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Book review: Scottish island bagging

There’s something definitely beguiling about islands, bringing to mind the swathes of history that have washed their shores.   As ‘places apart’ from the mainland they’re often distinguished by their distinctive natural environments and sites of special cultural and historical significance.  For outdoors folk of course, islands have an immediate appeal as places for adventure, challenge and exploration.

Scottish Island Bagging, the new book by Helen and Paul Webster who run the Walkhighlands website, brings all of these elements and more together into a fascinating guidebook that deserves to have a wide readership.

 

First impressions

At first glance the title of the book may put some people off.  At its worst, munro bagging is often associated with walkers burning up fossil fuels to ‘conquer’ an obscure peak, simply because it appears on a list defined by an arbitrary height definition.  So given the negative environmental connotations from this ‘honeypotting’ effect why would ‘bagging’ an island simply because it’s there appeal to anyone?

As they explain in the Introduction, the Websters acknowledge that “you may get a passion for it“.  It may even become an addiction.  But rather than get obsessed with list-ticking, the authors are pragmatic enough not to define precisely what constitutes an island, far less how many islands are accessible around Scotland’s coastline.  Instead, they leave it up to the reader to judge what ‘bagging’ an island might entail and how far their interest (or possibly obsession) might take them.

In contrast to the official list of munros (maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club), there’s no official list of ‘Websters’.  Instead, the authors highlight 99 offshore Scottish islands that are easily accessible by ferries, bridges, tidal causeways and boats, and another 55 which have no regular transport but are still of significant size or interest.  You’ll find well known islands such as Mull, Skye and Arran sitting alongside the less well known such as The Garvellachs and the Flannan Isles.  As far as I can tell the book doesn’t adopt any real method to selecting the 55 ‘less accessible’ islands.  Given it’s said there are 790 Scottish offshore islands the selection seems to be based on relative interest, ignoring the many skerries, islets, rocks and stacks that are of little interest to the visitor.

this book is as much about the journey as the final destination

Before you start getting out an atlas and plotting your escape the authors are quick to point out that many of Scotland’s islands are remote and undeveloped.  Largely devoid of much of the way of any infrastructure whatsoever, the only way to reach the 55 less accessible islands is by yacht, sea kayak or charter boat.  So this book is as much about the journey as the final destination.

 

An inspiring and tempting guidebook

Scottish Island Bagging is well laid out, structuring the locations into ten island groups from the Firth of Forth in the south to Shetland in the north.  Each section begins with a clear overview map that includes ferry routes, roads and sites of interest.  A ‘tick list’ of the 154 islands is provided at the back of the book, just in case you get the urge to calculate just how many you’ve already visited.  One minor quibble I have is that the islands in the Solway Firth are overlooked, including Hestan Island and the Isles of Fleet.  While admittedly this would have created one of the smaller chapters alongside the Islay, Jura and Colonsay section, I think this would have been a useful addition.  If nothing else, it would have created greater momentum to visit the Galloway coast, a part of Scotland often neglected.

 

 

But it would be wrong to simply view this book as a listing of selected islands around Scotland’s coast.  First and foremost it’s a book that sets out to inspire people to visit and experience some of Scotland’s far-flung gems.  In the same way that Cameron McNeish’s book The Munros re-presented the rather tedious Scottish Mountaineering Club’s hillwalkers’ guide of the same name into an inspiring coffee table book so Scottish Island Bagging brings a disparate range of visitor guides into a single, essential and accessible digest.  It stands out as the ‘go to’ point of reference for anyone interested in exploring what Scotland’s islands have to offer. 

Helen and Paul Webster are extremely knowledgeable guides for the journey of course.  In highlighting a range of the most appealing sites, activities, food and drink as well as historic and cultural experiences the authors draw on their extensive knowledge of Scotland’s outdoors.  Looking at some of the places I know reasonably well, it’s clear that the Websters have been selective in their choices, spotlighting some extremely tempting places and activities.  This is certainly not one of those generalist guide books that’s the product of lazy desk research and simply points visitors to the ‘usual places’; it encourages you to get off the tourist trail to explore new and different places.

 

 

What I really love about this book is the sumptuous photography from cover to cover.  It’s this imagery that really brings the book to life and inspires you to start planning an adventure.  The gorgeous mountain and seascapes leap out from the page and include many single and double page spreads.  From atmospheric cloudscapes to idyllic beach scenes and mountains draped in autumnal hues you can see why Paul Webster won the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year competition in 2018.

This is the kind of book where you can easily lose yourself for a couple of hours, finding inspiration for upcoming trips that hadn’t previously featured on your ‘to do’ list.

 

 

What I liked:

  • Excellently researched guidebook
  • Inspiring photography
  • Clear mapping
  • Well structured book – accessible and easy to navigate
  • In spite of the title, this is most definitely an authoritative guide book rather than a ‘tick list’

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • The book’s title!
  • A section on the islands off the Solway coast could have been included.

 

Scottish Island Bagging is available direct from Vertebrate Publishing and all good bookshops (RRP £17.99).

Note:  The book was provided to me to review for free by Vertebrate Publishing.  I have no connection with the authors or publishing company and have provided an honest and impartial review.

 

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Product review: Wraptie multifunctional straps

When you’ve been away hiking, camping or cycling you’ll know there are times when multipurpose straps are extremely useful.  Maybe you need to attach something to your pack?  Tie it down to stop it rattling or flapping in the wind?  Or secure your bike, skis or suitcase?  I’ve been putting the Wraptie multifunctional straps to the test to see if they really do provide a suitable alternative to bungees, rope and elastic.

First impressions

Wrapties have a wide range of potential applications for outdoors, general household and travel use.  They come in three lengths (130, 180 and 240cm) and are made from industrial-grade elasticated webbing.  The ingenious part is that each double-sided strap contains a series of hook-and-loop sections along its length, alternated with elasticated webbing.  One end of the strap can also be tied to form a grab handle.  This allows them to be fastened and stretched in very versatile ways – the permutations are almost endless.

Compared to bungees and other straps there are no hard, metal buckles or hooks that can scratch your valuable gear – it’s simply a case of wrapping and securing the Wraptie to fix it in place.  Wraptie claim that the straps can secure a load of up to 50kg.  I haven’t tested that claim but can vouch for the fact that the hook-and-loop system is strong, and is even stronger if you overlap the strap to make it doubly secure.

The straps are lightweight, a mere 43 grams each, which means that even an ultralight hiker can consider taking one along ‘just in case’.  When not in use they simply roll up into a neat, fist-size package to be easily stored, so no need for any frustrating disentangling before use as often happens with bungees or rope.

I really like the fact that they’re made from sustainable materials: each strap is made from the equivalent of one 500ml recycled plastic bottle.  Wraptie are committed to innovation to ensure that the plastics they use are reusable, recyclable or compostable, replacing single-use plastics such as duct tape or cling film.

All Wrapties come with a two-year warranty against faulty workmanship or materials.

 

Take a look at this short video from Wraptie that illustrates how they can be used:

 

On test

I’ve been testing out the 90cm version of the straps – or up to 180cm if two are secured together.  These were supplied to me direct from Wraptie – I see they’re not available for sale in the UK.  I found the 90cm version the perfect length for securing my tent to the rack on my bike.  The Wrapties looped through the rack and fastened tightly and easily, and were a doddle to remove.  Any ‘excess’ strap was easily wrapped around my tent.

 

 

On a wet and breezy backpacking weekend I tied two Wrapties together to ensure my rucsac raincover didn’t blow away.  (If you have one of these rucsac covers you’ll know they’re notorious for catching the wind like a sail and before you know it, it’s blown across the hillside never to be seen again). The raincover is a generic size and big enough for an 80 litre rucsac, far less my 45 litre pack, so the Wraptie did a great job of keeping it tight around my pack and stopped any flapping in the wind.

 

 

Two straps also fitted neatly around a small-sized suitcase.  If you’re the kind of traveller who stuffs their suitcase full to the brim, an external strap not only gives you the peace of mind to know that your suitcase won’t come open if the zip fails but it’s also a (reasonably) unique design that will stand out on the baggage carousel.  I adjusted the two straps to maximise the overlap between them and therefore, their strength.

 

 

And while a normal lead is the most conventional approach I did try out a Wraptie strap when taking my new puppy out for a walk!

