A story with a happy ending…

Talladh-a-Bheithe – what does it matter? (06/08/2014)

My first ever Munro was Schiehallion; climbed, many years ago, in winter conditions. It was between Christmas and New Year, the snow line was at about two thousand feet, I was well wrapped up and with a good supply of food and hot drink and – most importantly – I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing!

Starting from the Braes of Foss, there wasn’t much scope for navigational error but the succession of false summits, combined with the marked drop in temperature as I gained height, taught me a few new lessons along the way. There were two brief blizzards, both of which seemed to materialise from clear blue sky and dissipate just as mysteriously; I quickly became grateful that this was a straightforward ascent, 180 degree turn, descent, and nothing more complex.

But I got to the top, stood for a while in a thigh-deep drift drinking coffee, survived and loved it. One other lesson learned that day was the speed with which weather systems can move. At the summit, I looked over towards the west, saw evidence of a serious storm and – with the wind blowing in our direction – reckoned that we would be getting some of that weather in a couple of hours or so. I might have been twenty minutes into the descent when the storm front moved overhead and a mixture of snow and frozen rain began to pepper the ridge. Quite a few were still passing on the way up at this point but, although the storm passed quickly, the light never really returned.

Oh, I almost forgot: the views! Like nothing I’d ever seen – space, distance, tops, valleys, layer upon layer of this thing which, in the round, we call landscape; knowing exactly what that word means without ever having the vocabulary to do justice to it. You’ll know it when you see it!

The likelihood is that that landscape will soon be blighted by yet another inappropriately sited cluster of turbines. Turbines, plus access roads, pylon runs, sub-stations… landscape exploited, job done – move on to the next! It’s the mentality of the alien invaders in Independence Day.

And so what? All we’re talking about here is one individual’s personal recollections; hardly significant in the broader context. Throw in the accumulated reminiscences of every other walker who ever made that same journey and – even for a relatively busy hill like Schiehallion – it’s a tiny proportion of the population. Weighed in the overall balance, does anyone really care much for the opinions of what is, when all’s said and done, a tiny demographic? Should anyone really care?

It’s a question I’ll return to, but only after another trip down memory lane…

There’s a round of hills above Loch An Daimh, which lies slightly to the north and east of Loch Lyon. The complete round – starting from and returning to the dam – takes in a couple of munros (Stuchd an Lochain and Meall Buidhe), two corbetts and at least one other significant but un-named top. For a big raptor, it’s about a couple of flaps and a glide from Schiehallion, and I’ve walked it approximately one point six times!

The point six was the first time. Setting off from the dam (which another blogger once described as a fine example of soviet-era architecture) in weather which would have persuaded a more sensible person to get back in the car and drive to a pub, I somehow managed to convince myself that it was bound to clear up later. In the highlands!

Well, it didn’t – it got progressively worse; a wind so strong that it actually kept me upright on a couple of occasions when I would otherwise have fallen. In the end, I crawled under the edge of a small copse of tightly-packed conifers and ate lunch, knowing that I would be turning back. The sound of grunts and snapping twigs from the gloom behind me was a bit disconcerting; I assumed it would be deer. It was the kind of thoroughly miserable, wretched, frustrating day that just makes you want to come back and give it another go.

The second time could hardly have been more different: little or no wind, mostly clear skies with some high altitude cumulus clouds; Loch An Daimh blue and disturbed only by rising trout; the temperature just about perfect for walking in light clothing. Again, it’s the views that lodge most firmly in the memory – in every direction: The hills of Glencoe; The Ben; Schiehallion itself; the Lawers range back to the east; Ben More to the south; a distant glint of what might have been Loch Linnhe; the seemingly limitless space of Rannoch Moor.

Well, we know by now what an illusion limitless space can be. And how temporary…

So back to the question: does it matter, and why?

Certainly, Schiehallion and the hills at the western end of Glen Lyon matter to me personally because of my recollections of times spent. And it’s just possible that my reminiscences will strike a chord with a few others, just as theirs resonate with me when I read them. But that’s not the point: landscapes like these don’t matter to me just because I once walked the hill, or had a couple of good days out – those considerations are incidental. Schiehallion, Glen Lyon, Rannoch Moor, Ben More, would matter if I’d never set eyes on any of them; these places matter for their own sake – they need no endorsement.

We are supposed to be the custodians: the environment should be safe in our hands. We have the information and the wherewithal; politicians get no credit from me for pretending to acknowledge their responsibilities while continuing to approve the trashing of the landscape. But what hope is there when power rests in the hands of a species which apparently can’t even co-exist with a few hundred hen harrier?

