If all goes to plan with any long walk you hope to get to the point that I am at today. Most of the preparation work has been done. The gear list is complete. The food dehydration is mostly finished; there are a few things to do but there is no time pressure to finish them. Accommodation, where appropriate, has been booked. The train tickets just have to be picked up. I can approach the next ten days or so with the confidence that there should be no last minute rush.
There being no panic I can calmly begin to contemplate what is to come. On Wednesday the 11th we shall make our way gently to Glasgow. On Thursday we will take the early train to Mallaig and we should be at the harbourside by lunchtime.
We have nothing in particular to do in Mallaig, we just have to hope the weather is dry(ish). We can lull around all afternoon, take in coffee and cake while gazing out at the sea, watch the activity on the harbour, stroll around and admire the murals an so on. I can now smell the salty air. We are on our way.
Our early start on Thursday means we won’t be on the Challenge Express from Queen Street. But we will be awaiting the arrival of the Challenge contingent from the (relative) luxury of the West Highlands Hotel.
Meanwhile, I can hear the gulls singing and that salty, sea, smell is lingering through the senses.
Routebuddy’s new Coast to Coast Challenge Map utilises the company’s unique screen ‘stitching’ technology to reduce a new map and add-ons that will be useful to anyone planning a coast-to-coast walk across the Scottish Highlands.
On this occasion I thought it would be more useful to you if I produced a video review, as you really have to see it in action to appreciate what this system can do. The review is in html format and should be viewable by all up-to-daye systems including tablets.
The 1:50K base map is available at a reasonable £19.99.
In addition, Routebuddy has created a number of specific 1:25 add-ons which stitch into the base map. These range in price depending on the ground covered. They start at £4.99 for part of the Torridon hills to £25 for the Cairngorms — good value for money.
Any other Routebuddy map can stitch into the base map and this review also displays a Harvey/BMC 1:40 working with the base map.
Not only can you view stitched maps on the same screen but you can print out the stitched maps on the same sheet of paper.
For a couple of years now I have been looking tropical my main waterproof. This has served me well but after almost a decade of use the fabric has got thinner and the jacket stopped being properly waterproof a few years ago!
Choosing a replacement has been difficult. I’ve tried on a couple of jackets in shops that seem to be sized weirdly, X Large jackets that seem not to the right size across the shoulders. The next problem has been price. The cost of the latest designs and fabrics has become quite ridiculous. I’m simply not going to pay silly money for something that might be a wee bit more breathable.
It was fellow Challenger that first recommended the Alpamayo to me two or three years ago. Gordon is a sensible chap. He likes his gear lightweight but not at the cost of comfort of effectiveness. Everything from PHD I hoverer bought has been top-notch and so in the end I finally got round to following Gordon’s advice!
The first thing you notice about the Alpamayo is its size. PHD size their jackets to allow for the wearing of their down jackets below which is helpful I think. The smock fits nice and loosely but is not flappy. There is no scope tail but the smock has a decent, protective, length to it which I like.
The main zip on the jacket is tough and solid and protected by a proper baffle and waterproof seams. A single chest pocket also uses a similar zip and waterproof protection. There is also an inside pocket with a key holder. The hood is properly adjusted and is probably the best hood I have used on a waterproof jacket. The wire frame is tough and the hood is easily adjusted by an adjuster at the read and my two adjustable toggles on the base. The smock cuffs feature very tough and solid Velcro adjusters. Everything about the construction is very solid and the smock oozes quality. The fabric is not thin but is smooth to the touch
In the use the smock is totally waterproof and windproof without being heavy. The walk on the Black Mountains was a real test of any waterproof garment; the smock design proved more comfortable and protective than I think a jacket would have been. The sealed zips and zip protection proved to be very effective.
While the weather in on the Black Mountain Trip was pretty foul it was mild. Fighting against the wind meant working hard and at no time did I feel the smock lacked for breathability.
