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Top 10 Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights

Top 10 northern lights

While the current 11-year sunspot cycle peaked in 2013 there’s still a great chance to see the Northern Lights over the next couple of years.  In this updated post I’ll share my top tips for seeing the aurora and being prepared when the conditions are just right !

I suspect like many people, seeing the northern lights was near the top of my bucket list for many years.  It’s certainly not a common sight but spectacular and absolutely jaw-dropping when the ‘dancing lights’ do make an appearance.

In Scotland’s mid-latitude location the northern lights are quite often seen as a faint glow just above the horizon.  We tend not to see amazing displays directly overhead or to see the fast-moving lights that can be seen in higher latitudes such as Alaska, Northern Canada and Northern Scandinavia.  However, in Februrary 2013 I booked a trip to Tromso, one of the best places in Europe to see the northern lights, and was lucky enough to see fantastic displays on three our the four nights of my stay.  You can read more about my trip to Tromso as well as to the nearby Lyngen Alps on my blog.  I joined aurora trips led by Kjetil Skogli (one of the best-known ‘aurora chasers’ and the guide that finally allowed Joanna Lumley to see the northern lights in the excellent BBC documentary of 2008), and learned such a lot about how to look for the lights and how to photograph them.

Northern lights, Dafjord, Northern Norway

Northern lights, Dafjord, Northern Norway, February 2013

Since then I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to seen the northern lights from near my home in Central Scotland on many occasions.  While there’s clearly a lot of luck involved – an aurora doesn’t always happen at night time when you want it to ! – as you’ll see from my tips below, good preparation counts for a lot.

What are the Northern Lights ?

The northern lights – or the aurora borealis – are caused by solar storms colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field and creating charged particles generating dazzling light.  When sunspot activity is high, clouds of gas are emitted from the sun (called a coronal  mass ejection), taking about 2 to 3 days to reach Earth.  When a coronal mass ejection collides with the magnetic field, currents of charged particles flow along lines of magnetic force into the polar regions.  The particles combine with gases to generate auroral light with oxygen producing greenish light (the most common) and nitrogen producing reddish or sometimes bluish light.  When the particles flow along the magnetic fields the northern lights appear as ‘curtains’, which appear to move in a strong display.  Other forms include arcs, shafts of light stretching high into the sky or coronas appearing overhead.

For those keen to increase their chances of viewing the Northern Lights in Scotland here are my top 10 tips:

1.  Choose the right location

Since even a strong aurora is not as strong as the full moon you need to head for a location with as little light pollution as possible.  You’re looking for dark skies with a clear view of as much of the sky as possible.  Weaker auroras viewed from the UK can frequently be seen as arcs at a fairly low angle above the horizon, although it’s not uncommon to see vertical shafts of light at higher angles reaching 100 – 500 miles high.  Try to pick a location with an interesting foreground which will make for better photos.  It’s a good idea to scout out possible locations in daylight so when you’re in a hurry in the darkness so you know exactly where you’re going.

2.  Be in a northerly location – or take a trip north

Higher latitudes offer better chances of seeing the lights, as highlighted on this map of the best sites for auroral photography in the UK.  That’s great if you live in Shetland or Aberdeen but don’t worry, since during strong auroral displays there have been good sightings even as far south as Norfolk and South Wales during this current solar maximum. Even if you don’t live in the north of Scotland, good preparation can increase your chances of seeing an aurora.  And you could also consider taking a short trip north …

Read my post on the best places to see the northern lights in Scotland.

DSC_0054

Reflections, Stirlingshire, October 2015

3.  Track aurora forecasts

Aurora Watch UK is the best site to monitor geomagnetic activity for the UK/Scotland.  They have a system of alerts (eg green = no significant activity through to red = likely that aurora will be visible from everywhere in the UK), which are circulated from their website, Twitter and their Facebook site.   The latter is a great way of monitoring other people’s sightings around the country.  [October 2013 update: the AuroraWatch monitor in Deeside is currently out of action, and alerts are coming from Lancaster.  The monitor should be up and running again during Nov/Dec which should give more accurate readings, particularly for aurora watchers in Scotland.]

Aurora forecasts use a simple index called Kp, a number from 0 to 9, which refers to geomagnetic activity over a 3-hour period.  Anything over 5 is at ‘Storm’ level (ie meaning that aurora are potentially visible as far south as Central and Southern Scotland).

You can check estimated planetary Kp levels on the Aurora Watch UK app, the US NOAA Space Weather Prediction CenterAuroraSpy (which gives a cloud forecast) and SolarHam (also on Facebook and Twitter).  I personally use the Solar Monitor app on my iPhone most frequently, which also gives ‘push’ notifications (alerts).

Northern lights over the frozen Lake Kilpisjarvi, Finland

Northern lights over the frozen Lake Kilpisjarvi, Finland

4.  Be aware of the moon’s cycle

Just as street lighting and other light pollution will affect how clearly you can see the northern lights, the strength of the moon is also a factor.  Some people suggest avoiding the full moon when planning a trip to view the aurora; while weaker, however, the aurora is still visible when there is a full moon.  In fact, some moonlight is beneficial for photography, highlighting the foreground to show landscape as well as the sky as described in this useful blog post.

5.  Understand the 28-day rotational cycle of the sun

A useful tip for predicting future sightings of the northern lights is to mark your calendar 27 or 28 days after each solar storm.  This is because the sun rotates on its axis every 27-28 days.  If a sunspot (a coronal hole) is emitting gas then it is likely to also be active the next time it is facing Earth.

6.  Be out between 10pm – 2am (and be patient)

While the northern lights can be seen as soon as it becomes dark right through to dawn, the period from 10pm to 2am is the favoured time for seeing them.  Geomagnetic activity often happens in ‘waves’ where auroral displays strengthen then subside before strengthening again.  This means you need to be patient !

Northern lights, Scotland, Feb 2014

Strong auroral display from Perthshire, February 2014

7.  Know how to use your camera … before you head out

There’s nothing worse than being in an ideal location to see a spectucular display only to be fiddling with your camera settings not knowing what to do.  Once again, preparation and practice are key – you can’t afford to waste precious time out on a cold hillside when the lights decide to shine brightly.

This good article and video below give clear instructions on the right settings you need.  You really need an SLR camera capable of taking long exposures (between 5 to 60 seconds).  You might want to start with a 30 second exposure and then experiment with shorter and longer periods.  You’ll see that the advice varies, so know how to use your camera and experiment with different settings.

8.  Take ‘test’ photos event when you can’t see anything with the naked eye

In contrast to the likes of Alaska and Northern Scandinavia, within the Arctic Circle, aurorae are weaker in Scotland.  But just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean that there’s no activity.  It’s worth setting up your camera on its tripod and taking a few test shots with long exposures – you may just then be able to see a greenish glow in the sky otherwise invisible to the naked eye.  If so, you might just want to stick around a little longer.

9.  Wrap up warm

It goes without saying that waiting around outside in potentially freezing temperatures for hours on end will become uncomfortable after a while.  Again, be prepared.  Wrap up warm, take a flask of hot drinks, take some handwarmers … whatever you need to make your efforts just a little more comfortable.

10.  Pray for clear skies !

Last but certainly not least, you need as little cloud cover as possible to have the best chance of seeing the northern lights.  There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing there’s an amber or red alert, yet Scotland being covered by a blanket of cloud (which so often seems to happen).  So fingers crossed and keep trying !

Additional links:

The best places to see the northern lights in Scotland

Kjetil Skogli, Aurora Chaser based in Tromso

Two nights of Northern Lights

NASA video of the International Space Station flying through the aurora

Post updated October 2015

Top 10 Film Locations in Scotland

The recent announcement by CNN Travel that the James Bond film Skyfall is one reason why they have named Scotland the world’s top travel destination for 2013 got me thinking ….  What other well-known films have been shot in Scotland, and where ?

Here’s my Top 10 list of famous films and their locations. I already knew about many of these films but only once I started looking into it did I realise that we’re spoilt for choice – a great many films have been set in Scotland. I’m indebted to the Scotland: The Movie Location Guide website for collating all of this information, including film stills, into one place.

