Gettaway to Glen Affric

Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.

  As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.

 

Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.

 I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?).  Eventually I found him in bed

It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.

The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.

 

 My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.

“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”

 

 Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”.  But it was no where to be found.

 

Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
 It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit   and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.

 

 The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.

 

“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.

 

Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.

 

A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen  and back to the hostel had taken him  45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
 By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended  to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.

 

But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.

 This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…

  ….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge 

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Cold and Canyoning 

There are, perhaps, more sensible things to do on a wet morning in early April with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the summits than to head to a waterfall rushing with meltwater and fresh rain and plunge in. 
 

  However this is the Easter holidays and I had two teenagers and an 11 year old to entertain. A morning of canyoning should keep them occupied, I thought, and even perhaps tire them out. 

 
  

We all felt pretty cold when we arrived to the Vertical Descents barn in the woods at Inchree falls, just by Onich. Although, with hindsight, that was nothing. I refer to what the 13 year-old said as we returned from the adventure “If anyone complains of being cold ever again I will say ‘you don’t know cold. You haven’t been canyoning at Inchree. I really KNOW cold'”.

 
Vertical Decents have two bases in the area: Inchree where they do canyoning and Kinlochleven where they deliver canyoning and a couple of other activities. We were presented with wetsuits (wet being the operative word) and invited to take part in the undignified struggle to get them on. After a good fifteen minutes of straining and groaning and wailing and a bit of lying exhausted on the ground, we’d made some progress but, as the only adult in the party, it seemed to be down to me to get everyone’s neoprene socks on, which was the worst bit. 

 

When we emerged, somewhat warmer from our exertions, and feeling like seals ready for a fishing trip under the sea-ice, I found out we had the wetsuits on inside out. “Sod it!” I said. “We’re not taking them off.”

 
The neoprene jackets that zip right up into the hood came next and, with help, I managed to get the zip done up, which pretty much prevented me breathing and rendered my sports bra utterly pointless.  

 

Danny, our guide, took us to get kitted out with helmets, harnesses and buoyancy aids “What’s the shiny black plastic over the bum?” asked the 11 year-old. 

 

“It’s to stop the wetsuit being damaged as you slide over the rocks” said Danny. “And to keep the poo in and the rocks clean if you get really really scared”, leaving the kids wondering whether he was being serious.  

 

I borrowed a pair of wet trainers from ‘dead man’s wall’, around 40 sets of trainers hanging on a board.  

“Someone took a brand new pair of Nikes out of a box and then left them here after canyoning” said Danny. “People come up from London or Glasgow with more money than sense”.

 
“We’re from Glasgow”, piped up the 11 year-old. And at that moment I was certain I had more money than sense, as it dawned on me that I had just paid a lot of money for the privilege of struggling into a wet wetsuit and have someone shove me down a freezing cold waterfall.

   

We walked up past the falls to the point at which we got into the raging torrent. Dog walkers looked at us pityingly as we passed. The series of waterfalls was simply spectacular and in full flood. 

  
The kids took to the water like a row of ducklings. I followed squeaking involuntarily (and embarrassingly) as I hyperventilated in the freezing water. 

 

The first couple of obstacles were to get us into the groove: being swept across a plunge pool in the current and then sliding down a water chute on a rock face and into a pool. The kids went for it with gusto. I somehow got stuck and ended up dangling on my back between Danny’s legs, rather helplessly trying to get a purchase on the slippery rocks. 

 

Next there was a little scramble down wet rocks (tied on via Ferrara style you’ll be pleased to know) then edging along a rock blade above another waterfall (not tied on you’ll be horrified to hear). As I wondered whether the children were safe, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone fall, hit the water and disappear. I screamed, frantically checking to see which of the precious children were lost forever. They were all three looking back at me, wide eyed, wondering why I was screaming blue murder. It turns out Danny had jumped in and he bobbed back to the surface at the base of the rocks looking cheery. 

 

After a couple of obstacles my 11 year-old, (who happens to be rather lacking in body fat) started to feel chilled and after half an hour or so was so cold I needed to take her back to base camp. We clambered up a semi vertical bracken slope and headed back to the barn. The two thirteen year-olds continued valiantly onward, full of glee and shrieking joyfully as only teenagers can. 

