A walk through St Moritz with an IKEA armchair 

It would have been good to have a camera with us to record the occasion. Myself in the lead carrying an Ikea armchair and an ancient standard lamp through the streets of a swiss ski resort, brother In law in tow with a giant 1980’s TV, of the type that is deeper than it is wide.   

At first the armchair seemed easy to carry, I’d slung the lamp across the arms and carried it underneath down the steep street. Then it all got a bit awkward, the lamp started slipping to the side skewing the weight forcing me to compensate and making it worse. Soon the lampstand was dragging along the cobbled pavement. After a couple of times dumping the chair violently on the ground and slumping into it and two sets of counting myself to 60 twice “don’t put it down til you reach 60”, I reached the bus stop, to the bewilderment and bemusement of a group of ski-bling clad Italians, waiting for the bus to take them into the centre of St Moritz for a bit of glitzy apres ski. 

 

I set down the lamp and the chair and collapsed into it. Neal put the TV set down in front of me and there we sat waiting for the bus as locals and tourists gawped and giggled. We were clearing out some of the items amassed by the Swiss husband’s family over the past seventy years since his grandfather had bought a flat in St Moritz in the 1950s.  

 

In the rush to get the detritus out of the house and onto the bus before the dump shut I hadn’t thought to bring my phone to record this strange recreation of a 1980s living room among the rush-hour traffic of nose-to-tail four wheel drive Porsches. As the bus arrived, packed with skiers and skis, husband arrived with a dining chair and a bedside table and sister with a rucksack full of crockery and a wheelie case full of tablecloths and a rug; just what we would have needed to perfect the look of a pop up art installation. But the dump shut in 30 minutes and we needed to get there. 

 

Julia looked reletively normal (rucksacs and wheelie case) and boarded incognito at the central doors. In contrast I looked exceedingly odd and managed to cram the chair into the back doors just as they closed. The doors shut on the chair pushing it against a woman who was crammed in the corridor. She looked around and her look of annoyance changed to incredulity as she saw what had squeezed her leg. “Would you like to sit down to recover” I offered. She burst out laughing. 

 

Yet more people got on at the next stop. I offered an elderly man who boarded a seat. “I’d love to but I’m getting off at the next stop and if I sit down on that I don’t think I’d get up for two hours” he said. So I sat in the armchair and looked out of the glass folding bus doors through the legs of other passengers, at the views over the lake. It was frozen and ice skaters and walkers were out in force. A bunch of teenagers were playing a game of ice hockey. 

 

The bus was crawling through the rush hour traffic. The clock ticked by. We had 30 mins before the dump closed and the traffic was stationary all through st Moritz town centre. It’s always like that in the afternoons: nose to tail four wheel drive Porsches and BMWs. It’s the equivalent to the Italian ‘promenade’ but in cars. A local man had told us that there are some locals who drive up to the dorf in the afternoon just to have a look and see what the traffic is like.

 

A lady in her 80s wearing a mink coat and lipstick in a bright cerise asked whether I could move the armchair so she could get off at the next stop. We decided to get off the bus too. 

 ‘It’s just a quick walk through the centre then down the escalators’ I told my sister as we dismount, me in reverse carrying the arm chair. 

 

We started making our way through town, shoppers and skiers parting when they saw me staggering along under the armchair, view dangerously obscured on the crowded, cobbled, icy streets. We took two steep flights of stairs through a shopping area filled with jewellers, designer interiors shops (everything you could want for your home made entirely of antlers – a Christmas tree, chairs, coat-stands, chandeliers) and art shops (anyone for a bejazzled portrait of Donald trump. Or a diamond-encrusted take-off of the Mona Lisa?)

 We panted past Jimmy Choos, Bulgari and on to the Palace Hotel, the headquarters of bling in the town of über-bling. This year the hotel is decked out with a planetary theme for its Christmas decorations, huge floodlit planets hung behind the hotel. A steam-punk-style space rocket with strobe lighting had landed among the Rolls Royces and Bentleys. I dumped the armchair opposite the palace hotel and slumped into it for a quick rest and a view of the lights.

  
 “How are you getting on?” asked my sister. I flex my arm muscles, ”Knackered”. A woman who had stopped to admire the decorations was giggling, she was British. “It looks just like you’ve set yourself up to wait for the Gucci sale.” She said. I looked behind me, I was sat right between Gucci (full on pink and orange sequin dinner suit, and Andean Blanket with too-short arms masked by foot long yeti-fur cuffs) and Dolce and Gabana. We chatted about swiss second hand shops being too choosy to take our 1980s furniture collection. “It’s all too snobby here” she said. 

  But time was marching on and we needed to get to the dump. We headed past Pucci, a bunch of shops with DJ-clad shop assistants holding trays of Champagne, and a shop selling Maseratis which was laid out like a boutique fashion emporium. We reached the top of the escalators, four vertiginous flights sweeping down through the hillside to the lake shore via four stories of car parking inside the mountain. I looked down the escalators holding my armchair and felt a wave of vertigo as imagined the carnage if I dropped the chair. 

 Julia set off with her bags and I waited on the lift – reminding me of Roald Dahl’s great glass elevator, as it moved on the slant. Unfortunately, Unlike the eponymous elevator it moved at a snails pace. Just as it arrived Neal and husband arrived with their loads. “Our bus stopped in town and chucked us all off saying the traffic was too bad he wasn’t going any further” said neal. Did that happen to you? “Erm. No.” I said “we thought it would be quicker” we turned round to see our bus, at last free of traffic, pass the top of the escalators heading to the station. “Ten minutes to closing time” I yelled as they launched down the escalators and I leaped into the lift which had eventually arrived, past some emerging tourists. I am *not* carrying this armchair back through St Moritz if they are shut I thought. 

 

Julia was way ahead but she didn’t know where the dump was. She’d reached the train station and was running around asking people where the dump was. But in a town devoted to the needs of Bling, hedonism and tourism, nobody knew where such a prosaic place as the town recycling center was. She jumped onto a waiting bus to ask the driver but found he didn’t speak English. 

“Where’s the dump” she said urgently 

“Yes I go to the dorf” he said 

“Not the dorf the dump”

“Yes yes get on the bus. I go to the dorf”

“Does anyone speak English on this bus?” She wailed and two Chinese tourists piped up “we speak English”.

But it turned out they didn’t know where the dump was and they didn’t know what dump was in German. 

 

Eventually someone on the bus calmly pointed out a sign for the dump and Julia shot off in that direction just as ruedi Neal and I emerged from the underground car park sprinting – as far as one can when laden down with home furnishings. 

 

I trailed behind on the final furlong. I tried putting the armchair in my head but the seat cushion dropped down over my eyes and then fell out, nearly tripping me up. Neal was way ahead, manhandling the TV set I couldn’t get my arms around, let alone lift. Ruedi with bedside table and two chairs was already at the finish line. But Where was the standard lamp? Wasn’t I supposed to have that? I looked around vacantly, thinking back to when I’d last seen it. It was back at the bus stop, where we had made up an impromptu living room.

   

But there was no time to contemplate a future behind bars of a swiss jail for fly tipping, we needed to get to the recycling centre. If I didn’t make it in time I wouldn’t be carrying the chair back across town and up to the flat. I would definitely be doing some intentional fly tipping. 

  

But we had made it .The place was still open, a highly organized affair (as one would expect). Two workers met us and helped us divide our spoils between piles and skips according to type. Incredibly, the TV joined 7 other old fashioned analogue TVs in their own area. 

 

“Either it’s months between pick-ups from this recycling centre, or there an awful lot of people are doing house clearances over Christmas” said Neal

“Perhaps people got new TVs for Christmas” suggested Jules. 

Neal pointed out that if someone was going to get a new tv they would have got one by now. 

We wondered what had caused the demise of so many of st Moritz’s elderly. 

 

Relieved of out loads we practically skipped home along the lake. Much later that evening over dinner we related our adventures to my parents, who had declined the offer to join in with our load-bearing magical mystery tour when we’d bumped into them on the bus. 

“Where’s the lamp now?” asked Jules. And then I remembered. It was still at the bus stop. It would have been there for hours drawing comment from Swiss, for whom finding a lamp at a bus stop would be highly irregular.  

 

“You’re going to prison for fly tipping” chanted the children, who delighted in imagining what would happen to a person who committed this most heinous of crimes against the Swiss people. 

 

I went down to the bus stop after dinner to collect the lamp. It wasn’t there. 

 

The British relatives wanted me to report it stolen. “You should pre-empt them and say it’s been nicked, then you’ll be safe. 

 

Swiss husband suggested that staying completely anonymous would be safest “Don’t report it, they’ve probably picked up the lamp and already registered it as a crime”. 

 

We never found out what happened to the lamp, but it gave us plenty of entertainment – the rest of the evening was passed in happy discussion about how the police would be examining CCTV footage of a four people carrying the dog-eared contents of a living room through St Moritz.

  

A classic ensemble of Napoleonic coat crossed with Papa New Gineau Bird of Paradise cape, twinned with camo jodhpurs. 

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The Tale of the Camembert

Since the house was finished I haven’t blogged much. Perhaps I need the therapy less, perhaps I’ve found other things to do. I hope I haven’t lost my blogging mojo, though. And that is why I’m making myself blog again. 

In the absence of a house build to generate funny situations and stories, I have found that real life more than amply fills the gaps and, over the past few months I have amassed a glorious variety of ludicrous situations to share. 
I’ll start with a little one from recently. 

 
We’re driving north for Christmas with a ripe Camembert. It’s a vital part of the Christmas cheese platter (baked with honey). The Kids started making vomiting noises as soon as they got in the car. We’d only managed to make it to Sainsbury’s to fill the car with Christmas food shopping and were just about to pass home again on the way out of Glasgow when I couldn’t bear it any longer and we pulled over. It seemed it was either the Camembert’s company we’d have for Christmas or the 13 year old’s, so I started trying to locate the cheese while parked in a side street in a Glasgow suburb. 

An avalanche of shopping and items packed for Christmas exploded from the boot of the car. Packing is my least favourite activity and mostly we divide labour in the family so swiss husband does the packing and I do things I’m good at like organising the trips. Adventures and holidays. 

The kids pack for themselves and have done since the age of 5. There’s a few anecdotes in that… Mainly around what one does on a winter holiday with a suitcase full of toys and summer clothes and no pants or socks. 

 
Anyway, in aid of efficiency I’d just shoved everything in. If I’d have taken the pile of wellies and trainers and a panier out and started with the boxes the pile would have been more stable. But we ended up with a load of boxes leaning outwards and bags of shopping full of bottles on the top. 
Despite the mess that the contents of the boot had made on the wet, puddled road, only one bottle smashed and it was the lemon chili sauce. I picked it up and looked about for a bin. There was none to be seen and so, not knowing what else to do, I sat in the passenger seat, hands covered in chili sauce holding the remains of the sauce in the upside down bottle with the bottom broken off. 

 
Turns out that chili sauce with lemon is an extremely effective deodorizer. And while I sat there, trying to remember not to run my eyes or put my hands near my nose or mouth, the children stopped complaining about the smell. It was either that or the laughing. 

 
Or it could have been the placebo effect because as soon as they discovered I hadn’t actually found the Camembert they started complaining again. When we stopped at a service station so I could dispose of the chili and wash my hands they bought an official smelly forest air-freshener. 

 
It was one of those Christmas-tree shaped things that dangle from the rear view mirror of taxis and which makes everyone except taxi-drivers feel distinctly queasy. I wiped the chili off the outside of the bottle and, instead of putting it in the bin, I tucked it into the seat pocket. I needed something to deodorize the smell of the forest fresh   

 
All went well until a stop for dinner at the Drovers Inn. After an hour sealed into the car, the combination of the Camembert, the Forest Fresh and the chili had fermented into an explosively stomach-churning pong. 

 
We opened all the windows, and drove, wind in our hair, ignoring the threat of frostbite in our extremities. From time to time the children would complain of the sub-zero windchill and we would close the windows. We’d last five minutes until the smell started to build up again to unbearable levels. 
When we reached Sula and unpacked, the Camembert was refused entry and stayed outside in the mailbox. Since we are still waiting for Jamie the farmer to put up a fence around the house (materials were bought in June) we are at the mercy of Jamie’s band of marauding border collies who pop over a few times a day to check whether I’ve put out a bin bag or some other tasty titbit out by mistake and rip it apart leaving a trail of rubbish in their wake. I put the Camembert out of the way of dogs (I thought). 

 
When Christmas Eve came it was time to cook the Camembert for a wee party we were having for the neighbours. It had been knocked off the mailbox but I was relieved to find it still in one piece, untouched by the band of dogs. It may have smelled like something had died long ago while in the box but baked, it was really tasty. I resolved that the discomforts of the journey was worth it and went to bed. 

 
But the Camembert hadn’t had its last word. 

 
In the morning the 11 year old came downstairs. I was cleaning up the party but the rind of the Camembert still sat on the kitchen worktop where it had been the night before. Daughter look one wiff of it and ran over and vomited in the sink. Between comforting the daughter and cleaning her up, I took the remains of the Camembert out into the garden and buried it. I took the cardboard and plastic wrapper that had been around the Camembert out of the bin and buried them next to the Camembert. 