The Alpamayo uses PHD’s own HS3 fabric. I’m not exactly sure what this is as many waterproof fabrics — including eVent — can be licensed to be used under individual brand names. What I do know is that this fabric is more than breathable enough for me.
My Alpamayo is X Large size and weighs 470 grams. It costs £259 and can only be obtained from PHD using website. Long experience of buying from PHD tells me that you cranky on their sizing guide — for example, you would have to pretty large to have to go up to the XX Large size (which can be ordered). I idk the over sizing as I thing the option of using a down jacket in cold weather — that is not compacted too much — can be a real bonus. There is a jacket version of the smock available which adds about another 100 grams.
You won’t see this garment reviewed that often as it doesn’t use one of the main name fabrics. However, this is a first rate piece of kit that simply won’t let you down.
Over the next few months I will continue testing and report back with a long term review.
Fuji X-Pro1, 1/125, f11, ISO 400. 18mm (28 — 35 equivalent)
In this internet age it is tempting to think that we know all about the great trails of the world even if we have never ever hiked them ourselves. There are many tells journals to read. There are many hikers who now blog or micro blog as they walk. We know all about the trail infrastructure, we can download the maps and, of course, we all now know about the famous Trail Angels of the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT.
Chris Townsend walked the PCT over 30 years ago. Back then the trail was a reality but it was nowhere near as popular as it is today. I think the year Chris hiked it only 11 people completed it. It has taken 30 years for Chris to produce this book and it seems he only embarked on the task after encouragement from his new publishers, Sandstone Press. Sandstone should take a bow as this is a very fine book indeed. When reviewing Chris’ recent Grizzly Bears and Razor clams (I think it was) put forward the view that Chris’ writing is just getting better and better. Rattlesnakes confirms this.
The PCT is an epic trail and 30 odd years ago walking it was even more epic as the trail infrastructure that we have today simply wasn’t there. To make things even more dramatic Chris walked the PCT after one of the heaviest snow falls recorded making much of the first section of the walk quite a challenge.
The PCT runs for 2,650 miles, starting at the Mexican borders and running North (at least that’s how most people tackle it) through California, Oregon and Washington States. The trail takes in the Mojave desert, the High Sierra Mountains, The Cascade Mountains and many of the great US forests along the way.
This PCT walk was Chris’ first mammoth hike and this book combines both the excitement of that youthful walk with a maturity of reflection that is simply beguiling. Above all else it is the natural drama of the trail environment that is the star of this book but the way Chris details the development of the PCT (both before and since his walk) is fascinating.
A modern journal on the PCT would inevitably feature a lot of words about gear and while this is a book about moving through landscape there’s enough to keen gear junkies happy. For this trip Chris was provided with some of the first Gore Tex waterproofs that landed in the UK. It was also on this trip that Chris saw the light and turned (mid trip) to lightweight trail shoes from heavy boots. There is the drama of a broken pack and the search for a replacement. But mostly this is about the walk.
The heavy snowfall results in a trip that seems a very different one to many accounts that I have read. Chris is famous for walking alone but the snow heavy sections dictated walking in small groups for safety. Not only was there a lot of snow to cross but tiny and often dry creeks had turned into raging torrents. What comes over nicely is the relationship that is built up amongst these trail companions. Chris remarks towards the end of the book tat he had walked much of a thousand miles with some of them and yet they ended up knowing little about each other’s lives back in the ‘real world’. However, you do get a great sense of the trail intensity of these friendships. While not having undertake a venture like this myself this — levelling of human experience — is a feature of any long trail walk and, I think, is one of the reasons for the longevity of the TGO Challenge where you often have little idea about the people you are walking with save for their own views of the immediate experience
A lot of the other usual ingredients are on show here, stories of serial breakfast eating in tiny, backwater, trail towns, the joys of a shower after weeks of walking and so on.
But what makes this a joy to read is the sharing of Chris’ discovery of life on a trail like this, the beauty of the desert, the joys of the high mountains, the fascinating variety of the forests and the glorious wildcamps along the way. I wish I could describe this all a bit more eloquently but you’ll just have to go and read the book!
