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Lochs and Bens: A cycling tour of the Trossachs

An exhilarating and hilly ride through the heart of the Trossachs – a classic roadie circuit featuring a big climb, quiet roads and outstanding scenery“.  This is how the cycling tour of the Trossachs is described by the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority and who am I to disagree?

Within an hour’s drive of Glasgow and Stirling, the Trossachs is on Central Scotland’s doorstep.  It’s been on the tourist map since the Sir Walter Scott wrote The Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy in the early 19th Century, fascinating early Victorian travellers.  These days the area can attract swarms of day trippers in coaches and cars – even in late April car parks were filled with foreign accents – but it’s relatively easy to quickly escape the tourist honeypots.

I first discovered this ride described as the ‘7 lochs tour of the Trossachs’, taking in Lochs Drunkie, Achray, Katrine, Arklet, Lomond, Chon and Ard on a 40 mile loop.  It was only later I found it billed as the ‘tour of the Trossachs’ on the National Park website, the only difference being that I added a 9 mile detour from Stronachlachar to Inversnaid to reach Loch Lomond.

From the main car park in Aberfoyle it’s a fairly brutal 3 mile climb up Duke’s Pass, notorious for its winter road closures.  There’s no doubt about it, it’s a hard slog.  A driver coming the other way slowed down to tell me to “stay strong!“.  But once at the top it’s a fast, snaking descent down to the shore of Loch Achray.  On the way you do pass Loch Drunkie but it’s actually a mile or so east in the forest, so not visible from the road.  Two ‘Bens’ stand out at this section of the ride, rounded Ben Venue and diminutive Ben A’an, both guarding the route to Loch Katrine.

Near the summit of the Duke’s Pass

 

Ben Venue, seen from the Duke’s Pass

The eastern end of Loch Katrine provides a first stop-off with Brenachoile Cafe, a shop and benches.  You’ll need to fight through the throngs, mind you, but once fed and watered it’s a fast and flat ride along the road on the northern bank of the loch.  The steamship SS Sir Walter Scott has plied to and fro across the loch for almost 120 years and it’s a great sightseeing trip.  But today I was keen to escape the crowds, taking care to negotiate past the pedestrians, dogs, buggies and younger cyclists.  Within a couple of miles it seems you’re quickly away from the honeypot and able to soak in the scenery.

Loch Katrine pier

 

Ben Venue from Loch Katrine

I always enjoy seeing familiar hills from new perspectives.  I admire Ben Lomond in the distance daily from the end of my street but rather than the long whaleback view I see from the east, the view from Loch Katrine shows the deep rocky corries on its northern side.  Then, looking due west, the trio of Ben Vane, Ben Ime and Ben Narnain pokes through the gap across the western shore of Loch Lomond.

So far, so good.  By my reckoning, that’s 3 lochs (Drunkie, Achray, Katrine) and 5 bens (Venue, A’an, Vane, Ime and Narnain).

View of Ben Lomond from the north

 

The three ‘Bens’ – Vane, Ime and Narnain – from Loch Katrine

Skirting the quieter northwestern finger of Loch Katrine at Glengyle takes you past the historic cemetery of Clan Macgregor then to the pier at Stronachlachar.  The road at this end of Loch Katrine is decidedly hillier compared with the eastern end.  I was accompanied by the sound of birdsong and the occasional cuckoo and this part of the route feels furthest from ‘civilisation’.

By now you’ll be grateful of a good cafe stop and the Pier Tearoom doesn’t disappoint.  On the day I was there the sun was streaming through the conservatory windows at the back, and the homemade soup and steak ciabatta were just what the doctor ordered.

The northwestern ‘finger’ of Loch Katrine

 

The Pier Tearoom at Stronachlachar

From the junction of the B629 near Stronachlachar it’s a gradual downhill along the north shore of Loch Arklet, before the start of a much steeper descent beyond the dam.  It’s an exhilarating downhill ride, with a view of Loch Lomond and the munros beyond.  Unfortunately, it’s an out-and-back trip and once you’ve enjoyed a drink and bite to eat at Inversnaid, it’s a real killer of a hill back up again …

On the day I was there the runners on the Highland Fling Ultra marathon were coming through their 34 mile checkpoint, having left Milngavie at 6am.  I was tired by this point but took comfort in the fact I wasn’t nearly as shattered as the folk I saw hobbling past to take refreshments in front of the Inversnaid Hotel!