 
RIP Camembert…. and my New Years resolution is no Camembert in 2017. For the sake if my family. 

 
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day at Springwatch 

After a run of three years at RSPB Minsmere, it’s the last week of the last Springwatch at the reserve and I’ve had a chance, with some of my colleagues at the RSPB, to visit the set and find out some more about how the phenomenon, which is Springwatch is made. 

 

To Springwatch’s millions of devoted fans it may seem like a relaxed and casual event, kicking back in those chesterfield sofas, but Springwatch is anything but. The presenters may exude the calm of the proverbial swan, gliding along on the surface, but beneath the water, a massive and well-oiled and expert machine is frantically paddling away.  

 

 

There’s a village of people on site at RSPB Minsmere, 120 people decamp to the site for the three weeks of transmission, and take up most of the local accommodation. Four massive trucks housing the outside broadcast equipment jostle for space with tents, marquees, truck diners and gazebos. 

  “It costs me a million pounds to rent those outside transmission trucks for the month of Springwatch” says Tim Scoones, executive producer, and the man behind the show, who is showing us around the site. 

 

He takes us into one of the monster trucks which will hotfoot to Glasto after they are finished with Springwatch, then Wimbledon, and every must-see sporting and cultural event after that (it’s the very truck that makes ‘Strictly’ for goodness sake!)

  Before us is a bank of screens pulsating with action: nests and eggs and, of course spineless Si (and Stephen Fry). It’s like a control centre for …. well ….like a control center for the biggest outside live broadcast the BBC does. 

“Springwatch is different from all those other shows” says Tim, explaining the ambitions and the sheer brass neck of Springwatch. 
   “There are thirty live feeds coming into the main truck, with six at any one time recording”. Tim has story developers watching those screens intently 24 hours a day, ready to catch anything exciting, new or unusual. “we take our inspiration from Big Brother and from the news. These guys are making the stories as they happen”. 

 
I ask what happens if they can’t switch one of the live cameras to record in time. “We have to be ready all the time” says one of the story developers. “If we don’t we can miss something spectacular”. They give an example from the previous day where they had an adder predating on one nest box and, at the same time, a stoat coming into another. They simply couldn’t get to the record buttons in time. 

  
There’s a live broadcast about to start “we like to think of it as Test Match Special meets rolling news” jokes Tim as he ushers us out of the truck to continue the chat.  

 
Tim explains more about quite how innovative and seat-of-the-pants Springwatch is. “There’s no autocue” he says, “This is what makes springwatch different. There’s no script, we are remaking the show as it goes out”. The presenters have a cacophony of voices going on in their ear-pieces as they speak; someone telling them countdowns to items cutting in or out, another person telling them what item is next, or that they need to cut straight to a hatching, or some other exciting happening on one of the cameras “When something happens live like that nightingale singing last night, we just cut straight to the camera and the presenters just have to carry on”.   

  They are constantly changing items, cutting items and lengthening items as the show goes out. It’s a wonder that Michaela, Chris and Martin sound as relaxed and unruffled as they do with all that happening around them. 

 
Suddenly a producer appears at the door of the truck. “Breaking news!” he says “those sparrowhawk eggs are hatching”. He pops back into the truck only to appear seconds later with more breaking news. 

 
There is simply never a dull moment on the set of Springwatch. 

 

Later that day we get a chance to see Chris Packham in action. We are part of the audience in Unsprung, standing rather self-consciously around the set trying to ignore the cameras getting thrust right into our faces and hoping that a close up of our faces won’t make it into live TV. 

  
The show is funny, slick, and a bit tongue in cheek. We clap, we cheer, we groan at the rubbish jokes, we boo (when Chris Packham criticizes a fantastic photo of a swimming adder), and before we know it we are shuffling off-set and back into the evening sun of RSPB Minsmere. 

 

We leave awestruck by the energy, the devotion, the skills and the teamwork of everyone working on Springwatch. Our day may be over but Chris, Martin, Michaela and the whole oiled machine of BBC staff still has a run though of the show and Springwatch itself to go before they finish up for the day. 

 
I’ll certainly be watching Springwatch with new eyes, and a large helping of awe and admiration when it goes out from RSPB Minsmere for the last time later this week. 

   
 

     

A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 

 

Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.

 

“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.

 

We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.

 

As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.

 

‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.

 

“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.

 


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.

 

We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.

 

The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.

 

Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)

 

Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.

 

It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.


This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.

 

We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.

  

Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

 
It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

 
It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 

 

On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

 
I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  

  

  

  

  

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 

A tune for Cuil Bay

 

I don’t know whether anyone has written a piece of music for Cuil Bay before – I’d be surprised if they haven’t because it’s such a beautiful place.  But now it definitely has its own tune. And I’ve put it together in a video with a load of photos I’ve taken on my phone over the last year which pan around in a really cheesy way. I hope you’ll forgive me and it doesn’t distract too much from the beautiful melody.

Cuil Tune by Stuart Killbourn

 

It was written during a get together of the ceilidh band a week or so ago up at Sula. We may only have three bedrooms but we managed to fit almost everyone and their families in somehow, with one family staying in a wooden wigwam nearby in Duror; 13 sleeping over and 17 for dinner. Stuart the mandolin player wrote the tune.

 

I’m not sure whether I’ve told the story of how our band got together on this blog so that will need to be the next blog.

 

Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting. 

 
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions.   

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups. 

 
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall. 

  
 
My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too.  

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.    

 

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like. 

  

Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.

   

Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.  

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond   

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from. 

 
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art. 

 
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers. 

  

 This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project. 

  
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.     

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more. 

 
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?

 

Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year. 

 

Dates for the diary: 

Loch Lomond Reserve visitor gateway open from mid April 2016

Sound Artwork performance by Luca Nascutti, Inversnaid,  September 2016

Exhibition by Cathrine Weir and Rosanne Watt, Mersehead October 2016

Losing it. 

I’ve been holding it together pretty well for the past year while building this house. And actually far longer than that. I didn’t lose my wallet in 2015 or 2014 and I don’t think I lost it in 2013 or 2012 and probably all the way back to 2010. I did lose my phone last year and my house keys a couple of times over that period. Oh… and I dropped my work keys right in front of the front door of work one night (I no longer have a set of work keys…) 

 

But I’ve been about as together as I’ve ever been with respect to keeping my belongings with me over the past few years. It’s all been military precision and ship shape and Bristol fashion compared to the chaos of my University years. 

 

However it all seems to have gone to hell in a handcart in the past month. In the past five weeks I have lost my wallet four times. Twice on trains to work meetings (returned via station lost property both times) and then once somewhere in the vicinity of Ballachullish, yet to be found. 

 
Yesterday I made a temporary wallet out of duct tape and put my third set of brand new cards into it. This was a wallet I wasn’t going to lose. I had a meeting in Balloch followed by a meeting in Edinburgh. It was all going well, an effective meeting and all on time for the Edinburgh meeting. But when it came to cycling from Waverley to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh I realised I had left my bike in Balloch.  And when, after my RBGE meeting, I discovered I’d lost my wallet yet again I had a moment of despair and a flashback to my university days. 

  
While I was at University I went through nine bikes in nine terms. A couple were stolen, a couple just broke down irreparably, one I wrote off in a head on collision with another bike – front wheel hitting front wheel with such force that my bike buckled, my head made contact with the head of the person on the other bike and I was transported, I remember not how, to Addenbrookes hospital to be treated for concussion. One was jumped on by a fellow student disappointed in love (referenced in previous blog).  And at least twice I simply lost the bike. 

 

There are a lot of bikes in Cambridge and, when you’ve got a lot of different places to go and people to see, and things to organise and essays to write, keeping track of where you left your bike can be a challenge. 

 

Fortunately this time at least I knew where I’d left the bike. It was locked up at the station in Balloch and I was due back there the next day for another meeting. So nothing lost. 
However it filled me with despair that I had only had possession of those last bank cards less than 12 hours before I lost them again. 

 

I turned my entire bag out in one of the Botanics glass-houses after the meeting. As the fact that my wallet wasn’t there sunk in, I heard a beautiful bird-song, that sounded like a robin but a bit different. I looked about and noticed sitting almost on my foot a beautiful robin singing gently to me from inside his little body – not the full-blown-beak-open song I’m used to. It certainly cheered me up. That and the bright yellow papaya lying on the brown earth of the glasshouse, which I picked up to smell to check it was real. So, not the total end of the world then, in the big scheme of things, but to add insult to injury, my return rail tickets were in that duct tape wallet too and I needed to get home for a significant family occasion. 

 

Simple, I thought, I’ll just blag my way through the barriers at Waverley. After all, while traveling alone in Peru during one of my ‘gap years’ immediately before my PhD, I’d blagged my way all the way back to the UK from a Andean village called Caraz where everything I had with me was stolen: bag, tickets, money, passports, everything. All I had was six bread rolls in a plastic bag that I had just bought. I managed to get back to Lima, find a place to stay, negociate police reporting, replacement passport, replacement tickets, and everything else through pure blagging and persuasion. It was a bit stressful but I did it. However the folks in Peru must have been a bit more tender hearted than the Scotrail guys as there was absolutely no getting through that barrier without a ticket.

  
Caraz to Lima: that’s a long long way to go with nothing but six white bread rolls in a bag  (google maps tells me it’s 300 miles) 

 



Eventually I found out that there was a mechanism by which someone I know can buy me a ticket. But they can’t just call up or do it online, no. They actually have to go to a station in person to make the transaction (and pay £10 extra for the privilege). I called long-suffering husband. When he had stopped laughing long enough for me to issue him with instructions on how to release me from Waverley station I went to find a place to charge my mobile. I found £1.20 in small change at the bottom of my bag and went to see what kind of comfort that could buy in M&S food while I waited. It turned out to be one minuscule packet of honey roasted salted cashews. 
  

 

I’m rather puzzling to myself why I’m having a spate of losing things now, when the house is nearly completely finished as I surely can’t be as stressed as I was before. I suppose it’s because things I’ve put off are now all crowding in demanding to be done and  work has been even more demanding and rewarding and challenging and wonderful than usual. 

 

 

I think the prescription has got to be the following: 

1. Finish everything with the house once and for all – there’s too many odds and ends to keep track of at the moment. 

2 Stop organising new things whenever I have a small breather and a little space to think. 

And

3. Get a bumbag/wallet that hangs around the neck of the type you’d buy to go traveling on a gap year. In fact, come to think of it,  exactly the item which I had, the day my bag was stolen in Peru, left in my main rucksack, rather than had attached about my person. 

 
Plus ca change. 











Storms, mud and a pair of pyjamas 

Last week I read an article by Dani Garavelli in the Scotsman suggesting that, rather than pouring scorn on mums doing the school drop off in their pyjamas, we should hail them as counter cultural icons. I’m always one for the the non-conformist approach and idly wondered what people would think If I wore my pyjamas into the office. 

 
I thought nothing more of it until today. Today has been the 1034th day of consecutive rain on the west coast of Scotland (to my reckoning). And not just a bit of rain: torrential floods, teeming cats and dogs, bucketing. All around Sula the rain sits in puddles, the mud is monstrous. 

 
We spent the day varnishing windowsills and doing other useful stuff until I couldn’t bear being cooped up inside any more and headed off for a run in a break in the rain. By the time I started my run it was torrential again and, with needles in my face and an ice cream head, I set off into the headwind. After 5 minutes I was soaked through, after 20 a drowned rat would have lent me his towel. 

 
I headed back to the house to change. The afternoon activity was burning yet more cardboard and waste wood with a few bits of chair and tree that Jamie the farmer had dragged out of the burn as Storm Henry gathered.

 
Ronnie the digger-driver had excavated us a moat, perhaps more conventionally referred to as a drainage ditch.  I recklessly headed across the garden to investigate how it was working.  It was running with water, which was good, I sunk in nearly to the top of my welly, which was less good. 

  
I managed to extract myself, with difficulty, and then spotted a stray bit of insulation that had blown into the farmer’s field. I crossed the moat to grab it and sunk in way over the top of my right boot. I tried to rebalance and the other welly went in over the top. As I pulled at one welly and then the other I sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. My shouts for help went unheard. (later I discovered that husband couldn’t come to the rescue as I’d borrowed his shoes to go to the car to get my wellies and left them there.)

 

 I considered taking my wellies off and crawling to safety but then I remembered how polar bears walk on thin ice – spread your weight- I reached over to the insulation and used it to kneel on while I pulled my wellies out. 

 

 
So that was the second outfit rendered unwearable. Pyjamas was all I had left; a good reason to stay inside and buckle down to being useful. It wasn’t until most of the way through the drive back to Glasgow that Dani’s article came starkly to mind. 

 

 
I needed the loo. 

  
As we drove down Loch Lomond side I started weighing up the options. 

 
How bad is it to go into a service station and ask to use the loo while wearing pyjamas? Quite bad. 

What about the one with an M&S where I actually know the location of the loo and wouldn’t have to ask? Worse.

I remembered that I was also wearing my Icelandic jumper inside out (put on in a hurry in the dark while rummaging in the boot). Even worse. 

 How about a lay by? But it was still pouring with rain. 

What would Garavelli do? I thought. Actually I didn’t care. I wasn’t wearing PJs and an inside out Icelandic jumper in public. 