If the energy companies, developers and wrong-headed politicians have their way, every summit in Scotland will eventually look out on its own particular Talladh-a-Bheithe. Its own particular, local tragedy.

They won’t care. To them, it won’t matter.

The happy ending? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-34684039

From the vaults: So, how did we come to be here? (03/06/2011)

Not how did we come to be here as in “We must have gone wrong somewhere; the car park is on theother side of Ben Macdui”. I was thinking more of the circumstances – simple or convoluted; obvious or arcane – whereby we came to be involved in this… well, in this whatever it is: hobby? escape? obsession? last fragile thread by which we tenuously cling to what remains of our sanity? all of those?

This blog entry has been a long time in the writing: started, abandoned, restarted, edited to the point where only the white of the screen remained. Some things in life are like that – gloss painting, usingPhotoshop Elements, digging out nettles: tinker all you like; chances are you’ll never be entirely happy with the outcome.
Some, a lucky handful perhaps, would have been born in the long shadow cast by the hills and lived an entire life considering that to be nothing remarkable. The long shadows where I spent my formative years were those from cooling towers, or the smokestacks of foundries and rolling mills; the glow in the night sky from the opening of cupola furnaces, rather than the dying rays of a westering sun. So how did I, and others like me (of whom there are many) come to be here?
I’m not sure if there’s anything to the notion of ‘in the blood’, but one side of my family hails from north-east Yorkshire; from that narrow strip of coastal plain wedged between the Cleveland Hills and the North Sea. Part of every childhood summer would be spent in the moors around places like Danby, Castleton or Commondale, and I suppose this is how I first became aware that there were places out there which bore no resemblance to the environment which I thought of as home. But there was no real connection, not at that point; nothing beyond that of an occasional visitor: we arrived, enjoyed our stay, then returned to our particular reality; the journey, each way, took longer than a present day transatlantic flight. But, pushed for an answer, I’d say that seeds were sown; ones of which I lacked the life experience or intuition to be aware.
If there was a pivotal moment for my particular peer group, it was possibly the acquisition of a bicycle. Just as an aside, the ramshackle concoctions which we considered to be bikes were as far removed from present day, 27-speed, techno marvels as the Mark 1 Vauxhall Viva would be from a Bugatti Veyron; when brake blocks wore out we would stop by trapping the front wheels between the soles of our feet. What the bike did was to bring within reach places which were both relatively on our doorstep and yet a world away. The concept, let alone the reality, of suburbs was unknown to us: we were aware of posher places where folks with money had their houses; that was about the extent of our socio-economic awareness. That and the fact that they seemed to arrive home from a day at work still as clean as when they left the house.
The transition from urban to suburban, from grime to opulence – all attainable at the turn of a pedal – these were revelations to our unsophisticated eyes. And then we reached the open countryside…
Freed of the shackles of parental supervision we could reach these new frontiers whenever we had time on our hands: streams of clear running water (in sharp contrast to the oil-smeared canals of our own locality); flower meadows; the discovery that not all small birds were brown; foxes; rabbits; dragonflies. Then there were the views: The Clees; the Wrekin; The Malverns; the glint of the distant Severn at Ironbridge; and beyond – the shadowy outlines of hills as yet unnamed.
Somewhere in those formative years, something took a hold and has never really let go: a thread which has loosened at times; become buried by the demands of life at others; but sooner or later has always drifted back into focus.
I suppose that’s how I’ve come to be here.

From the vaults: The gift of words (10/03/2011)

The ability to express, in elegant prose, those sentiments which many of us might share but would struggle to adequately articulate; that is a precious talent. There are those sentences, sometimes longer passages, which simply require you to return to the opening words and read them again; and then, on future occasions, revisit the book or article and comb until they have been found afresh.

Barry Lopez, in his essay A short passage in northern Hokkaido*, wrote this: “So much of (it) seems to stand quiet at the edge of human endeavour. Nowhere here is the scale of human enterprise large. It meshes easily with the land” It seemed utterly pertinent to so many issues which concern apparently so few of us.
We have places like that, even within the confines of these small, crowded islands: standing quiet at the edge of human endeavour, the scale of human enterprise unobtrusive. But they are dwindling in number and the assault on those too few that remain seems to gather pace at an almost exponential rate.
I suspect that between that group, relatively small in number (but not so in terms of influence) who stand to accumulate wealth from systematic acquisition and development, and who care for little else, and those of us in the opposing corner, fighting what seems to be a perpetual rearguard action, there is an unknowing and unsuspecting majority, unaware of what is being done to their country, not necessarily in their name.
For my own part, grateful though I am for having had the opportunity to see so much of it before it was thoroughly ruined, I’d like to think there would be places for future generations to have their timestanding quietly at the edge.
* The essay in its entirety can be found, along with a host of other excellent pieces, in the collection:About this life: Journeys on the threshold of memory.