 

Overview

I hadn’t come across Wrapties before and they offer a simple and effective alternative to bungees and rope.  There are no knots to tie, no buckles to fiddle with and no metal parts to scratch your expensive gear.  When stretched and taut they hold your items tightly together, and I found no evidence of them loosening their grip when in use.

Wraptie straps are extremely versatile and it’s well worth taking some time to find out how they can best be used.  The range of applications is probably limited by your own imagination since they can be used for almost anything that needs wrapping, securing or attaching.

What I liked:

  • Extremely versatile – multipurpose
  • Strong and tough design
  • No metal buckles, hooks or sharp corners to scratch your gear
  • No fiddly bits to disentangle before use
  • Lightweight and rolls away into a small pack
  • Manufactured from recycled materials
  • Distinctive colouring / label that stands out.  (Note that the straps for sale on the Wraptie UK website are also bright orange!)

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Fairly expensive when compared to rope and bungees.

 

You can buy Wrapties via their UK website.  I had a 90cm twinpack to test although I see these are not currently available in the UK.  Alternatively, the 130cm single sells for £14 (£26 twinpack), the 180cm single is £19 (£34 twinpack) and the 240cm single is £22 (£39 twinpack).

Note:  The Wrapties were provided to me to review for free by Wraptie in Australia.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

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Cycling the Hebridean Way – Part 2

Located 40 miles off the Scottish mainland in the North Atlantic Ocean, reminders of how different life is in the Outer Hebrides are never far away.  It’s often the place that feels the brunt of Atlantic storms, and experiences them first.  And with its big skies, low lying land and exposure to fierce westerlies, the weather has a huge impact on daily life.

On the second day of my Hebridean Way cycle ride I felt the influence of one of those North Atlantic lows.  While the whole of the rest of the UK was basking in the early stages of a July heatwave, here the clouds had arrived and were building throughout the day.  In spite of the strengthening wind, I made good time cycling from South Uist, across Benbecula and Grimsay to North Uist and Berneray.  Road surfaces were good and flat, and being Sunday the traffic was almost non-existent.  In fact, there were no excuses to stop.  Balivanich, the main settlement on Benbecula and home to the MOD base, was like a ghost town and not until I took an early lunch at the excellent cafe at Claddach Kirkibost did I find something actually open.

Causeway connecting South Uist to Benbecula

Piles of peat drying beside the roadside

I took a slight detour after Claddach Kirkibost along a back road that cuts the northwest corner of North Uist.  My interests in spotting birds at Balrananald RSPB reserve or catching a glimpse of St Kilda were much less than having the wind in my back for a good five mile stretch.  A steady climb took me over moorland where recent piles of cut peat were waiting to be collected.  At the bottom of a fast downhill I passed a restored Hebridean blackhouse at Sollas which would traditionally have used a peat fire.  These are buildings specifically designed to withstand extreme weather, constructed using a double-thickness stone wall filled with peat to provide insulation.  Nowadays, most restored blackhouses seem to be holiday houses, hostels or museums but there are remnants of unrestored blackhouses in many locations.

Blackhouse at Sollas, North Uist

Nearing Berneray I passed an iron age broch (fort), Dun an Sticir, which was first inhabited between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago.  The original circular stone building was constructed on an island in the middle of a loch.  It was occupied by the local chieftain, with walls 3.5 metres thick and connected to the bank and another loch-island by causeways.  At some point between the 9th and 13th Centuries a rectangular hall was built within the pre-existing, circular broch, indicating that it was once again the residence of an important local chief.

The broch at Dun an Sticir, North Uist

By 2pm, just as forecast, the strengthening winds were accompanied by steady rain.  Luckily, I’d just arrived at the Gatliff Hostel on Berneray, with the main building and annex both occupying blackhouses.  I’d originally planned to camp but with gale force winds due, it seemed a far more sensible idea to seek refuge in the hostel for a night.  As the winds whipped up white horses in the Sound of Harris just outside it proved an excellent plan.

It’s a basic hostel but having been without a shower, kettle and drying rack for the last couple of days I enjoyed the comparative luxury.  I also learned that for modern, 21st Century travellers, access to 240v electricity to power up various devices is a valuable commodity.  At hostels and cafes the beds and seats next to power sockets are always the most popular!

The Gatliff Trust hostel at Berneray

While the weather outside was wild and stormy, the company inside was warm and friendly.  I shared the hostel with an eclectic mix of travellers – cyclists, walkers, fishermen and sightseers – from various corners of the world.  Soon, the conversation spilled over into an impromptu gig as ‘Davie fae Fife’ got out his accordian and guitar, and regaled us with some traditional songs.  A couple of bottles of whisky were brought out to lubricate Davie, then shared around everyone to lubricate the conversation some more.  Then Davie took a few more drams, played a few more songs, drank a few more …  It turned out to be one of those memorable evenings!

The party in full swing!

While the gale force winds had subsided I cycled in the rain the next morning along to the ferry at Berneray, with the rain clouds passing by the time the ferry docked at Leverburgh.  But the clouds hung heavy over Harris that day and I just had to remind myself of the gorgeous turquoise-green seas and white sand beaches I’d seen along its western coast in previous trips.  Instead, the cloud base chopped of the top of Ceapabhal and the views were grey and muted.

For all that, it was a popular place.  The beachside campsite at Horgabost was much busier than the last time I stayed here over 20 years ago, when I think we were among just a few campers, and left a fiver in the honesty box the next morning.  There are more buildings these days too; several glass-fronted, architect-designed holiday homes with views to die for, and the modern arts and entertainment centre (Talla na Mara), run by the West Harris Trust.  The Trust has to be commended for the way it has managed over 7,000 hectares of land since 2010, helping to revitalise the community by attracting new residents and creating new housing and employment opportunities.  There’s a real sense of energy and purpose to the place, and the stopover facilities they’ve created for motorhomes and campervans at Talla na Mara are a model of kinds of aires that should exist right across Scotland.

Overlooking Horgabost

The beach at Luskentyre

I stopped for lunch at Tarbert, taking a well-earned breather between a big hill south of the town and an even steeper one to the north.  The steep pull north from Tarbert unfortunately just a case of just getting your head down and grinding up it.  Clisham, the Outer Hebrides’ highest mountain, was in the clouds today and for that matter, so was the main road.  This stretch of about 11 miles over higher ground soon led to a fast downhill, and I made good time across north Harris and on into Lewis.

Once I turned off the main road towards Callanish at 6pm the clouds darkened and started to close in once again.  Soon I was cycling into the rain – as well as a headwind.  By the time I arrived at Callanish I’d cycled 63 miles, the longest day of my trip.  All trips have a low point and for me, it was this final hour and a half: wet, tired and just looking forward to a meal at the Callanish visitor centre which was due to close at 8pm.  I figured it was far better to get a hot meal tonight and dry out a bit before hitting the sack.

I managed to quickly get my tent up, camping just near ‘Callanish 3’, one of the subsidiary stone circles.  However, the visitor centre had stopped serving meals at 7pm (not 7.30pm as I’d assumed) and I had to return to cook up a purely functional meal in my tent, stripping off my wet clothes first.  It was a stormy night with strong, gusty winds and showers.

Callanish 3 stone circle

I was the first customer in the visitor centre for a large coffee and bacon roll the next morning, then set off on my final 37 miles cycling to Ness with a fresh wind in my back.  On multi-day cycles I find my body lets my brain know what foods, vitamins and minerals it craves.  This morning I was desperate for a large glass of orange juice and the Carloway Hotel ticked that box perfectly.

I’ve personally never been a big fan of the flat, windswept moorland scenery of Lewis and wasn’t in the mood for stopping, so I made good time past Shawbost and Barvas, stopping for a drink and a chat with a couple on a tandem at the community centre just before Cross.  My plan was to take the W1 bus from Ness to Stornoway and put my bike into the luggage area underneath (I’d called up Galston Motors previously, who run the bus service, and found out this was possible).  However, I was faced with the choice of either taking an early bus from Ness around 2pm or cycling the short distance only to be able to say I’d got to the Butt of Lewis and having to wait around for the next bus.  The lure of my B&B at Stornoway was too much and I opted to have a bit more time to relax before my final day’s cycling.

With my wet tent and clothes draped around my room I enjoyed a meal out and a drink in Stornoway that evening.  I’d recommend Stornoway B&B: very welcoming, comfortable and bike-friendly.  Since I needed to take the first ferry to Ullapool at 7am the next morning they left out coffee, juice and cereals and even made me a packed lunch as well.  By 9.45am I was jostling in between other ferry traffic on the A835 on the way out of Ullapool.  It was the first time I’d seen a large cruise ship moored out in Loch Broom as clouds hung low beneath the hills.