So what criteria did I use to compile my Top 10 ?  Well, it’s clearly going to be very subjective – and a topic to fuel many a long pub conversation – but it really came down to two criteria.  Firstly, I’ve chosen films that not only show off Scotland’s fantastic scenery and culture in the best light (with the exception of Trainspotting …) and secondly, good films that are worth watching time and time again.  While not everyone may agree, I think it’s a pretty good list of the best films shot in Scotland.

10.    Mrs Brown

Duns Castle

Mrs Brown tells the story of the scandalous relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her servant, John Brown (Billy Connolly).  Dench was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film in 1997.  It was shot in three locations, at Duns Castle in the Borders (see above), at River Pattack (near Laggan) and at the Ardverikie Estate in Badeonoch.

9.      Trainspotting

Trainspotting

I found Trainspotting a really depressing film I have to say.  It’s definitely not an inspiring film, showing an aspect of Scotland that no one can be proud of, but it nevertheless has been ranked 10th in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.  It portrays a group of heroin addicts in the late 1980s, based on Irvine Welsh’s book, starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald.  Much of the film is set in Edinburgh (but also shot in Glasgow) but one of the most memorable scenes shows the gr0up getting off a train at Corrour Station on the West Highland line.  (For walkers, you will be familiar with this station and the tea room close to Loch Ossian and the Grey Corries).

8.      Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics – Eric Liddell, a devout Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, a Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.  It won four Oscars in 1983 including best picture and music score, and is ranked 19th in the British Film Institute’s list of Top 100 British films.  Chariots of Fire has scenes filmed in Scotland at the Sma Glen near Perth, St Andrews and Edinburgh (including Salisbury Crags near Arthur’s Seat, pictured).

7.       The Thirty Nine Steps

39 Steps

The 1959 version of the Thirty Nine Steps, after the John Buchan novel, shows the most extensive set of film locations, largely in the Trossachs in Central Scotland.  The plot has diplomat Richard Hannay getting inadvertently embroiled in the death of a British spy investigating the head of an organisation planning to sell the secret of a British ballistic missile.  Hannay travels to Scotland to escape the police – including jumping from a moving train on the Forth Rail Bridge – and attempts to complete the spy’s work.  In the scene above you can see the ferry slipway and ferry at North Queensferry, before the Forth Road Bridge was built.

6.     Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The 1975 Monty Python comedy parodies King Arthur’s quest to find the holy grail.  Despite telling this very English story, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was almost entirely filmed in Scotland.  It has scenes filmed at Glen Coe, Perthshire, Rannoch Moor and a variety of castles across Scotland.  The scene above was shot at Doune Castle, near Stirling (well worth visiting, by the way).  Many visitors to this day visit the castle given its Monty Python connections.

5.      Whisky Galore!

Whisky Galore

A classic 1949 Ealing comedy film (released in the US as Tight Little Island) based on the novel Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie.  It tells the story of the unauthorised smuggling of whisky from the cargo of the shipwrecked S.S. Politician, which happened in real life near the island of Eriskay.  The scene from the film above shows the town of Todday (Castlebay in Barra, in the Western Isles).

4.      Gregory’s Girl

Gregory's Girl

 

Gregory’s Girl is one of my all-time favourite films and has a cult following in Scotland but not, I suspect, anywhere else in the world (although it did win a BAFTA as Best Film in 1982 for director Bill Forsyth).  I think the description of the film from the Movie Location Guide pretty well sums it up:  “In a Scottish new town, Gregory, a school footballer becomes aware of…girls!   Life is OK for Gregory – even when he loses his star position in the football team to gorgeous Dorothy of 5a.  Demoted to goalie, he now has time to revel in her triumphs on the field and to dream of the possibilities that just may lie ahead…off the field.  But his interest is not entirely reciprocated.  Will he survive a rebuff ?  Can his friends cure him of his terrible infatuation ?  Will he score with Dorothy ?  Will he score at all ?  Who’s going to be Gregory’s girl ?”.

It’s a delightful film brilliantly played by John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn and Clare Grogan in the less-than-delightful Cumbernauld of 1981.  The scenery is … well … a concrete new town just north of Glasgow but it perfectly fits the romantic coming-of-age subject matter.  Given I was a similar age to the cast at high school in 1981, I and others from my generation can entirely relate to it !

3.      Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

This is the second of the Harry Potter series of films based on the J. K. Rowling books and starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.  Many of the films were partly set in Scotland but the Chamber of Secrets has a famous scene where Harry and Ron have taken Ron’s dad’s magical car to fly back to Hogwarts school, having missed the Hogwart’s Express.  Here we see the Ford Anglia flying towards the Glenfinnan Viaduct on the Forth William to Mallaig train line, one of the finest rail journeys in the world.

2.      Local Hero

Local Hero

Local Hero was Director Bill Forsyth’s follow up to Gregory’s Girl in 1983.  It’s another delightful comedy-drama that looks at the conflict between a Texas oil company and the canny residents of a Scottish fishing village, whose land is needed by the Americans for their North Sea oil base.  The cinematography is fantastic and is a true advertisement to some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer.  The soundtrack, by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, is also considered some of his best work.

Local Hero was filmed in several locations around Scotland.  Most of the Ferness village scenes were filmed in Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast (where the red telephone box stood, although its location was changed in the film), and most of the beach scenes at  Morar and Arisaig on the west coast.

1.      Skyfall

"Skyfall" Teaser Poster #007

Skyfall is the 23rd James Bond film and the first since the days of Roger Moore to be filmed in Scotland.  While shot in many locations around the world (London, Turkey, Macau) the final scenes are shot in Glen Coe and Glen Etive in the West Highlands.  Skyfall is the 14th highest-grossing film worldwide, netting over $1 billion, and the highest-grossing film in the UK.

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I want a modern, reliable camper van

 

Volksfling August 2014

Want a camper van but have realised that you want a good balance between reliability, practicality and style ?

Well, if you’re like us you’re on a journey that has probably started with yearning after a T1 splitscreen or T2 bay window van but have now come to appreciate that there are certain drawbacks to such a romantic notion.  Like comfort, for example.  Or confidence that it’ll start first time.  Or not really wanting to be on first name terms with the man from your breakdown recovery service.

The first part of my story recounted how we’d dipped our toes in the water and took an original 1970s Bay to Islay for a week’s break.  We wanted to know if owning a classic VW camper van was for us.  Unfortunately, it ended with us phoning the hire company to ask them to come and pick up their poorly-maintained van (rear bumper hanging off), having experienced several less-than-pleasant experiences over the previous week.

We’re not competent mechanics and the very last thing we wanted was the hassle of an old vehicle costing us money and worry, so we put pay to any idea of owning an original T2.  However, we’d already got the camper van ‘bug’ and so the obvious question was: “so if it’s not going to be an older van, what should we now look at ?”.

Act II of this little story starts in mid-2010, two years after that fateful holiday in Islay.

In the UK there are basically three options – if you want a VW, that is (a large white motorhome wasn’t exactly what we had in mind !!):

  • a modern Brazilian-made T2, converted by Danbury
  • a T5 Transporter converted by one of many companies in the UK
  • VW’s camper van, the California.

(No prizes to regular readers who know how this story ended, by the way.  Please stick with me – hopefully you’ll enjoy the story).

Act 11 Scene 1 – The Danbury

We knew that the conversion company Danbury imported modern T2 Kombi vans, which are manufactured in Sao Paolo in Brazil, and converted them into campers.  These have water-cooled petrol (or biofuel) engines and look similar to the original T2s with the exception of the radiator on the front and a flatter, squarer roof.  Danbury import plain white panel vans and convert them into campers with windows and retro ’70s colour schemes.

There are four main model types on offer with a variety of specifications from 4 or 5 seats and an optional 7, but all rear-wheel drive.

However, we didn’t even need to view one to know they’re not for us.  They seem underpowered (1390cc, 80 bhp), have basic specifications (power assisted steering is an optional extra, ‘clunky’ interiors) and don’t have the looks of the originals with that big grille on the front.  It seems that rusting is an issue, even on these new vans.   To cap it all, prices start at £23,000 and go up to £35,500 !

Production of Brazilian T2s is coming to an end at the end of 2013 owing to the introduction of new safety laws (where ABS brakes and passenger and driver airbags are required).  One view is that these modern T2s will become instant classics and increase in value.  I must admit I have my doubts; if you’re going to fork out this much why not buy a fully-renovated late Bay that’s a genuine classic ?

Act 11 Scene 2 – Becoming Converted ?