This was the trip that I guess formed the Chris Townsend that most of us know today. I’m glad that he took a long time to write this as I think we’ve ended up with a fascinating and probably more enduring book.
When I finished reading the book I rang up Colin Ibbotson who told me that the book had made him want to go out and hit the trail again. I know when he means. Putting the book down I had to go out for a walk and spend a night camping on the side of the hill, a far more modest experience without doubt but this is what Chris’ books do. They shake you out of lethargy and install in you that love of the natural world that keeps us all going.
This is very firmly recommended.
Yesterday’s post about Nessie obviously caught people’s imagination. Craig Gulley sent me this photo from the US. You can see his soft toy Nessie attached to the back of his pack – Nessie seems to be fluorescent green. I think Craig might be scanning the loch for the real monster.
Working away at the computer this morning I listened to the latest Mike Harding Folk Show podcast. At first I thought I’d imagined it but Mike reported that Aly Blain and Phil Cunningham had told him, this weekend, that there were to be no more Transatlantic Sessions.
I guess many of us lovers of the Scotland Highlands will have loved this programme if only for the wonderful photography of the Highlands and, of course, the music.
For those of you who have never discovered the Transatlantic session — I can’t believe there are many of you — the programme (across 6 series) bought together some of the best acoustic musicians from the USA and from the cleric bits of the UK and Ireland. Some reckon the series can a bit over-produced towards the end and certainly the early series were wonderful. But there is very little like this on telly!
Fortunately, much of the archive is available on You Tube. Here are two great pieces which show both the Scottish and the USA sides of the coin.
The Darrell Scott video reminds me of a quite weird experience (in many ways).
I have always wanted to see Darrell Scott live but he has rarely been anywhere near Birmingham. However, the Transatlantic Sessions — and the accompanying tours — mean a lot of the US musicians are often in the Highlands during the summer.
A few years ago I was heading our to Knoydart for some munro bagging. My mate and I sat on the side of the harbour in Mallaig waiting for the ferry. I noticed a kind of home made poster. Darrell Scott (together with legendary bass player Danny Thompson) were playing the next week at Inverie Village Hall. I never knew the village had a hall.
Over in Inverie I discovered what must have been the village hall, a pretty small place. In the Old Forge pub they had another poster behind the bar. I referred to it. Is he any good? I told the barmaid of my lifelong ambition to see Darrell. Oh, I might of then she said.
As chance might have it I was back in the Old Forge a few months later. They were playing Darrell Scott CDs in both the pub and the new café. I guess he had gone down well.
Back home I scoured websites and found the itinerary of the Darrell Scott and Danny Thompson tour of the Highlands. There was no listing for Inverie, which seemed to be at the end of the tour. At the pub I was told a lot of musicians from the US play at the village hall, but I’ve never seen any of these concerts listed either!
It appears that the magic of Inverie stretches to some R&R for musicians our on the peninsular and that it has become something of a tradition to play for the locals.
It was nice to see this music tradition continuing. Kate and I once spent a wonderful afternoon and evening in the Old Forge listening to local musicians who had been joined by a young Canadian couple, who were rather fabulous. The couple told me they’d come over in the hope of hearing some music as the Old Forge had become quite famous. A few years later I was told these sessions were now far less frequent as some of the local musicians were getting tired of the mass of US musicians turning up looking for someone to play with.
Anyhow, time to stop rambling. It is a sad day that the sessions will be no more. Here’s one final memory. The is the multi instrumentalist Bruce Molsky playing with Sharon Shanon. This is the theme tune of the series which has one of my favourite tune title:
“Shove the Pigs’ Foot a Little Further Into The Fire”
(Bluegrass tunes do tend to have great titles. My all time favourite is:
“Granny Hold the Candle While I Shave the Chicken’s Lip”)
Chris Townsend brings to our attention an article on the conversation.com, Why are we still searching for the Loch Ness monster?