On this final day my plan was to ride to Garve, pick up the train to Inverness and then change to another train home.  I’d pre-booked cycle reservations and was keen to get to Garve on time.  Time flew by (in spite of the steep pull up past the Corrieshalloch Gorge) and I soon stopped at the Aultguish Inn for a cooling drink.  The traffic was much faster along this road but most drivers were pretty courteous.  The train from Garve turned out to be delayed which meant I narrowly missed my connecting train at Inverness.  But in spite of not having a cycle reservation on the next train south I got a space and was able to finally relax.

Cruise ship in Loch Broom at Ullapool

With the sun beating down outside the train window I was able to take stock of my trip.  It was a fabulous ride which flew by quickly.  Although I’d focused on the cycling I’d still dipped into local history and culture, and shared conversation and whisky with numerous other cyclists and visitors.  And all under those big, Hebridean skies where for locals as well as visiting cyclists, the weather is such a dominating force over daily life.

 

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Cycling the Hebridean Way – Part 1

It’s a scene straight out of a remake of Whisky Galore.  As the last notes of the ceilidh band fade away the high-spirited locals spill out into the street, a glass in one hand and the other arm around their partner.  The hubbub gradually subsides as most people pile into a minibus to take them back to town, and as the impromptu car park is reclaimed by the machair.  The remnants – the party crowd – wander down to the beach to continue the socialising beside a large bonfire.  Only, in this 21st Century twist to the black-and-white film, instead of the ceilidh band striking up again on the beach while the whisky flows, a 300-watt amp blasts out Celt-pop tunes into the small hours.  So began the first night of my Hebridean Way adventure.

The Hebridean Way is both a cycling and walking route the length of the Western Isles from Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north.  Each of the two routes differs slightly although both savour the wildness and culture of these far-flung islands.  The cycling route is 185 miles long, straddling ten islands, six causeways and two ferries.

 

The southerly islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay

 

But to get to Vatersay I first had to take the train from Glasgow to Oban to pick up the ferry to Castlebay on Barra, followed by a 30-minute ride south.  As we neared Barra a pod of up to 30 dolphin played beside the boat, putting on a synchronised display.  The setting sun cast a deep yellow wash that silhouetted the outlying islands of Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray.

 

Sunset from Vatersay

 

In spite of the locals partying on the beach into the early hours I managed to sleep through it.  The early morning sun now lit up the tent, a crystal clear light that brought out nature’s brilliant colours: the green of the machair, the deep blue sky and sea, and the coral white of the beach.  The machair here is a carpet of wild flowers, kept fertile by cows and sheep grazing freely.  It makes for a soft bed as well as a unique natural environment.

 

Waking up on the beach at Vatersay

 

 

A welcoming beach

 

 

I retraced my steps, crossing Vatersay once again and passing the wreckage of a Calalina plane which came down on a training flight from Oban in May 1944.  While three were killed, six managed to survive the crash, and a memorial commemorates the accident.

Superb weather and light winds made today one of the highlights of the trip, and good roads with almost no traffic provided for great cycling.  There are some stunning views on the west coast of Barra over several deserted beaches near Borve.

Setting off from Vatersay

 

The wreckage of a Second World War plane, Vatersay

 

Borve on Barra

 

Barra

I took a short detour along the beach at Traigh Mhor to visit Barra’s famous airport.  Often named as one of the most stunning airport locations in the world, it’s the only commercial landing strip that’s actually located on a beach.  The tide was still going out when I visited and the next plane wasn’t therefore due for another hour.  There are few more idyllic spots to while away the time waiting for your plane.

 

Traigh Mhor, Barra

 

 

Barra Airport

 

Crystal clear water at Traigh Mhor, Barra

The first of the two ferries on the Hebridean Way took me from Barra to Eriskay and I think on that sunny Saturday there were at least as many bikes as vehicles.  A short climb leads to a great viewpoint looking back towards the harbour and over a turquoise sea to Barra beyond.  Eriskay is a tiny island with a compact group of houses in its centre, and boasting a pub (rare in the Western Isles) and a well-stocked shop.  It was my first time on the island; the last time I visited the causeway to Eriskay hadn’t been built and so was only accessible via ferry.  I had a picnic lunch sitting in the sun on the beach at Kilbride, watching people swimming and messing about in kayaks.

 

Bikes travel for free

 

Looking back at Barra from Eriskay

 

Looking to South Uist from Eriskay

 

Having lingered several times during the morning I picked up the pace now I was on South Uist.  It was easy cycling along quiet roads although I had quick rest stops at Daliburgh and at the Kildonan Museum cafe.  Here, the route is set back from the west coast and passes through grazing and farmland.  South Uist’s few hills also come into view on its eastern side, with Beinn Mhor (620m) the highest of the bunch.

I’d planned to camp at the Gatliff Hostel at Howmore that night but given the forecast rain the next day I decided to press on some more.  With 50 miles completed today, this left a shorter day to cycle the 44 miles to Berneray the following day.  I pitched just beside the beach on the headland near Carnan with just one nearby campervan for company.

 

Quiet roads on South Uist

 

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Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park

Last year the Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park was newly designated by the International Dark Sky Association.  Not only is it the darkest Dark Sky Park in the UK but it’s the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world.  I can’t wait to visit!

 

Copyright: David Newland

Once you’ve experienced a truly dark sky – one free of most light pollution – it sticks in your memory and soon becomes addictive.  Away from the scourge of street lighting, security lights and settlements a mind-blowing sea of constellations, planets and stars is on display.

The Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park occupies an area with very little light pollution at the centre of this satellite image, and is shielded from nearby settlements in Speyside and Deeside by surrounding hills. In comparison with urban areas which typically measure less than 18.0 mpsas (magnitudes per square arcsecond) and rural skies which are often 21.3 – 21.5 mpsas, the sky quality away from settlements in the Cairngorms Dark Sky Park measures 21.7 – 21.8 mpsas, just short of the darkest skies on earth at 22.0 mpsas.

The Cairngorms Dark Sky Park is one of five dark sky locations in Scotland and among 115 across the world.  The ‘gold tier’ award is the culmination of several years’ work by the volunteer-led Dark Skies Project to reduce light pollution and preserve the natural darkness of the night skies within The Glenlivet Estate and the Cairngorms National Park. Supported by the National Lottery funded Tomintoul & Glenlivet Landscape Partnership, the project has worked closely with distilleries, farms, Moray District Council and households to change outdoor lighting and reduce light pollution.

Copyright: Myrddin Irwin

The dark sky designation will bring benefits to wildlife (such as moths, birds and bats), will save energy and money, and will also help to boost astro-tourism in this part of Scotland.  It’s hoped that this initiative, spearheaded by the Cairngorms Astronomy Group, will bring amateur astronomers and photographers from far and wide to experience the jaw-dropping delights of the aurora, shooting stars and other stargazing experiences.

 

Copyright: David Newland

 

To learn more about the benefits of reducing light pollution take a look at this short six minute video, Losing the Dark.

You can get a great stargazing experience anywhere within the park but the three designated discovery sites on the map below perhaps offer the best views of the night sky.  There’s further information about the recommended viewing sites on the website and in the Dark Sky Park’s leaflet.  For dark sky visitors,  accommodation is also available locally that can provide you with telescopes,  guides and even stargazing tours of the night sky (check out Easter Corrie self-catering as well as the Tomintoul and Glenlivet accommodation pages).

 

 

 

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Escaping the crowds on Streap

A forecast of warm, dry weather while work had temporarily slowed down provided the perfect opportunity for a short break away.  Plan A was to go south to the Lake District but fully-booked campsites put pay to that idea.  So for Plan B I set my sights set on the white sand beaches of Morar and the Corbetts near Glenfinnan.

It seemed that a lot of folk had a similar idea, however.  A late Easter, unseasonably warm weather and Brexit-induced staycations meant that the roads were very busy.  The A82 up past Rannoch and Glen Coe was as busy as I’ve ever seen it in the height of summer.  And this is when you see some hair-raising sights: motorhomes trying to squeeze into laybys with their back ends still jutting out into the road, and buses pouring visitors out into a jam-packed Glen Coe car park to take a thousand selfies.