A perfect cycling road in my book!

 

Ben Van, Ime and Narnain over Loch Lomond, taken from Inversnaid

 

At the B629 junction it’s a right turn this time for a gentle climb through Loch Ard Forest followed by a welcome downhill along Loch Chon.  The joy of freewheeling was short-lived though.  Not only did a shower come through but the B629 has a few short, sharp summits and the most atrocious road surface.

By this point the end was in sight and the return of smooth tarmac took me past scenic Loch Ard and eventually back to Aberfoyle.

So, seven lochs, five bens and a great cafe stop: not a bad count for a scenic afternoon’s cycle.

 

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Scotland from space

On the 25th February 2018 the International Space Station took an absolutely stunning photo of Scotland from space.  While you need to tilt your head (or your screen) sideways a bit to align it with the usual map view of the country, you can make out individual mountain peaks, highlighted in the snow.

At the time, the country was gripped in a period of cold, clear weather dominated by a high pressure system sending icy blasts across the North Sea from Russia.

Image courtesy of the International Space Station.  High res image here

A quick search revealed a number of other amazing images taken from the ISS, the pick of the crop being this one below taken in late January 2013 when the UK was carpeted in snow.

Image courtesy of the International Space Station.  High res image here

 

Is it too late to retrain as an astronaut, I wonder?

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The Kinbuck to Kinabalu Challenge

Have you ever travelled from Kinbuck to Kinabalu?  No, me neither.  But I’m going to have a good go (sort of …).

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo [Photo credit: Raleigh International]

At the beginning of the year I committed to simplifying my life and spending my precious free time doing the things I really enjoy, which for me includes walking, cycle touring and camping.  By ‘simplifying’ I mean consolidating my hobbies: focusing on two or three hobbies, and getting fit enough to enjoy doing them.  So in an effort to fight the winter excesses I’m getting in training for two trips that have been on my bucket list for a while.

First, I’m aiming to compleat climbing the Furths (the 3000+ foot mountains of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland) by climbing the remaining 13 peaks in the Republic of Ireland.  I have a week’s trip planned in mid-May: hopefully enough time to climb Lugnaquilla, Galtymore, Brandon and the wonderfully-named Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, a challenging and airy ridge combining ten jagged peaks.

While in some ways this will be the completion of a 20 year quest to climb the highest mountains in Great Britain and Ireland it also represents a first for me.  I’ve never before been to Ireland and am soon learning that mountain and place names are just as baffling and unpronounceable as many Scottish Gaelic names.  I’m also relishing the chance to discover Ireland’s scenery and culture in an intensive, albeit brief stay.

My second trip is to cycle Scotland’s new coast-to-coast (C2C) route from Annan to Edinburgh over a long weekend in June.  I’m going to take it at a reasonably leisurely pace – around 50 miles a day – and wild camp along the way.  However, I’m not going to stop in Edinburgh but I’m going to carry on and cycle near enough to home … finishing at the tiny village of Kinbuck in Perthshire.

Which brings me back to my starting point, a journey from Kinbuck to Kinabalu.

I’m going to walk and cycle to raise funds for my daughter’s ten-week volunteering expedition to Malaysian Borneo this summer.  She’s been selected to help with the valuable work that Raleigh International, a sustainable development charity that works with young people to support lasting, positive change in some of the poorest parts of the world.  She’ll be helping to provide clean drinking water and sanitation to remote communities, assisting entrepreneurs to start up new green businesses, maintaining Borneo’s incredibly rich biodiversity and helping to connect rainforest and other conservation areas.  On top of that she’ll undertake a challenging three-week expedition that may even take her to the peak of Mount Kinabalu!

Photo credit: Raleigh International

Give or take a little height or distance my 6,000 metres of ascent up the Irish 3000-footers and 165 miles cycling across Scotland more or less equates to a sea-level to peak climb of Mount Kinabalu and a coast-to-coast journey across Borneo.  With a little artistic licence it’s a bridge from Kinbuck to Kinabalu.