I remembered the magic toilet cubicle in Balloch. One of those automatic booths that rinses the whole thing down once you’ve been. Genius. We pulled into the dark car park, and I sprinted to the booth and back. Mission accomplished. 

 

The beneficial byproduct of the episode is that I don’t need to try wearing my Pyjamas to work. I’ve realised I’m just not counter-cultural enough to brazen it out. Just yet. 

Community land in Broomhill

Seeking people in Broomhill, Glasgow to join a group to investigate possibilities for community use of the old Broomhill School Annex site. 

 

See email below if you are interested 

 

ReplyTo: Alex Cross <a.l.cross@btinternet.com>Subject: Use of Broomhill Primary School Annex land post school rebuild
Evening,

I have recently been talking to the Broomhill Community Council about the potential for the land that will be released by the rebuild of Broomhill Primary School (currently annex buildings). This presents an opportunity to take control of the land either by ownership or renting in order to develop a community facility that would be of benefit to Broomhill area.
I am looking to see if there is enough interest to get together a team of around six to eight people who are willing to give some time in order to come up with a number of options for the land with a view to putting together realistic plans for the use of the land. We would then start to investigate what lies within the realm of the feasible and how we could put together a coherent and potentially successful argument for the case to gain control of the land for the benefit the community.
A good example to draw on is the recent community effort to run Portpatrick Harbour – link for info, hopefully this wouldn’t be as complicated!

http://communitysharesscotland.org.uk/news-and-events/news/community-shares-scotland-and-portpatrick-harbour-community-benefit-society
This is just an e-mail to try to garner interest, I am in the difficult position of not having many e-mail addresses or contact details for Broomhill residents so I am going to rely on electronic word of mouth. I have sent this to you as someone who’s contact details I do have, I would ask you to pass it on to anyone you know in the broomhill area and if they are interested could they e-mail me at a.l.cross@btinternet.com; the intention would be to get together anyone interested at the end of February for an initial meeting to chat over the possibilities.
Thanks in advance for your help
Alex

A Cross

a.l.cross@btinternet.com

Three cops in a boat (Chapter 2)

Chapter 1 of the saga is here.

 

Chapter 2: in which the party are stormbound and someone abandons ship. 

I was aware of some of the sterotypes about policemen. However, never having actually met one in a social context before and, not being one to judge by sterotypes, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t want to spend a week in an area 3m by 2m with three of them.

 

They turned out to be really nice guys individually, but in the evenings, the conversation had a tendency towards the unbearable (for a bleeding-heart liberal woolly-jumper-wearing save-the-whales leftie like myself). It was mostly about cars and boats, which was harmless enough, but interspersed with right-trending pontificatons about the welfare state, tree-huggers, and the invasion of foreigners. I found conversational companionship with Willie, the retired engineer.

Robert, the captain’s brother, was the most opinionated and also seemed to do most of the cooking. We had delicious three course meals, and cooked breakfasts all created from the tiny but perfectly formed galley, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It was a highly unusual situation. Fair to say that on the first day while we were at sea, and before I had started my travel sickness meds, there wasn’t much chance of me lifting a finger, it was all I could do to sit staring at the distant horizon without vomiting. However I wasn’t even allowed to wash up, or fetch things from around the cabin. It was a novelty to start with, and then it started to get irritating. Connor, meanwhile, seemed to have an unattainably high standard for on-yacht cuisine. There was a constant and debilitating low-level of sniping between the brothers.

We had changed the planned route due to horrific weather forecasts and decided to head down the east cost to Inverness, then along the caledonian canal, to Fortwillian and to Mull from there. Our first port was Wick and we arrived in a large swell and onshore wind taking some skilled piloting from Conor. It was certainly hairy stuff and added some thrills to what was, otherwise, an uneventful day. As soon as we arrived it became apparent that we wouldn’t be leaving for a few days as the swell prevented us getting out of the harbour and the wind wasn’t due to change for a few days. We were stormbound in Wick.

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The sailors on board were doomladen. I was elated. A chance to spend some quality time in my natural habitat (land): to run along the cliffs, a take a breathtakingly cold dip in the sea, to explore a new place, in fact to do all the things I like doing, in contrast to sitting motionless on a boat and staring at the horizon for hours on end.

The first day of being marooned I took the train to Forsinard, a stunning RSPB reserve in the middle of Europe’s biggest blanket bog. Bliss. Giant horizons, minuscule sundews, sun on peat pools, calling waders. I climbed the new viewing tower to have my breath taken away at the way the architecture and landscape interacted: the vertical with the horizontal.

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On my return Robert was in full swing, this time a mysogeny flavoured rant on his favoured subject the Scottish independence movement. Now I love a good political argument; locking horns over the subjects that matter and can change the world; intellectual engagement challenging your own views as well as those of your opponents. I love having someone to disagree with in friendly discussion so much that sometimes, when the wine has been flowing and everyone is in happy political agreement, I come up with a contrarian view just so we can enjoy a good robust argument. *

IMG_0862But this wasn’t really much fun. The rant really didn’t stand up to the rigors of argument, which didn’t go down well. It just caused the offensiveometer to be turned up a notch.

Later that evening I determined to get on the 1120am train to civilization. It was him or me on this boat. I could not spend another waking moment on the Juneflower .

Morning dawned and the boat was quiet. Robert wasn’t industriously making bacon, eggs and black pudding. In fact Robert was nowhere to be seen. Once everyone had emerged apart from Robert, we found out that he had left. Jumped ship. He was on the first train out of Wick back to Glasgow. To my immense surprise it seemed that the war of attrition has been unexpectedly won. I felt elated.
It turned out that Robert actually left after one too many criticisms of his cooking from Conor. However, no matter the reason he left, it was undeniable that the quality of life onboard improved immeasurably. I moved into a cabin of my own (previously I had been sleeping on one of the seats in the lounge, with Willie on the other). Everyone relaxed a bit, and I determined to stay on the boat and see where the adventure of putting myself so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it with a telescope, would take me.

* Once I got myself into big trouble with my delight in argumentative banter when meeting a close friend’s new man, a credit trader working in the city of London. It was shortly after the financial crash and I started, what I thought was, a good natured but robustly challenging discussion on the role of the bloated global financial industry in bringing down the world economy and generally oppressing the poor and fomenting inequality. It turned out that the boyfriend didn’t come from such a tradition of arguing simply for the sheer fun of it.

After the meal, back at her flat, I was told off in no uncertain terms for putting her eternal happiness in jeopardy. That was when I discovered that I had been invited along to, what was effectively, their second date.

Yes it could have all gone horribly wrong but, if you can survive a second date with your brand new girlfriend’s Uni friend haranguing you about your role in the downfall of the world economy, it is probably a good sign. You will be pleased to know that, despite such a disastrous date, they are still together. And when I see them now, the conversation doesn’t get more adventurous than the intricacies of childcare and where we are going for brunch.

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Three cops in a boat (chapter 1)

Three retired policemen. Not the companions I’d usually choose to spend a week with in a confined space, but it sounded like an adventure.

 

Orkney to mull in a 40ft yacht for the cost of a shared food kitty and enough alcohol to keep an army drunk for a week. I’d signed up to it after an email came round a climbing club email list I’ve been on for years with the intention on going on their weekend mountaineering trips and never quite getting it together. But this time the email was different.

 

‘Crew sought for sailing trip to Lofoton’. My mind instantly wandered to the icy arctic and the lofty spires of Lofoton, a place I’d visited just after finals while a field assistant for a hapless PhD student from Sheffield studying caterpillars on dwarf willow.

 

My life of joyful but demanding family, a job I love (most of the time) and the never-dull house build started to seem rather mundane in the face of adventures on the high seas and climbing rock pillars in arctic wildness. A certain melancholy enveloped me when the impossibility of ever having a proper adventure again struck.

 

I emailed back with not the slightest expectation of a reply ‘How amazing that sounds. Feeling a bit sad that my family commitments mean that I can’t abandon the husband and kids for any length of time worthy of the expedition this year’ I wrote.

 

But a week later I had an email suggesting that I simply hop on and off for a week of my choosing and, looking at the weeks set aside for our summer holiday, noted that the stint from Orkney to Mull fitted in. So that was our summer holiday destination planned….

 

I didn’t actually meet Connor, the captain and owner of the Juneflower, until the night before he was due to sail out of Tighnabruaich, destination Lofoton. He was heading there for the longest day and the boat was packed and ready to go. I would be on the homeward leg. If the yacht, and its captain and crew, survived the trip out, then I’d likely be safe was my reasoning.  But even given the assurance of Natural Selection, I thought it would be a good idea to meet at least one of the people on the boat before I shackled myself to him for a week.

 

I nearly didn’t get to meet Conor at all, with his busy-ness packing the boat, my general busy-ness and basically forgetting to get in touch with him until a few days before he left. We managed to fit in a half-hour drink at the local rugby club on one of the best days of the summer. I didn’t need to worry about how to find him: blue shorts to the knee, a pink and white striped polo shirt, and deck shoes, he was obviously a sailor.  He was also a retired policeman in his late 50s, tall and thin, with a tanned and peeling nose, and he had already bought me a pint of St Mungos lager which sat awaiting my arrival on the bar. Unsurprisingly, I found this rather odd. During the introductions I worked out that he must have seen a photo on my twitter account of a set of albatross scaring lines next to a drink of WEST Brewery’s St Mungos lager. It’s a bit weird to have someone you’ve never met buy a drink for you before you arrive at the pub, but it’s extra weird coming from a policeman.

 

However, despite the slight weirdness, he seemed personable, and highly competent in matters of how to sail a boat, which was what I needed to know. He told me a little about the other people on the boat: Robert, his brother and also a retired policemen, and Martin, a long-time colleague also from he police. Willie, a retired engineer, and myself completed the crew.

 

Now I don’t know the first thing about sailing. I’d been on a couple of dinghys, one where husband’s glasses were hit by the boom and sunk to the bottom of the briny without trace (not great when on a holiday in the far North of Scotland with no opticians for 100s of miles) and once on a yacht with a Uni friend, turned boat builder, who took me on a truly terrifying tour round the Summer Isles in a storm as he shouted with glee. But, despite my personal experience, sailing has always seemed adventurous and romantic to me; blame the Swallows and Amazons if you like.

 

‘I don’t think you’re going to like it’ said husband, who knows me too well, as we ate a final meal in the Kirkwall hotel. A week in a confined space; no possibilty of excercise, my previously demonstrated fear of sailing, and my slight tendancy to travel sickness. And then, added to that, the prospect of spending it with three ex cops.  ‘It’s going to be an amazing adventure’ I said.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent….) 

Swiss Survival Guide: Surviving St. Moritz

The advantage of skiing in Switzerland is that noone would possibly know that you bought your ski jacket and salopettes in Lidl.

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They do actually have Lidl in Switzerland, it’s just that nobody goes, or at least they would never admit it. And you can be doubly confident that none of the Bogner/Mongler/Cartier ski suit wearing punters in St Moritz shop in Lidl (yes apparently Cartier make ski-wear….)

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If you say something like ‘Wow Lidl costs a third of that duopoly coop/migro that has such a grip on the shopping habits of your nation’ then you are likely to be excommunicated from your Swiss in-laws. But at least a small bag of shopping doesn’t cost £150.

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Now there seems to have been some excitement in the financial markets the past few days which, if I’ve got this right, means that overnight our visits to Switzerland will now, not just be a bit more expensive, but 40% more expensive. 

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And that got me thinking what kind of things don’t cost the earth in Switzerland?  As specifically, how to not spend too much money when you happen to be in the play-ground of Oligarchs and winter habitat of the English toff, St Moritz. 

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I started with food and here’s the blog of a week of Swiss recepies based on a theme of starch and cheese which may be light on the pocket but are certainly rather heavy on the stomach. 

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But there’s also lots of things to do that won’t break the bank and here’s a list:

1. Watch the races on the Olympia Bob: 

The world’s only natural ice bob run (there is no concrete underneath). They practice every day in the season but if you are there for a race it is even better. 

You can walk down a really good footpath from the top near the Kulm Hotel all the way to Celerina and get the bus or train back. Stop at the bar on the amazing horseshoe bend to watch the action.

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2. Relaxing Sledging:

Top day out. Take the train to Preda, and head down the old road, that is shut in winter, to Berguns by sledge. It is 6km long and really picturesque as it winds over and under the World Heritage Site railway line. When you get there, lots of Gluwein stalls await and the train back up to do it again. 

(It’s not such a bargain day out of you have to hire a sledge though)

3. Oligarch Watching

It is really rather good entertainment to spot outrageous bling all over the place. Lots of furs and lots of diamonds and lots of ridiculously oversized dark glasses. Walk down the main street passing every high end luxury brand you can think of. Look out for heated car-park spaces so they are kept clear of ice. There is a whole road that has under-tarmac heating to keep it ice free between the Palace Hotel and Casa Veliga. Be horrified at how the planet is going to hell in a handcart. And how the world’s elite live. Then wander into Hotel Kulm in your walking boots for a cocktail.

4. Ursli path: 

A lovely walking path themed around the fantiastic children’s book ‘A Bell for Ursli’ taking you up to Salastrains. Take a sledge and kids can sledge down (it’s not officially a sledging route so be prepared to be frowned at by Swiss people). 

