Woohoo! I've discovered how to add a few little tick boxes at the bottom of each post, to enable readers to record their reactions. Do please use them. I think I've identified the four most likely responses ...

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 4: Crossing Eskdale Moor

10 May 2004 began with a few kilometres of road walking north east through Kerrow, past Cannich, and up the eastern side of Strath Glass to Mid Croachail. It was easy walking, the surroundings remarkably attractive, and I noted in passing that the little island at NH361328 would make a very pleasant spot for an overnight halt.

From Mid Croachail I planned to follow the track up through the woods and onto the moor, pass Meall Cluainidh, cut across the moor by way of Carn na Feuchrain and Carn a Bhainne to Loch Neaty, then take the track down through the woods to Eskdale. It was not to be, however, as the track at Mid Croachail was barred by two high gates - about 8 foot high, I would have said - which were secured by a chain and padlock. In my college days I was a dab hand at climbing gates; but I had never had to do it with 20 kilos of expedition pack on my back, and there was no way I could have hoisted my pack over the gates first and followed it over. So I decided to press on and try the next track, just before Easter Croachail.

I pressed on, and almost immediately I encountered a group of four Challengers coming the other way - led by none other than my teenage nemesis, Andy Desmond! We stopped to chat for a few minutes. It seemed remarkable that we were heading in opposite directions on the same stretch of road, but the explanation was obviously that that they had started from a more northerly start point than me, but were headed for a more southerly crossing of the Great Glen. I was headed for Inverness, in fact, whereas they were headed for Drumnadrochit and Gordon Menzies' boat across Loch Ness to Inverfarigaig. It certainly got me wondering: just how many roads, tracks, and stretches of open country ARE there that Challengers on different routes might legitimately traverse in opposite directions? I made a mental note to look out for them when studying the maps of the Highlands - and to try to plan routes which would enable me to use them both ways!

As we went our separate ways, I glanced back and saw that Team Desmond were making light work of the gate. One member was already on the other side, receiving packs which were being passed up from the road to a second member who stood near the top of the gates, hefted them over, and lowered them into the waiting member's outstretched arms. You can do that when you are a team of three or four; but not when you are a solo walker. I contemplated calling back to them, asking them to wait while I returned to join them and help me over in the same way. But something at the back of my mind objected. I was attempting a solo crossing, and that meant accepting no outside assistance. What was the difference between letting someone else heft my pack over a gate for me, and accepting an offer to drive my pack to my destination so that I could have an easy day "walking light"? None, that I could see. Idiot!

So I walked on, and was overjoyed to discover that the next track was unguarded by any gates. My joy was to be short lived, however, as the gates were there alright. They were just out of sight of the road, so that I had already made significant progress up the track before I encountered them. This made sense, of course. Why would you have two tracks up through the same woods, one of which was guarded by a ferocious deer fence and the other of which was not? Come to that, given that the two tracks both led to another which ran more or less parallel to the road, why on earth would Team Desmond have planned to use the second track rather than the first? They had, presumably, attempted this track first, been deterred by the gates, decided to give the next track a try (so at least I wasn't the only one who failed to deduce that if the one was so well guarded, then so would the other be!) and finally decided to heft their packs over that one because there were no more tracks to try.

For my money, however, the gate which now faced me was actually the lesser of the two. But either way it had to be crossed, or my whole plan for the day's walking was in tatters. So I unpacked my back pack and hoisted the contents over in several easy packages, hefted the empty pack over after them, poked my one good walking pole through the wire, and finally scrambled over myself and re-packed my sack.

I followed the track to the woods north of Loch Carn nam Badan then turned back south, before picking my way across the open moor past the south end of the little lochan at NH402346 and ascending Carn na Feuchrain. Now this is easy enough to write, and looks easy enough on the map. But take a good look at those contour forms! That little lochan sits in one corner of a big, open, flat bit of ground surrounded by higher ground. It is, in short, a ghastly peat bog in a hollow. The edges of that lochan are shown where they are on the map because the cartographer had to draw them somewhere; but in reality, it it not a lochan with a crisply defined shoreline at all. It is an open expanse of water which gradually merges into dry land, with a large and ill-defined intermediate zone composed alternately of watery land and landy water. And it was this intermediate zone which I was attempting to cross!