I’m certainly going to be challenged: to get fit for starters, and then to climb Ireland’s highest mountains on successive days and cycle almost half the length of Scotland.  My daughter Georgia is also going to be challenged.  At 17, this will be her first major trip away from home by herself, meeting new people, doing new things and exploring the world.  She’s really benefited from the Duke of Edinburgh awards, gaining in confidence over the years and has now almost finished her Gold award.  But more than that, she’ll be making a real difference to the lives and livelihoods of communities far from home: offering practical support, sustaining communities and forging genuine friendships.

If you’d like to give some encouragement to me over the next couple of months — as well as contribute to the valuable work that Raleigh International will be doing this summer in Borneo — then please consider donating to Georgia’s fundraising page.  Any donations you can offer, however small, will be very much appreciated.

Look out for further posts from me over the next couple of months tracking my progress as well as some post-expedition reports from Borneo later in the year.

Photo credit: Raleigh International

 

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Product review: Vango Sherpa 65 Rucsac

If you’re taking part in a DofE or scouting expedition, or planning to backpack your way around the world, then the Vango Sherpa 65 may be just what you’re looking for.  Robust, comfortable and packed with pockets and other nifty features, it ticks all of the right boxes.  I’ve been testing out the rucsac, provided to me to review by Outdoorsupply.co.uk.

 

Comfort and convenience

Chances are,  you’re looking for your first proper rucsac and so comfort and convenience are at the top of your list of ‘wants’.  Here, the Vango Sherpa 65 scores highly.

For DofE, scouts or travelling you’ll be planning to carry a fair amount of kit and a 60/65 litre rucsac will be recommended.  For most people a fully packed rucsac will likely weigh in at around 12 to 16kg; not an inconsiderable weight.  In my experience as a DofE expedition supervisor, young people don’t have much experience of carrying this amount of weight on their backs and so comfort is vitally important.

I tested out the Sherpa on a recent DofE training walk I’m happy to report that it’s extremely comfortable.  We use Sherpas for our DofE group and I know that others find it very comfortable too.  It has a wide, mesh-padded waist strap that sits comfortably on the hips, and ample padding on the back and shoulder straps.  All straps are easy to adjust too.  The packed rucsac fitted snugly and was comfortable to wear all day long.  While all that padding may become warm in hotter climates I think it’s well suited for the UK’s climate.

The only downside to all this padding, plus straps and pockets, is that this isn’t the lightest rucsac around, although it does compare favourably with other, similar rucsacs that are ‘DofE recommended’.  As my mum always says, “what holds a lot holds a little”.  But when the rucsac weighs 2.34kg empty you’ll need to resist the temptation to fill all of its 65 litres just because you can.

 

 

Besides comfort, what backpackers and travellers really value is handy pockets and easy access to their things.  Again, the Sherpa ticks all the right boxes.

There are two large side pockets for those bits of kit you want to find quickly.  This is the main difference between the Sherpa and the similarly-priced Contour and Sherpa 60+10; the latter don’t have external pockets which I think makes them less convenient to use.  The top enclosure has both an outside pocket (for hat and gloves, maps and suchlike) and a concealed inside pocket for your valuables and paperwork.  There are two outside mesh pockets at either side of the waistband for water bottles or sweets and a water-resistant zip pocket on the waistband itself for money or a phone.  Finally, a large zipped pocket on the rear would easily hold a map or other things you need convenient access to.

A particularly convenient feature is that the Sherpa can be accessed from the top as well as the bottom.  The wide neck at the top has two drawcords to ensure your kit is safe and fully enclosed.  Besides providing some compression it also affords some protection from rain – although I would always advise you use a waterproof liner (a bin bag is ideal) to keep your gear completely dry.  A large zipped bottom pocket opens up to give access to the lower part of the rucsac.  This could be used as a separate compartment (by closing the internal divider with its drawcord) – ideal for a sleeping bag or wet clothes – or alternatively, could simply allow access to gear via the bottom of the bag.