But fortunately, these busy bees were flocking only around a few popular honey pots.  By the time I’d pitched up in Arisaig I was one of the few people on the white sandy beach and as I was to find out the following day, fewer still were on the mountains.  Plan B was definitely preferable.

I stayed for the first time at Sunnyside Croft Campsite, just a stone’s throw from the beach at Arisaig.  It’s a well-run, purpose-built campsite with modern facilities and eco-friendly credentials.  It has everything you really need in a campsite and is well recommended. The only thing it seemed to lack though was a bit of atmosphere.  Most pitches are hard-standing and so it mainly caters for motorhomes and campervans, with only a few tents and families.

Just a short walk to the beach gave superb views out towards Eigg and Rum, and a great place for pottering about on the sand and in rock pools.

 

Bunacaimbe Beach, Arisaig

 

Bunacaimbe Beach, Arisaig

 

After several weeks of dry weather the ground was tinder-dry, and I passed several wild fires along the A830 between Lochailort and Mallaig.  Fire engines were in attendance but I suppose there was little they could do but watch.  Away from the main road this area is pretty remote, with certainly no access for fire engines.

 

 

Wildfire near Arisaig April 2019

 

Streap’s been on my list for a while now.  It sits at the head of the Gleann Dubh Lighe, just east of Glenfinnan, and gives a great, circular ridge walk.  It was a peaceful walk up the glen with no one else around.  Just blue sky, gushing waterfalls and the call of cuckoos in the distance.  As the track left the forest I gained a first view of the ridge.

The first clear view of the ridge walk

 

It was warm work and I made sure I drank as much as I could, stocking up in the stream, since there was little or no water up above.  Directly ahead beyond a ruined cottage was the subsidiary top, Streap Comhlaidh, with Streap’s summit (909m) just visible behind.  It looked a straightforward enough descent but with a drop of around 650m it was to prove punishing on my leg muscles, which hadn’t had much hillwalking practice over the winter.

 

Streap’s summit just visible second from the right

 

First came a pretty relentless and steep ascent though, to the summit of Meall an Uillt Chaoil.  At least I gained a bit of a breeze and met another solo walker.  There’s an intermittent path that leads along the undulating ridge with great views west to the circuit of the Glenfinnan munros, Sgurr Thuilm and Sgurr nan Coireachan.  There’s also a rare view of lonely Loch Beoraid, enclosed between steep-sided hills and cut off from any roads.  The views became increasingly hazy during the day, particularly to the west, caused I think by the wild fires.

 

View towards Streap from Meall an Uillt Chaoil

 

A straightforward and easy ridge walk

 

View towards Sgurr nan Coireachan

 

The view north from Streap’s summit towards Loch Arkaig and Knoydart gives a reminder that this is remote country.  The map shows a network of stalker’s paths: a landscape of deer, precious few trees and even fewer people.  Since I’d found no running water along the ridge my supplies had run out by this point, and I resorted to eating crunchy handfulls of snow from the last few snow patches.  On a warm day this was not only refreshing but really satisfying.

 

View NE along remote Gleann Cuirnean towards Strachan, the junction between Glendessary and Loch Arkaig

I was glad that the descent from Stream Comhlaidh was down grassy slopes.  The addition of heather and rocks would have made an already long and relentless descent even worse.  (But my legs still felt this for some days afterwards). Once back at the track my legs soon recovered and I enjoyed the quiet 6km walk out.  In spite of some steep slopes, this was a really enjoyable day out – and best of all, I pretty much had the hills to myself.

 

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70 years of the VW campervan

In 1947, a Dutch car dealer called Ben Pon famously sketched out a simple, box-shaped delivery vehicle that was based on the Beetle’s chassis.  He persuaded the VW factory in Wolfsburg to put the van into production and the first VW Transporter was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in November 1949.

It was an innovative design that maximised the load-carrying capacity of the vehicle, with the cab positioned over the front wheels and the engine mounted over the rear wheels.  The  Plattenwagen soon became popular as a low-cost, adaptable and flexible utility vehicle.  But the addition of removable bench seats, windows,  a sliding canvas roof, skylights and higher level trim during the early 1950s meant that the basic panel van was transformed into a multipurpose vehicle.  The campervan was born.

This great infographic from WessexVans charts the evolution of the VW campervan over the last 70 years.  From a humble panel van equipped with a weekend camping box through to today’s high-spec dedicated camper, the VW campervan has reflected changing cultures across the world.  Whether you’re an ageing hippy, a weekend tinkerer, an adventure sports enthusiast, a roadtripper or the proud owner of a gleaming, show-quality van I’m sure you’ll relate to this.

To read more about the history of the VW campervan, including TV adverts from years gone by, visit some of my previous posts:

Part 1 – The birth of an icon

Part 2 – Coming of age

Part 3 – Into the 21st century

Full list of my campervan posts

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Product review: Solestar Hiking Insoles

Often overlooked, insoles provide a crucial role supporting your feet.  More than comfort, insoles also hold your feet in an optimal position and provide added stability on rougher terrain.  As someone who never gave much thought to insoles until recently, the chance to test out Solestar’s performance insoles has opened my eyes.

First impressions

Solestar are a German company who have made their name designing insoles for professional cyclists and who have now branched out to hiking insoles.

It turns out there’s much more to insoles than meets the eye.  Boots and trail shoes are typically sold with standard cushioned insoles that provide comfort but not much in the way of support.  They don’t last for long and soon become worn, thin and shapeless.  Go on, remove a pair of normal insoles to see what I mean … or take a look at a pair from some of my old trail shoes below.  Yuck!

By comparison, Solestar’s insoles are stiffened by glass fibre which gives them rigidity from just behind the toes right back to the heel.  This glass fibre core is designed to hold your feet in a neutral position, giving stability and comfort.  They have a distinctive high arch especially designed to counter flat foot and give strong arch support.  The sole does have a little cushioning, made from an antibacterial and breathable material, but the overall impression is of a much stiffer insole than most people will be used to.

 

On test

Solestar advise that it can take up to three training sessions for your feet to become used to the new insoles.  I spent a couple of months with them in two different pairs of trail shoes first of all, just getting used to how they felt.

What was immediately evident was the additional stability that these insoles give you.  Even just walking around city streets I felt that my feet were being ‘held in position’ much more than with conventional insoles.  The rigidity gives added stability and confidence in placing your feet.  It did take a while to get used them, particularly the high instep arch, but I found them comfortable to wear in my old Inov8 trail shoes.

It was a different matter in the new Salomon trail shoes I’d just bought, however.  These were a fraction smaller, fitted more tightly and hadn’t yet loosened up with wear.  I soon found that they lacked sufficient space for the additional volume that the Solestar insoles require, and the Solestars made them just too tight to wear.  No amount of adjustments to the lacing made any difference.  If you’re looking to buy a new pair of shoes or boots to use with Solestar insoles I therefore suggest you take the insoles into the shop with you to make sure they’re a good fit in combination.

Having got used to wearing the insoles in my old Inov8 trail shoes the next step was to use them in my walking boots.  I tried them first on a day walk up a Corbett in the Cairngorms on a mix of well-constructed tracks as well as rougher, muddier paths.  While at first I noticed the glass fibre core giving extra stability I soon felt the high arch digging in to my right foot.  After persevering for a while my foot became very painful and I had to remove the insoles.

Everyone’s feet are different (I may be flat-footed, for example) and I can only put this down to the shape of my right foot in combination with my walking boot.  The left foot remained comfortable, and I’d already found both insoles to be comfortable in my old trail shoes.  I was disappointed that the Solestars didn’t suit my walking boots but have since been using them with my trail shoes without a re-occurrence of the issue.

 

 

Overview

Given my experience I have to recommend anyone interested in buying Solestars try them out first with the shoes or boots you intend to use them with.  As Solestar themselves say, given the way the stiff insoles affect your muscles and movements, it’s advisable to use them for a few training sessions to get used to them.  Although you can only buy them online at present, the good news is that Solestar give a six week money back guarantee – even in a used condition.  My advice is to focus on the footwear and insoles in combination rather than buy separately.

The wider point is that it’s worth looking into insoles.  By holding your feet in a neutral position they give your feet added support.  Conventional padded insoles soon wear out, and well-constructed insoles could give additional benefit over a longer period.