The path finishes at the Salastrains nursery slope where the hut that was used to film the original Heidi TV series now lives. Go in. Be Heidi and Geiserpeter. 

…. and read “A Bell for Ursli” before you go.

5. The Cresta Run: 

The last bastion of the English toff at St Moritz, now that Russian Ologarchs have taken over. You can hear the plummy voices from miles away as the announcer calls out their double barrelled names ‘Number four. Lord Thisleton-Lumley’ as they throw themselves headfirst in plus-fours and vintage leather shoes. 

 No women allowed. Which makes them look even more ridiulous if you just head over to the Olympia Bob and see the amazing women from the Swiss skeleton team who would burn them all off in an instant. 

Day 3 – Going home

We packed up in a hurry, there were moths from the trap to be Identified, the thermal imaging equipment to be taken down from the hill, and our bags and bags of kit to be transported down to the pier.  We didn’t pour away the water we hadn’t used. Just in case we didn’t get picked up – the supply of freshwater is a shallow sink-sized reservoir half way up the hill, on a seepage line. And it’s a favourite haunt of the gulls who have adorned it with  poo and feathers. 

 

  

The weather had changed to perfect blue skies and gentle winds and we headed out to survey the nests on the bird cliffs.

As we circled the island the cliffs rose up covered with gannets. Birds were everywhere. Gannets hanging like saltires in the air twisted briefly and then dropped from the blue sky, hitting the surface of the sea like an torpedo. We saw an immature one, a dark cross folding to an arrow and then a line and I wondered what it feels like to dive out of the sky at 100 Kmph for the very first time.  

  

Small stacks beneath were crowded with guillemots, stock upright with white tummies and chocolate backs, like miniature penguins on an iceberg. Then suddenly they launched into the water all at once towards the boat rowing their wings like a frantic oarsman in an attempt to take off.  When a couple realized that they wouldn’t make it before the boat passed them, they dived suddenly into the smooth oily water.

All to soon it was all over and we were heading back to Girvan, and real work: computers, meeting rooms, and hundreds of emails. 

 

  

  

  

  

  Bye Ailsa.  See you next year. I hope.


Ailsa Craig – evening day 2

Waiting for dark and the arrival of the storm petrels. It’s after eleven but the sky is still bright in the west. As the sky changes from deep blue to paler blue the moon appears, full and round, and the wind blows steadily. It isn’t going to be a dark night.

 

 ‘Everything is conspiring against us’ said Bernie, as he adjusts the mist net. ‘and to make things worse, they never come until the first week of July’ 

Bernie Zonfrillo is a veteran of 35 seasons of Ailsa bird research. He spent a wild winter on the rock in 1991 while leading the work to exterminate the rats and sleeps in a cottage slightly less derelict than the other island wrecks. 

  

We are sitting in the gloom along makeshift benches of driftwood balanced on granite blocks that had been cored for curling stones and then left as waste. Before us the sea shimmers silver in the moon and from the loudspeaker beside us comes a loud whirring sound punctuated by the odd Donald duck-like ‘ahh’.  The sound of a storm petrel calling from a colony. Every storm petrel on the west coast of Scotland will be able to hear us, I think, as the super-charged petrel blares out of the speakers.

  

And despite the bright moon, and despite the wind billowing the mist net so it looked like the black and tattered sails of a ghost ship, they came. Little black birds flitting like bats around the net and then, suddenly caught in a fold in the fine black mesh. Bernie’s deft fingers release a bird and she is in the hand.

Small and delicate with a steep quiffed forehead rising up from its little beak, the storm petrel may be small but it is a relation of the mighty albatrosses.  Petrels and albatrosses are ‘tube noses’, a name coming from the tube above the beak.

After the ringing I turn to Bernie to say that he was too pessimistic about the prospects for the night. 

‘Actually I was right about one thing’ he said. ‘We didn’t catch any in June.’  We’d  caught the first at quarter past midnight on the first day of July.  

  

Image courtesy of Portlandbirdobservatory.org 


Ailsa Craig – Morning Day 2

I’m perched on an angular boulder at the base of a scree slope, binoculars raised, scanning the cliffs above for a peregrine nest.  My shoulders are tensed uncomfortably and there’s a crick in my neck. The air is full of gannets and the cries of gulls.


I was just thinking that a deck chair would give me the optimum angle for this kind of work, when the female peregrine launches from the cliff-face into the clouds of soaring gannets beating short sharp wings and calling furiously.  

 

  

Round and round she flies until she nearly alights on the cliff, wheels round once more and settles on the highest tip of rock to survey us suspiciously.

 

The clouds surrounding the steep summit mean we cant climb the rock to survey the colony of gulls at the peak and so, this morning, we have walked along the shoreline – past gull chicks, heads thrust into clumps of ragwort or under rocks, furry bottoms peaking out, and piles of boulders containing hissing, snake-headed young shags.

  

 

 

From where we sit, under the gannet colony, the rock rises precipitously from sharp grey boulders. On every ledge a shining white gannet sits and, up at the cliff’s rim, hundreds of birds balancing on the wind sway, black wingtips almost touching each other, and the rock.

 

They hang on invisible wires gently swaying while we are buffeted by the fierce winds and struggle to keep our balance on the boulders.  Every now and again one dives down past us, heading out to sea and is gone.

   

 

Ailsa Craig – Day one

History is strewn across Ailsa Craig in the twisted rails and rusted cogs winches and cables, and in the ruins of smithy, gas house, and lighthouse keeper’s cottage.  Rusting sheets of corrugated iron lie in the base of the huge gas storage tanks and across the heather. The lighthouse cottages are ghostly shells with beds turned over, broken cupboards and some 1940s easy chairs we borrow to make our camp more comfortable 

 I am on Ailsa Craig as party of an RSPB Scotland group surveying the islands bird, plant and invertebrate life. We make camp in the midst of the industrial decay then set off for our first task. 

The route of the old railway bringing stone from the North quarry to the pier makes a rather unsafe footpath to the cliff we want to survey.   Rusted iron and rotten wood bridges over rocky chasms give us visions of a Hobbit-style chase across crumbling stonework and we retreat to walk along the shore. We pass a cave strewn with dead rabbits, broken eggs and limpet shells where JM Barrie had once stopped to carve his name into the wall. 

  

My task, when we reached the seabird colony on the steep cliffs that run from the north foghorn, round the west, and almost to the south foghorn, was to look for bridled guillemots. This part of the cliff is the only one that can be seen from the shore, and it is where the regular detailed counts take place.  Bridled guillemots are the rarer form and they have a delicate white monocle around each eye. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – but harder.

And then I find one.  A beautiful creature to seek in my ornithological Where’s Wally? My colleagues count kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars razorbills and then we get started on puffins. I used a little silver clicker that ticked satisfyingly in my hand with every count.   

 

  
  

Canna, Gaelic birdcalls and a lost car key

20140901-215643-79003568.jpgWell it was slightly annoying to loose the car keys. But the train journey back to Glasgow from Mallaig has been wonderful. It is one of the world’s great journeys and I can see why. As I yelled ‘wow look at the amazing view’ ‘it’s the Harry Potter viaduct’ and ‘Britain’s highest mountain’ the kids sat and read the magazines I had bought them as the necessity of the five hour train journey ahead started to sink in.

It’s not the first time that I’ve lost a car-key, or indeed all sorts of other important items like wallet and house keys, but it’s the first time for a while it has necessitated drastic action. I’ll be on the 820am train back to Mallaig in the morning with the spare.

However perhaps it’s a fitting ending to a weekend visit to see a piece of music which has encompassed the whole experience, especially the journey.

The concept of a piece of music exploring the imitation of birdcalls in Gaelic song fascinated me since I heard about it last spring. Being an ornithologist (or a lapsed one at least) I was captivated when I first heard Gaelic songs for bird calls on a soundpost at Kilmartin museum, and the thought of a piece of music written for performance on Canna seemed irresistible.

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Now, as I said, the peripheral stuff – travel, accommodation, feeding – were an integral part of the event. And if I were organising an ideal weekend trip away it would look pretty much exactly like this did: a remote and exquisite island teeming with wildlife, camping by a beach black with basalt sand and overlooked by an ancient and crumbing bastion on a tower of basalt columns; a start to the event in a marquee filled with scones and cakes of all kinds; and choice of tea coffee or whiskey (I admit to scrounging a second dram); and ending with the camaraderie of a bonfire on the beach until the early hours. It also included a rousing sing-along to ‘the rattlin’ bog’, but I think that was entirely spontaneous….

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But of course these were just the bookends to the work itself. We sat on folding chairs or cushions on the dirt road by the old pier and waited in silence (yes even my children) for the performers in dark tweed dresses and scarlet neoprene to begin. I used to be quite good at bird song ID but this really challenged my knowledge. The programme, containing a reproduction of the hand written scores and translations of the Gaelic which could have helped me was buried deep beneath waterproofs, plastic bags and other russtley things in a very rusttley bag. This was the kind of silent expectant audience where a single creak from a buttock moving on a chair would draw looks like daggers from those about. I decided to forgo the cheat-sheet.20140901-214240-78160454.jpg
Each movement was preceded by a sound recording evoking a habitat and bird assemblage: a machair with calling waders and skylarks, a seabird colony with guillemots, shags and fulmars, and mountain slopes ringing with the haunting and bubbling calls of manx shearwaters.

20140901-224152-81712946.jpgAs the sound of a gull in full defensive mode swooped across the loudspeakers my husband and I instinctively ducked; two field seasons in a colony of 50,000 pairs of gulls makes you wary like that. I was excitedly elbowed in the arm when he realised that the next movement was on a theme of gulls (we met in a gull colony). The sound of the guillemots took me back to a summer spent in the arctic below an enormous colony of auks. Happy days

The singing beautifully imitated bird calls as the singers placed themselves about the shallows, rocks, or up behind us, depending on the habitat they were evoking. The sound soothed, washing over in waves, the feeling akin to lying on a real machair looking up at the sky and hearing the waders display above, or laying belly-down peering over at a seabird colony, smelling that ammonia smell of dried guilimot poo (I love that smell). When I recognised a call in the music I felt elated. The kittiwake ‘Hu-ru rui’ was a recurring theme as was the cry of the oystercatcher, an ululating ‘Pil- il-il il il il il’. I feel I would have so much more to gain on another listen.

Later around the fire we shared experiences of the piece, among other things (including an artist’s response to the killing of the first sea eagle to fledge from the East Scotland reintroduction). Everyone I spoke to had connections to the arts, most had been to art school and were practicing artists. They seemed to have a very different experience of the piece to me, none seemed to feel the need to know what sounds were representing which birds. When I met one of the performers on the ferry homeward and enquired as to whether I might have heard a curlew in the piece (which on inspection of the programme I think was a gull’s laughing cry), she confided that she didn’t actually know which sounds were which birds, she had learned the music and read from the score.

There were evidently far fewer ornithologists in the audience than musicians and artists and, as I walked through the woods and up to the heathered escarpments above with the family later, listening out for the birds we could hear, as we always do, I pondered on a theme I have pondered before. I wondered whether there is more enjoyment in being able to name the species we share our surroundings with, than in simply enjoying a natural sounds for their own sake. Does being able to know how many species are singing, what they are and why their sing, and how they live their lives enrich ones enjoyment of the chatter of a seabird cliff, or the uplifting sounds of a woodland in spring?*

I do go along to arty things when I can, but I often feel that I don’t quite ‘get it’, the time I went along to see Hertzog’s ‘Antarctica’ at the GFT leaps to mind: I sat utterly bewildered as I saw, around me, the knowing nods and of a generation of students from the Glasgow School of Art oozing understanding. But this time I did feel that I got it, in fact surely this was a piece where ornithologists could enjoy it just as much as the art people. (And, presumably to a Gaelic-speaking ornithologist it would be even more enlightening). Perhaps I’m just always seeking understanding, because that’s what I like, I’m a scientist after all and finding out how the world works makes me happy.

The work was perfect, just as it was, of course, but I just couldn’t help wanting to take all those artists there on a walk to see and hear the real thing: the oystercatchers, the gulls, perhaps a night walk to hear the manxies. Probably because it’s my job and passion to get people excited about nature and because, for me, a performance like that drives me, at least, to want to find out more about the birds and about the Gaelic.

Canna, for example, is a real conservation success story. In a superhuman and vast effort, the NTS has freed the island from rats, while conserving the endemic Canna mouse, and Manx Shearwaters and other ground and hole nesters are starting to recolonise. A tremendous good news story in the midst of so much bad news for nature.
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I am starting to see the advantage of losing my car key, we have been forced us to throw ourselves further into the experience of the journey as part of the piece, returning on the train via the wild landscapes of Morar, Lochaber and the vastness of Rannoch Moor and then gradually decompressing through the oak and birch woodlands of Loch Lomond and Loch Long until we started to enter the towns of West Dumbartonshire, and, only when we were ready for it, arriving back in the city. A far more enriched experience, especially with a glass of prosecco, than driving through the landscapes focussed on the road, head down….

Now I just need to get that train back to Mallaig with the spare key….

For information about the performance and a video click here
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* (however any metaphor with art breaks down irretrievably on a cursory interrogation….)