 

Self-adjust back system

One of the neatest features of the Sherpa 65 is its easy-to-use self-adjust back system.  We all come in different shapes and sizes and so the fit of a rucsac really makes the difference between an enjoyable and potentially agonising experience.  The Sherpa’s shoulder straps can be adjusted up and down along its stiffened aluminium frame and the accompanying top and bottom straps tightened to fix in place.  Take a look at this video to find out how to fit a Vango Sherpa rucsac.

I’m 5′ 7″ and learned that I need to adjust the back fitting to around 50-52cm.  However, before I watched the video I had it adjusted to 56cm when testing it out – which actually felt good – and so it seems from my experience at least that there’s some flexibility in this sizing.  But if you’re slightly shorter than me, my advice would be to try it out for size in a shop first.

 

Features

While the Sherpa doesn’t seem to have a place to store a kitchen sink, it does seem to have a place for most other things.  There are elasticated loops on either side for walking poles, ‘daisy chain’ straps to secure a rollmat with bungees and it’s also compatible with hydration packs.  There’s a small emergency whistle on one of the front straps as well as a bright orange raincover in a zipped pocket underneath.

 

 

Overview

All in all, the Sherpa 65 is a well-designed, robust and comfortable rucsac which should last many years worth of expeditions and travels.

What I liked:

  • Very comfortable to wear
  • Lots of pockets and loops to store easy-to-get-at gear
  • Adjustable back system
  • Dual access from top or bottom
  • Separate lower compartment to store a sleeping bag or wet gear
  • Robust materials

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Weight – 2.34kg
  • Thick padding could become warm in hotter climates

 

Note:  The Vango Sherpa 65 was provided to me to review for free by Outdoorsupply.co.uk.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using the rucsac.

 

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The Clever Camper Cookbook – Review and giveaway competition

If you’ve ever taken a campervan away you’ll know that cooking quick, easy and tasty meals is not always as straightforward as it seems.  Those trusty staples from home might rely on that extra burner or grill that you’re lacking, or perhaps some spices or other ingredients that make it just a little too complicated.  Alternatively, keeping things too simple – relying on that favourite pasta-and-sauce combo, for example – might just become a little boring after the first couple of nights away.

Clearly, there’s a balance to be struck between a culinary experience and the ‘boy scout’ approach.  And I think the new Clever Camper Cookbook achieves just the right happy medium, featuring over 20 no-fuss but delicious home cooking recipes.

 

 

Megan Winter-Barker and Simon Fielding spent months exploring the world in their VW camper, and have honed their tried-and-tested menus into the  Clever Camper Cookbook.  All their meals can be cooked on just two burners, together with a small fridge or coolbox.  They know a thing or two about food too, with Simon’s family business, The Apple Pie Café and Bakery, located in the Lake District .

 

 

Having tried out some of the recipes I have to say that these are exactly the kinds of meals that we often eat at home and would happily eat away in the campervan.  Forget those cookbooks that require you to go foraging in the woods or on the beach before you could contemplate settling down to a meal.  Megan and Simon’s recipes for risotto, bolognese and pasta and bean stew are not only filling and tasty but very straightforward. But what about a one-pot Mexican breakfast?  I’ve never cooked something like this but I found it really yummy and a doddle to make. 

I particularly like the ingenuity and waste-not-want-not attitude in this cookbook.  Whatever’s-in-the-fridge Risotto is practical and self-explanatory.  If you’ve ever fancied making your own fajitas and wraps from scratch, it’ll show you how.  Curry with homemade naan bread … no problem.  And you don’t need to take the proverbial kitchen sink away with you to create these delicious meals.  As you can see in the picture at the foot of this post, something that most campervanners will have in their cupboard can double up as a very handy cooking utensil!

 

Giveaway competition

The Clever Camper Cookbook is published this week by Dog ‘n’ Bone and is available to buy for £8.99.

However, I also have two copies to give away to two lucky readers.  If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning a free copy please share a favourite campervan recipe in the comments box at the bottom of this page.

