08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

The mountain at the end of the street…

I read somewhere – and for the life of me I can’t remember where – about the visual and sensory impact of mountains where they are visible from the streets of a town or city. I recall the article mentioning some of the obvious examples – Seattle, Kathmandu – but also referring to the views of The Peaks from Manchester and Sheffield. I’d credit the author if I could remember who it was; it might have been Robert Macfarlane.

This shot was taken looking south-west along the high street of Kingussie: the looming presence dominating the skyline is Creag Dubh – a two and a half thousand footer which is actually beyond Newtonmore but almost looks within touching distance…

 

Yet another Long Mynd walk…

Followed by yet another Long Mynd blog post.

We return to The Mynd pretty frequently and I don’t think we’d ever tire of it: proper hill country; an easy drive (under an hour); like a piece of Wales accessed in half the time. And there’s enough variation in the complex system of tops and hollows to be sure that familiarity never equates to boredom.

Climbing away from Carding Mill Valley

Although it’s not obligatory to make Carding Mill Valley the starting off point, a lot of walkers do, simply for convenience. It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind on those days when it gets a little busier; on a midweek day in winter there’ll be no need even to consider evasive action.

For a while Townbrook Hollow runs roughly parallel to Cardingmill Valley, although eventually their paths do diverge. It (Townbrook) is easily accessed at its lower end by skirting Burway Hill after crossing the minor road (Bur Way) which eventually leads to Pole Bank. The path gradually climbs clear of the valley floor and emerges onto a broad saddle which serves as the junction for a number of paths, offering a variety of possibilities for where to go next. In the context of these hills you’re already relatively high by this point, so from here there is an option to just enjoy some easy exploration.

The preposterously large cairn on top of Yearlet

There is another alternative: it involves sacrificing all of the height you’ve just gained, plus a bit more, and dropping down into the next valley – Ashes Hollow. There is a steep chute pretty much straight ahead as you emerge onto the saddle; it’s immediately to the west of a cairn-topped hill (Yearlet). A better option is to walk either around or over Yearlet and use the equally steep but more navigable gully on the eastern side of the hill; this adds a bit of distance and then a bit more again as it joins Ashes Hollow further down.

The descent is grassy, steep in places, and can be tricky when the surface is slick from rainfall; it’s one I find easier in trail shoes than in boots.

Ashes Hollow

Ashes Hollow is the longest and arguably trickiest of the routes up onto the high ground, but only to the extent that a little more care is needed now and then, and there are probably more places where it would be possible to turn an ankle if distracted. I would also say it’s the best in terms of interest and variety.

In time the path climbs out of the valley and meets the road which we crossed earlier in the walk – just at the point where its name changes from The Bur Way to The Port Way. The road passes just below the high point of The Long Mynd (Pole Bank) and continues on towards The Midland Gliding Club.

Toposcope – Pole Bank

The path back down to Carding Mill Valley can be accessed at its junction with The Shropshire Way, which leads down from the Pole Bank trig point and toposcope, but a more interesting option is to look for an earlier fork leading down to Lightspout Hollow and a rocky descent alongside the waterfall. That said, the Carding Mill path does offer some nice views across Church Stretton and some of the hills surrounding the town – Caer Caradoc; The Lawley; Hope Bowdler. The Wrekin stands isolated and a little further off.

Ashes Hollow: there is a path down there, somewhere…

Whinchat – a close relative of the more numerous stonechat

Some vertebrae and a skull. What with the kite, buzzards and ravens, there was never going to be much in the way of leftovers

A drifting buzzard quartering a hillside

Waterside foxgloves

If numbers are a barometer, 2017 seems to have been a good year for foals

 

 

 

Going over old ground…

That’s as good a way as any of summarising our outings of late: old haunts revisited; familiar routes reprised; two or three hours of borrowed time; longer days whenever opportunity presents. Brief escapes snatched from the seemingly remorseless clutches of life as it is now mostly lived. Not that we have much cause for complaint, but we’d probably all prefer to be doing a bit more of what we’d choose, a bit less of what’s required.

Habitually, we don’t take an awful lot of photographs; my tendency is to give priority to binoculars over a camera, but there is the occasional shot, usually intended as nothing more than a record of the day. These are just a few from recent weeks, accompanied by a bit of brief notation.