A tale of two cycles: Part 2 – Benderloch to a frighteningly fast and un-navigable A-road.

After such a wonderful cycle to Ballachulish we wanted to do some more of route 78 and so, since we were at the beach at Tralee, Benderloch, I arranged to cycle north with the kids for around 10k to meet my husband with the car at Loch Crearen to finish the day.

It started off nicely with a short section down the old railway starting at the old Bendeloch station. However after about 100yrds the disused railway continued, looking inviting and hung either side with drooping tree boughs, but was fenced off, while the cycle track took a dogleg and started to follow the main road on a separate and parallel track.20140714-210831-76111501.jpg

The ambitions of cycle route 78 to follow the old railway is brilliant and, it would surely be one of Scotland’s best cycle routes if that ambition could be realised. However it is evident that the route’s creators and visionaries have come up against many land-owners who have refused to allow the cycle track to continue along the obvious route and so quite large sections have needed to be made on alternative routes, sometimes in fields adjacent (as in Glen Duror to good effect), and in many places alongside the road. When the railways were closed, land across Scotland, and indeed the UK, was practically given away to the landowners rather than being held as strategic routes, and so it irks somewhat that some landowners are not cooperating in the process of creating this beautiful cycle route.

I don’t mind cycling on an off road cycle track alongside a main road. I do mind if that cycle path peters out entirely and I am informed that it continues one and a half miles further along the busy Oban-Fort William road.

Now, I am a hardened Glasgow cycle commuter, daily doing battle with rush-hour traffic along Dumbarton road, but the thought of heading out onto that road where cars were doing upward of 60mph, and numerous scary overtaking maneuvers of caravans/campers/trucks happened as we stood there, was not attractive. There was simply no way on earth we could go any further with the kids.

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My phone battery was on 1%, I texted the husband then the phone battery died. We contemplated our options. Either there would be an unusual confluence of circumstances (a) he had his phone with him, b) his phone was on, c) his phone was charged, and d) that he was paying attention to it) and he’d get the text, or (more likely) he wouldn’t. We waited a bit longer than the amount of time it would take him to reach us if he got the text and then headed back to Benderloch.

Fortunately there was Ben Lora Cafe and Books to keep us occupied and the sun was shining. We wondered how long it would take for hubby to realise we were gone.

We all had a drink and a snack, time dawdled. We bought newspapers and magazines to read. Two of the hourly buses passed to Balcardine and I regretted not getting on one of them. We contemplated hitch hiking up the road, and still he didn’t appear.

The man clearing tables asked if we were ok. ‘Sounds just like me’, he said as I explained that it probably hadn’t crossed hubby’s mind to check his phone and that, if he actually had it with him, on and charged, it would be a miracle ‘I never have my phone on, drives my wife crazy’. He helpfully offered to charge my phone.20140714-211758-76678128.jpg

By 530 pm and an hour and a half of waiting later, we were all getting a little bored. ‘They’re closing its road tonight at 10pm for roadworks’, I thought, ‘I wonder whether Ruedi will come back to look for us in time, or whether we’ll have to kip down here for the night ….’

‘He’ll probably come back when he’s hungry’ said the man.

I went inside to pay and the woman at the counter told me that her husband never has his phone on either. She has an anaphylactic reaction to stings and she told me that, when she’s out for a walk and has forgotten her epi-pen, she often muses over, were she to get stung, how long it would take her husband to notice she were gone. ‘Probably not till the next day’ she said ‘perhaps at breakfast time’.

We giggle about husbands for a bit and then she said ‘Mind you, the shoe’s been on the other foot’ and told me her story. One evening her husband didn’t return home and she didn’t think anything of it, when he still wasn’t back the next night she assumed he was visiting his mother and it was only when his mother called to speak to him, she started to wonder where he was. It wasn’t until he’d been gone five days (‘FIVE DAYS??!!’ I echoed incredulously) that he returned as if nothing had happened. When she had finished shrieking ‘where-the-hell-have-you-been-I’ve-been-worried-sick?’ It turned out that he’d been over in Sheffield for work but had omitted to tell her the plan.

It seems that things could be far worse than waiting two hours in a comfortable cafe garden in the sun….

And when did we eventually get rescued? At 6pm hubby eventually turned into the car park. After waiting, and wandering along the shore, and reading, and snoozing he had, at last, started to wonder where we were and had turned on his phone to see what time it was (…dinner time…?)

LINKS
Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William

 

 

Mouse trouble

In a bit of a contrast from last week when I was at RSPB Mersehead getting unreasonably excited about some camera trap footage of a mouse bouncing out of a badger set with a stick in its mouth and cooing over a cute little wood mouse caught in a mammal trap set in a stick-pile, this week I am at war with mice.

We arrived with joy and anticipation at the bothy for a week of repose and communing with nature. Our usual 40 min walk extended to one and a half hours by me having to stop every 15 minutes to take a rest from my Herculean rucksac, carrying in the provisions for a week. We arrived to find mouse droppings everywhere: tucked into corners on the fish box shelves, scattered on the kitchen surfaces perched on their fishbox units and all around the piles of fish boxes that make for seating.

After a burst of uncharacteristically enthusiastic wiping and disinfecting of surfaces we climbed the ladder-like staircase to the sleeping platform above, where more mouse droppings lay on the wooden floor where I was about to lay my mattress.

In the night there were shufflings and crashings loud enough to keep me awake for a while. It sounded like a family of mafia mice, or those rats out of the animated film Ratatouille were helping themselves to the food I had lugged in at much personal effort. However When I tried to take them by surprise by switching the torch on suddenly I saw nothing of the perpetrators. In the morning my newly wiped surfaces were covered in mouse poo and, in the final insult, a solitary poo sat atop the sponge scourer.

Tonight I have a couple of mouse traps at the ready. They were bought from the local hardwear store after a 2 hour round trip, and I am sorry to say that, this time, they are not your ecologists’ Longworth Traps with friendly escape hatches for shrews. No. I am afraid to say that I am a frightful mass of contradictions and these traps are the ones that go SNAP.

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Wildlife Watching with Gadgets and Gizmos

20140706-081554-29754555.jpgIt certainly seemed like a good idea a few months ago: Let’s get more people engaged with nature using equipment and gadgets more often used for science and let’s train up my fellow people engagement staff at RSPB in the South and West of Scotland.

It seemed less clever as I travelled down to RSPB Mersehead reserve contemplating the inescapable fact that technology seems to sense my anxiety and ignorance and immediately stops working, that vital pieces of gadgets go missing when I am anywhere near them, and that even having to set up a projector and laptop to give presentation can leave me feeling sick with fear.

However we had a boot full of gadgets: go-pros, camera traps, a digital microscope, and some bat detectors; as well as some of the more traditional scientific kit of an ecologist: moth traps, small mammal traps and butterfly nets. We also had a few experimental things: a variety of recipes for treacling for moths, some ink footprint traps and a drone.

The participants came from across the RSPB’s South of Scotland region, all working in face-to-face roles with the public and the idea was a kind of do-it-yourself training. We would all contribute our experience on using the gadgets and also the kind of activities you could use to create an event, or activity to get people ereally excited about nature.

I managed to secure the help of a couple of our RSPB ecologists who could give us the low-down on things such as camera trapping, moth trapping and mammal trapping. All the rest was down to us.

The idea of the training had been born in an evening, night and morning spend in a tent with the family near to RSPB’s Loch Lomond reserve where we were partaking in the Big Wild Sleep Out. I had been involved in planning and arranging the event but wasn’t due to be helping deliver it and so I went along with the family to take part as it sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly hope to find. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was like being in an episode of spring watch, nay, it was like being Chris Packham himself.20140706-081406-29646519.jpg

We went bug hunting, set moth traps and camera traps, heard bats through our bat detectors, baited our mammal traps then finished the evening with a campfire, stories and marshmallows. In the morning we rose early for some bird ringing following by checking the traps. It was so exciting seeing what you had caught in your mammal trap and with the camera trap. My younger daughter’s camera, set under some bird feeders, discovered a hungry hedgehog snuffling around the peanut butter bait. We were hooked.

I wanted the training to recreate the feeling and excitement for people and so those who could be persuaded, camped out in the garden of beautiful RSPB Mersehead. Although, with all the distractions of teeming wildlife, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleeping.

The first night, clear and deathly still, we walked down to the shore, the air still so warm we were still in t-shirts at 11pm. There was no need for torches, the sky to the north was still bright. We were thrilled to see a barn owl quartering the wet grasslands in search of food. Later on, however, while asleep, I was less thrilled to be shocked awake and bolt upright, by the bloodcurdling shriek of the owl who appeared to be resident in the tree right by my tent.20140706-074724-28044051.jpg

We set the camera traps, the small mammal traps and an embarrassment of moth-traps (no fewer than three mercury vapour lamps within a few yards of the tents) and then we started on the moth treacling/sugaring. Everyone you ask seems to have their own secret recipe for attracting moths. So I decided that what we needed was a battle of the moth mixtures.

Everyone brought their own in jars or made them up on the stove, the heady fragrance of red wine, sugar, ale and banana wafting through the centre. They were delicious (the ones I tried) even the one that had been sitting around at RSPB Loch Lomond for a few weeks – apparently it had improved as it matured. If the moths had any sense they would be starting to queue for a taste of this moth ambrosia.20140706-073856-27536503.jpg

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While we waited for the moths to gather we headed down to the dunes to look for Natterjacks toads. Natterjacks are our rarest amphibian and you need a licence even to go looking for them, touch them or photograph them. So we were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in an official natterjack survey with our ecologists. They only come out at night and so, in midsummer, it has to be pretty late to see them and it wasn’t until past 1130pm that we found our first animal, a female, and one, according to the individual dorsal wart pattern, that had been caught by the team before.

It was an incredibly brief night before we were all up again on a (not quite) dawn walk, chatting through games and ideas to engage children with listening to and learning birdsong. What struck me was how differently people hear birdsong. The chiff-chaff which, for me, is a simple ‘chiff-chaff-chaff-chiff’ was, to one colleague, ‘a little girl skipping along with pigtails’ and another ‘a bouncing ball’

I got everyone to listen to the skylark and describe exactly what they heard and there was an amazing variety of descriptions, the best of which was ‘a video game shoot-out killing the aliens’

We picked up the camera traps as we passed; a couple by a badger set in the woods, and one on a gate post past which everything bigger than a rabbit would have to move to get from the field into the woods.

20140706-074005-27605795.jpgBack at base we opened moth traps, and mammal traps, looked at camera trap footage and ink print traps. We had deer, a badger, a fox and a tiny mouse that dashed into a badger sett entrance only to bounce out a few seconds later carrying a stick three-times it’s own length in its mouth.20140706-081406-29646850.jpg

The excitement of seeing what the results of your own camera trapping had brought was really palpable. The camera which was only few yards from the tents captured some great footage of a fox and some stills of a badger.

Later we played with a digital microscope which projects highly magnified images to a laptop screen, the go-pro cameras and our area reserves manager demonstrated the drone, a quadcopter, which creates incredibly stable ariel images and video.

When I arrived back in Glasgow that evening, utterly exhausted, a fox passed me in the street. Unconcerned, and in broad daylight, It hopped off the pavement to let me past and then eyeballed me when I briefly stopped. I pretty much ignored it and went on my way. Perhaps I should set up a camera trap here to rekindle the excitement of having wildlife so close in the city.

PS. The moth treacling mixtures might have tasted delicious to me, but the moths didn’t seem to like them. All we found, when we came back after the natterjack survey, was a red tailed bumblebee slurping the mixture off a tree. 20140706-074000-27600771.jpg

 

 

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Day 6: Ballachulish Horseshoe – a bit of botany and geology

“You seem to be in a great hurry,” said a man with a thick German accent as I brushed my teeth while filling my water bottle in the Glencoe YHA kitchen “Do you have some information that the mountains will disappear today in a sudden movement of the tectonic plates?” I tried to explain that I had a taxi due as I ran to the fridge to retrieve my faithful companion the French cheese, but it’s hard when you have a mouthful of toothbrush.

In the end the taxi was late and before we could get into it my Dad had appeared to join us for the day. He’d left Dundee at 6am but it was too late for me to cancel the taxi. In the end I travelled with the taxi driver and Jo travelled with my Dad, the two miles to the car park at Ballachullish. Dad had tried to pursued the taxi driver to take us up as far as the school but he was unwilling to run the gauntlet of the Glen Coe mums on the school-run (and I suggested that an additional 300m in a vehicle was a rather negligible distance compared to the traverse of the Ballachullish Horseshoe that we were planning.)20140624-000320-200168.jpg

Beinn a’ Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, towers over the entrance to Loch Leven, its vast granite west flank dominating the skyline from Cuil Bay. The rounded shoulders of the great mountain rise from sea level up to two munros, Sgorr Dhearg at 1024m and Sgorr Dhonill (1001m) linked by a great ridge. The geology of the mountain changes very distinctly between the two main summits – the east is quartzite, a hard, white metamorphic rock and this forms a delicate, white curving sharp ridge with steep scree slopes falling into the corrie below. The west mountain is granite, warm, red and rounded and forming a pile of scrambly blocks and boulders rising up from the ridge to the summit and then a wide lumpy and knobbly plateau with high level lochans. It would have been tricky terrain to navigate if the cloud had come in.20140623-234241-85361762.jpg

As this was the last day of our walk from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay we took the most linear route over the mountain. Most people walk the horseshoe from South Ballachullish to start and finish at the same spot, but we set off from the field just south of Ballachullish primary school and headed through a field of sheep, over a fence and into a trackless and near vertical bog. There was lovely cotton grass, and sweet smelling bog myrtle but there was no path.