What I liked:

  • Stiffened design that gives additional stability and confidence
  • Lightweight
  • Breathable and antimicrobial resistant materials
  • Six week money back guarantee – in any condition

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • High instep arch may not suit everyone’s feet
  • The additional volume of these insoles may make already tight-fitting shoes/boots too small to wear

 

Solestar  insoles are currently available online only.  They’re available in UK sizes 6 to 13.5 (European 38 to 48) and sell for 79 Euro (approximately £68).

Note:  The insoles were provided to me to review for free by Solestar.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

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Outdoor gear – Some thoughts on customer choice and industry sustainability

Did you take part in ‘Takeback Tuesday’ this week?  Royal Mail dubbed Takeback Tuesday the day when people go back to work and take unwanted packages into a Post Office for return to the retailer.  It’s estimated that 15-20% of goods bought online are returned, worth £2.5bn in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy.

What’s this got to do with the outdoors industry, you may be asking?  While it’s true that high street fashion is probably driving this growing trend, my own experience in buying a new mountain jacket suggest that the outdoor industry is subject to the same cost pressures and retail trends as the rest of the retail sector.  I think this begs important questions about the outdoor industry’s sustainability and environmental credentials.

A sustainable model?

Back in the olden days (let’s call this the 1970s/80s), things were much simpler.  There was much less competition between manufacturers and this tended to be overwhelmingly domestic (ie competition within the UK).  The innovation cycle was measured in months and years, and manufacturers tended to produce a limited range of ‘standard’ products which were tweaked every year or two.  Manufacturers made stuff and shipped it to high street shops, who sold it with a reasonable mark-up to customers.

Nowadays, with the advent of online channels, competition is global and the barriers to entry for new competitors are far lower.  Global shipping costs account for a relatively minor share of total production costs, with materials and labour far more significant.  Manufacturing is globally distributed, with much outdoor gear current produced in Asia (with all the water consumption and transport emissions that entails).  Retailers blend ‘bricks and mortar’ with online marketing, sales and distribution, and web-savvy customers know how to get the best deal using a combination of traditional shops and online methods.

With this stiffer competition has come both the mushrooming of customer choice (as manufacturers try to differentiate themselves) as well as the acceleration of the innovation cycle (as new materials, designs and so on are rapidly prototyped).  The North Face and increasingly Rab, Jack Wolfskin and others are arguably becoming fashion brands, subject to the multiple product changes demanded of retailers each season.  Outdoor magazines (and let’s not forget bloggers) are used by manufacturers to push their latest gear, promoting it as the latest must-have purchase.

It’s a model that feeds excessive consumption.  And a pretty complicated one at that.

All this complexity adds additional ‘cost’ – to manufacturers, retailers as well as to the planet.  Satisfying online orders costs extra compared with distribution via high street shops, given each product needs to be labelled and packaged individually before armies of white vans deliver them up your driveway.  Any returns incur an additional cost in transportation and postage as well as the labour involved in repackaging the product before it can go back out on sale.

 

A case study – Buying a new mountain jacket

My recent experience in buying a new mountain jacket illustrates well some of the issues around choice and sustainability.  Having done my research online I narrowed my selection down to three all-season jackets, the Alpkit Definition, the Arcteryx Beta and the Mountain Equipment Lhotse.  These are all ‘technical’ jackets designed to withstand winter mountain conditions in the UK, selling for between £230 – £370 full price.  (After 15 years, the seams in my old Mountain Equipment Lhotse have started to come apart and it’s now no longer fully waterproof).

However, the three jackets were only available to buy from three different retailers which presented an issue in making an accurate comparison.  I travelled to Edinburgh and Stirling to try on the Arcteryx and Mountain Equipment jackets before discounting the Arcteryx owing to it being a poorer fit.  I needed to actually buy the Alpkit Definition online given their nearest store is a 200 mile+ round trip away in the Lake District, confident that they have a very respectable free 123 day returns policy.  That meant I could physically compare the Alpkit and Mountain Equipment jackets in my local Cotswold store in Stirling.  I ended up selecting the Mountain Equipment jacket but ordered it in a different colour to the only example they had in stock.  It took five days to pick it up using their ‘click and collect’ process and in the meantime, I returned and received a full refund from Alpkit.

All a bit of a faff, to be honest.  For me, the whole manufacturing, sales and distribution process poses some serious questions about choice and sustainability.

 

Who’s serving who?

First, who’s asking for so much customer choice?  The Arcteryx website is currently selling six different versions of their Beta jacket (all-round, lightweight, superlight, durable …) in a wide range of colours and sizes across the range.  By my calculations there are around 150 permutations available of the same jacket.  As it turned out, Tiso in Edinburgh only stocked one version and not the superlight version I was most interested in.  Retailers seem to have a deliberate policy of only stocking a very limited range (presumably given the cost of backroom storage) and rely on being able to order other products in.  So why do some manufacturers go overboard?

In contrast, Alpkit produce their Definition jacket in just four colours and five sizes from S to XXL.  Mountain Equipment are the same with the Lhotse: four colours and five sizes.  I essentially bought the same jacket 15 years later with lighter materials, improved performance and similar features.  It seems to me both companies know their market and rely on in-depth market research rather than wasting money on over-complex manufacturing processes and unnecessary costs of product returns.  My over-riding concern is function, not fashion.  I’m not interested in the 2019 colour or design variations.  Just sell me a jacket that does the job effectively.

Secondly, when manufacturers are eager to display their green credentials, have they really through through the process from a customer’s perspective?  I can research functions and features online so what I really want is to check the fit of a jacket and to compare rival products before I part with a significant pile of cash.  So when it comes to the buying process, having to transport products or (worse) me around different cities is great for distribution companies but not so good for emissions, congestion and retailers’ profits.  I’d much prefer to go into a single shop rather than organise the  logistics across three separate retailers – or a cluster of adjacent outdoor shops, with Aviemore the best example I can think of.

My perception of manufacturer’s and retailers’ green credentials will be improved if I know that they’re focusing on a limited range of tried-and-tested products rather than contributing to over-consumption by marketing ‘this year’s model’.  While stocking the full range in every size/colour combination might be prohibitive, a ‘click and collect’ model is more sustainable than a home delivery approach that simply serves to employ more ‘white van men’ (and women). I would be much more likely to buy from a particular retailer if they demonstrate circular thinking and operate a product re-use scheme (such as Gift your Gear) to allow outdoor gear to have ‘second life’ with another owner.

Reasons to be cheerful

Some manufacturers and retailers are making a good effort to address these issues – Cotswold Outdoor and Alpkit are good examples – but more can still be done across the outdoor industry as a whole.  There’s been a focus on material sustainability in recent years (such as ethical down, PFC treatments and microplastics) but cradle-to-cradle thinking demands a much broader approach that includes choice editing and logistics.  Outdoors enthusiasts are (or should be) inherently environmentally conscious, so they should be driving improvements as much as manufacturers and retailers.

We can ill afford ‘fast fashion’ when it comes to outdoor gear, so please let’s have a wider debate about what good practice looks like for the industry.

 

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2018 Review and plans for 2019

Moody skies over the Cairngorms and the green loch from the slopes of Meall a’ Buachaille

 

New year.  New beginnings.  New adventures.

This time of year I like to reflect.  In the quiet days of early January I take a look back at my aspirations for the year just gone, celebrating what I achieved and chalking up to experience what I didn’t.  But it’s also a time when I collect ideas, make plans and dust down my bucket list with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

So what did I get up to last year?

Looking back at 2018

Twelve months ago I said that 2018 was going to be a year of simplifying my life.  I wanted “to get back to basics, to give my time to the things that really provide me with rewarding experiences“.  I set myself four goals – plus a fifth one my wife sneaked into the list:

1.  Ditch social media

In fact, my aim wasn’t to ditch it altogether but was to cut down on the unproductive time taken up by social media.  Compared with blogs, which have the space to properly develop and explore ideas, other social media platforms tend to focus on blunt soundbites, sanitised ideas and airbrushed images.

I’m pleased to say I’ve stopped using Twitter (the worst offender) and only use private Facebook groups as the main way to communicate with my Duke of Edinburgh groups (I stopped using Facebook for personal use many years ago).  Instagram is the only platform I actually enjoy looking at, and I still occasionally share pictures.  I haven’t missed this ‘wasted’ time.

2.  Focus on quality over quantity

After five years’ blogging I took a three-month break in late 2017, and became much more selective in finding the things I wanted to say.  My goal last year was to focus on improving the quality of my writing, acknowledging the therapeutic and rewarding benefits of creative writing.