We started researching T5 camper vans in mid-2010.  There are probably a dozen or more conversion companies in the UK including Bilbo, Danbury, CMC Reimo and Jerba and the key attraction on the face of it is that the purchase price is marginally less than the VW California.

Which Motorhome reviewed twelve conversions in their December 2012 issue, revealing the range of styles and specifications on offer.  Clearly, the base T5 van is in a different league from the T2: front-wheel drive with 2.0 litre engines between of 82, 100, 240 or 180bhp, and with 5, 6 or 7-speed gearboxes.  VW restrict supply of the specialist motorhome base vehicle (the ‘SE’) to only seven companies, the others using more basic Transporter bases.

In December 2014, Which Motorhome reviewed four campers based on a VW T5 (including the VW California) together with four non-VW conversions, including Mercedes, Ford, Nissan and Toyota bases.  The video below gives a pretty good feel for each of these eight campers.

Which Motorhome’s review of twelve conversions

The Danbury Surf

CMC Reimo Multi Style … with a toilet (?!)

When we did our research in 2010 we liked the quality and ‘clean’ look of the Jerba conversion, with several variations available.  We personally didn’t like the side-elevating roof of the Bilbo which doesn’t seem the most efficient use of space ‘upstairs’.  On one trip away we looked at van from Elite Conversions but were put off the traditional, square look to the storage and the ‘carpet’ coverings (reminscent of buses) to the walls.

These days there are many more conversions available to suit different circumstances and budgets. So if you’re looking for a conversion seating a family of five then the CMC Reimo (T5 base), Wellhouse Terrier (Ford Transit base) or the Hillside Dalbury Action (Nissan base) might be suitable. Some people might be attracted by the fact that most UK conversions have the sliding door on the passenger side rather than the driver’s side (as in the VW California SE and Beach). (But having owned a California for four years now I can tell you that this really isn’t a disadvantage – you simply have to park on the ‘right’ side of the road). If you’re looking for just an ‘occasional’ camper (and one that’s in a lower price bracket) then the Bilbo Space (T5 base) or Autosleeper Wave (Mercedes base) might be worth considering.

However, in doing your research it’s well worth paying attention to the important aspects which might become limiting after a while, but not immediately obvious if you’re new to camper vans. For example, I think most conversions incorporate too many compromises – as the Which Motorhome videos show. Either:

  • the storage seems inefficient or insufficient. Is a portable toilet, oven or grill a good use of scarce storage space, for example ? Would you use these often ?;
  • the design is very traditional and perhaps unappealing if you want to sell it on;
  • the materials are basic, plasticky or dark;
  • the kitchen is at the rear and not very practical;
  • the engine size is relatively small for a heavy vehicle and therefore limiting;
  • the upper bed isn’t useable for two older children or adults which means that it’s effectively just a two person camper.

Perhaps as important, the initial attraction of conversions – a lower purchase price – isn’t all it seems. Generally, conversion prices start at £30,000 – £40,000 with options extra. Only two of the twelve conversions reviewed by Which Motorhome in 2012 came in at under £35,000 and once you factor in options to give the equivalent spec of the VW California then the margin is small, if at all. The best of the T5 conversions reviewed in December 2014 (the CMC Reimo) came in at £52,000, more than the starting price for a VW California. You then have to factor in residuals – conversions will have a higher rate of depreciation compared with the factory-built California and lack the European-wide dealer network should anything go wrong.

Epilogue

By now you won’t be surprised to hear that we weren’t persuaded to buy either a T2 Danbury nor a T5 conversion.  To be honest, the final Scene is fairly short and sees us going into a VW Van Centre to see a VW California.  It took about 5 minutes for us to be convinced.  Literally.

Each to his or her own.  You may well be (or have been) on this same journey and may come to a different decision.  And if you buy a VW camper van you’ll still be part of the same worldwide community.  But for us – a family of four needing a van for daily use as well as holidays away – the California is easily the best choice.  (And ignore the fact that Which Motorhome for some reason viewed the most expensive California with all the options (at £57,000!) … current prices start at around £45,000, only marginally more than some conversions).

The ingenuity and clean lines of the Cali’s design, the build quality, the 3-year warranty recognised by a dealer network across Europe and beyond, and the fact that it holds its value far more than any other camper or motorhome (and most cars) means that it was a fairly easy decision in the end.  We’ve now owned our Cali for four years and I’ve posted a comprehensive review elsewhere on my site.

 

Last updated November 2014

VW California Europe 2.0 TDI (T5, Facelift)

VW California Europe 2.0 TDI (T5, Facelift) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Wouldn’t it be cool to own a VW camper van ?

Sunset at Kintra Beach, Islay

Sunset at Kintra Beach, Islay

This is a question that has been uttered by many people across the world, I’m sure.  This post could also be subtitled “my personal journey to owning a VW camper van” since it tells the first part of my story to researching and testing out various versions of VW campers.  In my next VW camper vans post – Act 2 – I’ll review the various modern-day campers available in the UK, but this first part of the story will focus on my first-hand experiences with a Bay window VW.

Owing a VW camper van conjures many different emotions and serves a variety of motivations.  For some, it’s a romantic or cool notion, for others purely practical or even an obsession.  In my experience there tend to be two broad types of owners:

  • first, there are the mechanically-minded VW buffs.  Almost always male, they’re heavily into the VW scene having owned and driven various VWs at all stages of their lives (Beetles, Golfs, Passats, Sciroccos, Transporters …)  They make modifications to their vehicles and know how it works, inside and out;
  • second, are those who see a camper van as a means of holidaying and exploring the world.  They typically ‘upgrade’ from camping under canvas for greater flexibility and comfort.  Some keep a camper purely for holidays (it’s parked up the rest of the year) but many use it as a daily vehicle.

I belong the second category.

Act 1, Scene 1  (somewhere west of Glasgow, Summer 2008)

Here we all are, unloading a multitude of goods and chattels from our car on to some concrete hardstanding next to a bright yellow 1974 Bay window camper van.  It’s a Westfalia conversion with a Viking pop-top, sleeping up to five people.  We’re standing in what seems like a farmyard that now houses various industrial units.  In spite of the somewhat less-than-appealing circumstances, we’re excited.  Did I say we were excited ?  Make that EXCITED !!  We’re off on holiday for a week in a rented camper van !  This is our chance to test out an original van before we take the plunge and buy one ourselves.

We get a quick tour of the van from the hire company.  Looks great.  OK, our expectations haven’t quite been met – it’s perhaps a little scruffy inside and those cups could do with a wash.  I also realise that the driver’s seat isn’t adjustable (at all) and need to sit on the edge of the seat and use a cushion to reach the pedals but, hey, we’re realistic to know that we shouldn’t expect creature comforts in a 30+ year-old camper van.

We’re soon chugging down a dual carriageway nervously changing up to 4th gear and reaching the dizzying heights of 50 mph.  Shortly after we’re enjoying the fine views driving up beside Loch Lomond.  We’re realising that driving at a sedate pace allows you a whole different perspective on life; why hurry when the journey is as much fun as the destination ?  We’re on an adventure.

We get a wave from another Bay in Inveraray (hey, we’re now part of the VW community).  Then we pitch up for the night at Port Ban Holiday Park near Kilberry, with fantastic views westwards to Islay and Jura.  [Tip: this is a great site with the Kilberry Inn just nearby].

Type 2 Bay

Act 1, Scene 2 (Islay)

We’ve taken the CalMac ferry across to Islay and are now camped on the dunes at the Kintra Farm campsite (another great site, pretty basic but you’re right at the head of a 7-mile beach).

On the CalMac ferry to Islay

On the CalMac ferry to Islay

Kintra Farm campsite, Islay

Kintra Farm campsite, Islay

We enjoy pottering around Islay, well known around the world for its fine whisky.  It’s windy and one night the roof starts creaking in the middle of the night.  I wake up with the gusts succeeding in forcing the roof down on top of me !  Luckily, I manage to escape being completely flattened and the four of us cosy up ‘downstairs’ for the rest of the night.  These things happen I guess…

The novelty of the van is beginning to wear off a little.  We wonder why the hire company would let out a van with scratched and dirty plastic cups and board games with pieces missing.  Sure, an old van has its quirks and foibles but there’s no excuse for letting down the experience with a lack of attention to the basics.  There’s also a distinctly musty smell from the folding roof; previous hirers have clearly not allowed it to dry before packing it away.

