Tuesday, 5 July 2011
The weather had one last cruel trick to play on us, however, as the high winds had caused overhead power problems; and even though this train was a diesel and therefore capable of getting through to London even in a complete power failure, the fact that the lines were down meant that this was not to be.
The railway was advising a rather peculiar alternative, taking a cross-country route from York to Sheffield, then another to Manchester, and then a train to Euston. I figured that anyone who followed this advice would be lucky to get to London much before 10 p.m. and I really didn't fancy that.
They told us that the train we were on was going to continue as far as Doncaster; and I figured I'd get home quicker if I rode it on through and my wife drove up to Doncaster to meet me. So this is what I arranged.
Then the news came through that the train would continue beyond Doncaster to Retford, Newark and Grantham. So I contacted my wife again and suggested that she aim for Grantham instead.
Now, for some peculiar reason best known to herself, and despite the fact that the A1 and the East Coast Main Line run in parallel and serve all the same towns and cities, my wife was NOT heading North up the A1. Instead, she had asked her SatNav to give her a route to Doncaster railway station, and it had put her on the M1. So now she was going to have a bit of fun finding a cross-country route to Grantham.
Wouldn't it be easier just to meet at Doncaster, she asked?
Not really, I said - it'll add between two and three hours to the journey!
But why? She persisted. Why does it matter whether you do the stretch between Doncaster and Grantham by car or by train?
I muttered something about the train being approximately twice as fast at covering the ground, and stuck to my guns. I mean, the route finding isn't that difficult even without the SatNav. Just point yourself East until you meet the A1 and turn whichever way it says Grantham is! If Grantham isn't signposted, turn for Peterborough. If you reach Stamford or Peterborough and have signs saying that you are heading towards London, turn around. How difficult is that?
So anyway, we met at Grantham, where the railway had laid on buses and taxis to get people to Peterborough from where they could continue their journeys by rail. This connection hadn't been widely advertised, however, because Peterborough United were playing an away match, and they had not been able to drum up enough coaches to meet the needs if everyone had been told about it. So they were "advising" people to go via Sheffield and Manchester instead!
Rule number 1 of rail travel: when you encounter a SNAFU, take careful note of whatever they advise you to do, and then DO SOMETHING ELSE. Just about anything else will do. The one thing you must not do is follow the herd - because the services they advise you to use will almost certianly not have the capacity to cope with moving this additional herd, and abject misery is bound to be the outcome.
There were another couple of Challengers in my railway carriage - first timers from Sudbury - and we gave them a lift from Grantham to Peterborough (as this was bound to be quicker than waiting for the regular "rail replacement" service, and would mean that they were ahead of that particular "herd"). It was an interesting journey, as my wife had not cleared all of her junk out of the car before heading North. Why would she? At that time, she thought she was just coming for me. We did, however, eventually manage to squeeze four adults, three expedition rucksacks, two bags of horse feed and a saddle into a Polo, following which we pointed South.
And so ended my 2011 Challenge.
In the evening, we had the traditional Challengers' dinner at the Park. Tales of the Crossing were exchanged, of course - the most alarming being Rolf's story of having been swept off his feet during a river crossing. Thankfully he survived to tell the tale, and even completed his crossing. But it must have been a hairy moment.
The Park disappointed, I have to say, in its ability to cope with the needs of a gluten-intolerant diner. I had alerted them to this in good time, and yet still they weren't prepared with a suitable desert. "We can put together a fruit salad for you if you like" isn't really good enough, in my book. Charge me less and give me two courses, or plan and deliver a proper desert. I don't care which ... but I do care that I shouldn't be charged full-whack and receive only half-whack.
Montrose himself, I guess, is the one who matters most to me. He fought for his King and proved himself to be one of the most able generals that Britain has ever bred. What might he not have done, had he had a few more soldiers to deploy? He did not deserve the fate he suffered, and it is as well to see him commemorated by such a fine statue. May God rest his soul!
At Challenge Control I learned just how bad the weather we had experienced this year had been. Seasoned veterans of the infamous 1983 Challenge swore blind that the weather this year had been worse, making it, officially, the wettest Challenge ever. The attrition rate had been high - but not as high as 2009.
I leafed through the comments book, and was especially struck by Caburn's comment: "This year, the legendary Challenge camaraderie was EVERYTHING. I'd lost the will to live by the end of day 3."