To enter, please describe a trusty recipe that fits the ‘clever camper’ theme of this new cookbook.  Ideally I’m looking for a meal that’s no-fuss, delicious and with just a hint of ingenuity.  It can be a meal or snack for any time of the day.  All I need you to do is to name the recipe and leave a short description of the ingredients and cooking method – just enough that would enable someone else to easily follow the recipe.

The two winning recipes will be selected by Megan Winter-Barker and Simon Fielding personally and the winners will be notified shortly after the closing date.  Please read the competition rules below carefully.

Good luck!

The rules
  • Entries must be received by 10pm on Friday 30th March
  • Entries must be submitted as comments to this blog post
  • Two winners will each receive one copy of ‘The Clever Camper Cookbook’ by Megan Winter-Barker and Simon Fielding
  • The two winning entries will be chosen on merit by the authors personally, selecting meals or snacks that are ‘no-fuss, delicious and with just a hint of ingenuity’
  • Open to UK residents aged 18 or over
  • Only one entry per person
  • The winners will be informed by email within 7 days of the closing date, and must respond within 7 days to claim their prize
  • The prizes will be sent out by post within 28 days of receiving the winner’s address.

 

Thanks to those who entered the competition and congratulations to the two winners, Kate Georgeson and Bethan Scriven.

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5 reasons why walking is good for physical and mental wellbeing

It’s official: nature is good for you.

In fact, according to England’s Chief Medical Officer in 2010: “If a medication existed which had a similar effect to physical activity, it would be regarded as a “wonder drug” or a “miracle cure”’.

But nature isn’t just a remedy for a healthy body, it also nurtures a healthy mind.  Going to the outdoors boosts our self-esteem, reduces stress and anxiety, increases energy and endorphins, and stimulates our creativity.  Physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active helps those who are depressed recover.  Come back from a walk outside and you feel renewed and with a fresh perspective.  The very language we use reflects these benefits to mental wellbeing: “recharging our batteries” and “reconnecting”.

There’s a growing focus on removing the stigma often attached  to mental health and bringing it out into the open.  I’m fully behind this and delighted to support the current ‘Walk and Talk’ campaign organised by Winfields.  You can read a selection of other articles, including this one, all on the theme of the outdoors as a way to overcome mental health issues.

I’ve blogged about this topic before, when I described how going walking and wild camping helps me escape the stresses of ‘life’ and regenerates my own wellbeing.  However, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to look again at the physical and mental health benefits of walking, and getting outdoors generally.  Since I’ve also been reading John Muir’s writing lately I’ve selected several well-known quotes that I think are particularly apt for this topic.

 

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

 

Walking reduces stress

Escaping the house or the office into a natural environment is a great way to calm and clear your mind.  It gives us a renewed sense of perspective and helps us relax.  Studies have shown that stress levels are directly related to the amount of green space in the local area – the more green space, the less stressed a person is likely to be.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about ‘wilderness’ here: even a walk in a neighbourhood park, a trip to a local beauty spot or a walk through a wood will give the same benefits.

But there are even greater benefits when we carry out physical activity in a natural environment.  Not only does exercise release stress-reducing endorphins, giving us a natural ‘high’, but freed from our usual constant focus on work, people, money and so on, there’s more head space available for internal reflection.  How many times have you been on a long walk and lost track of time?  You engage auto-pilot and your mind is stimulated by internal thoughts and feelings in an almost zen-like trance.  I often need this.

 

 

We are all, in some sense, mountaineers, and going to the mountains is going home”  John Muir

 

Walking gives us a renewed perspective

John Muir famously wrote that “wilderness is a necessity“.  As humans we instinctively need to re-connect with nature every once in a while, resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history.  In fact, our separation from nature has only been relatively recent, over the last 250 years or so.  The Norwegians have a name for it: friluftsliv.  This is literally translated as “free air life” (free-loofts-liv) but like hygge, its cultural connotations go far beyond any English approximation.  Both words refer to uplifting ambience but while hygge focuses on cosiness and human relationships, friluftsliv captures the essence of our relationship with nature.

A classic introvert, I need time alone to re-energise myself, and walking and camping solo is a great way to let my subconscious ideas percolate.   I often think I’m at odds with other folk who enjoy the outdoors as part of a group and need that social stimulation.  I definitely don’t feel lonely – quite the opposite in fact! – but for me it’s about restoring my sense of ‘balance’.