Act 1, Scene 3 (Port Askaig, Islay)

We’re waiting in the queue for the ferry back to Tarbert on the mainland, cooking up tea in the van.  The table decides to “do a wobbly” and before we know it, a pan filled with boiling noodles has fallen on to the floor narrowly missing scalding the kids.  We didn’t touch it – a retaining clip came off and it just gave way.  Oh dear, this isn’t going well …

Act 1, Scene 4 (On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond)

We decide to eat out at the posh marina bar belonging to Cameron House Hotel, right beside the loch.  After a good meal I walk back to the car park to pick up the van before returning back to the bar to pick up the rest of the family.  When I get close enough to see my wife I wonder why she’s frantically waving at me.  I stop and she points to the back of the van – the towbar bike rack has also decided to “do a wobbly”.  It turns out that the third of four rusty bolts holding the towbar-mounted bike rack to the van has made a bid for freedom.  The bike tyres have been bouncing off the road and the whole of the bike rack and steel rear bumper are slumped down towards the road.  Fortunately I wasn’t driving faster than 20 mph.

We’ve had enough.  We phone the rental company and tell them to come and collect their van since we’re not driving it any further.  Within an hour they arrive with our car and we swap our belongings over, relieved to have left an unroadworthy vehicle behind.  With a cheery grin the owners tell us that they’re planning to take the same van up to Skye for a fortnight the very next day.  No problem, they said, we’ll have it in the garage tonight and the welder will get the bumper patched up good as new …

Epilogue

As you might imagine we are not happy.  We write a letter of complaint suggesting that the van is not roadworthy and that no responsible business would ever operate in the way they clearly do.  We do at least receive the courtesy of a reply, denying all charges against them.

They did admit that they had wondered whether they should sell the van we had hired at the end of that season.  But guess what, they’re still renting it out, four years on !  Unbelievable.  And they can only get away with it since customers are only ever going to rent a camper van once from the same company in their lives, and there appears to be so little competition in this market that they can get away with it.

[I should of course point out that this post recounts my personal negative experience with one particular hire company.  I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that other companies operate in a similar fashion.  I merely suggest that you do your research in advance and select wisely.]

The moral of the story

Readers, you will not be surprised to learn that this sorry tale ended our flirtatious thoughts of owning a “cool” Bay window camper van.

If you happy to fall into the first category of  VW camper van owners – see above – then you will  no doubt relish the thought of renovating and maintaining an original van, particularly if you are have a spare £10,000 – £20,000 you don’t need.  Many people take great enjoyment from being a camper van fanatic and good luck to you.

But if you’re like us and fall into the second category, I would strongly urge you to be prepared to take a reality check on any romantic notions of owning a classic VW.  By all means, hire one for a week to ‘get it out of your system’ (and you will !) but think very carefully about long-term ownership.  If you’re after a VW camper ‘experience’ there are other, easier routes to enjoyment – which I’ll cover in Part 2 of this story.

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Top 10 Roadside Pubs in Scotland

Inverie, Knoydart

There’s nothing more inviting at the end of a day sightseeing or walking in the mountains than a cosy pub with a roaring fire, good food and good beer.  You know the kind of place – real ales on tap, great locally-produced food and a warm, friendly atmosphere.

There are plenty of pubs to choose from – over 5,150 at the last count.  (Why did it take me so long to get around to a Top 10 on pubs, you may ask …).  Alas, not every pub meets the criteria I’ve set:

  • first, the Top 10 list is focused on pubs that walkers and climbers often frequent (so, ignore all those soulless city centre bars – these are all roadside or village pubs within walking distance of … a good walk … as well as some of Scotland’s top tourist destinations).  I can assure you that staff wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you strolled in off the hills in your boots and waterproofs;
  • secondly, they strive to provide high quality beer and grub that draw clientele from miles around (some of the local beef, game and seafood on offer, for example, is world class); and
  • thirdly, they have real character.  They enjoy a reputation that extends across Scotland and beyond, they’re often eccentric in their decor (and/or the ‘regulars’), and they often ooze tradition and history as pubs and coaching houses going back many, many decades.

Choosing a definitive Top 10 is no easy matter.  There are at least another 10 I shortlisted but have left out – and probably countless more that I simply haven’t visited or know about (but please leave me a comment if you have any good suggestions you think should be included).  So, here goes …..

10.    Traquair Arms, Innerleithen

Well known in the Scottish Borders, where I used to live, as a traditional, good quality inn.  It serves great food (Border lamb, Tweed vension..) and real ales – Traquair Bear ale – brewed at nearby Traquair House.  There’s a beer garden in summer and cosy log fire in winter.

On the doorstep for … the world-class Glentress and 7 Stanes mountain biking downhill runs; Traquair House, a former hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland dating back to 1107; good walks eg the 212 mile Southern Upland Way, Broad Law.

Traquair House; photo taken during the 2004 Tr...

Traquair House; photo taken during the 2004 Traquair Fair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9.      Moulin Hotel, Pitlochry

A traditional Highland inn dating from 1695 in the tiny hamlet of Moulin, just up the hill from Pitlochry and at the start of the popular walk up Ben Vrackie.  Romantic rooms, good Scottish food and an award-winning pub … with its own microbrewery in the former coaching house behind the Hotel (serving Old Remedial, Ale of Atholl, Braveheart etc).

On the doorstep for … an afternoon’s walk up Ben Vrackie for some cracking views; a stroll around the holiday town of Pitlochry; nearby Blair Castle, home of the Dukes of Atholl; white water rafting, bungee jumping and other adventure sports in the heart of Highland Perthshire’s breathtaking scenery.

2012-06-22 292 Moulin Brewery

2012-06-22 292 Moulin Brewery (Photo credit: martyn jenkins)

8.      Invergarry Hotel

On the road to the Isle of Skye, this comfortable country inn is 22 miles north of Fort William.  It boasts 12 rooms, excellent Scottish food and drink (Michelin recommended) and very well located for the sights in this stunning part of the world.

On the doorstep for … Loch Ness; Loch Garry (famously nicknamed the “map of Scotland” from its roadside viewpoint); Eilan Donan Castle en route for Skye; the Jacobite steam train (used in the Harry Potter film) between Fort William and Mallaig, one of the finest railway journeys in the world; the Great Glen long distance footpath, Ben Tee (Corbett) and countless munros in Glen Shiel and elsewhere.

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The ‘”map of Scotland” formed by Loch Garry (Photo credit: BethanyWeeks)

7.       Bridge of Orchy Hotel

Right on the A82 between Tyndrum and Glen Coe, the Bridge of Orchy Hotel has rooms, good Scottish food, real ales and (for walkers and backpackers) a 46-bed bunkhouse at the back.

On the doorstep for … the munro Beinn Dorain (literally, just across the road) and many great munros in Glen Coe and the Southern Highlands; the 96 mile West Highland Way between Milngavie and Fort William; the underground power station at Ben Cruachan.

6.      Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel

The Cluanie Inn is right on the A87 surrounded by mountains on the Road to Skye.  It serves fresh Scottish food, has its own whisky bar (as well as a ‘normal’ bar serving bar meals) and has 12 rooms.  It’s a little more upmarket than some of the other walkers’ pubs but is a magnet for climbers, walkers and fisherman after a hard day’s exercise.

On the doorstep for … 21 munros (Five Sisters, South Glen Shiel Ridge, The Saddle etc); Eilan Donan Castle, one of the most photographed Scottish castles, the Isle of Skye.

English: Cluanie Inn Petrol, food, drink and b...

English: Cluanie Inn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5.      Sligachan Hotel, Skye

Moved from its original site in 1830 and frequented by “gentleman climbers”, the ‘Slig’ has since earned a reputation across the world for its location near the Cuillin mountains.  It still has the character of a coaching inn and brews the Cuillin real ales in a microbrewery on site (the peaty waters from the river give the beers their distinctive taste and colour).  The Slig has rooms, self catering cottages, a bunkhouse and a campsite just across the road.  What more could you want ?

On the doorstep for … the Cuillin mountains (arguably the finest peaks in the UK and world-renowned); Dunvegan Castle; the Quirang; the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle.

