of surprising to suddenly emerge from the woodland to Bridgewater Monument towering above us and heaps of people wandering around; there is a large car park and tea rooms right near the monument!

The Bridgewater Monument is a 33 metre tall tower in honour of one Francis Egerton, third duke of Bridgewater and ‘father of inland navigation’, that is, he was instrumental in expanding and developing the canal network. After his death, his cousin wanted to build the monument, but his wife was less keen (or perhaps not so keen on the design) and stipulated that it had to be as far away from the estate house as possible and hopefully, out of sight! It’s not really a very interesting monument – just a tall tower topped with a brass urn thing, but you can climb to the top for the price of £1.70, which is what we did. Atop the tower, you get great views and apparently can see 7 counties. I tried to figure out what all those counties would be, but failed. And Mrs Francis Egerton would be pleased – we could not see Ashridge House at all, so assume that Ashridge House could probably not see us.

The very top of Bridgewater Monument: a huge brass urn (contains nothing).

Mrs Egerton will be pleased: Ashridge House is somewhere in this direction.

After Bridgewater Monument, it was a short walk to return to our start point. Unfortunately, our walk instructions and my map-reading skills did not quite match up and we ended up walking a lot further than intended and got turned around a few times inside Ashridge Estate, trying to get to the village of Aldbury. Aldbury itself is supposed to be a nice, typical English village, but after a quite long walk down a narrow road with no verges and lots of 4WDs passing too close, I wasn’t keen on exploring and merely wanted to continue to our end point.

We picked up our bags from Pendley Manor and caught a taxi the short distance to our hotel, the Rose and Crown Inn. After chilling out and sprucing ourselves up, we headed to The Greenhouse, a vegetarian restaurant a few doors down from our hotel, proudly advertised as a ‘football free zone’. None of the rest of Tring, nor indeed most of England, was football free at all, as it is World Cup time and England were scheduled to play USA that evening. We were interested in the game (or at least its result), so the plan was to have dinner and then head to a pub to catch the end.

Dinner was fantastic! So fantastic, that we lingered over our puddings and did not finish until a short while after the game was over. We wandered around town after dinner, trying to gauge from the revelers sporting St George’s flag on their bodies and faces (yes, even in a tiny country village) whether England had won or not. It was difficult, but we assumed they had won as there were no riots (and after all, their opposition was USA, not known for their soccer (sorry, football) prowess). We learned later that evening, back at our hotel, that the result was a draw – not good news for England’s chances of making it through to the next round.  Sally is very knowledgeable about all things football and World Cup-y, and patient with my questions and ignorance, so now I know a lot more!

St Peter's and St Paul's Church, at dusk.

I had no real plans for what we would do on Sunday, so we discussed our options over mediocre buffet style breakfast and a teapot each of coffee (me) and tea (Sally). I’m always a little thrown by having my coffee emerge from a teapot. Anyway, our options were either to do a short but similar walk to yesterday’s, including ascending a hill to an obelisk (purpose unknown) and walking along another part of the Ridgeway, or to walk a part of the Grand Union Canal, which has many junctions near Tring (where it used to be called, more accurately I think, the Grand Junction Canal). After laying out the options and then yabbering on about absolutely anything else, we decided to walk along the Canal – it would be flat and it would take us to the station with nary a step onto footpath- and verge- less country roads.

Canals are not terribly exciting to walk along as you don’t get great views or challenging ascents and fun descents, but they are calm and peaceful. There were only a few boats pootling along, quite a lot of fisherman and two sets of rowers – one set who looked like they had made their kayak-thing from repurposed rubbish. We also saw a lot of dragonflies (or damselflies), a few ducklings and lots of lovely flowers. The weather continued to be pleasant. A brief shower had me wondering whether to extract my rain coat, but I barely got wet before it was blue skies and sunny again.

Pretty purple flower. Although I am getting better at wildflower identification, a few still elude me...

Seven little ducks went out to play ...

We got back to Tring station around lunchtime; as neither of us were particularly hungry, we set off back to London and Southampton respectively. I cycled slowly home from Southampton station in glorious sunshine, which was a fitting end to a most enjoyable and pleasant summer outing.

As per usual, many more photos, here.