I kinda knew what he meant, and yet ...
Well, let's just say that for me, the hill and the weather and everything else I encounter as I walk, well, they are the challenge. And I take my pleasure in meeting that challenge, whatever it may be, and in rising to overcome it. Looking back, I'm pleased to have been there. But, more to the point, at the time I ENJOYED BEING THERE no matter what.
Yes, the enjoyment to be had from a soggy, bog-hopping yomp through the rain with limited visibility is a different sort of enjoyment from that which is to be had from a perfect ridge walk on a clear day with unlimited visibility. But I come on the Challenge for two weeks of solitude. Two weeks when the world of London and the insolvency courts are far, far away. Two weeks when Application Forms and Witness Statements and Court Bundles and impossibly unreasonable demands from unbelieveably self-important opponents are not my worry.
I can get that in the rain just as well as I can get it in the sunshine.
And this year I felt that I had had it in abundance.
The beaches North of Aberdeen are amazing - I really don't know why more Challengers don't aim to finish up here - and I had this one to myself. Acres and acres of amazing golden sand, all totally deserted.
It just had to be done, didn't it?
I took some clothes off (I'll leave you to ponder how many, and which) and ran out into the sea. It wasn't quite as cold as I'd imagined, and I stayed in the waves a while. However, I'm not a strong swimmer and I was entirely alone, so I did not go too far out. Thigh-deep, with the occasional wave almost to my waist, was about as far as I was prepared to push it.
As I returned across the strand, a vicious wind blew along the beach, and my bare legs received a thorough sandblasting.
But I didn't care. For I had finished!
Beyond Balmedie House, I followed the road to the beach. It was 4.55 p.m. and I was bang on schedule. Just as I reached the road a car swept past, and I wondered whether this was my journalist from the Inverurie Herald's sister paper. There had been no passengers, just the driver - a middle-aged man.
I started to prepare myself for another interview, and tried to look suitably elated for a "finishing" photograph. I suspected we may and up taking five or six shots of that one!
And then, finally, I had my first sight of the North Sea (pictured)
My route then continued over Hareton Moss to Causeyend, then past Greenden and Drumhead.
My route now was pretty much all roads the whole way. But oh what roads they were!
I turned right at Fawells and walked past The Blair, Wester Blair and Middleton. I stopped for a break and a glug at Disblair House, and exchanged a couple of words with some joggers who came by as I sat there. I passed under the power lines, and I reached Newmachar in time to have lunch - and a couple of pints of cider - at the hotel. As I enjoyed my lunch it began to rain outside; but by the time I was ready to hit the road again, the rain had lifted. Good timing that!
So I turned back, and took the farm track South from Ingliston instead, and then the track South East through the woods. This is a charming track (pictured), and got me to the B993 a little under 2km WSW of my intended junction with that road.
I hurried on by, and turned off at Lofthillock to take the little back track to Ingliston. As I did so a car pulled up and a lady got out to have a word with me. She turned out to be a reporter from the Inverurie Herald, and she'd seen me walking through the town centre and sensed a story. She'd had to go to fetch her notepad and thought she'd lost me; but inspired guesswork as to my probable route had enabled her to track me down again.
So I sat down and let her take a thoroughly implausible photograph of me "taking a break" after two and a half kilometres of walking, and gave her a lengthy interview in which I tried to get as much publicity for the Challenge as I could. She wanted to put a local "spin" on it, so I told her that I was a keen railway historian and had deliberately planned a route through Inverurie because of its links with the old Great North of Scotland Railway. She liked that; and we spent a little while concocting a quote about how wonderful it was to see the station building - a wonderful example of Scottish railway architecture - so carefully and sympathetically preserved. Something like that, anyway! When I told her that I was to finish at Balmedie, she said she'd see if she could arrange for her sister paper to dispatch a reporter to cover my arrival (but stressed that she could make no promises on this one). When would I arrive there, she wanted to know? Five o'clock, I told her, with a confidence which I did not altogether feel. But I thought that would be a nice time to reach the beach.
When I got home I e-mailed the Inverurie Herald with a few corrections to my interview (things such as that we didn't get a miniature of Bowmore for finishing this year!) and asked whether they might be able to send me a copy of the edition in which the interview was published. But I have received no copy of the Inverurie Herald, so I don't know whether or not they actually ran it.