English: The old road bridge at Sligachan

English: The old road bridge at Sligachan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4.      Applecross Inn

After a hair-rising six mile journey over the Bealach na Ba (pass of the cattle), the highest mountain pass in Britain, you will be glad to arrive in Applecross.  Once here, you won’t want to leave.  The Inn is the centre of the community, serving local fresh food (salmon, lobster, crab, oysters, venison …) and with seven rooms.  No wonder then that the Applecross Inn was voted the Scotland Pub of the Year in the 2012 Good Pub Guide.

On the doorstep for … eating, drinking and relaxing.  And looking out over the hills in Skye.  That’s about it.

English: View of the Cuillin from Applecross T...

English: View of the Cuillin from Applecross Taken at dusk from outside the Applecross Inn. I just managed to drag my self out of the pub after cycling from Torridon to Applecross. It was very ‘undulating’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3.      Glenelg Inn

Just over the pass from Shiel Bridge (off the A87 to Skye), Glenelg nestles on the shoreline looking out to Skye.  It’s a civilised place with great seafood, real ales and a cosy snug of a bar.  The rooms are not cheap, mind you, but if you’re looking for a great pub this is about the only place for miles around.

On the doorstep for … the munro, Beinn Sgritheall; the munros in Glen Shiel; the Kylerhea car ferry to Skye (April to mid-October) or the more modern Skye Bridge.

glenelg inn

glenelg inn (Photo credit: Retired Rambler)

2.      The Old Forge, Inverie, Knoydart

Well known as the most remote pub in mainland Britain you need to make an effort to get here – either by boat from Mallaig or several long walking routes.  Once here you can enjoy one of the best seafood platters available anywhere together with the occasional impromptu ceilidh.  The picture at the top of the post shows the Old Forge on the “main street” in Inverie (ie the only road in Knoydart !).

On the doorstep for … unspoilt scenery and wildlife spotting in Knoydart; three munros including Ladhar Bheinn, one of the finest hills in Scotland; sea kayaking.

1.      Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe

The Clachaig is a real magnet for walkers and climbers in Glen Coe and has offered beer and lodging for over 300 years.  Don’t expect luxury – its rooms and food are not the main reason for coming.  No, it’s all about the beer and the location, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery.  Expect a great atmosphere, stone floors, wooden tables, open fires, over 200 whiskies and real ales.

On the doorstep for … Glen Coe and its mountains; Ben Nevis and Fort William nearby.

The Clachaig Inn

The Clachaig Inn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now after writing this post I’m starting to feel more than a little peckish and thirsty for some good beer.  So, if I head north via Bridge of Orchy and Glen Coe, up to Invergarry, turn left towards Glenelg, then up over the Skye Bridge to ….. yep, I reckon a week or two should do it.

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60 Years of the VW Camper Van: Part 3 – Into the 21st Century

IMG_3307_1

By the time the VW California was launched in the UK in 2005, VW camper vans had a heritage stretching back over 50 years.  In Part 1 and Part 2 I traced the history of the camper van from the humble beginnings of the earliest splitscreens in the 1950-60s through to the burgeoning popularity of the bay window and subsequent variations from the 1970-2000s.  In this post I bring the story right up to date, including speculation on what future camper vans may look like.

While the camper van is a modern-day icon synonymous with VW, the one characteristic shared by every 20th Century van is that none of them were sold directly by VW.  They were all conversions, produced by Westfalia as well as a host of other companies using a VW Transporter base vehicle.  However, the sale of Westfalia to DaimlerChrysler in 2001 prompted VW to re-think their approach.  With the imminent launch of the latest version of the VW van, the T5, VW took the decision to reinvent a modern camper van with production based in-house.

Unsurprisingly, VW had learned a lot from the many designs and modifications of camper vans during the previous 50 years.  They applied their design expertise – the kind of expertise that comes from a deep understanding of how their customers actually use their vehicles – to produce a vehicle that is specifically designed as a camper van right from the start.  (In a future post I’ll review the many T5-based conversions that are now available and demonstrate the compromises that have to be made in after-market modifications).

These promotional videos show off the ingenuity of VW’s design.  Forget heavy, clunky materials – in come lightweight aluminium, veneers and plastics.  Why have chunky rectangular units when you can have subtle curves to your worktops, tables and units.  From the ease of an electronically elevating roof to the ingenuity of the storage (including the outdoor chairs stored in the tailgate), the California is a true 21st Century camper van.

While a dedicated camper van, the California easily serves as a daily vehicle owing to its compactness and flexibility.  At 2.44m it is no longer than a standard MPV or mid-sized car, although front and rear parking sensors certainly give you greater confidence in tight spaces.  While a slight drawback for larger families, the standard California seats just four with an optional, removable fifth seat being available to position between the rear bench and front two swivelling seats.

Plenty power is provided by a range of 2-litre turbodiesel engines, either 6- or 7-speed, and with a 4-Motion (four wheel drive) version also available.  It’s needed too – with the camping equipment on board the van weighs 3000kg and deserves appropriate care and respect when driving.

When pitched on site the van comes into its own.  Pop up the roof, open the windows to let in the light and lift the ceiling on its hydraulic supports so you can stand up.  Swivel the front seats around and slide out the internal table in between.  Unclip the outdoor table from the sliding door and the two picnic seats from the tailgate.  Unwind the (optional) awning to give you some shade to sit under.  Then brew up a cuppa and relax !  (If you’re used to tent camping, getting set up will take you at least an hour … with the Cali you’re sipping your cup of tea within 15 minutes).

VW California

In 2010 the T5 van underwent a subtle facelift, including updated engines, new-style headlights, larger mirrors and a lighter internal colour scheme (the facelift version is shown in this post).  At the same time, VW launched a new model in the UK – the Beach.

The Beach is designed to provide an even more flexible solution for owners that need to combine the practicality of a 7-seater for daily use with the option to also use the van for camping.  It lacks the kitchen equipment and electrically elevating roof and so as a camper van really requires an additional driveaway awning tent to allow for cooking and storage, although just like the California is does sleep up to four adults.

While gaining in popularity, the California and Beach are still seldom seen on the UK’s roads.  Just under 2500 have been sold between 2005-12, the vast majority being Californias.  Of course, there are many more T5s that have been converted into camper vans – marginally cheaper to purchase perhaps but lacking the quality and style of the models produced directly by VW.

VW California

So, what does the future hold for the VW camper van ?

Well, VW unveiled a concept vehicle – the Bulli (the German nickname for the original T1 splitscreen) – at the Geneva Motor Show recently.  While smaller than the California and without the camping (kitchen) equipment, the concept appears closer to the flexibility of the Beach but much closer to an MPV in design.  It retains the unmistakable styling of the VW van, particularly with its two-tone paintwork and large VW badge, but is a clear demonstration of the next generation housing an electric rather than a diesel engine.

Since the launch of the T1 in 1951 VW have evolved the VW van every 12-15 years or so.  If this pattern holds true we could be seeing the next iteration making its appearance towards the end of the decade.

For further reading and inspiration check out:

My later posts including

Spindrift and spinning tyres … Winter’s back !

Meall nan Tarmachan

Winter has arrived.  The hills have their snowy hats on.  And an afternoon’s walk in the hills becomes a whole different ballgame.

A period of cold, clear and settled weather has meant that the first few days of December have provided perfect winter walking conditions.  More snow fell on the hills just a couple of nights ago, providing a powdery white topping on a frozen base.

Getting out in the hills again in such magnificent conditions is uplifting: a fantastically white hillside against a deep blue sky; light fluffy snow that makes galloping downhill a joy; the deadening silence of the snow; the crisp, sharp air.

But there are frequent reminders of the discomforts and potential dangers that exist: black ice under a seemingly inocuous powdery blanket; the seering wind chill on bare cheeks; blinding spindrift whipped up by a gust; aching fingers slowly warming after being hastily exposed to the elements.

I headed north to Killin, an attractive town at the western end of Loch Tay at the confluence of the rivers Dochart and Lochay.  There, you’ll find a sturdy, multi-arched bridge just beside the Falls of Dochart, with the snowy Tarmachan ridge of mountains punctuating the skyline.

Falls of Dochart, Killin

Falls of Dochart, Killin

I’d climbed all of the munros around here in Summertime but not in Winter, and hadn’t banked on having to change my plans.  My original plan was to climb the Tarmachan Horseshoe, a short walk from Lochan na Lairige south to the Tarmachan ridge, up over Meall nan Tarmachan (the munro at 1044m or 3,422ft) and back to the lochan via its northern ridge.  However, I soon found the steep, single-track access road to the Ben Lawers National Reserve impassable.  My van tyres lost traction a few times until I reached a line of parked cars beyond which the road was simply covered in sheet ice (freezing rain on cold tarmac).