There’s a big difference between solitude and loneliness and this great piece by Alastair Humphreys draws out the distinction.  Loneliness is a negative state characterised by isolation, whereas solitude “is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself“.  Solitude is a personal choice and not imposed on us like loneliness.  “Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves“.

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I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees”  Henry David Thoreau

 

Walking increases energy

It’s often tempting to stay on the sofa when you’re feeling fatigued or down.  But in fact, studies have shown that when individuals with sedentary lifestyles take part in just 20-minutes of low or moderate intensity exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling, their energy increases by 20% and fatigue levels drop by 65% when compared to individuals undertaking no exercise at all.

Exercising improves self-perception and self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and reduces anxiety and fatigue.  In older people, staying active can improve cognitive function, memory, attention and processing speed, and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
 

 

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”  John Muir

 

Walking boosts creativity

Magically, the combination of nature and exercise seem to stimulate our brain in unexpected ways.  How often have you been out for a walk when an idea pops into your head?  Our subconscious makes connections that help us generate new and creative solutions.  In fact, many companies and organisations encourage quick, walk-and-talk sessions so staff can benefit from these social and creative connections that come from conversations on foot.

On the radio just yesterday I head someone commenting that high-achievers in many areas of life such as business, sports and the arts also have wide general interests.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that their brains benefit from different types of stimulation, helping them succeed and keeping them at the top of their game.

 

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike”  John Muir

 

Walking keeps us physically fit

Inactivity is a key factor in the dramatic growth of obesity: 65% of Scottish adults and 29% of children are either overweight or obese.

We know that while all walking helps, walking briskly gives the greatest benefits to heart, lungs and blood pressure.  We should be breathing a little faster, getting warmer and feeling our heart beating just a little faster – but still able to comfortably hold a conversation.

Spending time in the outdoors and in contact with the natural environment improves well being and helps fight stress and depression:

  • We feel fitter and controlling weight helps improve body image and confidence
  • Active people have a reduced risk of suffering clinical depression
  • Walking in a group is a sociable activity that can help improve mental health and overcome feelings of isolation.

 

So whatever you do, just make sure that …

Of all the paths you take in life make sure a few of them are dirt”  John Muir

 

 

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Skye – Photo book competition

The Isle of Skye has a special place in Scots’ hearts.  It’s a land forged from hard, jagged rocks, often swirling in cloud, that evokes wildness, mystery and grandeur.  Rich in history and culture, its communities now depend on crofting, tourism and whisky for their livelihoods.

I’m delighted to announce the second of my collaborations with Allan Wright, a well-known Scottish landscape photographer, in which I have two free copies of his collection of Skye images to give away.  Read on for details of how to enter this latest competition and win a copy of ‘Skye: A photographic communion‘ (RRP £20).

Sunlight and shadows over Uig Bay (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

I’ve visited Skye many times over the years.  Although it’s Scotland’s second largest island (next to Lewis and Harris) it somehow seems more compact, containing immense drama and landscape variety in a comparatively small land mass.  A series of peninsulas and bays fans out from the Black and Red Cuillin mountains in the south, with the Trotternish Ridge in the north characterised by such distinctive landscape features as The Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing.  Some say that the shape of the peninsulas and sea lochs gives rise to its Gaelic name – An t-Eilean Sgiathanach – ‘the winged island’.

Allan Wright’s images expertly capture the majesty and grandeur of this wild land.  Light and shadow pick out snow-capped mountains and lochs.  Big skies provide an impressive backdrop to lonely beaches.  Brooding clouds are an ever-present reminder of the dominant forces of nature.

I have two copies of Allan’s book to give away to two lucky readers.  If these landscapes have whetted your appetite then please find out how to enter the competition.

 

View from Elgol to Loch Scavaig and the Skye Cuillin (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

The competition

To enter the competition and be considered for one of the two prizes please take a look at the gallery of images on Allan Wright’s site and answer the following question:

Inspired by Allan’s images, describe the memorable location that best sums up Skye’s wild and scenic beauty for you.  Or if you haven’t yet visited Skye, describe which location you would most like to visit and why.