As I continued on my way, I reflected upon the size of circulation of the Inverurie Herald implied by the fact that Balmedie is covered by a sister paper. Not all that great, it would seem ...
I walked down into the centre of Inverurie, noticing this nicely-preserved old plough in the front garden of one of the houses I passed, and then headed out over the railway. I paused on the railway bridge to take a good long look at the old Great North of Scotland station building, which was well preserved and in good shape, and then I pressed on. I wanted to reach Newmachar for lunch - which make a 16km morning stint. Perfectly manageable, but it left no time for dawdling.
Definitely worth the short diversion!
I then returned to the road and followed it down into Inverurie. Crossing the A96 at the roundabout wasn't such a problem after all, as there was a pedestrian underpass! However, my hotel turned out to be an impersonal corporate hotel serving the Aberdeen market; and I guess next time I come this way I may try the hotel at Kenmay instead - especially as it looks as though a section of old railway trackbed from Dalmadilly has been turned into a path or roadway of sorts. No worries, however. The hotel was pleasant enough, and I was just glad to get a bath and a good hot meal.
I had chosen to come this way rather than taking the river road through Burnhervie, despite the fact that it meant crossing the A96 at a busy roundabout rather than going over it on a bridge, because I'd noted the stone circle shown on the map at NJ 732208. I had also noticed that there was a car park which served no obvious purpose unless it was a visitor car park for the stone circle. And it dawned on me that any stone circle which has been given its own car park is likely to be a significant visitor attraction. I therefore reasoned that this must be quite an impressive stone circle - worthy of a slight diversion from my route and crossing the busy A96 at a roundabout in order to see it.
This took me onto a track which was closed for forestry operations, with a diversion indicated off to the right; and this started climbing strongly over Millstone Hill which did not feel at all right. There was a small track to the left, heading in the general direction of the original track. When I came to a main forestry road I turned right onto this, assuming that I was back on the track I had been diverted off. But the views did not look right, and it kept swinging away to the right, and I soon decided that I was not on the path I wanted to be on nor heading in the direction I wanted to be going in. A compass bearing along the track soon confirmed that I was all wrong. I guess I should have used the GPS to confirm my exact location (it's what I have it for, after all, and it seems silly to lug that weight all the way across Scotland and not to use it when the circumstances require its use!) but I didn't think of that. In my defence, I should say that the GPS is a very recent - and reluctant - acquisition. I am still very much an "old school" navigator, well drilled in the idea that the way to work out where you are is to look at the ground around you and compare it with the map until you find a fit.
Well anyway ... passing swiftly on ... I soon relocated myself and got back on track. I descended to the road, and went to pay a visit to the visitor centre (it's free) which contained a lot of interesting stuff on the history of Bennachie. I also saw, in passing, another glorious pre-grouping railway van in use as an agricultural store at Whitewell fam. No doubting the pre-grouping credentials of this one, which had great solid outside framing timbers; and when I got back, my railway friends on the internet identified it as being of Great North of Scotland origin. Not very far from home, this one, as the GNoS system was centred on Aberdeen, and the railway had its works at Inverurie ... which was one of the reasons I wanted to go there!
I walked with joy in my heart, enjoying my last day in the hills, not to mention the fact that today I'd actually managed to find them! I stopped and ate my lunch beside the trail, and then pressed on as the day's rain began to fall.
When I got to the edge of the woods, however, things were not nearly so clear. I could not find any trace of the track towards Brochlach Hill. The path towards the summmit of Black Hill was evident, however, so I followed this; although it soon became less evident and I ended up on a set of Land Rover wheel tracks which crossed the heathery hillside a little to the East of the summit and spot height 433. When I found a better track I took a bearing, which confirmed that it was the track through the col between spot height 433 and Hermit Seat, and I quickly located the main path Eastwards which is the Gordon Way, and thus well-trodden.
Monday, 4 July 2011
In Montgarrie I turned right; and then at Crossroads I turned left for Keig. Then I headed for Pond Croft, where I would head up into the hills for the last time this crossing (and today I WASN'T going to miss out!!). The high winds of the last few days had obviously done a lot of damage to the trees of the Castle Forbes estate, and as I walked by I heard the chainsaw gangs busily at work on the fallen limbs and branches.