In 2018 I wrote 33 blog posts, far fewer than in previous years.  I’d like to think that their quality improved (others are the best judge of that), both in terms of writing as well as images.  But part of the reason for my lower output was simply that work stepped up a gear and there was a lot going on on the home front.  You can’t do everything, and choices often have to be made.

3.  Focus on my main passions

My third aspiration was to simplify my life by consolidating what I already enjoy doing.  In the past I’ve dipped my toes into new activities, such as sea kayaking for example.  These were all great fun of course but with a finite amount of ‘spare’ time, a focus on new stuff inevitably meant time away from my existing passions. So my aim in 2018 was to focus on a smaller range of hobbies – mainly walking, camping and cycle touring – so I could enjoy these in more depth.

This was exactly what happened last year. I spent a week climbing the 13 3000-foot mountains in Ireland (completing the Furths as a result), I cycled Scotland’s coast-to-coast route and went skiing in the French Alps with my son.  In between this I also found time for a few cycling day trips and wild camps, and also continued my Duke of Edinburgh volunteering.  I led a Silver Duke of Edinburgh group for the first time in trips to the Cairngorms and Glen Tilt.

4.  Give my time to things that give me something back

I aimed to practice the (difficult) art of slowing down, living one day at a time and being more spontaneous.  So many of us lead busy lives and for me in particular, getting out of the fast lane and slowing down is an ongoing challenge.  As I get older I’m becoming more conscious of the importance of getting exercise in the outdoors to manage my mental wellbeing.  As a classic introvert, I crave the solitude needed to recharge my batteries so I can return home renewed and happy.

I’d say I achieved this in part although it’s unfinished business.  Work has a lot to answer for but I guess its ultimately up to me to recognise and manage my stress levels.  I already have some ideas of other ways to relax over the coming year.

5.  De-clutter

The fifth goal sneaked in by my wife – all in the interests of jointly leading a simpler life – was to de-clutter.  I think what she meant was that by clearing out the junk in our garage and loft we would be unburdened by so much ‘stuff’ hanging around our necks.  An ideal way, then, to de-stress and also earn some additional cash by offloading our unwanted stuff on to new owners.

We partially achieved this goal.  On the plus side, we now have a much clearer garage and loft, having sorted through boxes we hadn’t opened for the last 16 years.  It’s amazing how you gather so much stuff through the phases of family life.  My rucsacs now hang neatly in the loft and all my walking gear is organised into a couple of boxes.  (At least, none of that has been chucked out – I have to admit it can be stressful letting go!).  However, there’s still a little more to finish off so that’s a job for this summer.

 

Looking down on Loch Restil, the Rest and be Thankful and Glen Croe from Beinn an Lochain

Plans for 2019

Having just reviewed this list I actually think it still serves as a great set of goals for 2019 too.  If it’s working, why change?

In addition, I’ve decided to add another few activities under number four: to read more, to exercise more regularly and to make sure I get enough sleep.  I’ve challenged myself to read 10 books this year using my new Kindle.  It’s not quite as many as the lady whose blog post I read today, celebrating smashing her 2018 goal of reading 120 books.  But for someone who normally reads just one or two books a year it’s quite an improvement.

I have a rough plan forming around taking one trip away a month during 2019.  The general idea is to give myself tangible goals to plan for, while also getting some exercise and exploring some new places.  While I’m thinking about tackling a couple of classic routes that I haven’t yet had the time for – including walking the West Highland Way and cycling the Hebridean Way – I’ll probably also include simpler trips such as bagging a summit or having a wild camp overnight somewhere.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve already completed January’s trip, a short outing yesterday to climb the Corbett Beinn an Lochain in the Arrochar Alps.  It was icy and cold, and more overcast than expected, but nevertheless a great remedy to get rid of the excess calories and sluggishness from the new year.  I’m also sharing a couple of photos from a walk up Meall a’ Buachaille in the Cairngorms between Christmas and New Year.

I’m sure family life and work will take up just as much time as they have last year but I’m hoping that these plans will give me a sustainable balance between ‘work’ and ‘play’.

Whatever your own goals for 2019 I hope you have a very happy new year.

 

The green loch (an lochan uaine), near Glenmore in the Cairngorms

 

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Most memorable photos of 2018

My trips this year took in not just Scotland but I also ventured a little further afield to Ireland, France and Indonesia.  From mountain to sea and from coast to coast I hiked, biked and camped my way through many adventures.

Take a look as I describe some of this year’s standout memories.

1.  Cycling around Lismore

On cold, frosty morning in January I was the only passenger on the first ferry of the day over to the island of Lismore.  Sitting in the middle of Loch Linnhe, Lismore has great views north towards Ben Nevis – on this cold morning, snow-topped with light cloud brushing its summit – and west to Mull and the Morvern hills.

Lismore was quiet that Sunday morning in January.  I’d passed the Minister already, hopping off the ferry en route to his first service of the morning on the mainland.  Other than that, I spotted a farmer feeding his cattle, with clouds of condensed air hung above their heads in the still, cold air.

I’d timed my ride to cycle the 19km length of the island, take in a couple of detours to its many historic sights, then get back to the Pierhouse Hotel on the mainland for a lunch in front of a roaring fire.

 

2.  A snowy ascent of Beinn Creachan, Appin

The previous day saw me ascend from a mundane, brown winter’s morning, through a carpeted wonderland of powdery snow on Beinn Creachan’s ridge, to the sublime experience of crunching across the icy crust towards the Corbett’s summit.  On day’s like this, when daylight is short, the combination of sun and snow have a remarkable ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.

I tried to sum up the atmosphere in my original post:

Up on the ridge the sun’s rays made a determined effort to escape the clouds, sending sharp tentacles down towards the depths of Loch Etive.  The soft light reflected off the dark water, providing the promise of an improving day.  As the sun topped the clouds its rays washed the snow with a brightening cast, throwing shadows across the frozen hillside.  Then finally, as the bright sun escaped the clouds it illuminated the rime-covered stalks of grass bravely poking through the snow.  The ice sparkled and shone with a brilliance that turned the ‘ordinary’ into a truly wonderful sight.

 

 

3.  Drinking in the ‘super blue blood moon’ at the Wallace Monument

For the first time since 1982 we were treated in February to the spectacle of a ‘super blue blood moon’.  It was a chance to see the convergence of three rare events: a supermoon, a blue moon and a total lunar eclipse, which turns the moon a blood coloured orangey-red.  A supermoon is when there’s a full moon that happens when the moon is positioned closest to the Earth in its orbit, and a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month.  It’ll be 2037 before these three phenomena coincide again.

The high cloud seemed to exaggerate the effect, giving a ghostly glow above Stirling’s Wallace Monument.

 

 

4.  Skiing at Les Arcs

I went skiing at Les Arcs in the French Alps back in February, enjoying the highest snowfall they’d had for several years.  We rented at apartment at Peisey, close to the fast Vanoise Express  cable car that links Les Arcs to La Plagne.  With such a variety of skiing over such a large area we were spoiled for choice.  Fast red runs like this one that took us back to Peisey were our favourite, with great views across the valley to snowy peaks all around.

 

5.  A cycle tour of the Trossachs

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority describes the cycling tour of the Trossachs as “an exhilarating and hilly ride through the heart of the Trossachs – a classic roadie circuit featuring a big climb, quiet roads and outstanding scenery“.   And on this sunny day back in April it didn’t disappoint.

With the Trossachs often called Scotland in miniature I decided to re-name this the ‘lochs and bens’ tour.  In a 50 mile loop, including a short out-and-back detour to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond it takes in no less than seven lochs (Drunkie, Achray, Katrine, Arklet, Lomond, Chon and Ard) and five bens (Venue, A’an, Vane, Ime and Narnain).

Now, that’s pretty good going for an afternoon out.

 

 

6.  Hiking the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks ridge

I ventured over to Ireland for the first time in June and climbed the Irish 3000 footers in a week.  I enjoyed driving the back roads of Wicklow, Tipperary and Kerry, soaking up the culture and views.  I was lucky to have such great weather.  It’s not uncommon for hill-baggers to get drenched and see very little from mist-shrouded hills; the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, for example, are notorious for being in cloud for around 75% of the time and receive 225 days annual rainfall.  But in spite of building in spare days in case I needed them I walked and camped in warm, sunny weather.