The article goes back over all of the relevant facts. Loch Ness was sealed off from the ocean ten thousand years ago. If the monster exists in the Loch there must be a family of them. And fish die. Why have no bodies been found? And, of course, they would have to surface to breathe regularly. The trouble is we all like a bit of fun and — without any doubt — the chance to spend some money on some piece of tat!
Taking the ferry over Loch Ness during the TGO Challenge is always a great experience. Gordon Menzies who ferries us, happily talks about the monster; his cabin has a rather lovely picture of Nessie waterskiing across the waters. Loch Ness is very deep and Gordon reckons that there are large fish down there that we have never really experienced. He’s seen odd things on his sonar over the many years he has been sailing on the Loch. He likes to keep the mystery going.
It is no mystery though why the legend continues for Nessie continues to make quite a contribution to the local economy.
Over 25 years ago now I can remember killing some time in Inverness. There was then a branch of the Loch Ness Monster Museum in the town (today only the branch in Drumnadrochit survives). I remember spending an hour looking at all kinds of blurry, computer enhanced, photographs. A rather excited woman approached me from the Museum staff or volunteers. Look, she said, can’t you see that — a fin, it’s clearly a fin. It looked like a blob to me, indeed, the photograph reminded me of a Tangerine Dream LP cove — Phaedra — that I had back at home. I left the Museum convinced those running it were off their heads. My engaging volunteers was — no surprise — from the USA!
I didn’t give Nessie much more thought until a couple of years ago when Kate and I were walking in the area during the late autumn/early winter. We approached Fort Augustus along the canal and we arrived early enough in the morning to not only to visit the pubs but to have a good mooch around.
Fort Augustus is a pleasant little place. You can spend a good weather day watching the boats navigate the locks. There are dome very good pubs here. And then there are the gift shops.
Nessie, unsurprisingly, features quite prominently in the Fort Augustus gift shops. There are cuddly toys, statues and all manner of other gifts to buy. And I swear this is true.
In the tackiest of gift shops I came across bottle of Nessie Water, bottle of rathe murky water that came with a certificate pronouncing that the water was genuinely from Loch Ness! I can’t remember the price but it was rather extortionate. I think I wrote about it at the time.
I was still mussing on Nessie Water while I had breakfast in a cafe the next morning, opposite one of the gift shops. Three large, luxurious, coaches suddenly swept into the car park. Out got three coach loads of Chinese Tourists. They all rushed straight into the gift shop. Within an hour the tourists were back on the coaches and were off. I’ve no doubt a few bottle of Nessie water had been bought. I did watch some very confused tourists studying Nessie tat through the windows; the clearly didn’t have enough English to understand everything they were looking at. But the Nessie water had a similar profile — and prominence to Holy Water in Lourdes.
I got quite angry about these tourists being ripped off but, to be fair, many of the customers during the year know what they are doing and are happy to indulge in a bit of Nessie humour. It’s a bit like going to Blackpool and buying a stick of rock or a kiss-me-quick hat. Or going to the Pyrenees and buying a cuddly Marmot.
We love a bit of daft stuff when we are on holiday. If you think these folks are bonkers, me and three hundred other people are just about to spend their holidays splashing through peat bogs in the middle of nowhere!
Across the country there are grandchildren receiving soft toy Nessies in some kind of consumerist ritual. And for adults there will be T Towels and goodness knows what else to remember their trip by. We like a good legend. And if there isn’t an obvious one to fall back on — in a pretty impoverished area — then we are happy to invent one.
One the years I’ve found similar tat being sold in Brittany (the real home of King Arthur), Germany, Spain,Ireland and, of course, I’ve sat quietly in Pyrenees airports watching priests carrying home canteens of ‘special’ water.
We love it all even if we hate it! But it makes money.
Scottish Tourist experts reckon that Nessie is worth over £25 million a year to the local economy. Last year (2015) government provided £2 million towards an advertising campaign for the Highlands that was based around Nessie. Over 200,000 tourists visit Loch Ness each year. The new campaign was aiming to increase that number by 50,000, calculated to be worth an additional £.5 million to the local economy.