I had been planning this walk since last summer and this wasn’t my route of choice. I had planned to ascend the beautiful steep and scrambley ridge that starts a bit further south of the primary school and rises almost directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhearg but my dad had other plans. He had been on the internet, he had printed out detailed maps on matt photographic paper (I’d recommend this actually). He had gadgets and he had annotated his map with GPS grid references on the line of best route, in case of poor visibility.

And so we went with his route.

We fought onward up the ever steepening heather and bog myrtle slope, me rapidly losing my sense of humour and wondering why one of the most popular mountains in Scotland speared to have no path up it whatsoever. Fortunately, just before we had a family crisis, Jo found the path, cutting across the slope above us and all was saved.

Once on the path the ascent was superb taking us onto the skyline giving fabulous views inland to the mountains of Glen Coe and the Mamores and westward out over Loch Linnhe and into Morven and Ardgour. Dad is a botanist and enriched the walk with talk of alpine plants (even though the mountain didn’t have some of the species he was hoping for). As we reached a wide part of the ridge at around 550m we came across an area of tiny, and entirely flat juniper bushes, growing to an altitude of only 2cms. I learnt a few other plants too – alpine ladies mantle was all over the place and, once the geology changed from quartzite to granite, so did the botany. There were little patches of fern growing between granite rocks which has the curled appearance of parsley, and indeed, this was the parsley fern.20140623-234817-85697858.jpg

At one point on the ridge dad disappeared over a precarious cliff perched over the top of a vertiginous scree slope. I scurried to the edge to check he was alright and found him bent over a patch of tiny white flowers. Starry saxifrage apparently. Other botanical highlights were the dwarf campion, and the exquisite dwarf cornell.20140623-234651-85611462.jpg

We wandered over the knobbly granite landscape until we came across a surprisingly large lochan at 750m altitude (obligatory swim) and then about a kilometre further on we started down the steep hillside, following dad’s carefully laid out trail of marked GPS locations, leading directly to the treasure of the Holly Tree Inn. It was here that the real botanical highlight of the day came. A celebratory, end-of-six-day-walk Gin and Tonic made with the wonderful Botanist gin from Bruichladdich Distilery on Islay.

I borrowed the gin bottle from behind the bar for a Botanist playoff. Could dad tell us the common names of all the ingredients embossed on the glass bottle in Latin?

Of course he could! (and I even knew a couple of them too)20140623-235045-85845213.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4: Traverse of the Black Mount: the snack mountain

20140622-224330-81810806.jpgI really have planned this walk to within an inch of its life. And, so far most things have gone to plan. Every night’s accomodation was booked, arrival and departure times of every bus and train to bring companions to join me was noted, routes planned, and baggage booked into a company that transport luggage for West Highland Way walkers.

However the weak point was always going to be Day Five. We’d need to leave Glencoe ski centre for a traverse of the Aonach Eagach before the cafe opened at 9am and with no chance of a packed lunch.

Food planning is always quite high on the priorities. I had evening meals and packed lunches booked and we had ‘the snack stash’ a mountain of goodies a couple of feet high (and the main reason for needing to book the baggage transport in the first place.)

I have recently come to the conclusion that hill walking (once you have a basic fitness level) is mainly about the snacks and the psychology and not at all about fitness. Continue reading

Day 3: Sunburn, a Saunter and Soil risotto

20140617-225225-82345706.jpgOur rest day on the birthday walk has been to take the West Highland Way from Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy. After day one of unrelenting bog and drizzle and day two of Munros in the blazing sun, each day finished and preceded by vast amounts of food and wine, this was to be a rest from route finding, uphill slog and wet feet but also a rest from overindulgence. No wine at all today. No late night, and certainly no prosecco chilled in a snowdrift. We need to prepare physically and mentally for the towering task looming ahead (literally looming over me as I write this on the remarkably midge free banks of the river orchy). Continue reading

Day 2: Ben Tulaichean – Overindulgence and Overexertion

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I suppose it was my plan in the first place.

A walk across part of Scotland, taking in some of the hills I’d like to climb and one of the hotels I’d really like to visit.

It sounds lovely but wrenching oneself away from the white sheets and white paneled walls of ones room (steam room included) at Monacyle Mhor hotel is almost as big a feat of self will as climbing the subsequent two Munros. Add in the wine consumed, the gin sipped and the heat of the sun inviting a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, and you have a bitter internal conflict to contend with.

However, it was my idea and we did have a bottle of prosecco secreted in the rucksac, and so, off we went. Continue reading

Ten reasons why we love holidaying in the West Highlands (even when it rains)

20140409-110902.jpg1. Weather.

You might have heard that the weather in the West Highlands isn’t always balmy, sunny and dry. The weather forecast prior to our current Easter at a rented house suggested that we were due for more than our fair share of rain. But did this put us off?

Of course not. Because this is part of the attraction: you never know what the day will hold. No matter what the weather forecast says, you will get some sun, some showers, some wind to dry you off and you will get some picturesque clouds and stunning light.

The quality of the light is special in the west Highlands: bright sunshine slanting in from under clouds to flood the golden mountainsides with light. Weather is a spectator sport. Find a window seat, look out at the mountains reflected in the loch, and wait for the weather to start the show.

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It might be pouring with rain, but the light is like a Landseer oil painting: Eileen Donan Castle from Letterfern (spot the rainbow)

2. Waterfalls

Due to the West Highland weather, particularly, it seems, on this holiday, there is always water aplenty rushing down the mountains. White ribbons of water flow down every hillside, braiding around rocks and heather. Almost everywhere are waterfalls, from the small, to the mighty. Gorges with rowans clinging to the side and leaning into the spray are where you will find a miniature forest of incredible lichens, mosses and ferns. Smoothed rocks for basking on during a dry summer day, transform into torrents of wild water after a night of rain.

3. Watersports

We used the rain to advantage the last couple of days to explore the burns flowing down the hill behind the house. An ordinary burn is made extraordinary once you step into it and start to follow the course of the water, scrambling over mossy boulders, balancing along dead trees washed down and wedged across the stream and ducking under tree branches growing over the vertiginous bank. Mosses and lichens cover everything and it felt like we were the first people to discover this lost world.

We were out with six children aged between 6 and 11, and it became a real adventure for all of us, helping the children up little waterfalls and bigger waterfalls, until we were halted by a 10m long chute of water. It’s not usually the children begging to go on while the adults suggest a retreat to the house for tea, but this time the kids dragged us onto the bank and around the obstacle to continue the adventure.

They returned today to conquer the waterfall, with ropes and harnesses, and every child climbed through the rushing torrent, made it to the top and declared themselves victorious.

4. Wetsuits with Wellies (and waterproofs)

Wetsuits, wellies and waterproofs are the essential outfit for kids on holiday in the west highlands. They were all dressed like that for the 20140408-233403.jpggorge ascent. A friend introduced us to this stylish and functional holiday wear on another Easter holiday: wetsuits to keep warm, waterproofs to keep off the wind, and wellies. Children will be happy on the beach all day dressed like this. As the maxim says ‘there is no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing’.

5. Wildlife

There are a few species that everyone wants to see: I am always looking out for eagles. I know there should be white tailed eagles around and I am hoping to see a golden eagle. It wasn’t too far from here, when climbing a ridge, a golden eagle appeared just below me, rising on the up-draft.  For a few moments, it was only a few wing-spans from me and then suddenly banked, soaring out of sight over the ridge.

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unfortunately in a glass case in the house, haven’t seen the real thing yet this holiday.

6. Walks

Isn’t north west Scotland just the very best place for walking? I love low level coast and loch-side walks, but I especially love the mountains, I never get bored in the mountains. Not least because weather and conditions make every walk one-of-a-kind.

While the children were ascending the waterfall, I took the chance to get into the mountains. We were rained on (a bit) we were blown on (which dried us out) and we had a constantly changing vista as clouds passed, drew in, and then parted.

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Cloud and light on our walk up Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais in Kintail

7. Wilderness

We climbed up over a bealloch (coll) along a path that was once used by soldiers and those droving their cattle. It was high, around 700m at the top, but we were surrounded by higher mountains. We met no-one all day, and we looked over into a glen, completely remote. If we had carried on walking down the glen and southwards we would have reached Knoydart, the largest area of uninhabited land, wild land, in Britain.

On the second day of the trip,  we visited Sandaig, the site where Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bight Water. It is a deserted place, the house is gone and two monuments, one to Maxwell and one to Edal the otter, bear testament to the lives that were lived in that place. It certainly felt wild, with a derelict cottage and an expanse of rock, sand, shingle and sea. 20140409-105021.jpgThe poignant air of the place brought to life in the book, now deserted, reminded me that most of the wild glens, and coasts of the West Highlands, places that we now call wilderness, were once filled with dwellings. Thousands of people living off the land, with homes by lochs and in the glens, and sheilings where, in the summer, women and children stayed with the cattle at the high pastures.

The house we are staying in has a few ancient browning photographs of blackhouse settlements on the walls. The houses are made of woven hurdles and stone and thatched with heather.  In one photo a group of children, barefoot  and dirty, stand with their mother at the door to the house. I think I recognise the place as just around the cost from here. There is nothing left there now but stones.

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A photo on the wall of the house we are staying in shows some of the communities in areas of the coastline now deserted.

8. White-Water crossings.

Because the West 20140408-233205.jpgHighlands are wild, and untamed there isn’t always a bridge to hand, even on marked paths. This isn’t strictly something that I love about the West Highlands, but I crossed a freezing and rocky mountain burn today, in bare feet to keep my boots and socks dry.  It was very sore and there were patches of snow on the ground, and I am proud of it, so I thought I’d put it in….

9. Warming up

Part of the joy of the wild, the wet and the windy is the warming up at the end. After the day at Sandaig we clustered wet-suited and wet children round a driftwood fire and they toasted themselves and their marshmallows.blog warming up west highlands

10. Whisky

Obviously, good for warming you up, especially in front of a wood-burning stove. And also, as I have found out, good for cooling down. On our second night I was tasked with the communal meal and made whisky and honey ice cream. Having forgotten the key ingredient I borrowed some from the bottles brought by my friends and so discovered my two favourite flavours of ice-cream: Talisker and Highland Park.

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Monument to Edal, the otter of Ring of Bright Water at Sandaig. ‘Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature’

 

 

 

 

Swiss Survival Guide Part 4: Be a bit more Swiss if you want to get on the pistes early

Everyone wants to make that first beautiful run down: snaking tracks down the newly-groomed pistes. But, given my recent(ish) experiences, I think that I need to work on cultivating my inner Swiss before I try again.

On the third day of the holiday I determined to carve some new tracks in the snow and rose before everyone else, pulled on gear, gulped down a breakfast, donned boots, picked up skis from the boot-room and was off. The walk takes about 10 minutes on a rising gradient but when I reached the slope to ski down to the lift I found that my boots had shrunk and were far too small to fit the bindings.

I had brought the wrong skis.

Quick back to the flat.
Quick hobble in ski boots down an icy road past the reams of folk now emerging to head to the slopes.
Arrive at lift at exactly the time I would have done without all the extra effort.

Next day I tried again, this time heading out even earlier. I shuffled to the ski slope in double-quick time, but before I could feel smug I realized that I had dropped one of my mittens on the way so had to trot back and found it lying in the road nearly back at the flat. ‘Oh well, still ahead of the pack’, I thought, and set off, once again, to the slopes. This time I found that, again, my boots wouldn’t clip into my skis. ‘But I definitely have the right skis’ I wailed to a group of teenage snowboarders who had been observing me hurry backwards and forwards… I had the wrong boots! I dragged myself and the pair of boots belonging to someone I was hoping hadn’t needed them in the past 20 minutes, back to the flat. On my second walk back to the flat I passed the rest of my party heading to the slopes with a leisurely breakfast in their tummies and a set of self-satisfied looks on their faces. I can’t say that a vision of the Hare and the tortoise didn’t swim before my eyes.

You might think that I would be annoyed at this experience but in fact I was rather delighted to find that the ex-rental boots that I bought for £5 in Aviemore in 2009 were pretty-much indistinguishable (at least to my eyes) from a pair used by an actual Swiss person in St Moritz. And there’s nothing like knowing that, for the price of a coffee in a mountain cafe, I have at least as good a pair of boots as anyone….

Spot the difference:
I admit one is purple and one gray, but in the dim morning light with eyes fogged with sleep, it’s surely an understandable mistake. The skis less-so, the ones I carted out were utterly different and 30cm longer than mine

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Chocolate orange fudge icing

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I am quite proud of the chocolate orange cake I just made for my daughter’s birthday.

Well, to be more honest, my daughter made the cake, and I just made the icing. But it is really lovely icing.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve based it on the choc cake from the typed sheets of basic survival recipes that my mum sent me off to university with. I’m not sure how often I made that cake at uni, but barely a month goes by now, when I don’t make it. This is the latest variation.