So instead I opted for an up-and-down ascent of Meall nan Tarmachan via the well-constructed path from the car park – adding an extra 30 minutes’ walk from my parking place further down the hill and taking extra care not to actually step on the hazardously icy road.  (Unbelievably, a dozen cars did press on up the road, spinning their wheels to keep moving …).

I made good time.  Up on the ridge, there was a stunning view of Meall Corranaich (left) and Meall Garbh / Ben Lawers (right), standing out above the snow line to the northeast.

Bheinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers

Bheinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers

Looking southeast, the snow emphasised the knobbly character of the Tarmachan ridge.

Tarmachan ridge in Winter

Tarmachan ridge in Winter

Beyond this point my camera stayed firmly in its case.  Or more precisely, my hands stayed firmly in their gloves for the wind whipped up a severe wind chill.  It was hard work picking my way up through the snow, following others’ tracks and taking care not to slip on the ice beneath.

I stopped for lunch at the bottom of the last steep incline, sheltering from the gusts blowing spindrift high up into the air.  But my hands were numb with the cold even after ten minutes, taking much longer to warm up (and enduring the aching pain you get when the blood slowly returns to the extremities).  I didn’t hang about on the summit.  It was very cold and blowing a gale.  Ominously dark clouds loomed to the north and south.

This photo really shows the character of the day.  You can see the spindrift whipped up by the strong wind, looking south over Loch Tay in the shadow of a dark cloud.

IMG_3599

But further down off the ridge and out of the wind, the atmosphere changed markedly.  Here, it was simply a crisp winter’s day again.

I returned to the van, hoping to take advantage of the light on the drive home now that the sun was becoming low in the sky.  Sure enough, the clouds began to turn salmon-pink once I’d driven past Killin, Lochearnhead and down towards Strathyre.

Ben Vane over Loch Lubnaig

Ben Vane over Loch Lubnaig

I parked the van beside Loch Lubnaig and brewed up a cup of tea (the flexibility of a camper van!), watching the last of the sunlight disappear behind Ben Ledi.  A calm scene after the harshness that Winter can throw at you.

Top 10 Remotest Munros

Much of the enjoyment of climbing Scotland’s munros, it’s distinct mountain peaks over 3000ft, comes from ‘getting away from it all’.  This is an opportunity to get (way) off the beaten track and discover parts of Scotland you otherwise would have little reason for visiting.

The December 2012 issue of TGO Magazine features a series of articles on Wild Britain including a nice article by Cameron McNeish on ‘The most remote munros’.  I was inspired by Cameron’s article to look up my own top 10 list of remotest munros.  While he really only suggests a few in passing – most, but not all of which, I agree with – I do share his view on the remotest of all.

But first, what do I mean by “remotest” ?  Well, for me, it comes down to three things:  first, absolute distance from the nearest paved road; second, the effort needed to get there; and finally, the ‘feeling’ of remoteness.  Don’t know what I’m talking about ?  What I mean by the latter criterion is the sense you get that you are far from civilisation.  This could be the lack of man-made structures in view (albeit there are arguably very few places in Scotland where man’s impact is not in evidence) of simply the feeling that “if I break my leg just now how on earth am I going to get back” !

While most of these hills can be climbed in a single day, there’s more enjoyment to be had by taking your time over them.  These remote mountains are to be savoured.  Why hurry ?  Instead, wild camp and take two or even three days to really explore the wilderness.

So, in reverse order:

10.    Carn an Righ

This is the furthest of a group of five munros in the Eastern Highlands, usually climbed from Inverey in Glen Dee in the north.  While not technically difficult, it’s a long day out (40km and 2000ft of ascent), and many people use a mountain bike to cycle into Altanour Lodge from Inverey.  This is what I did – with a wonderful wild camp at Altanour Lodge and an evening walk up An Socach before completing the circuit of the other four hills and cycling out.

9.      Sgurr na Ciche

Sgurr na Ciche is the westernmost of the Glen Dessary mountains, with great views into the Rough Bounds of Knoydart.  To get to Glen Dessary it’s a long journey along a narrow, winding road along the north side of Loch Arkaig.  While there’s a large hunting lodge in Glen Dessary itself, the prominent peak of Sgurr na Ciche is about 6km beyond this.

8.      Sgurr Mor (Loch Quoich)

Sgurr Mor is a near neighbout of Sgurr na Ciche and is normally climbed from the head of Loch Arkaig also.  However, it is situated in Glen Kingie, just to the north of Glen Dessary and can either be climbed on its own or with the other three Glen Dessary hills in a long outing.  I wild camped in Glen Dessary and climbed the hills separately.  If you think Glen Dessary is remote, Glen Kingie must surely be one of the most desolate glens in Scotland !

Glen Dessary

English: Knoydart View From the summit of Sgur...

7.       Carn an Fhidhleir

This is where I would disagree with Cameron McNeish’s suggestion that Beinn Dearg in the Atholl hills north of Glen Tilt is one of the remotest munros.  Sure, it stands by itself some distance from paved roads, but there is a good track leading to it which is suitable for mountain bikes and it’s a fairly maneageable day trip.  More remote I think is Carn an Fhidhleir which, together with its neighbour An Sgorsach, takes some effort to get to, usually from the Linn of Dee to the north or via Glen Tilt in the south.  I used a mountain bike to reduce the time needed for this 40km round trip from the Linn of Dee.

6.      Seana Braigh

Seana Braigh is one of those hills that not only involve a long walk in (usually from Inverlael on the Inverness to Ullapool road) but also a winding route that ascends and descends before reaching the mountain proper.  The munro stands out for its excellent views to the panorama of peaks in Scotland’s North West – see the photo at the top of this post – together with the impressive Loch Luchd Coire and Cadha Dearg valley en route.

5.      Ladhar Bheinn

I think Ladhar Bheinn qualifies to be on this list owing to the sheer effort to get there.  There are essentially three routes to Knoydart:  a 3 hour walk in from Kinloch Hourn, a kayak trip across Loch Hourn from Corran (which was my route) or a boat from Mallaig to Inverie.  While there are a few houses and a bothy in Barrisdale Bay, the starting point for the best ascent of Ladhar Bheinn, there is a definite ‘remote peninsular’ feeling to Knoydart that sets it apart from the rest of the Scottish mainland.

4.      Lurg Mhor

At the western end of Loch Monar, Lurg Mhor stands just beyond its near neighbout Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich (popularly called “the cheesecake” to non-Gaelic speakers!).  To get there, there’s a long walk (or better, cycle) in from the A890 followed by an even longer walk over the Corbett, Beinn Tharsuinn.  But once you do get there, some wonderful views meet the eye.  Neil and I made a weekend of it, climbing the five Loch Monar munros.  We wild camped the first night at Pollan Buidhe next to the stream and following heavy rain, de-camped to one of the weirdest bothies I have stayed in – literally, a garden shed stood beside the track to Glenuaig Lodge !

3.      An Socach (Loch Mullardoch)

Until he retired in 2010, a Danish boat man provided a quick and easy way to travel the length of Loch Mullardoch.  When Neil and I visited these hills in 2012 we walked the 6km along the north side of the loch.  Having just started the ascent up towards An Socach, the furthest of the four munros, we turned around on hearing the sound of an engine …  If only we’d asked in the pub the night before, we might have discovered that an enterprising local and re-started the Loch Mullardoch boat !  Whichever way you get there, An Socach is far from any road or settlement and is one of the remotest hills you can find.

2.      Sgurr Fhuar-thuill

Not only does it have a wonderful name, but Sgurr Fhuar-thuill also stands some 19km along the ‘private’ Glen Strathfarrar, the westernmost of the four munros.  It’s a distinctly odd glen.  With Scotland’s world-leading ‘right of access’ legislation I still don’t understand how a glen can have a locked gate at the foot of it and car access controlled within specified hours (but these arrangements are agreed with Scottish Natural Heritage).  I must admit that it had the feel of some kind of ‘theme’ or ‘safari park’ … quite strange.  For all that, however, the glen itself is particularly unspoilt with only deer, birds and the occasional walker for company.