I climbed the ten peaks along the Reeks’ ridge in one spectacular day, one of the best mountain days I’ve had in twenty years.  The ridge is home to Ireland’s highest mountains and has a scale and grandeur reminiscent of Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands.

The photo is taken from the slopes of Cruach Mhor, looking west across Loch Cummeenapeasta and along the ridge towards Carrauntoohill (at 1039m/3406ft, Ireland’s highest summit) and pointy Beenkeragh (1010m).

 

 

7.  Climbing Mount Brandon

I completed climbing the Furths with a walk up Mount Brandon, Ireland’s most westerly 900m+ mountain.  Called Brendan’s Hill after Brendan the Navigator who was born nearby at Tralee in 484AD, the walk starts near a grotto and finishes with the almost obligatory Irish summit cross.

But most memorable were the views.  From the top there’s a marvellous view south to the Dingle Peninsular but the highlight of the Pilgrim’s Path is the fantastic view north across Tralee Bay as you descend.

 

 

8.  Camping on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Fine weather meant that I climbed Ireland’s highest hills in double-quick time, leaving a couple of days to explore before returning home.  While the Wild Atlantic Way stretches all the way around Ireland’s west coast I spent most time following the views around the Ring of Kerry.   The pick of the campsites was Wave Crest Camping and Caravan Park at Caherdaniel, overlooking a small beach and with a cafe and shop on site, and a bar/restaurant a ten minute walk away.  A great, relaxing spot.

 

 

9.  A glorious mid-summer’s wild camp

With itchy feet I took a notion one Saturday night in late June.  “What about a wild camp?”  Within 35 minutes I was pitched up with my own Saturday night TV stretched out in front of me.  Grasses waved in the balmy evening breeze.  Meadow pippets chirped incessantly, bobbing back and forth.  Just the sounds of nature, without the hustle and bustle of people and traffic.

As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, shadows lengthened.  Layers of distant ridge lines were laid on top of one another, muted oranges and greys, slowly darkening.  I picked out more than 20 Munros and at least another half dozen Corbetts, from Ben Lomond and The Cobbler in the west to the Ben Lawers ridge in the north.  A view to savour – and right in my back yard too.

 

 

10.  Cycling Scotland’s coast-to-coast

Over 3 days in August I cycled the Scottish C2C from Annan to the Forth Rail Bridge, including tacking on an extra 40-odd miles to get me home.  Much of the route is on quiet and gently undulating back roads following the Rivers Annan and Tweed.  Through rural Dumfrieshire and Peebleshire it was a peaceful, scenic ride with quiet wild camps.

I emerged out at the Forth on a busy Sunday afternoon where it seemed that locals and daytrippers alike had all assembled on the beach at Portobello for an ice cream and a paddle in the sea.  Leaving the crowds behind (plus a noisy campsite below the flight path into Edinburgh Airport), the old Forth Road Bridge took me to the quiet NCN76 cycle path from Dunfermline to Clackmannan.  After enjoying fine weather for 3 days the heavens opened just a mile short of home.

 

 

11.  Mountain biking around Beinn a’ Ghlo

I swapped my touring bike for a mountain bike later in August to try out a classic Scottish route that circumnavigates Beinn a’ Ghlo.  I was checking out a route for my Duke of Edinburgh group but rather than take 3 days I covered the 35 miles in a day.

Dark clouds and sunshine jockeyed for prime position all day.  I barely saw a soul but soaked in the open vistas of moorland and mountains.  The highlight was the Falls of Tarf near the head of Glen Tilt, a perfect wild swimming spot if ever I saw one.

 

 

12.  Sunrise over Bali and Lombok’s volcanic peaks

I flew to Malaysia and Indonesia in September for a ten day break with my daughter, who’d been volunteering in the rainforests of Borneo for the summer.  Indonesia (and especially Lombok) have been in the news a lot recently owing to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis, and I thoroughly researched the trip before travelling.  We spent most of the trip in Bali, trying to fit in as much as we could in only a short time.  It’s an island of amazing scenery, food and people.

We took a trek starting off at 3.30am to catch the sunrise near the summit of Mount Batur.  Mount Batur is a double caldera, in other words a crater that sits within a much larger crater 14km across.  From it’s peak at 1,717m we saw the sun gradually rise to pick out three other volcanoes, all in a row.  From left to right in the picture below you can see Mount Rinjani (3,726m high, around 60km across the sea in neighbouring Lombok), Mount Abang (2,152m) and Mount Agung (3,142m).  The picture really doesn’t do justice to the absolutely stunning view that morning.

 

 

 

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Guest post: Cycling Land’s End to John o’Groats via Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – A coastal journey along the western seaboard

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Shared with permission of http://www.Trailplanner.co.uk

Cycle touring seemed an opportunity to travel greater distances and in more comfort, so in 2017 I completed that tour, 6,000km around the North Sea over 55 days.  This journey was a great success, so for the next adventure I considered the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland.

The first journey explored the Anglo Saxon and Viking coasts, and the Wild Atlantic Way offered an opportunity to do the same for a Celtic nation.  With a little imagination I could add Cornwall, Wales and Scotland to the itinerary which led to the concept of cycling the Atlantic Seaboard from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG), some 4,000km. Studying the Sustrans and Eurovelo maps suggested I connect NCN Routes 3, 4, 78 and 780 to the WAW to form one continuous journey.

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So with a rough route in mind I started to plan in more detail. I anticipated a 40 day journey, using these routes and a few ferries. Hotels and B&Bs each night would be prohibitively expensive, so I researched hostels and camping sites.  The Independent Hostel guide and Youth Hostel Association covered Scotland and England, and various searches reveal possibilities for Ireland. Campsites can be searched on Google Maps.  All of this information can then be plotted on My Maps, overlaying the upload GPX files. While not sticking to a strict schedule or booking ahead, it would save time researching accommodation each evening.

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My bike, a red Thorn Sherpa, required a decent service, new transmission and tyres, but remained unchanged to the formula that worked around the North Sea.  It is a traditional setup, with Ortlieb panniers and gear shared with my backpacking equipment, except perhaps for a slightly larger tent and bigger kitchen. To save costs, I planned to cook as much as possible and stay at campsites or wild camp. Hostels every 3-4 days would make for greater comfort and an opportunity to meet like minded travellers.  All up the load carried was 20kg.  Even with this weight the bike handled superbly and was comfortable, even on rough tracks.

I am a bit casual about Navigation and tend to just follow the signs, which for the NCN, are usually excellent. Whenever I felt lost I would just pull out my Android smartphone and open the View Ranger or Backcountry Navigator apps to pinpoint my position. After many years I have developed a sixth sense, which tells me something is up – the sun is in the wrong place, the wind has changed, tyre marks have gone and so on…

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What came as a surprise when I cycled NCN Route 1 as part of the NSCR, was the extent of the traffic free sections and quiet roads.  Cycling was much safer than I expected, only 15% of the route is shared with traffic, which I took to mean > 10 cars per hour. This was equally true for NCN Route 3, which takes you from Land’s End to Bristol. The only challenge being the relentless climbs and descents of the Cornish and Devon landscape. It is a brutal introduction, made easier with connecting former railway lines, notably the Camel and Tarka trails, popular at holiday times.

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Crossing the Severn Bridge on NCN Route 4 (like the M4 but for bicycles) I entered into Wales and again follow great cycle paths through the urban areas of Newport (via the Transport Bridge), Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea.  These paths connected to lovely disused railway sections which led into the quieter countryside of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. After a few days I had crossed Wales east to west and boarded the Fishguard to Rosslare ferry, with a few other cycle tourists.  The first I had met.

It was wonderful to be back in Ireland after 25 years and a large welcoming Eurovelo Route 1 sign pointed westwards. Good roads, the Waterford Greenway, a couple of ferries and a few busy stretches led me to Kinsale. The start of the WAW.

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I should perhaps point out, that the WAW is more of a marketing concept than an actual cycle route and is really designed for motor vehicles. Nevertheless it is a route used annually for a WAW Cycle Sportif and with a few exceptions is generally safe for cycling. Unfortunately, it is not yet up to the standards of the NCN, so I used a 1:400,000 Michelin Map (#712) to seek out quieter roads. This was successful and on the whole I had a safe riding experience, more than offset by some glorious coastal cycling and idyllic rural lanes.