A grainy shot of a high-flying goshawk, taken in the Forest of Dean on a day when the weather was indeed glorious, although I don’t remember the sky being quite as blue and cloudless as the picture suggests…

The area has a reputation as a relative ‘hot spot’ for what is still a quite rare, although thankfully recovering, raptor (UK breeding population around 400 pairs). Usually I wouldn’t post a location for a sighting of a threatened bird of prey, but this particular site is already widely publicised online.

Wild ponies, Long Mynd: these animals are an ever-present feature of the Long Mynd, roaming across almost the entire expanse of the hills; sometimes in larger gatherings (I think the correct collective is ‘string’), at other times dispersed into smaller groups. Andy Howell – a Shropshire Hills regular – has written many blog entries about the area and regularly encounters the ponies… [Link]

 

Also taken on Long Mynd – one of a pair of falcons seen flying high above Light Spout Hollow and photographed at maximum zoom on a Sony HX300 Bridge Camera. With no detail visible on the camera’s LCD screen, we later cropped the image in Photoshop Elements (hence the grain) and then lightened it just enough for colours and markings to show. It looks like a hobby, which we’ve seen there before but usually skimming low over the ground chasing dragonflies…

Higher still, but much easier to identify – a pair of red kite…

Taken on 19th April, this was a day when we saw more kite than on any previous visit. We’d sometimes wondered whether the ones and twos spotted on previous occasions were the early settlers in a burgeoning population, or itinerants from Radnorshire on a day trip. We’re now hopeful of an eastward shift, as has previously happened with first buzzards then raven, and another step in the revival of an iconic species; they are still something of a rarity east of the Severn.

For anyone prepared to seek out the less populous parts of the hills, this whole area offers some of the best opportunities for spotting a variety of birds of prey; in fact, it’s one of the few places we know of where you could conceivably, in a single day, sight all three of our native falcons, plus a visiting hobby. It would need to be a lucky day, and at the right time of year, but it’s by no means inconceivable.

Wheatear is a variety we often see on the quieter parts of the Shropshire hills. This one was sufficiently obliging to sit still for a couple of shots…

This next one is an odd picture: for some reason – and my guess is user incompetence – the camera has focussed more precisely on the dried reeds than on the intended object, the meadow pipit. This gives the bird a slightly ghostly appearance, almost as if it had been struck down and become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. I quite like the unintended strangeness of it…

Just taking off from Carding Mill Valley, a rescue helicopter presumably called out to assist with the search for a teenage girl who had been reported missing on the day in the vicinity of the hills. Thankfully, she turned up later in the day – safe and unharmed.

 

 

Wild garlic, trackside, Severn Valley Railway: a nice smell, or a revolting one? It seems to divide opinion…

Also on the Severn Valley Railway: shunting operations at Highley Station. It was taken during the Easter holiday period and good to see that the trains on the day were consistently busy.

Recently I’ve started to take notice of the small oval ‘Shed’ plates attached to the front of steam locos; that’s probably the kind of thing I should be telling to a therapist. The one on the front of the engine nearest to the camera (85D) refers to the old steam shed at Kidderminster, so 1450 hasn’t strayed too far from home. Locomotive 1501 is displaying a former Old Oak Common plate (81A); this was the principal shed serving the Paddington end of the old GWR main line, and 1501 would have kept company with some very illustrious stablemates.

The enduring pull of Shropshire

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We return frequently to the Shropshire hills, and more to the Long Mynd than any other: 35 miles by road, a journey generally hassle-free, giving the feeling of proper hill country made accessible. The height might be unspectacular, but the complexity of the terrain and the propensity for ground-hugging mists, particularly in autumn, makes for some interesting outings. You can lose yourself in more ways than one.

45530185107941__405x720-argb_88881818675229The valleys (hollows), which cut into the hills, provide a variety of ways to reach the plateau; and indeed a variety of options for returning by a different route. “Plateau” shouldn’t be taken as meaning table-top flat; there’s plenty of undulation – some of it subtle, some less so. Many of the hollows carry a stream (although ‘brook’ seems to be favoured locally), often fed by springs, some of which are marked on the OS 1:25000 maps. Reduced to little more than a trickle at times, they can be difficult to cross at others – it is proper hill country!