1.      A’ Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor

In joint first place I’m agreeing with Cameron McNeish to vote the furthest most of the Fisherfield Hills the remotest munros in Scotland.  They truly lie at the heart of one of Scotland’s great wilderness areas, with outstanding views to the Fionn Loch and little sign of man’s influence.  However, it’s a big effort to get here.  Only the extremely fit could climb the Fisherfield Round (of five munros) from Corrie Hallie in one day.  Far better to either stay at Shenavall Bothy or climb the hills as part of a one-way walk between Poolewe and Corrie Hallie.  This is what I plan to do next year (these are the only hills in this top 10 list I have yet to climb): taking a bus from Poolewe to Corrie Hallie and walking over the hills back to Poolewe, and wild camping en route.  I hear that the summit of A’ Mhaighdean is one of the very finest camping spots in the whole of Scotland …

A ‘top 10’ list is inherently subjective.  Do you agree ?  Have I overlooked any glaring omissions or would you use a different set of criteria ?

Scottish Cali Meet

 

The first ever meeting of Scottish VW Californias took place in mid-November at a cold and decidedly icy campsite in Blair Atholl.  Here are four of them, with Lydia nearest.

It was a great chance to meet up with other members of the VW California Club – the UK California Owners’ Club – to have a nosy at other people’s vans and to talk all things Cali.

In actual fact, two of the five made it up for the weekend from south of the border (passports not required) and one van was a T4 California.

VW Cali meet

We needed our thermals … it got down to minus 5 Celsius over night.  Fortunately, we’d been in the nearby pub keeping warm beside the fire and so it wasn’t too much of a hardship.  Not so for our vans, though; they all had their woolly hats on.  The eagle-eyed among you will spot the three kinds of California roof covers currently on sale in the UK (from left to right in the above photo: the Cali Topper, the Khyam Cosi and the Vanorak).

VW California

It was a perfect, crisp Winter’s morning.  Fresh snow on Beinn a’ Ghlo in the distance, icy puddles, not a breath of wind and leaves falling slowly from the branches in the wood behind the van.

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60 Years of the VW Camper Van: Part 2 – Coming of Age

In my previous post charting the history of VW camper vans I described how the T1 Splitscreen camper van was born from humble beginnings but rapidly found a market among campers the world over.  During the period 1950-67 Westfalia alone produced 25,000 camper vans with Devon, Danbury, Sun-Dial and others producing their own versions.

A new model – the T2 with its distinctive Bay window – was launched by VW in 1967 and popularity soared.

Just as the T1 Splitscreen van came in a wide variety of model styles, VW also sold the T2 on its flexibility.  It could be a panel van, a bus or a flatbed loader …

… it could be a works van as well as a school bus …

… the bus could hold a six-piece jazz band plus all their instruments …

… or a troupe of nine Brazilian weightlifters.

Still, VW didn’t manufacture their own camper vans but allowed other companies to do this, notably Westfalia.  Their German range, developed from 1969 through to 1979 was named after European capitals including Paris, Helsinki, Berlin and Madrid.  In the UK they were sold as the Caravanette and Continental and the US, the Campmobile.  The early Bay campers had wedge roofs that hinged at the front and after 1974, rear-hinging roofs were introduced.  Other developments included heating (as an option), swivel seats (after 1976), a 3-way fridge and fully-automatic transmission (1973).

English: VW T2 "camper", nurburgring...

Photo credit – Commons.Wikepedia.org

Much has been written about the culture that surrounds VW camper vans.  The personality and cult of the van grew during this period, being closely associated with hippy and surf culture as well allowing people the world over to enjoy the freedom of the road.  The trailer to the Bus Move does a great job in evoking the spirit of the camper van during the 1960s and 1970s.

From 1979 onwards VW produced the third generation van, the T3 (also called the T25 in the UK and Vanagon in the US).   The T3 was much larger and heavier, with a much squarer shape.  An air-cooled version was initially manufactured, subsequently replaced by a water-cooled engine.

Besides being made in Germany for European and US markets, the T3 was also produced in South Africa, where the Microbus was marketed on its people-carrying abilities – popularly known as the Volksie Bus.

In the US, the introduction of the T3 “Vanagon” was traded on the familiarity and flexibility of previous VW vans – but this time, it was more powerful, had even more space and looked more modern.  As a people carrier, it also provided much more space than the emerging competitor, the minivan, as these two commercials from 1984 and 1985 show.

English: 1980 Vanagon Westfalia.

Photo credit – Commons.Wikepedia.org

Westfalia continued to produce camper vans based on the T3 van featuring a fridge, two-burner stove, stainless steel sink and on-board water tank.  Over the years 1979-90 (and beyond of course), the T3 also developed a strong following, as this short excerpt from the Bus Movie shows.

http://vimeo.com/22317390

The introduction of the T4 model in 1990, being manufactured through to 2003, saw the engine moving to the front of the vehicle.  It was a compact van which was marketed on the basis of its people-carrying abilities, with a touch of European sophistication and style, as this US 1993 commericial for the “Eurovan” shows.

In Part 3 of the series I will conclude by bring the VW camper van story right up to date with the introduction of the VW California in 2005, the Beach a few years later and then speculation on the next generation, centred around the “Bulli” concept car.

A Winter’s Walk on Buachaille Etive Mor

With winter upon us I thought I’d dust down a previous trip report to whet the appetite for climbing Scotland’s munros in snow.

Some days, the right ingredients for a memorable walk just come together.  This report describes one of Scotland’s best-loved hills, magical scenery and light, and rare glimpses of majestic wildlife.

I had ‘saved’ Buachaille Etive Mor for many years for a fine winter’s day and today didn’t disappoint.  I left home at 7am on a dark, cold and frosty morning with the sun just rising by the time I reached Tyndrum.  Passing a stag calmly overlooking the A82 just north of Bridge of Orchy, and the high clouds turning salmon-pink, I realised this would be a special morning.

Normally I would be watching the clock to get to the start of my walk at the allotted time, particularly when daylight hours were scarce.  For today, however, the schedule could flex.  By the time I’d reached the high point of the A82 overlooking Loch Tulla and the road had flattened out to cross Rannoch Moor I was just in awe of the fantastic colours lighting up the wispy high clouds in the sky.  Stopping the car beside Loch Ba I soaked up the experience: silence; the bright moon still high in the sky and the Black Mount hills bathed in soft, orange light.  Another couple of photo opps, finishing with a detour down the lane to the Kingshouse Hotel, provided some classic views of the Buachaille as the sun was beginning to rise.  (Mental note:  next time, pack the tripod for low-light exposures …).

Looking south to Beinn a’ Chreachain and Beinn Achladair

Both the MWIS and BBC weather forecasts had suggested there could be a strong chance of a temperature inversion today, with cloud expected in a band between 300 – 900m.  Fortunately, they’d got it wrong for the sky was relatively clear bar the occasional wispy cloud at around 800m blowing up the steep sides of Buachaille Etive Mor from Glen Etive.

Leaving the car in the Altnafeadh layby I followed the well-made path up Coire na Tulaich making quick progress.  Many rocks were icy, though, and any lying water had turned to thick ice, so good footwork was essential.  Another stag watched my progress for several minutes at the bottom of the gully.  I was the first to hit the mountain that morning, shattering the silence of the pristine, crisp morning.  I needed my crampons for the final 100m of ascent up steep snowy slopes (my kind of snow – compacted and icy – great for kicking into and determinedly ‘stepping’ up the hill).   Topping out on to the ridge, the snow was patchy and hard enough to walk on without crampons, so they stayed back in my rucsac for the rest of the day.

Sunlight catching the cloud over Stob Dearg

A short 20 min walk and I was at the summit of Stob Deag where the views were just stunning.  While others were coming up the gully behind me, at least for a short while I felt I had the whole mountain top to myself.  Space to breathe.  To survey the awe-inspiring panorama of Scotland’s mountains.  To sustain the spirit and feel alive.

Neighbouring Buachaille Etive Beag and the SMC hut at Langangarbh

The shadow cast by Buachaille Etive Mor over the A82

View south west to Ben Cruachan

Buachaille Etive Beag and Bidean nam Bian

All of the Glencoe hills, Mamores, Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries ridge, and Ben Cruachan were in full view in their snowy splendour.  Schiehallion poked out of the early morning mist across the flatness of Rannoch Moor.  Only out to the west coast did banks of cloud obscure the view.