  

 Once the 11 year-old was safe in the barn colouring in and eating chocolate with Ellie, who (wo)mans the base camp, I hurried back up to the falls to rejoin the main party. I’d missed much of it but got an amazing view of the kids doing the zip line down the main waterfall in the series. 

 

We then swam across the plunge pool and sat behind the waterfall. I should have been grinning and feeling pleased with myself, like my daughter, but I was actually just rather worried about the children. 

  

 Once back at base we were back to grunting, straining and wailing as we wrestled once again with the wet suits. 

“In all my time working here,” said Ellie, “I’ve never come across people who make so much noise and drama out of getting into and out of wet suits”. 

 
Damn right, I thought, and resolved that next time canyoning should be segregated into adults in one session and children in another. Because it is hard to enjoy yourself when you are constantly worrying about your kids (and other people’s kids). And it’s easier to help children with their wetsuits when you are warm and your hands aren’t curled into solid frozen claws. 

 
And to add to all that I’d also put a minimum body fat index on those taking part.  

  

  

Solitary un-confinement 

A bit of an antidote to all the stress. 

   
     
After another stressful day of house shenanigans, finishing much later than I’d though due to having to sort out the MVHR disasters and mark up where the chimney flue can go. 
Stopped for fish and chips at The Gathering and it was getting too late to go up a really big hill. so at 930pm I set off up Devils Staircase on the west hihhland way whih takes walkers over from Glencoe to Kinlochleven, and half an hour later I reached my lofty bed. 
Views north to the Mamores, south to Buchaille Etive Mor and over Rannoch Moor. 
Just what I needed. 

A tale of two cycles: Part 1 – Cuil Bay to Ballachullish

20140714-210834-76114055.jpgCycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.

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However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.

We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.

Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.20140714-210827-76107787.jpg

Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.20140714-210826-76106674.jpg

The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.20140714-210825-76105023.jpg

While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.

The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.20140714-210828-76108786.jpg

LINKS
Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William

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Messing about in kayaks

kayaking“There is NOTHING… absolutely nothing… half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Thus spake Ratty in the wonderful first chapter of Wind in the Willows. And I can now confirm his assertion to be true, having spent a blissful morning drifting around the sea near Arisaig in a sea kayak. The sea was green, the sky was blue (in parts) and the islands of Eigg and Rum, and the Black Cullin of Skye made a heart-lifting backdrop.

My experience of messing about in boats has, save some punting while at university and the pedalos on lake Luzern, been almost entirely vicarious. My first experiences of boating were with Ratty on the river (picnic essential) and with Titty

Continue reading

A day trip to Lismore

lighthouse at lismore 347

Lighthouse at the south end of Lismore from the Tiree ferry

Lismore is a brilliant place for a day-trip. It’s got it all. A lovely little ferry to the island from Port Appin, then some great wee roads for cycling on, beaches, walks and a little community cafe.

It was also the site, in 562AD, of a race between St Columba and St Moulag. St Moulag won in the end by cutting off his finger and throwing it onto the shore. He established a monastery on the island and it became a centre of Celtic Christianity. Continue reading

Winter Climbing: My Glencoe and Ben Nevis Top 5

Stob Coire nan Lochan

Glencoe and Ben Nevis is really the home of Scottish Winter Climbing. A veritable wonderland of ice, snow and frozen turf. The Atlantic climate gives very special climbing conditions that are particular to Scotland and draw thousands of people to its gullies, ridges and ice-rimed rock. Continue reading

Skiing at Glencoe

glencoe ski photoThe ski area at Glencoe must have one of the most stunning views of any winter sports venue.  Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the mountain on which the 19 runs and 7 lifts are set is right on the edge of Rannoch moor. The last soaring peak before the flat, wild expanse of peat bog, pools and open heather moor. Continue reading

Renting dinghies and canoes at Ballachulish

This place is great for hiring dinghies and canoes by the hour (complete with a fetching wetsuit). We circumnavigated the gorgeous Isles of Glencoe with a short stop off at Eilean Mude  Continue reading