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The coast is exposed to the Atlantic ocean and weather in a more dramatic way than I had experienced (“Wild and Windy” is a better translation of WAW). Combined with Irish hospitality and relax nature made for pleasant days, even if it is raining and wet.  Now I get “inside” the ride, a point at which I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in.  I’m packed and fed each morning within an hour. A huge bowl of Flahavan’s porridge with nuts and berries is perfect cycling fuel, washed down with fresh coffee made using an Aeropress system – a weight penalty I could not contemplate as a backpacker.

Now I get “inside” the ride … I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in

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On the road from Mizen Head I came across numerous M2M painted marks in the road way.  These, I later learned, mean Mizen to Malin, the Irish equivalent to LEJOG and over 600km in length. A distance covered in a straight line and two days by ultra-athletes.  It would take me a further two weeks hugging the coast. Perhaps 2,000km to reach Malin Head – but why rush? I could not miss the iconic Healy and Conor passes ahead, with tough ascents, yet exhilarating descents and a chance to see panoramic views.

Choosing my own route, but keeping roughly to the coast and electing not to explore every peninsula, I progressed up the west coast taking ferries as they presented themselves.  Dingle and the Ring of Kerry deserve their popularity, but the less popular Beara Peninsula and Slea Head were not to be missed as a cyclist. The biggest “short cut” ferry is across Galway Bay via the Aran Isles, which are a delight and fit in with the spirit of an Atlantic coastal journey. Connemara retains a strong Irish speaking community and has lovely cycling roads all the way to Clifden through an ancient rural landscape.  The past few days are perhaps a highlight of the tour as a whole, taken at a relaxing pace, stopping for long lunches at the many picturesque locations.

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Campsites and hostels have been great so far and I am meeting more people who are touring the west coast, mostly from Europe and America.  We share notes and experiences, which often result in changes to plans. I hear about the Western Greenway Cycle route to Achill Island from Westport and good cycle shops that can help me find a new chain I am sure I will need.  Surfers frequent a particularly nice section along the coast past Easky towards Sligo, where of all places Halfords has the exact right chain I need. The smooth transmission has improved my mood after enduring mechanical imperfection and I take a half-day servicing the bike and giving my body a chance to rest. I am averaging a pleasing 100km a day, but now I judge progress in units of time rather than distance. If I have cycled 8 hours elapse I am happy.

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I had high expectations of Donegal, having spent a few boozy nights there many years ago, enjoying the local craic and superb music.  Nowadays it seems to be a tourist trap, with coach loads of people idling about, studying overpriced menus. I’m happy to move on to Killybegs, a pelagic fishing port, along the beginnings of the Donegal Cycle Network (DCN).  The campsite to the south of the port offers superb views south towards Benbulbin, a distinctive coastal mountain.

County Donegal is very relaxing and superb for cycling. The roads are quiet and new former railway lines are being converted for off road cycling use.  Ideal for my Thorn Sherpa with wide 2″ tyres. Sections past Errigal on peat roads and farm tracks are rugged and tough going, but a welcome break from traffic. The DCN follows Eurovelo 1. I would highly recommend the region for cycle tours, with perhaps a break to walk along Slieve League – some of the highest coastal cliffs in Europe.

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I time my pace to catch two ferries ahead, but learn that the Rathmullan ferry has not yet started the summer season, so I divert around Letterkenny and cycle along Drongawn Lough towards Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.  I’m the only guest at a huge hostel in Buncrana and sleep well before an exhilarating day on the Inishowen Peninsula. I have a favourable tailwind that beautifully changes direction with me into Moville. Malin Head does not disappoint for its raw beauty, watching the Atlantic swell crash against the rugged coastline.

It is a calm evening, with a still sea, but on waking a full gale has kicked in.  I depart early to catch the 08:00hr ferry from Greencastle across Lough Foyle.  The crew are studying the sea state and unfortunately tell me the service is cancelled. I now have a long detour via Londonderry, but set to the task, with a touch of adrenaline.  I have to be in Ballycastle that evening for a ferry to Islay the next day. I don’t feel guilty about using a train service to Coleraine to at least cut out some heavy traffic and fierce headwinds, but I can’t resist riding along the North West 200 motorcycle road course into Portstewart and Portrush.  One week later, motorbikes would travel at speeds of 200mph along the same roads. I reach my destination hostel in time, after bypassing the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The Antrim coast is wild, made more so in the Force 9 gale I battle against.

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It is with sadness I now leave Ireland for Scotland and Islay.  The boat, a fast RIB, takes bicycles and I am met at the quayside by three cycling couples planning tours north.  The crossing saves me several days. My only other options was to take the vehicle service from Larne to Cairnryan and cycle NCN 73 and 7 to Ardrossan and cross to the Mull of Kintyre via Arran. After a tipple at one distillery, I take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Kennacraig and cycle in glorious weather to Oban, using the Crinan canal route along NCN Route 78.  A good tailwind brings me into the town on a gorgeous sunny day. I meet up with many more cyclists, all kitted out with bikepacking rigs, en route, like me to Barra and the Outer Hebrides. The gulls are stealing the seafood from unwary tourists who have just spent £30 for a platter of lobster, shellfish, crabs and prawns. No wonder the Herring Gulls are so large and brazen, the spread looks delicious.

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We see dolphins chasing the ferry as we glide across the Sea of the Hebrides and arrive in Castlebay late afternoon.  A dozen cyclists depart and go their separate ways to hostels and campsites. I settle in to a site I know well and relax to the sounds of oystercatchers and a rolling swell gently crashing onto the beach below.

Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I ride the 185 mile length of the Hebridean Way (NCN 780) in 3 days.  It usually takes 5. It is amazing how much a strong tailwind helps. Perhaps more telling is the uncanny knack I seem to have of arriving at a ferry terminal 10 minutes before departure. So I perfectly connect to South Uist and ride to the hostel on Berneray, a few miles from the ferry to Harris. The hostel is full of quirky, battle hardened cyclists and walkers drying out in front of a coal fire.  We have a great evening finding out if all 500 pieces of a wildlife jigsaw puzzle are in the box, drinking tea and sharing stories as the picture builds, each one of us assigned to a particular species.

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The beaches on Harris are sublime, followed by the ascent of An Cliseam in heavy mist towards Tarbert. A roadside burger van is a perfect fuel stop before I set out to the west coast on Lewis and the Stones of Callanish.  The hostel at Garenin fortunately has one bunk left. So I settle in with an excited group of Canadians, Americans, Scots and Czechs for the evening in an old Black House, recently restored. Unfortunately, the peat fire has been replaced with an awful remote controlled electric effect monstrosity.  I don’t know if to laugh or cry.

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I’m up early and the day is glorious.  I can reach the Butt of Lewis lighthouse today and pedal to a hostel in Stornoway before catching the ferry to Ullapool.  Lunchtime consists of moreish black pudding rolls, a local delicacy. In the capital, I meet more cyclists and  pitch my tent in the garden. We meet later at the local brewery for a pint or two to share stories epic climbs and sandy beaches.

The crossing to Ullapool is surreal.  The Minch is like a mill pond, silky smooth with crystal clear visibility, that I cannot believe how close the mountains of Coigach appear – I think we are off to Harris and I’m on the wrong ferry.  I service the bike again, replacing brake blocks and sample local food from a great food shack. My fellow cyclists have found out a Ceilidh is on this evening. It is not advertised and the local shop selling tickets asks how I heard of it.  The evening is fantastic, with many tunes and reels that make a homesick cyclist reflect on the journey and the few days remaining.

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Now onto the North Coast 500, at first light, to avoid peak traffic. I hear cuckoos and see eagles in a silence that makes your ears pop.  The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences. I cycle alongside competitors in the Cape Wrath challenge before entering Durness, whose supporters are keen to know if I can remember the leading runners bib number.  It is a long day into Melvich and a bustling North Coast 500 campsite, full of camper vans and motorcyclists. I chat to a few, who struggle to believe how far I have cycled over the past few weeks.

The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences

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The journey now to John o’Groats seems trivial and the final marker post is deserted on a dreary day.  Looking at the forecast which demands I carry on into Wick to camp overnight before a long train and sleeper service home.  The passenger (seating) coach is faulty and we are upgraded to sleeper beds.  I wake at Euston to the bustle and noise of London going to work.  I have to stop and adjust for 30 minutes, before cycling across the city to catch a train home.

What next? Perhaps take Eurovelo 1 to Nordcap, or south into Portugal and Spain, similar Celtic communities that, no doubt, still retain the echo of a strong connection with the route I have just taken.

 

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