Ingredients:
1.5 oz of caster sugar
4 table-spoons of water
2.25 oz of butter
4.5 oz of icing sugar
1.5 oz of cocoa powder
Grated zest of one orange
4 segments chocolate orange

1. Sift together the icing sugar and cocoa powder
2. Heat the sugar, butter and water in a pan and bring to the boil.
3. Add the orange zest and pour over the icing sugar/cocoa mix
4. Beat with a whisk until smooth. If it is too dry, add another tablespoon of boiling water, or two.
5. Stir in the chocolate orange segments until melted
5. Wait for the icing to cool a little so it can be spread onto the cake
6. Use the remaining chocolate orange segments for decoration.

As for a cake to spread the icing on (I used my damson jam spread between the two layers of cake with the icing on the top and sides) ….
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Ingredients
6 oz butter
6 oz sugar
3 eggs
6 oz self raising flour
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp boiling water
Grated zest of one orange

1. Cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy.
2. Add the eggs one at a time and beat
3. Mix the boiling water with the cocoa powder in a mug until smooth and add to the mixture
4. Sift flour into the mixture and fold, add the vanilla essence and orange zest.
5. Bake in two round tins at 180deg for about 20 mins.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 3: The Swiss don’t ski in total white out conditions

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When the cloud is down and the snow is falling you’ll be alone out there on the slopes with the other Brits (and they’ll probably be a few Germans and Poles ricocheting about too)

This is obviously a good thing, especially if you can use as your reference point a day on a Scottish mountain. Even the windiest lift-shutting blizzard in the alps pales into insignificance against the raging hurricane that is a normal day at Glen Shee. All those pomas and t-bars seem immune to wind, perhaps that’s why they have so many of them in Scotland and not just to test the endurance of your thigh muscles.

We had a couple of white-out blizzard days. The only reference points for the vertical were the piste markers, and the other skiers (well the few that were still upright). At one point, while showing a lost skier back to her route, expert Swiss skier hubby somehow mistook the poles marking the left-hand-side of the run, for poles marking the right hand side and shot off into the deep snow that had settled in a wee burn. It’s not that often I get a chance for a hysteric belly-laugh as my husband wallows about in neck-deep snow searching for his skis.

Had we been skiing in Scotland, this would be the best day out of the year: amazing snow conditions, wide slopes totally devoid of people, no lift queues, hardly any wind, and a total absence of rock and heather on the run. We felt like we were doing something real, an expedition, an adventure, something to be survived.

It also means that you will get a seat at the über-cool Raclette Stube where you will be able to make full use of those floor-ceiling windows to observe your ski sticks blowing over and rolling away down the mountain. There will also be none of the usual hip-crowd there which means your shabby Gore-tex and bobble-hat will look less out of place.

After all that, the tame, sunny, smooth perfect resort that returned the following day was almost a disappointment. I just can’t wait to get back to Glen Coe and test my rock and heather-avoidance skills.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 2: Don’t make a Noise

The Swiss might make their apartments of concrete with tile floors in all staircases, corridors and communal areas but this isn’t because the Swiss love to hear the sound of children’s singing/fighting/wailing echoed and amplified throughout their apartment blocks.

No it is not.

In Switzerland please be quiet. Not just on the stairs and communal areas, but please take care not to run out a bath after 9pm. It’s OK to run the bath, so long as you wait until after 8am to run out the water – God forbid that you run a dishwasher at night, and I am still unclear as to whether one can flush a loo in the evenings. I think once or twice is acceptable, just don’t go OTT. And hoovering is a complete no-no.

You won’t have to worry about the washing machine though. There will be a communal washing machine for all flats in the block in the basement which you will forget to book the necessary week in advance and so you will be washing your smalls in the bath. Just make sure that you don’t take the plug out after 9pm.

Swiss Survival Guide: Sharpen your elbows for the lift queue

This isn’t Aviemore or Glencoe where skiers form an orderly queue stretching far up the slope from the ski lift, shortening the already rather short run considerably. This isn’t where people say ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry for tripping you with my pole accidentally on purpose’ or where people would be horrified if you stepped all over the backs of their skis in the lift queue. On no, this is all out ski-lift war.

Try and find a person who looks like a ski-queue veteran, elbows sharpened, ski sticks at the ready, and stick by them, they will find the path of least resistance. Shuffle your ski tips into any gaps that open up, those that say ‘after you’ and ‘women and children first’ will be trampled.

I happen to prefer this method to the all-too-polite Scottish ski slope etiquette. One wonders how a Swiss would fare in a queue at Aviemore.

Swiss Survival Guide: This is where we start

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I am a regular visitor to Switzerland, being married to a swiss, and so when visiting, I occupy the privileged position of being able to observe the swiss at close quarters. I am now (almost) able to understand what is being said in swiss german after many years of my GCSE- level German being utterly useless in the face of the sing-song gobbledygook that is ‘Sweetzer Dooch’. A couple of years ago I thought things were looking up when, sitting on a plane leaving Amsterdam for Zurich I had a breakthrough.

‘Hey! I can understand everything that flight announcer is saying!’ I chirruped enthusiastically to my husband.
‘He’s speaking Dutch’ he replied dryly.

Anyway, I do, mostly, get the gist of what’s being said, (especially if I already know what they are talking about) and I’m pretty good in the emphatic tense as applied to kids:
‘Get dressed!’ (Aar-lekke) ‘Get your shoes on!’ (Lek deenie shua ah) ‘Sit down’ (ab sitze) ‘Eat your dinner’ (is deeser snacht) ‘Go to bed (gang ins bet)

The spelling appears to be mostly arbitrary in Swiss German, as they use High German for written documents, so I feel justified in using my own form of phonetic written Swiss here, I hope you are saying each phrase out loud to yourselves, don’t they sound funny?

We regularly visit the same places each year and each visit I feel a little like an amateur anthropologist, trying to understand Swiss people and Swiss culture, and trying to fit somewhat into a place so utterly alien from the comfortable chaos of life in Scotland.

I thought I should write a few observations of Switzerland and the Swiss to help me get through the visits. In the spirit of ‘if you can’t laugh, you’d just cry’. It might also act as a bit of a survivors’ guide to visiting Switzerland.

I hope you enjoy….

Swiss Survival Guide part 1: ‘HOW Much??!!’

After many years of fretting about the cost of buying anything at all in Switzerland from the smallest postcard to the shopping for a week, I now realise that things get much easier once you reach a state of acceptance I call ‘wallet zen’. When you reach this state, rather than coming to every transaction with a rising blood pressure and an impending sense of doom, you can just open your wallet and say ‘Really, just take it all, I have no need of it’

It is almost impossible to overestimate how much things are going to cost you in Switzerland. So here are a few survival pointers:

1. Food
A couple of years ago we met up with my parents in Switzerland and my mum kindly made a meal for 10: her usual speciality- a beef stew with baked potatoes. It was very delicious and warming after a day in the snow, but the constant refrain during the meal, and indeed the rest of the holiday, stays with me to this day.

“Do you know how much this stewing steak cost? FOURTY FIVE POUNDS! thats £45, not 45 Swiss Francs….. and that was just the steak!”

But panic not! there is a solution. All traditional Swiss food seems to be based on a theme of starch and cheese, with a bit of cured meat if you are lucky. This is presumably because it was not so long ago that the very smartly besuited and be-booted Swiss were all peasants, living off their höflies (pron. herflees – meaning little farms).

So if you stick with tradition you can eat pretty much as cheep as you can get in Switzerland (so long as you don’t eat up in a mountain restaurant where your fondue will cost you £45 – and that’s per person…)

So here’s my survival guide menu for a week in the mountains:

Day 1: Rosti and fried egg
Rosti (pronounced Rer-shti) is grated potato fried in a pan. It’s the authentic Swiss egg and chips

Day 2: Pizzocheri
This is stodgy buckwheat pasta with boiled potatoes, sage and cheese.

Day 3: Spazeli and fleishkäse
This is egg pasta fried in a pan with something rather like sliced spam (though I would recommend to eat spazeli with baked ham but that’s less the budget option)

Day 4: Fondue
Melt three cheeses (a good melter like Raclette or vachrain, a tasty one like Appenzeller or mature gruyere/comté, and a bulk one like a milder gruyere or cheddar) with lots of white wine, add kirsch, nutmeg, pepper and then fight the folks sitting either side of you with long pointy forks to get your fait share.

Day 5: Käseschnitte
This is the leftover bread from the fondue in the base of a casserole soaked in white wine with the leftover fondue mixture on the top. Then you bake it in the oven – yum!

Day 5: Raclette
This is basically melted cheese on potatoes with some picketed gherkins and onions.

Day 6 : Mac cheese.
An obvious mainstay if we are talking starch/cheese combos. With some chopped ham mixed with the cheese sauce. The Swiss will have a fancy name for it but it escapes me.

It will still be expensive, but perhaps not quite so crippling on the wallet. The food expense doesn’t help that there is a pretty effective duopoly of supermarkets in Switzerland (co-op/migro) and that there aren’t many independent food shops to speak of but you might be lucky and come across one of the excellent farm gate stalls or farmers’ markets which can be cheaper. (Which will be the subject of another blog)

Things to do near Arrochar

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photo from trekkingbritain

I happen to be arranging a get-together in Arrochar and so here’s my I’ve list of things I’d like to do if I had a bit of free time in the area. I hope you like them too.

1. Hill Walking
The Arrochar Alps offer superb walking with the Cobbler, Ben Ime and Ben Narnain all accessible from the village itself. A drive up to the aptly named Rest and be Thankful, the pass at the head of Glen Croe, gives access to further spectacular mountains.
Ben Donich is only a 90 minute walk to the top and has unparelled views to the Clyde and beyond. And there’s a fabulous ridge walk on Beinn an Lochain

2. Boat Trips and a walk on the wild side
Cruise Loch Lomond have a number of boat trips around the loch. From Tarbert you can take a boat to Inversnaid and walk through the wild and beautiful atlantic oak forests of the RSPB reserve, or take the boat to Rowardenan and walk one of the loveliest sections of the West Highland way north to Inversnaid for the return boat. There are numerous other options on the boat-trip including an RSPB cruise and guided walk every Tuesday April-Oct (which I can personally recommend!) 20131018-001430.jpg

3. Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Fyne Ales and Ardkinglas forest garden
A drive over the Rest and be Thankful and down the other side takes you to the small community of Cairndow and the beautiful Ardkinglas woodland garden There lies the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, which has the dubious claim to fame of being the site of the notorious agreement between Blair and Brown, but also does a fabulously good value ‘Bradan Rost trimmings’ along with a lot of expensive goodies. The brewery is open seven days a week and does tours and tastings. On the same site there is also a tree nursery run by Ardkinglas woodland garden with a tea-room.

4. A visit to Inveraray
Too picturesque for words with a castle, historic jail, a tall ship with the fabulous name ‘ArcticPenguin’ (no longer open to the public unfortunately) and rows of whitewashed Georgian houses. We love fish and chips on the pier and watching children catching crabs with bits of bacon rind. But there’s also a good cafe ‘Brambles’ and there’s always the George Hotel for a salubrious evening meal. The best thing of all, though, is the fabulous Inverary Jail. Especially if you go there on a day when they have actors all dressed up as jailers. The castle, though interesting, is expensive and small, but I would recommend the beautiful and steep walk up to the folly, no one will charge you for that and the views are priceless. 20131018-000215.jpg

5. Cycling
There are quite a few off road cycle paths around. You can
cycle all the way to Balloch (16 miles) along Loch Lomond side, or you can take the Three Lochs Way to Helensburgh and Gareloch head (where you can return by train if you time it expertly). In the woods between Arrochar and Ardgarten there are marked cycle routes: five and seven mile loops and a 20 mile circuit of the peninsular.

Eight Steps to Wild Thing Nirvana

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In a couple of weeks ‘Project Wild Thing‘ will be launched. It’s a film documenting one man’s attempt to get his kids to play outside and thus inspire a nation that would rather be on their X-boxes than out in the woods getting muddy.

So it’s fitting that we’ve had a weekend of living the Wild Thing dream.

I’ve written before of the challenges I’ve had getting my own offspring to venture forth into the wide and wild open. So it is with great joy that I can document here, with delighted smugness, the kind of weekend that would make a Guardian lifestyle features editor drool.

So here are my very own 8 steps to Wild Thing Nirvana.

Step One: Find your spot
Obviously this can be anywhere – park, woodland or wild place, but we happened to be on a raised beach surrounded by hazel and birch woodland on the shore of a Scottish loch. And the weather was OK.

Step Two: A wild swim.
After a long, hot walk-in, the sea was startlingly cold. Daughter managed a few strokes then stood waist-deep looking for sealife in the weed. Ignoring the pain of constricting capillaries in the extremities I paddled frantically until a warm glow started to spread over my body. Slowing to a more stately neck-out breast stroke, I parted the seaweed clad in an invincible tingling aura. Anyway I think the aura was from the cold water, it could have been from the smugness.

Step Three: A wild swing
A sure-fire way of warming up, the kids sailed out over the 20ft drop and nearly into the branches of the (hopefully sturdy) oak tree. Fighting over whose turn it was must have been warming too.