I didn't see any squirrels, however.
I would recommend this museum as a "must-visit" to anybody passing through these parts with time on their hands.
Then I returned to my hotel and asked for my resupply parcel ... only to have them deny all knowledge of it! This was a bit awkward, as Alford is hardly the best place to go looking for gluten-free trail supplies (although at a pinch, this close to the coast I reckoned I could do without) and moreover the parcel contained my maps for the last couple of days. A quick tour of the village shops revealed that I should be able to purchase Landranger 37 there; but not Landranger 38. Which meant that unless the missing parcel turned up before my departure time the next morning, I should be heading blindly towards the coast, trusting to intuition, luck and to road signs rather than precise navigation.
After an anxious hour or two, however, the hotel did eventually find my parcel (although I got the distinct impression that if I hadn't been able to point out that I sent it Special Delivery, and that the Post Office assured me it had been signed for, they might not have bothered looking!) All being well in Alford, I went to dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Now the hotel management are Indian; and the hotel restaurant is, therefore, an Indian restaurant. And I am not that familiar with Indian cuisine so I rely heavily on what they tell me about it in the menu. And there was a dish which the menu described as the tastiest dish on the menu, so I ordered that.
Now, what CAN I say about it? Only this, that once I overcame my surprise at finding strawberries in a chicken curry, I was AMAZED. Tastiest dish on the menu? I'm sure it was. It is also a fair contender for the title of tastiest dish I have EVER eaten ANYWHERE - and believe me, that is a pretty stiff competition!
So, if ever you are passing through Alford, DON'T entrust your resupply parcel to the hotel management; but DO make a point to eat at that amazing Indian hotel restaurant!
So when I sighted the Forbes Arms Hotel a little before 1pm I was overjoyed. I went into the bar, ordered myself a pint of cider, and asked for a menu ... only to be told that their chef doesn't come in on a Tuesday lunchtime, so the kitchen wasn't open.
I finished my pint, comiserated with some chap from the oil industry who was bemoaning the fact that a fresh cloud of volcanic ash appeared to be falling on the bonnet of his brand new black Jaguar S-type out in the hotel car park, and headed off again. I crossed the bridge, found a nice little spot beside the road to have my lunch, and then wandered the last kilometre or so into Alford and my hotel.
However, this was not to be; because I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts (partly prompted by the sign in the picture, and rather silly speculation as to the precise nature of the B&B (a lilly pad, perhaps?)) that I walked clean on past the road to Edinbanchory. There is no other way up into the Correen Hills; and by the time I realised my error I was that far past that I decided I would just press on into Alford (pronounced Affud, apparently) by road. It was a fine day for road walking and, to be frank, the joys of walking in the rain were beginning to wear thin. I just wanted to get this Challenge over and done with now!
I made enquiries, and they did indeed have a room for the night - although they did not offer evening meals. I enquired about the "PH" in the village. They told me that was the Lumsden Arms hotel, and that they thought it had closed down. I said that I would go and investigate, and be back in a while.
Well, the hotel was indeed closed, although the village shop on the other side of the green was open. The shopkeeper told me all about it - the proprietor was unwell and it was now for sale, but nobody had yet been found to buy it. So I sauntered back to my B&B with this news. The B&B proprietors were entirely happy, however, for me to borrow their kitchen to cook for myself, so I treated myself to a nice, hearty three course meal.
I was not the only Challenger staying there that night. Some time after I got back from my exploration of the village, Elizabeth Murphy came in out of the rain. We were both very well looked after; but the B&B proprietors are an elderly couple - who married before the War and at one time lived in the ruined farmhouse up on the hill - and now they are trying to wind down the business. They no longer actively solicit custom, so although they gave us a splendid welcome and excellent hospitality, I shall not give any more details here.
What I will say, however, is this: that I walked all around the village, and saw no sign of any other B&B. So unless and until the Lumsden Arms is bought and re-opened, I think Challengers need to treat Lumsden as a village offering no accommodation.
There is a ruined house at NJ 451233, and an impressive amount of it remains so I took this photograph. It once had quite a range of outbuildings, too - so evidently a farmhouse of some importance. Presumably, however, with the coming of motor transport and the need to upgrade the roads hereabouts, this old military road fell out of use in favour of the road via Craig Castle and over Peddie's Hill; and as other houses gained mains services and water, but this one did not, its attractiveness waned until finally it was abandoned - another casualty of the central heating revolution!