For a time – an all too brief time each summer – there is the possibility of spotting a hobby, most likely in pursuit of a dragonfly; a still better chance of catching a fleeting glimpse of a merlin on the move. The merlins seem to have moved on, as indeed do the peregrines, although the latter were apparently sighted hunting over the hollows until a couple of weeks ago. The kestrel and buzzards seem to be ‘stayers’ though; and it’s no longer a surprise to spot a nonchalant, drifting kite. Not that raptors exactly have things all their own way: ravens go about their business without apparently feeling the need for a by your leave; ravens can probably take care of themselves.

Spotted for the first time last weekend, a respectably sized flock of golden plover – wheeling and diving over the moorland, dropping down into the heather, taking to the air again en-masse, endlessly repeating. They could be new arrivals – the UK population swells anything up to tenfold over the winter.

Winter will mean more layers: down jackets stuffed into the pack for rest stops; hats, gloves, thicker socks. All of those out-of-the-wind crannies will come in handy; just as long as we can remember where they are.

Pictures above: [Top]: Mist and watery sunshine – Long Mynd; [Above left]: Walkers descending into Light Spout Hollow, Long Mynd

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Light spout waterfall, reduced to a trickle following an extended spell of dry weather

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Detail from Routebuddy OSGB 217 – The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge (1:25000) – showing a number of springs feeding the brook in Ashes Hollow

A head full of Scotland…

Not long returned from a couple of weeks in the highlands, it’s probably understandable that, randomly, places with Gaelic names still spring unsolicited into the consciousness, accompanied by mental images of a clarity which is almost harrowing. Ironically, the better the time enjoyed, the more acute the ache of nostalgia: this is the comedown to end all comedowns; this is what the highlands can do to you…

The Cairn Gorm wind (Sunday, August 7th, 2016): Winds were predicted and it was indeed a bit blustery in the Spey Valley; blustery but no more than that. After a low-key, settling-in day, we’d ventured to Cairn Gorm, intending to ascend via Sron An Aonaich, otherwise known as the ‘windy ridge’ route – appropriately, as it turns out – and explore some more circuitous descent options, with a view to avoiding the funicular and as much of the ski paraphernalia as possible.

Stepping out of the car at Coire Cas, it was immediately apparent that conditions were a little bit more severe than blustery. As we raised the tailgate a number of items of clothing were plucked from the boot and distributed around the car park. With everything retrieved, an impromptu meeting agreed – unanimously, which is a rarity! – that heading for the tops today would be neither enjoyable or sensible.

It turned out to be a wise decision: later in the day, a record gust for the month of August was recorded by the Cairngorm weather station – a short stroll away from the summit cairn. (From the BBC website): “Met Office meteorologist Stuart Brooks said the wind speed on top of Cairngorm in the Highlands had so far reached 115mph and the weather station there was on track to note the highest gust ever recorded in summer”.

The midges of Glen Einich (Sunday, August 14th, 2016): We love the hills, and being out on them; but sometimes we just like to look at them from beneath. This could be just an excuse for the lazier days, of which we are also quite fond, but there’s no denying Scotland does have some very inviting glens. Glen Einich for one: a walk-in framed on its western side by the buttresses of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, with the corries of Braeriach to the east and, when it eventually comes into view, the blank headwall of Coire Odhar. Oh, and of course, there’s Loch Einich.

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The looming presences of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, heading into Glen Einich

These are the places where it’s good to pause, reflect, and feel that particular sensation unique to the Scottish highlands; unique at least as far as the UK goes. Uneasy but not in an unpleasant way is the best explanation I can offer; a certain acknowledgement of scale on a number of levels – the physical scale of the mountains themselves of course; but also the timescales represented by those mountains, which will endure long after we, as a species, have become a footnote to their history.

I’m no mystic, but I do believe that on a certain level the genuinely wild landscapes communicate with us: come in here with attitude and you’ll likely come unstuck; don’t take liberties and maybe you’ll be okay – but there are no guarantees. And there would be no point in arguing back – mountains don’t debate!

DSC08507Anyway, to the midges… and maybe, like the mountains, they will endure us as a species; I think they probably will. We’d progressed, largely untroubled, up to the point where the track splits and the lower path descends to closely shadow the river (Am Beanaidh), with the right-hand fork gradually climbing clear of the valley floor. It was here that they sprang their ambush – rising from the ground, descending from the sky, outflanking us and mocking our feeble attempts at defence; and all in the time it took us to make the decision – high or low? The little blighters have no interest in discussing surrender terms either.