Step Four: Make a den and have a picnic
Absolutely standard fare for being a Wild Thing. Our den was built with the help of a length of blue fishing rope found on the beach and some twigs from the woods. It was a pretty good lunch spot and we plucked a few trefoils of wood sorrel to have in our sandwiches.

Step Five: Watch the sunset.
Sitting still and watching anything for more than one minute is not something that myself and my older daughter have ever managed before. Sitting on the beach together, listening to the sea and watching the colours of the sky change was actually a very special experience. However soon the urge to shout out bizarre names for the cloud formations became overwhelming and the spell was broken. ‘half chicken half worm!’
‘A horse wearing deely-boppers’
‘Pig’s head on a skeleton’

Step Six: Star gazing
In the uncharacteristically warm late September evening we sat outside and watched the constellations gradually appear. We also happened to be listening to radio 3 and a performance of Tintagel by Arnold Bax, which is obviously too pretentious for words but daughter wanted a soundtrack and this was the only one we could agree on. In any case, it suited the occasion, the lapping of the waves on the beach and the wind in the grass.

This is where a bit of that evil screen-time hugely increased our enjoyment of the experience. The wonderful Night Sky app showed us the names of the constellations and significant stars and satellites. We even saw a few shooting stars.

Step Seven: Phosphorescence

I’ve only experienced phosphorescence once before and it was under similar conditions: a warm autumn night after a long hot summer. We wandered down to the water’s edge, splashed our hands and, sure enough, a few sparks of phosphorescence shot into the dark and disappeared. It took a lot of splashing for a couple of sparks but, what magic sparks they were.

Step Eight: Sleep out under the stars.
This is obviously the absolute pinnacle of Wild Thing achievement. It wasn’t really something we intended but the idea had started germinating last week when I received an email telling me that someone had sponsored me to sleep out in my garden.

This wasn’t a phishing scam from a criminal gang-turned environmental education collective. It was related to a test page I set up on JustGiving while organising the RSPB Big Wild Sleepout in August. Somehow, someone had tracked down my page and felt moved to sponsor me, but they hadn’t left any contact details, leaving me in a bit of a dilemma.

I was fretting about the morality of being unable to contact my benefactor to tell them I was a fraud when the inevitability of a night out au naturel dawned.

We dragged camp beds and sleeping bags down to the beach – daughter categorically banned me from taking an actual bed and mattress down. I had planned to just lie and look at the stars and listen to the waves for a while but almost immediately we were both asleep.

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We didn’t manage a whole night though. The night sky had rotated around the North Star by about 60 degrees when I was awoken by a frozen cold daughter and we sprinted back into relative warmth.

So, I hope that puts my sponsorship dilemma to bed so I can sleep at night again (sorry couldn’t resist). Next year I think I’ll go the whole hog and get properly sponsored for a proper sleepout.

I think the world is ready for Disco-ceilidh

Postscript: I now have a dedicated website for Disco Ceilidh www.DiscoCeilidh.net

I’ve been spending a few spare moments recently puzzling out what disco tunes would go with which ceilidh dances. It must be one of the things that you can’t find on the internet (I did try) so you’ll be pleased to know that I am adding to that fabulous open source project by documenting my findings here ….

In choosing these tunes I have considered tempo, how the pattern of the dance matches the tune, and boogie-value.

These have not been definitively tested yet so bear with me, I’ll update once I have rounded up some experimental dancers ….

Gay Gordons
American Boy – Estelle 118 bpm

Dashing White Sergeant

Disco Inferno – The Trammps 128 bpm
I’m sexy and I know it – LMFAO
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Canadian Barndance
Dancing in the Moonlight – Toploader 124 bpm

Circassian Circle
Up all night to get lucky – Daft Punk 130 bpm?
Works especially well with a bit of a disco conga instead of the promenade.

St Bernard’s Waltz
Perfect Day – Lou Reed
The times are changing – Simon and Garfunkle

Virginia Reel
Car wash – Rose Royce but think I’ll go with the Christina Aguillera version from Shark Tale (with a tweak to the dance itself)

Strip the Willow
I am convinced that Born Slippy (140-145bpm) – by Underworld will make a fabulous Strip the Willow but I will need to try it out with a full set of dancers to see how it works ….

The background to this eccentric exercise is that I am a novice caller in a ceilidh band. It’s a band made up of parents from the school, formed by a note I sent round via school bag post, seeking a group to play local, family-friendly ceilidhs for fun. We soon assembled a full team, but no-one stepped forward to do the calling. So after a few web-searches and a bit of a brass-neck, I’m exploring a whole
new world.

In getting to know the dances, it’s been fun working out which tunes would suit which dance. And now I’m thinking of having half a traditional ceilidh set and half a disco set when we play. That way the band will get a chance to party too!

This is sooooo the next Zumba.

Post Script
The very first disco ceilidh was a barn-storming success and so I’m setting out in business – check out DiscoCeilidh.net for all the news.

Naming the animals: the key to happiness and saving the planet

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mini cuttlefish love

I’ve just spent a very happy evening with a couple of field guides to the seashore and the internet. I’d forgotten how fun a spot of low water fishing is. It’s something we were always taken to do on our childhood summer holidays on the costa del English Channel but it’s an activity I have sorely neglected over the past quarter century (unless you include a freezing cold undergrad field trip from which I retain my only remaining knowledge of littoral ecology: Ascophillim nodosum, and Fucus serratus – seaweed to the likes of you and me)

But now I’m back walking miles out on the exposed shore, next stop France, making childhood memories with my own children. Despite considering myself a zoologist (of sorts) I was all at sea with this task of identification. Here were creatures (some probably aren’t strictly even creatures ) with a bewildering variety of body plans and phylogenetic weirdness, in contrast to the rather conventional stuff that I’m used to (ie vertebrates, namely birds).

We caught all the usual stuff: prawns, crabs, and fish of all kinds: baby pollack, gobies and little tiny flatfish, invisible against the sand, but which flapped tickling around our feet as we walked through the shallows.20130728-134649.jpg

But my favorite was a darling cuttlefish in miniature (Sepiola  atlantica) caught by my daughter in a limpet shell. There it sat with enormous eyes and sporting a lovely leopard print design which rapidly changed to a deep purple when rudely prodded by its captor. When we put it back in the sandy pool it shoogled itself down into the sand and left nothing but a pair of eyes showing.

We also caught a straight-nosed pipefish (Nerophis ophidion) – that cross between a sea-horse and a bootlace, hanging out among the long brown strands of Chorda filum seaweed.

A brown blob covered with exquisitely beautiful yellow stars caused some consternation during my battle with the field guides and I have, at last, identified it as an Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri), a colony of tiny sea-squirts. Improbably the larvae of this colonial blob, which resemble little tadpoles, are thought to be what gave rise to the very first vertebrates. I unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of this distant relative for the family album as it was lost in the excitement of clearing a bucket for the cuttlefish.

We also found a pale hairy lozenge, around 10cm long which must have been a long dead and bleached sea mouse – Aphrodite aculeata – a seriously weird kind of worm

And an orange spongy thing with a structure a bit like a brain, or a tightly wrapped intestine, remains completely unidentified as it, too, was lost in the scramble to contain the cuttlefish.

The weirdest was a blob of transparent jelly, roughly cylindrical and attached to the sand with a kind of stalk. It appeared to have absolutely no internal structure at all so I ruled out the usual IDs the Internet offers for blobs of jelly on a beach – comb jellies, jellyfish or sea squirts. However I did read a passing reference in a website about bait digging, that there is a ragworm which catches its prey using a transparent jelly-like net….. I wonder.

All this is grist to the mill of my recent ponderings about people’s connection with the natural world around them. I have been asking myself whether the ability to name a species (or in this case find out their names with a great deal of effort), adds to the pleasure of experiencing nature. Do people who can name the trees they pass on the way to work, or the weeds growing from a wall, or the birds they hear in the morning gain more pleasure than those who pass them in blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the name of something are you less likely to even notice it is there?

I am wondering whether knowledge of the unconventional domestic arrangements of the dunnock, or that swift chicks go into torpor as their parents search for food for up to three days at a time adds to the experience of seeing another brown bird in the big city. I certainly believe that it adds a huge richness to my own experience of my immediate environment, whether in the city or at the seaside.

While I was scurrying about at low water looking under fronds of seaweed, my colleagues have been doing a bioblitz at a brand new reserve purchased as an extension to RSPB Inch marshes. Scores of them, with partners from BugLife and other NGOs were finding as many species as they could on the site from mushrooms to mites and from mammals to moths. This is both serious conservation, and training for staff, but it is also pleasure.

As Bob Dylan sang, quoting from its origin in Genesis, ‘man gave names to all the animals‘. It seems to me that humans really do have a drive to name the living things we share our planet with. And that, by knowing their names, and something about them, we increase our pleasure in our everyday encounters with nature and find a connection with it.

And if we start to notice more of nature around us, and take pleasure in it, won’t it be that little bit harder for it to be lost?

Postscript: if anyone out there knows what the orange spongy thing was, or the cylindrical jelly blob, please do put me out of my misery.

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I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know what this is. Could it be a rock goby?

Backing up my Blog

I wanted to backup my blog just in case, and have a copy that I could edit and print out too. After a bit of research I found out this really easy way to get my WordPress blog with all the pictures etc. into a word document. So I thought I’d better record it before I forget if I ever need to do it again.

1. In WordPress export the file:
Go to tools and click on Export. I just downloaded posts but you can download all content, or choose particular posts.

When its downloaded as an XML file, save it onto your computer.

2. Open the file in Blogbooker
Go to Blogbooker.com and download the file as a PDF by clicking on the type of blog, entering the location of the saved XML file and clicking on ‘create your blogbook’. Save the resulting PDF onto your computer.

3. Convert the PDF to word
I used www.pdfonline.com to convert the PDF to a word document.

Et voila!!

A private pool with a view

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A perfect clear sky has coincided with a complete lack of child-ferrying commitments and enough daylight hours after work for an escape to the hills.

I’m the only person on the mountain and it’s still roasting hot at eight o’clock. I know that, almost at the summit of this hill, is a still, black and perfectly oval pool ringed with sphagnum moss and cotton grass.

And there I shall stay, looking out at the mountains of the Arrochar Alps, over to Ben Lomond and down the Firth of Clyde as far as Arran, until the midges, or the gathering darkness chase me back to civilization.

Postscript:
The imagined pool can never live up to the reality, especially when you are slogging up a mountain in the blazing heat. The pool tuned out to be shallow, and the black peaty bottom had heated the water to the temperature of a baby’s bath, so there was none of that refreshing tingle and gasp as I got in.

However the view from Ben Donich is one of the best, with a path that takes you past some fantastic rock formations, so the walk itself was very much worth it. And I might have not made it to the top if I hadn’t been thinking about plunging into that pool.

Links
Access and route information from WalkHighland website.*
Ben Donich is a perfect mountain for a short day or an evening as the start at Rest and be Thankful is already at 200m. And added to that is that, despite the ease of access from Glasgow and all the delights of the mountain you hardly ever meet anyone on it.

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* PPS: on any mountain come suitably prepared with footwear and waterproofs and always bring a map and compass and know how to use them

Surprised by Nature in West Dunbartonshire

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What a picturesque place. Can you believe that it is directly under the carriageway of the Erskine Bridge?

With the summer holidays round the corner, the shackles of cubs, choir and other after school activities are being gradually loosened and I am starting to breathe a little easier.

One day last week I had no commitments to get the kids to and the sun was shining. We decided to have a bicycle adventure; a magical mystery tour. Continue reading

Enjoying the peace and quiet of Colonsay

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Colonsay might be touted as a place of quiet; peaceful and relaxing but we’ve been camping and I can testify that it is anything but.

Our tent has been pitched at the hostel, a stone lodge and a couple of bothies with the woodlands of Colonsay House to the north and sweeping views to Loch Fada over meadows of flowers to the south. At midnight, with a sky still bright enough to see, the incessant croak of the corncrake was accompanied by the ghostly kee-wick of the lapwing.

Continue reading

Fires and Wild Food: 10 things to do outdoors (part 1)

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There’s lots of things telling us that kids should get out more, that natural play is great and it will make our children happier and healthier. In fact I wrote an angst-filled blog about just that.

Here’s my top ten things to get kids outdoors and enjoying playing in the wild. Each of these items deserves a blog of its own, but until I get round to that, here they are (the first five). Continue reading

Making playing wild in nature natural

kids on beach 2Lately there seems to be more awareness of the need for children to have freedom, especially to play in nature, and the growing disconnect between children and nature. There was the Natural Childhood Report, and I’ve come across loads of articles, policy papers and the odd book aimed at showing the malaises that result from this generation’s separation from their environment.

I don’t need articles in colour supplements and reports by consortia of NGOs to have angst about my kids getting out to play – I already have it in spades.

Today I am fretting over a magazine article in the Guardian. Continue reading

A day out in Speyside

Apart from Cuil Bay, one of my very favourite places is Speyside. When I haven’t been there for a while I start pining for the ancient forests (‘scuse the pun), the wild hill-tops, the cake-shops and the reindeer.

It’s a great day-trip from Cuil, about 1.5 hours drive to Kingussie, and this trip we took in the Autumn gives an idea of my perfect day. Continue reading