Stob Dearg summit cairn

As a largely solo walker I treasure the freedom and time to think that comes with being alone in the hills.  I’m not (usually!) anti-social but it’s definitely a very different kind of experience to being out with others.  That precious time passed once two other groups of walkers caught up with me – including a work colleague and friends from my home town (despite the vastness of the landscape, Scotland is a small world after all !).

In spite of the patchy snow, route finding was straightforward along the curved ridge over the two intermediate peaks – Stob na Doire and Stob Coire Altrium – before reaching the second munro, Stob na Broige.  The only difficulty was caused by having to scramble over icy rocks in a couple of places.  Light winds made for a fairly leisurely lunch stop overlooking the Buachaille’s little brother, Buachaille Etive Beag – and memories of a relenting pull up from Glen Etive with my other half in the late ‘90s and, an unsuccessful ascent with my Dad in deep snow one Easter in the mid ‘80s.

Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries

Stob na Doire

Frozen grasses, adorned with wind-blown ice, provided interest along the ridge.  By now, high cloud created slightly hazier conditions and started to dull the light.  But on the return from Stob na Broige on the narrow part of the ridge I had a real treat.  A large brown/black bird of prey – I think a golden eagle – just hovered in the up-draft about 20 feet above my head.  It slowed to inspect me, moving gracefully in the light winds for around 10 seconds, then flew away from the ridge down towards Glen Etive.  At this point the other walkers were some distance from me and I felt really privileged to have shared – if briefly – a rare experience with such a majestic creature.

The curved ridge from Stob Coire Altrium to Stob na Broige

Grasses weighed down with ice

The narrow ridge from Stob na Broige (2 mins later I would have snapped the eagle !)

Now for the descent.  The first section from the bealach between Stob na Broige and Stob Coire Altrium crossed a firm, frosty snowfield.  Next up (beyond the snow line), frozen, tussocky grass.  So far, so good – I could now see another well-constructed path below me.  However, in order to reach the main path I needed to cross several large slabs of ice-covered rock.  Fine, I thought, I can do this.  I nervously picked my way between the patches of ice to find clear rock giving firm footholds.  But it soon become clear this wasn’t going to be straightforward.  The ice-free rock was getting trickier to find; meltwater had clearly been flowing freely over some of these slabs and patches of thick ice were commonplace.  At one point I had to retrace my steps – to find an alternative route down.  But here also the rocks were covered with ice.  I only needed to cross about 4 ft of icy rock to get down to the next grassy stretch.  I had a choice: go back up and look for another way round or somehow find a way to cross the ice.  I chose the second option and gingerly stuck my ice axe into the nearest tussock of frozen grass.  I slowly lowered myself over the thick ice and down to safety.  Relief !

My relief was short-lived, however, since down in Lairig Gartain the stepping stones over the stream had grown thick layers of ice with the constant splashing of water.  Only the biggest rocks were free of ice – and slippy at the best of times.  There are times for graceful technique and other times when you just want to get from A to B without getting wet – and I’m fortunate that no one else was around to see me awkwardly crawling crab-like across the stepping stones to prevent myself from getting an early bath !
So, all in all, a highly successful winter’s day walk:  dry feet, a memorable hill, an unforgettable sunrise and close encounters with some majestic wildlife.  What more can you ask for ?

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60 Years of the VW Camper Van: Part 1 – The birth of an icon

The VW camper van is one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced.  Few other vehicles have the ability to turn heads and conjure a spirit of freedom, adventure and open roads.

This is the first of a three-part series providing you with a potted history of the VW camper van, told both in text but particularly through the imagery created by VW’s own advertising over the decades.  VW’s “Think Small” campaign for the Beetle in the 1950s was ranked the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age in a survey of North American advertisements.  VW’s campaigns were skillfully designed to build a lifetime of brand loyalty.

To understand the history of the VW camper van you first need to appreciate how its heritage is directly linked the VW Transporter, the base van also known as the Panel Van, Microbus and Plattenwagen.  Contrary to the common view, it was not until the production of the California in 2005 that VW actually produced a camper van themselves – all previous campers were conversions carried out by other companies.

It was in Wolfsburg, a town in northern Germany, that the Volkwagen plant was supported to produce the Beetle as a means of stimulating post-war reconstruction.  In 1947, when production of the Beetle was rapidly expanding, a Dutch car dealer and importer called Ben Pon, famously sketched out a simple, box-shaped delivery vehicle that was based on the Beetle’s chassis.  He persuaded Heinrich Nordhoff, who ran the VW factory in Wolfsburg, to put the van into production.  It was an innovative design that maximising the load-carrying capacity of the vehicle, in between the cab over the front wheels and the engine mounted over the rear wheels.

The first VW Transporter was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in November 1949 and soon became popular as a low-cost, adaptable and flexible utility vehicle.  The ‘shoe box’ advert below shows its versatility.  The basic Panel Van was simply a load-carrier with no windows.  Put in some removable bench seats and windows and you then had the Kombi (the Kombinationskraftswagen).  Add some creature comforts such as sliding canvas roof, skylights and high level trim and you had the Microbus or the Deluxe Microbus (also called the Samba).  Remove the rear end and you had the flatbed van.  Over the years, many variants were produced, both by VW, conversion companies and enthusiasts.

While the Beetle was officially named the T1, the Transporter became the T2.  Somewhat confusingly, however, the first version of the van became the ‘Type 2 T1’ – or the T1 for short – with the same nomenclature applying right up to the T5, the current version produced from 2004/05 onwards.  The T1 became known as the Splitscreen (or Splittie) owing to its distinctive front end or in Germany, the Bulli.  Its personality soon developed and grew.

Volkswagen Westfalia Camper finished in blue a...

Photo credit – Commons.Wikipedia.org

The T1 was produced for 17 years betweeen 1950 and 1967.  During that time, VW evolved and varied the design, positioning it (like the Beetle) as a “people’s wagon”: affordable, adaptable and with a simple design.   Soon, it became in icon of classic, 20th century design, with its cheeky ‘face’ and personality widely adored.  With its rear-mounted, air-cooled, 25 horsepower engine it wasn’t exactly powerful, but was fairly reliable and simple enough to fix if anything went wrong.

In 1951 VW licensed another German firm, Westfalia, to produce the camper version using the Transporter base and it was exported from 1955 onwards.  Westfalia’s camper vans evolved quickly in the early 1950s.  They started to produce removable camping fittings that people could install in their Transporters for the weekend, reverting to a work van for midweek.  In 1952 they begain producing Camping Boxes, vans with a permantly-installed kitchen unit behind the front bench seat and with a rear bench seat that converted into a sleeping platform.

A number of models catered for a variety of tastes, with different sized beds, solid wood or fomica work tops, and folding or concertina roofs.  One of the plushest models, the SO23 Campingwagen Deluxe, designed for export to the USA, had curtains, carpets, insulation, additional cupboards and a 90-litre water tank.  The only facility the SO23 didn’t have was an internal kitchen since export laws forbade the use of gas cookers within vehicles.  In the late ’50s and ’60s Westfalia also sold a distinctive stripy awning as an optional extra which provided shade on the side of the van and either one or two awning sides.

While Westfalia were the ‘official’ VW converter of camper vans, over the years many competitors entered the emerging market.  In the UK, Canterbury Pitt Conversions and Devon were the first companies producing camper conversions in 1956 and 1957 respectively.  In the US ASI/Riviera and Sun-Dial converted vans similar to Westfalia’s design.

This great video shows some early vans including a 1950s camper with all mod cons.

This German film provides some amusing early footage of a 1950s Splitscreen Kombi (up to 1 min 30) before reviewing the later T2 T3 and T4 models up to 2004.

A promotional video for a VW restoration garage in London rather than a VW promo, this stands out as the coolest film of T1 vans you will ever want to see.  Feast your eyes on two 1952 and 1954 barndoor vans and a 1964 panel van.

Bringing things to up to date, this UK advert engenders a feeling of the heritage that lies behind VW vans.  Celebrating the 60 year anniversary of the first Transporters it shows how you too can buy a commercial van with a long lineage.

In Parts 2 and 3 of the series I will review the evolution of the camper van during the ’70s, ’80’s and ’90s right up to the current VW California and ‘Bulli’ concept car.