We’re looking for descriptive answers that capture the essence of Skye and your relationship with the island, its culture and landscape.

You will need to leave your answer as a comment at the foot of this post in order to be considered.  Entries submitted by e-mail, on social media or a different page on this blog will not be valid.

There are over 104 images to choose from so hopefully there’s plenty of inspiration for you.  Which location best represents the character of Skye?  How does the image make you feel?  Have you a personal story to tell related to the location?  Does it hold memories or aspirations for you?

The rules
  • Entries must be received by 10pm on Sunday 11th March
  • Entries must be submitted as comments to this blog post
  • Two winners will each receive one copy of ‘Skye: A photographic communion’ by Allan Wright
  • The two winning entries will be chosen on merit by the photographer personally
  • Open to UK residents aged 18 or over
  • Only one entry per person
  • The winners will be informed by email within 7 days of the closing date, and must respond within 7 days to claim their prize
  • The prizes will be sent out by post by Bonnie Communications (on behalf of Allan Wright) within 28 days of receiving the winner’s address

Good luck!

 

Gesto Farmhouse and Loch Harport (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

 

This competition has now closed.  The two winning entries were from Katrina Little and Prentice Baines.

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Skiing the slopes of Les Arcs

It’s been a particularly good year for snow in the French Alps, the best for six years.  Already, Les Arcs has enjoyed over 4 metres of snow, double the snowfall for the whole of last season – and it’s still only mid-February.

Last week I had a great time skiing in Les Arcs with my son.  It was the first time we’d been to this resort and were looking forward to the variety that comes with a large ski area.  It didn’t disappoint.

Les Arcs was built in the late 1960s and has 200km of pistes over 113 runs.  But since the Vanoise Express cable car was completed in 2003 it now forms part of the much larger Paradiski area, connecting Les Arcs and neighbouring Peisey-Vallandry to La Plagne to give 256 pistes and 435km of skiing.  During the week we didn’t even ski all of the runs on the Les Arcs side of the valley, far less venture over to La Plagne.

 

A mix of runs above and below the tree line

Our week got off to a great start.  While some of the highest mountains were draped in cloud at the beginning of the week, the snow was plentiful and in perfect condition.  It was cold, bright and sunny.  There were two almost cloudless days midweek: great conditions for cruising long runs, both above and below the tree line.

Les Arcs is actually a collection of seven, largely purpose-built resorts set high above the town of Bourg Saint Maurice.  We were staying in Plan Peisey, just beside the Vanoise Express, which at 1600m is one of the lowest villages and just below the tree line.  While there are some great high-level runs above the newer resorts of Les Arcs 2000 and 1950, we actually preferred the fast red runs through the trees at Peisey-Vallandry.  On days where low cloud covers the high peaks, and it’s difficult to discern sky from piste in flat, white light, this is definitely the best place to be.  Some may prefer the ‘mountain village’ feel to Les Arcs 1950 but if you want variety and the flexibility to choose between Les Arcs or La Plagne for your day’s skiing, then I think Peisey has the upper hand.

 

A superb tree-lined red run

 

The snow-covered basin above the resorts of Les Arcs 2000 and 1950

We took the cable car to the highest point in Les Arcs, Aiguille Rouge which stands at 3,226 metres.  The peak gives an absolutely stunning panorama across the French and Italian Alps and on a still, clear day this is a place to stop and marvel for a while.

After we soaked in the views we skied down towards the little hamlet of Villaroger, a descent of almost 2km.  Not only did we want to try out the longest continuous run in Les Arcs but we wanted to go for afternoon drinks and cake at Chalet Sollier, arguably one of the best mountain restaurants in the entire resort.  The hot wine and tarte aux myrtilles (blueberry pie) were definitely worth skiing down for, and the view just divine.