Does Nessie exist? Who cares? She is worth her weight in gold.
Everyone and them something happens to remind you just what an unenlightened society we are. No more than a few years ago a friend of mine started a campaign to get the Bank of England to commemorate the lives of women on their notes. I was amazed to realise that this hadn’t happened before.
Anyhow, the habit has now caught on. This morning it was announced that Nan Shepherd would feature in the Scottish £5 note. In many ways this is a remarkable choice and one that all hill walkers should welcome.
Shepherd was not really that prolific but she was one of the Scottish modernist fiction writers. Although her last novel was published in 1933 it was her small homage to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, that was considered her greatest achievement.
Shepherd spent all of her life in our around the Cairngorms and she was able to write about the range almost better than anyone else before or since. While written during the 1940s The Living Mountain is pretty timeless as these mountains don’t change much. That is not to see that there are not contemporary notes here, for example the second world war does feature. But the observations she makes, the emotions and feelings stirred by this rugged landscape and timeless.
The Living Mountain is a short book and pretty easy to digest, although every sentence has real impact. It is also widely available as an e-book.
For any hillwalker who loves the Highlands, this is almost required reading.
I grew up with travel books and ‘travel literature’ has been a constant pretty much all of my life. Travel literature has been around for a long time but, perhaps, came into its own after the second world war. As we moved through the 60s and 70s travel became more democratised. It became easier to research and to plan trips and travel also became more affordable. And there was still a lot to discover and to write about. While western economies were developing there were still many places in the world that were unspoilt or where local cultures had experienced only minimal exposure from the outside world.
You will have your own favourite authors but in all honesty I’ve fallen out with the genre in recent years. It is arguably too easy now to write a travel book. So many have been written that there seems little space for innovation. We are obsessed with celebrity travel. Books seem less profound and more about echoing television entertainment than about being inspirational in the way,well, only a book can. There appears to little new to write about. it all becomes very formulaic. And then something pops out of nowhere and thrills you once again!
The Naked Shore is a great book based around a proposition so simple that I’m amazed this hasn’t been done before. Tom Blass sets out to explore the North Sea, travelling north from the mouth of the Thames crossing endlessly over the sea to the continent and back again.
The North Sea is a dark and forbidding place, not exotic in the tropical sense but no less complex and surprising. To some extent we can see shared culture that you might not first imagine, through the Saxon and the Vikings and then through the traders of the hanseatic League. But we also have fascinating sub cultures, sailed communities that scarcely figure on the map. While we might simply blink at the mention of some of these places today and then move on, some of thee tiny pieces of rock assumed ridiculous importance in years gone by.
First off, Blass explores the Thames from Tilbury to the sea; it is at Tilbury that the Thames river pilots give way to sea pilots. This is the land of Great Expectations, of mist and marsh bt also of modern economic development and growth. Past Southend the Shoeburyness marshes are a weird and wonderful places still used by the military, conjuring up a word;d all of its own. On the opposite side of the sea the river Shelde (running through the great port of Antwerp) is often seen as the twin of the Thames. but of course these two rivers run a different course through the history and culture of place as much as they share a similar natural history.
Bless focuses on both the ancient and the modern, on geology and on today’s geo politics. And then there is the lost land of ‘Doggerland’, a once well inhabited bridge of land between ourselves and the continent, memories and remnants of which show up occasionally in extreme weather conditions and in the nets of fisherman.
The island communities are fascinating. Heligoland while now just a blip in the ocean off hamburg was once seen as important enough to be traded and bargained for by nations on both sides of the water. Further north there are some even stranger island communities but I won’t spoil that for you here!
And then there are industrial bases, the tough towns and communities of North Lincolnshire and the Humber. Fishing predominates here and the social and economic industries is no less fascinating than the geological and natural history of the region.
Blass writes beautifully. It is something of an achievement to produce such a riveting, entertaining and educational book about an area so close to home, that we all think we know so well.