The quality of this path is good - very good; and the bridge over the nameless burn above Silverford is well engineered. It all has the feel of 18th century military road-building about it, and I wondered whether that might in fact be its origin.
The photograph shows the little lochan on the flank of Clayhooter Hill at NJ 437242. I should very much like to be able to report that there are lovely flat swards on either side offering ideal wild camping pitches ... but were I to write this, I should not be telling the truth. There are flat stretches beside the lochan alright, but they are very wet and boggy. There MIGHT be a pitch there, I suppose, if you really search for it. But there was nothing suitable that was visible from the path as I walked by.
Sunday, 3 July 2011
There are three buildings marked on the map to the North of Aldivalloch, and I wondered whether one of them might be a bothy. I thought it worth taking the time to investigate for future reference. However, if you are going to do this, you have to turn off the track before you get into the sheep pasture, as I soon found out. Once into the sheep pasture, barbed wire fencing ensures that you cannot stray too far from the marked path. So I descended to the road, noting as I did so that there were two interesting old railway vans in use as agricultural stores at Aldivalloch and Aldunie. These intrigued me - they looked as though they could well be pre-Grouping (i.e. built before 1923) so I took some photographs, and when I got home I posted them on an internet railway forum to see if anybody could identify them. It didn't take long for the identifications to come rolling in ... and I was right to think that they were both pre-Grouping. One had been built by the North Eastern Railway, and the other was of North British origin.
I carried on into Cabrach, where I stopped for a bite of lunch, and then I followed the main road as far as the junction with the B9002. This was a somewhat scary experience, as the wind was gusting so strong that I would find myself being blown right out into the middle of the road before I could do anything to arrest my progress. So I tried to keep as keen a lookout for oncoming traffic as ever I could, and whenever something capable of killing me approached I would step well up onto the verge and stand still until it had passed.
Walking on roads in wind like that is not an enjoyable experience ... so much so, that I wonder whether I mightn't have been better off up on the ridge after all!
The ford was another sandals-and-trousers-off plunge into icy cold water; and this time it was raining on me as well, so stopping to get dressed and put on dry socks on the other side was no fun at all.
I pressed on up Dead Wife's Hillock, where my route card said I would turn right and walk the ridge Rounumuck Hill - Cairnbrallan - Hill of Three Stones - Longrigging Hill then take the track over Blairlick Hill, ford the Kindy Burn and ascend The Buck.
The weather said otherwise! The wind was stong - VERY strong. It lifted my Havelock clean off my head, and I was fortunate to keep a hold of it (the havelock, that is - not my head!) So I changed into a woolen hat and used my coat hood, much as I hate to do so. I did not think this strength of wind to be particularly conducive to walking an exposed ridge, so I looked at my map and had a wee rethink. Which involved going the obvious way down to Cabrach, by road past Elrick, and by the path over Clayhooter Hill and down into Lumsden. I texted Challenge Control to enquire if they knew whether the PH in Lumsden had overnight accommodation. They didn't know. No matter: I felt sure I'd be able to find a wild camping spot if not. (My planned wild camp for the night had been in Glenlaff ... but to get there, I'd have to get over The Buck!)
My route card said that I was going to continue on the track up the glen, fork right to Blackwater Lodge, cross the Blackwater on the bridge there and find somewhere to pitch my tent. But the weather really didn't make wild camping seem like an attractive option, and the following day was a short day (made necessary by the paucity of places which appeared - from the map - to be suitable for wild camping) so if I didn't do the full distance today I could easily make it up tomorrow.
So I decided that I should stay the night right here at Suie bothy. There was plenty of firewood, so I got a nice fire burning to make the place nice and toasty. I looked for a bothy book, but couldn't find one. There was a notice on the wall giving the grid reference of the bothy, but I reckoned that they had got this wrong and given the reference of one of the other buildings in the Suie area instead. So I fetched out my GPS, which confirmed my reading of the map, and I wrote a little comment on the notice suggesting the correct grid reference.
There was enough mobile reception here to send a text, so I texted Challenge Control to let them know that I was holing up for the night at Suie bothy. Then I went through my gear and hung all my wet waterproofs to dry, and placed my shoes where they might benefit from the heat of the fire.