On any of the first three days of my Challenge, short days all of them, I would have simply paused to take another look at my map, and concluded that if I were to continue south on the track past the Loch Carn nam Badan and then ascend the gentler western slope of Carn na Feuchrain rather than the stiffer north west slope, I might save myself the bog and make better progress. But today was a big day - 31 kilometres big - and I had already lost a good slug of time getting over that gate. I simply couldn't afford to lose more time planning time-saving alternatives such as this! (Or to put it another way, I was already so far into that damn bog that I may as well press on as turn back.) Well, just as all good things come to an end, so do all bad things, and I was eventually out of the bog and on the slopes beyond. The ground dried out, and as I ascended Carn na Feuchrain things began to look less gloomy. By the time I was on the top, and walking the wonderful ridge north east, then north, then north east again to Carn a Bhainne, I was actually beginning to feel much happier about the day (it's amazing, really, what an effect getting your feet out of the bog can have!!)

I stopped for lunch on the top of Carn a Bhannie and looked around me. It may not look like much of a top on the map, but trust me on this one - it really IS an amazing summit. The rocky outcrops and perilously steep northern slopes give you the impression of being at the top of a much higher mountain than you actually are; whilst the views away to the east over Loch Garbh Iolachan and Loch Garbh Bhreac to the distant, shimmering waters of Loch Bruicheach - just glimpsed through the narrow velley east of Loch Garbh Bhreac - are truly spectacular. And it is completely, totally wild up there, untouched by human hands. Take another look at that map: in the whole of Grid Squares 4236, 4336, 4436, 4536, 4135, 4235, 4335, 4435, 4535, 4635, 4134, 4234, 4334, 4434, 4534, and 4634 the only signs of human interference with the landsacpe are the triangulation pillar on Carn Mor, and the crannog in Loch Bruicheach! That's one heck of a lot of unspoiled wilderness.

In less than an hour I had gone from the emotional low point of the crossing, as I trudged through that wretched bog, to the most spectacular high I had ever experienced: I was thoroughly intoxicated by the raw natural beauty of the place. I finished my lunch and pressed on with a lightness in my step that had not been there before, down the north east shoulder of Carn a' Bhainne, then north through the valley to the unnamed stream which I crossed and followed down to Loch Neaty.

I followed the north shore of Loch Neaty to the corner of the woods. That sounds easy enough, but the ground rises pretty steeply from the loch and there were several rocky bits where I didn't fancy my chances should I slip. My shoes, socks and feet were already sodden from the bog, and I had learned that my fell running shoes would happily dry out overnight; so on several occasions I just plunged into the loch and paddled, fully shod, in its cold waters.

The wood to the north of Loch Neaty is enclosed by a truly magnificent deer fence, and the path through the woods to Eskdale was accessible only by means of a gate which was securely chained and padlocked. So yet again I changed my plan for the day, and took the path down to Cruive where I joined the road through Druimkinnerras to Culburnie and on to Kiltarlity Cotts. It may be road walking, but it is very pleasant road walking on charming back roads through delightful countryside, made all the more pleasant by a conversation I had on the way down to Culburnie with a motorist who was coming up in the opposite direction. She was on her way home - which must have been in Cruive, or Knockvuy, or Kinneras. And she was looking forward to starting her own crossing - her first - in a couple of days' time. I should perhaps explain that this sort of thing would not normally happen; but 2004 was the 25th Great Outdoors Challenge, and to mark this milestone they accepted a greater number of Challengers than usual, and despatched them in two "waves", a week apart. I was in the first wave; and this lady, whose name I did not record, was to be part of the second wave. I wished her luck for her crossing, she wished me luck with mine, and we continued on our separate ways.

My original route plan for the day had made use of the path by the River Beauly from Hughton, through Ruttle Wood and on through Cruives, Groam of Annat and Croiche Wood. When I reached Kiltarlity Cotts I could, of course, have crossed the bridge and rejoined the planned route by turning right; but it had been a long, hard day and I opted for the easier (and shorter)option. I joined the A 831 and walked the last two and a half kilometres through Balblair to Lovat Bridge on the main road. My overnight stop was on the Lovat Bridge camp site, a delightful spot on the banks of the River Beauly and at the extreme northern limit of the Challenge area - which at this point is bounded by the railway line. In subsequent years I have met other Challengers there; but on the night of 10 May 2004 I was the only one.

I should also say that the camp site has its own licensed bar; and after the day that I had had, this was most welcome!


  1. I look forward to reading this at my leisure when on holiday in a couple of weeks' time. In the meantime, I thought you might appreciate the moral support of a 'follower'. I think you'll find they accummulate over a period, but the pleasure is really in writing the blog. Any readers are, for me anyway, a bonus. Good luck with the project, and see you in Montrose, or even Braemar.

  2. Thanks Martin.

    I hope you find it good reading. It may have growed a bit by the time you can sit down properly with it, mind ...