The cable car ascending Aiguille Rouge (3226m)

 

The view from the top of the Aiguille Rouge

 

Les Arcs has had over 4 metres of snow so far this season

 

The Aiguille Rouge red run, descending down to Villaroger

 

Le Chalet Solliet had arguably the best view of all the mountain restaurants we ate at

It was a week of two halves though.  After the glorious midweek sunshine a low pressure heralded rising temperatures, low cloud and — horror! — drizzly rain.  The temperature in Peisey reached 8 degrees by the end of the week and combined with the rain, meant that the deep, powdery snow had become heavy.  It’s not much fun skiing in damp cloud either.  Along with the return of my son’s fluey virus he’s been battling over the last month, we spent much of the last half of our holiday holed up in our apartment.

Still, we’d had a great trip and these photos bring back memories of great skiing in a fantastic resort.  With so much of the Paradiski area still to explore it’d be great to go back.

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Chasing the ‘super blue blood moon’

The moon shining through the clouds above the Wallace Monument

For the first time since 1982 this week we were treated 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.

I decided to use some of Stirling’s historic locations as foreground.  It was a pity that the sky was largely cloudy when I headed out early in the evening but in fact the high cloud simply amplified the effect.  The moon appeared like a huge disc above the Wallace Monument and shone brightly above Stirling Castle.

Atmospheric clouds above Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle, backlit

If you appreciate good photography (not necessarily mine!) don’t forget that the Galloway giveaway competition is still open until Sunday 11th February.  Featuring the fantastic landscape photography of Allan Wright, you could win a copy of one of Allan’s latest books all about his home region of Galloway.

It’s dead easy to enter so please take a look!

 

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Galloway – A photographic portrait

I’m pleased to be teaming up with Allan Wright, a well-known landscape photographer, to showcase a new book he’s published on Galloway.  If you’re a fan of Galloway then read on since I also have free copies of his book to give away to two lucky readers.

Overwintering geese, Southerness, Solway Firth    (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

I’m a fairly recent convert to the quiet charms of Galloway, having enjoyed recent visits to the coast near Kirkcudbright, visiting the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park as well as cycling across the region en route to John O’Groats.

Taking in the Southern Uplands, the Solway coast and fertile agricultural land, its rolling hills and steadfast towns seem to have an understated appeal.  But take the time to discover Galloway and you’ll find a land of real beauty.  From hidden bays, rolling fields and bluebell woods to imposing castles and wide-sky vistas it’s a region that has much to offer.

Allan Wright is a leading Scottish landscape photographer who has captured images of Scotland as well as his adopted home of Galloway for the last 30 years.  One of his recent books, simply called ‘Galloway’, brings the character of the area to life.  His exquisite photographs show the area through the seasons, from dawn to dusk.  I particularly like the way he captures light in his images, including reflections in still rivers, rich sunsets and shadows cast across rough moorland.

If, like me, you’re a fan of high quality landscape photography – or you simply love Galloway – then you’ll be keen to see Allan’s latest book of images.  I have copies to give away (RRP £20) to two competition winners.

Carsphairn Lead Mine (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

The competition

To enter the competition and be considered for one of the two prizes please answer the following question:

Which image (from the gallery on Allan’s website) do you think best evokes Galloway and why?

You will need to leave your answer as a comment at the foot of this post in order to be considered.  Entries submitted by e-mail or social media will not be valid.

There are over 130 images to choose from so there’s plenty scope to find an image that sums up Galloway to you.  How does the image make you feel?  Do you have a personal story to tell related to the scene?  Does it hold memories or aspirations for you?

The rules
  • Entries must be received by 10pm on Sunday 11th February
  • Entries must be submitted as comments to this blog post
  • Two winners will each receive one copy of ‘Galloway’ by Allan Wright
  • The two winning entries will be chosen on merit by the photographer personally
  • Open to UK residents aged 18 or over
  • Only one entry per person
  • The winners will be informed by email within 7 days of the closing date, and must respond within 7 days to claim their prize
  • The prizes will be sent out by post by Bonnie Communications (on behalf of Allan Wright) within 28 days of receiving the winner’s address

Finally, I’ll shortly be running similar competitions featuring Allan Wright’s recently-published books on Glasgow and Skye.  If you want to be in with a chance of winning one of these two books too please follow my blog so you’ll be sure not to miss them!

Good luck!

This competition has now closed.  The two winners were Liz Gettoes and  David McKellar, and their prizes have been sent out to them.