After supper I settled down on the sofa in my sleeping bag. It was only about 7, but I felt just about all in and in need of a good restorative sleep. I watched the fire until it had burned right down, and then turned over and was asleep in next to no time. I had half expected some companions for the night, but I had the bothy to myself. As I drifted off to sleep I listened to the wind howling outside, and was glad that I was not under canvas.
You need to be flexible over your route on the Challenge ... and to sieze whatever opportunities present themselves to save yourself from the worst of the weather.
After lunch, the wind was howling and the rain was beating down, and I did not feel like heading out into the weather just yet. I was tired and fatigued, and the bothy had a comfortable settee, so I lay down on this and allowed myself a bit of a nap.
If the bridge is satisfactory, however, the weather most certainly wasn't. The wind was getting up, and the rain was falling steadily. I was in full waterproofs again, and was most grateful to have bought a waterproof Havelock (a peaked hat with a long fabric neck cover) which kept not only my spectacles but also my neck dry. I far preferred this to using the hood of my coat, since a hood restricts head and neck movement in a way that the Havelock does not.
I had never walked up Glen Livet before, but I was glad I was doing so now. It really is a beautiful glen, and as you pass up it from the pastoral to the wild, it just gets better and better. Maybe not quite in the class of Glen Rosa; but then, very few glens are.
The sheep there were not overly concerned at my presence among them, giving me the opportunity to snatch this photo.
I headed out of Tomintoul on the road through the woods, intending to follow the path North to Carn Daimh. I could have taken the back road past the Old Kennels and picked up the Speyside Way, which would have been well way-marked. But it was a little further. And the path would duly connect with the Speyside Way at NJ 176205, so what was the problem?
Well ... the problem was, I never did see the southern end of that wretched path, and so continued on the road all the way through the woods ... and on to Tomnavoulin!
I had company for some of the way, in the form of the couple whom I had been following but not catching the day before. At Knockandhu, however, they turned right for the Braes of Glenlivet, intending to take the path up and over the Ladder Hills and down to Donside.
This road is not unpleasant walking - as the photo taken a little way south of Roadside of Croftban shows - but I think I would rather have been going over Carn Daimh and descending the Allt a Choire into Tomnavoulin!
Tomintoul is the highest village in Scotland, and in Britain. It was dismal and wet when I arrived, and I walked the length of the village to the Youth Hostel (pictured). There were two or three other Challengers there including Elizabeth Murphy, and a gentleman who was particularly pleased to renew his acquaintance with me - David Boyd. David was the first-timer whom I had accompanied over Mount Keen in 2006, and was now making his third crossing.
I had rubbed an intrigueing blister on the upper inside face of my right big toe. It did not interfere with my walking in any way; but I thought that it would be prudent to drain it. So I borrowed a needle for the purpose, I did some laundry, and David and I went to supper at the Clock House restaurant which was as wonderful as ever.
I enjoyed one of the most wonderful bowls of vegetable soup I can ever remember eating, and a bag of crisps, and a couple of cans of Irn Bru. They refilled my water bottles for me while I used the tearoom toilets. And then I set off again.
I crossed the Bridge of Brown and then began the stiff ascent on the other side. At NJ 133209 there is a path round the back of the woods, taking you up and over a little hillock which the road chooses to go around (well, it doesn't choose, exactly: it goes where the builders put it. But you know what I mean!) I took the track, to minimise road walking, and also because it was a little shorter. It proved to be a very pleasant little kilometre or so of walking, even in the steady rain which was now falling. I then rejoined the road and followed it down to Bridge of Avon.
At the road, I climbed over the gate and turned right. The road zig-zags here as it drops steeply down to Bridge of Brown, and one needs to be constantly aware of any oncoming traffic.
I sat a while beside the Allt Catanach, refilled my water bottle and just enjoyed the sense of being there, along in a beautiful place such as this. There were primroses beside the burn, and I took a couple of photographs - but they aren't very good because that sort of photography isn't really my thing.
As I sat there a gentle rain began to fall, and slowly intensified; so I decided to put my waterproofs back on, and press on past Bauminch.
How wrong I was, however: for they were making a cracking pace, and I never did catch up with them. Neither, it seems, were they even aware of the fact that I was there and trying to do so!