Eventually we reached a high point, where the breeze seemed to thwart them a bit, and thereafter we mostly lost them – as long as we didn’t pause anywhere for too long – at least until we picked up a couple of patrols on the return leg, still keen for one last bite.

Edinburgh and the Highland Chieftain (Monday, August 15th, 2016): We’re all pretty fond of Edinburgh, particularly the astonishing variety of landscape to be found within the boundaries of a city. And we also all like a ride on a train…

P1160559Having established that even the walk-up return fares from Kingussie were surprisingly reasonable, we turned up at the station and booked for an out and back trip on Virgin Trains East Coast service,  a train which goes by the name of The Highland Chieftain and eventually ends its journey at either London Kings Cross or Inverness. One surprise was that using the ‘Chieftain’ – a refurbished High Speed Train (Inter-city 125 in old money) – in both directions was actually cheaper than the alternative Abellio/Scotrail option, travelling by 3-car DMU. We enjoyed a nicely turned-out train – even on the northbound return, by which time it was several hours into its journey – with plenty of room and good seats in both directions. This doesn’t make me a convert to the idea of a privatised railway, and anyway the Mark 3 coaching stock dates back to BR days and could show a Pendolino a thing or two when it comes to seating pitch and window alignment.

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Viewed from the train: early morning, low cloud rolling over the hills of Drumochter

Despite closely shadowing the A9 for a a sizeable part of the route, the train gives a much different perspective; particularly to someone who would usually be the driver. Passing Dalwhinnie, there was time to savour the view down Loch Ericht towards Ben Alder, looking massive even at this distance. Somewhere south and east of Drumochter, possibly around Killiecrankie, the highland wildness finally concedes its stranglehold, merging into the fertile prosperity of Perthshire and, for a while, we were back in familiar territory around Pitlochry and Dunkeld, rattling over the iron viaduct near to Dalguise. Away from the fractious and overcrowded peak-time commuter trains – which are an altogether different experience –  it’s a great way to travel.

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Looking along Princes Street from Calton Hill

We had 5 hours in the city: a little more would have been nice but, as we already knew our way around, we were able to make the most of the time available. August in Edinburgh means Fringe, and negotiating The Royal Mile felt like the most tiring walking of the entire fortnight.

There and back, we spent roughly as long on the train as we did in the city. Not once did the journey seem to drag, not even for a second and not in either direction. In fact we were all visibly downcast as the northbound service passed through Newtonmore and began to slow.

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Sadly, all good things have to come to an end – holidays, train journeys…

The birds (various dates and locations): What follows is nothing more than a sequence of disproportionately fortunate encounters, which will probably never be repeated during a single fortnight. That’s all there is to it: no claims of expertise or meticulous planning; just sheer dumb luck.

Two young cuckoos being fed, in plain sight, by a pair of warblers at Achlean – mentioned here

An impromptu pause at Loch Morlich roadside, where a firecrest – a bird I’d expected to go my whole life without ever seeing – worked its way through the foliage until it was a few feet from the passenger side windows, while the three of us sat as motionless as is humanly possible

Two golden eagles – one in Glen Feshie, the other, a few days earlier, barely into Glen Einich – and neither at a time of day when you would generally be optimistic. In the case of the Glen Einich one, we were no more than a couple of paces from stepping out from the tree cover – and almost inevitably spooking the bird – when we spotted it, drifting at not much more than tree height. As it was, we got to see it circle a few times before heading off towards the west. The Glen Feshie eagle was being mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and was distracted enough not to notice us for a while. Neither sighting would have lasted longer than about 15-20 seconds but – having only ever having seen about three or four in my whole life –  I don’t recall ever seeing a golden eagle for more than a few seconds.

We have, over the years, squinted at the tree line, trying to work out exactly where a cuckoo’s call might be coming from; never with any luck. We’ve similarly scanned skylines and hillsides, hoping to pick up the dark shape or shadow of an eagle in flight. Perhaps the occasional unlikely stroke of luck is nature’s trade-off for the fruitless hours.

Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Saturday, August 13th, 2016): For years we did this hill a disservice; an error of omission. We now try to make time for it whenever we’re in the area; the views are exceptional, it can easily be fitted into a part-day, and the summit shelter is sufficiently ‘wraparound’ to protect against everything other than a full-on northerly (there has to be a gap somewhere!). While we were taking advantage of the protection, a couple of young lads arrived who had run to the summit from Glenmore Lodge, via Ryvoan bothy; after all of 30 seconds, one said “Ready?”, the other nodded, and off they went in the direction of the next top – Creagan Gorm. We could only wonder, and wish them well

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Lochan Uaine from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

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Looking back down the track on Meall a’ Bhuachaille; Ryvoan bothy is just visible below.

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Hillsides virtually stripped of trees – lynx needed!

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Curtains of rain moving across Loch Morlich.

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Bynack More from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

It’s probably a consequence of its distinctive shape and position at the head of the Ryvoan pass, but Meall a’ Bhuachaille – despite keeping company with much loftier neighbours – seems to be in view from most of Strathspey. We began to wonder whether Meall a’ Bhuachaille might be Gaelic for “visible from everywhere” but apparently it translates as ‘The hill of the herdsman’.

[Below] Meall a’ Bhuachaille and neighbours from… actually, I’m not sure. Probably (top to bottom): Glen Einich; Whitewell; somewhere else…

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So that’s it for reflections until next time.

Which can’t come soon enough.

 

Carn Ban Mor: 1,052 m (3,451 ft), not a Munro

It doesn’t matter that it tops out at well over 3,000 feet – there’s more to it than that. Scottish hill classification is – like life itself – something I don’t fully understand; probably because, as with life itself, I haven’t always been properly paying attention.

It’s to do with relationships and proximity (like a restraining order?), and also parents and subsidiaries. That last bit sounds like the kind of stuff you’d find in a PLC’s profits warning and maybe it all serves some purpose, but…

(Here’s the ‘but’): if it’s the case that Carn Ban Mor is blissfully indifferent to its designation – and we can probably take that as read – then I don’t really think it should matter to me either; which is convenient, because it doesn’t. To misquote Robbie Burns “A hill’s a hill for a’ that” and Carn Ban Mor is a fine old hill, and one with a particularly fine path.

Just before the croft at Auchlean, a track leaves the tarmac road and cuts away across the heather and bilberry. Alternatively, just past the croft, another track leaves the path to Glen Feshie at roughly 90º. It’s not long before the two converge, but fortunately we chose the latter option, otherwise we would have missed the two cuckoo chicks being fed by a pair of warblers in the lee of the farm buildings.

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Cuckoo chick, waiting to be fed (Glen Freshie)

The energy expended by those small birds, incubating and nurturing the two cuckoos, is a genuine wonder of the natural world. For perspective, imagine a pair of robins tirelessly rearing a couple of young pigeons and you’d be about right.

Many hours later, we chose to return via the same route, just to see if the feeding was still going on: it was, even though the chicks both looked well capable of taking care of themselves. And their foster parents.

I’ll not dwell too much on the route, as there are any number of detailed and well-written descriptions available online. The path climbs through mixed woodland, which eventually gives way to open hillside and views of Glen Feshie and then the Spey valley. The Cairngorms national park is accessed via a gate and introduced by a boulder situated just inside the park boundary.

DSC07544A food stop was taken in the comfort of a peaty gulley, just to the side of the path. It was only on emerging onto the higher open ground that we realised just how much we’d been sheltered from the wind by the presence of Carn Ban Beag on our northern side. On the upper slopes a group of reindeer crossed our path on the ascent, and did so again as we were returning.

What sets the path apart from many others is that it takes you to within a whisker of the summit, without the degeneration into either quagmire or ankle-snapping boulder field, which is so often the case and usually just at the point where the trickiest part of the ascent is reached. A small waymark cairn marks the point where you need to leave the main path and head across gently sloping open ground to the summit cairn/shelter and take in the views which, in this case, really do justify the use of the word “panoramic”.

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Sgor an Lochain Uaine and (right) Cairn Toul

The summits of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine are familiar from a thousand pictures seen in guidebooks and on internet sites and; a little further on, there are excellent views across to the western corries of Braeriach. Almost due north, the rocky summit of Sgor Gaoith looks within touching distance; a little deceptive, as there is a drop down onto a saddle before needing to reascend another 100 metres in height.

 

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The summit of Sgor Gaoith (1,118 metres) – Carn Ban Mor’s ‘parent’ hill