From the vaults: Things of unknown origin (25/04/2010)

This post – in slightly longer form, and under a different title – was added to the old blog on 25th April 2010. It was originally prompted by the mossy remnants of an old wall…

FAQ: one of those ugly new age acronyms which has mystifyingly insinuated itself into our already more than adequate language.

Landscape seems to provide an almost inexhaustible supply of frequently asked questions. Answers can be, if anything, even more plentiful: known, surmised, invented, embellished; cocktails of truth, myth and legend mixed in sometimes inconsistent proportions.

There is a narrow glen I often walk when in Scotland; it follows the steep course of a burn which has cut itself into a fairly deep ravine. The remains of an ancient wall follow the line of the burn and its gorge; it must have been a considerable work of construction utilising, as it does, not the slabs and blocks of a traditional drystone dyke but rounded stones, the size of footballs; locked into place with sufficient expertise to withstand the multiple incursions of weather, animal movement and erosion. Its original purpose is no more evident to me than the lives of those who felt compelled to create it; strategically it adds little or nothing to the protection offered by the natural boundary which it shadows. Was it simply a territorial marker, a line of partition, a statement of ownership? Whatever the original intent it now undeniably adds something to a landscape into which it is being, and will continue to be, inexorably absorbed; a sense of time marked and a reminder of those who have passed this way ahead of us and the little we sometimes know of them.

There’s probably a certain hypocrisy implicit in someone who rails with such venom and frequency against human intrusions into wilderness – plantations, turbines, phone masts, the assorted paraphernalia of what we consider to be progress – finding fascination in things often equally incongruous but somehow excused by their redolence of times gone, cultures and traditions lost. We come across them frequently in the wild; remnants of walls, fences, sometimes substantial buildings; often in the most unlikely of settings.

Some day, in a future none of us will never see, someone will stumble upon the rusted remains of the National Exhibition Centre or excavate the collapsed remnants of Wembley Stadium and wonder what possessed us to build them. Records, should they survive, will tell them that in the case of the latter that is already a well established FAQ.


From the vaults: Canals (12/04/2010)


Canals, at least the towpaths which shadow them, have been one of life’s constants. Growing up in the black country we became accustomed to using the canal network as a means of convenient access; possibly to a greater extent even than roads and pavements. On foot, or by bike; heading to school, the park, or the railway station, the most convenient and the preferred option would frequently be the canal towpath.

There was nothing particularly picturesque about those urban waterways; these were the days when all manner of effluents were pumped indiscriminately from factory outlets, and the surface of the water would be thick with a coating of oil and tar. It was certainly a far cry from the modern day renewal initiatives of Birmingham and Manchester, with their boutiques, restaurants and designer-clad theatregoers.

Different again from the rural canals of North Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire; meandering, amenable, bucolic: places of respite where only the birds and darting fish feel the need to move at pace. Working traffic is, with the odd exception, a thing of the past, and these waterways now mostly see use as a leisure amenity. For many miles this part of the canal network follows the indistinct line of the suburban/rural margins; that modern day frontier where residential opulence dissolves into agrarian pasture. Forming, as they do, a component of that overlap – part natural, part manicured – between meadow and garden, woodland and herbaceous border, the canals and their surroundings provide sanctuary for diverse, and sometimes uncommon, varieties of wildlife.


From the vaults: New property, new tenants … (24/01/2010)

New property, new tenants …

The old nest box finally surrendered to the ravages of time last spring; but not before it had served as incubator and first home for one final clutch of young blue tits. It was a close run thing though: by the time the last of the young blueys had fledged we could see movement inside the box through an ever-widening crack in the front panel. All of which means that this year’s prospective homemakers get to view a brand new property, and the first few enquiries arrived this week.

I stood, like some avian estate agent, furtively watching the comings and goings from the bedroom window, hoping they’d like the feel of the place and it would suit their needs. Oddly there were three birds flitting between the new box and the neighbouring trees; so either there is still some jockeying for position to be done, or one of the visitors is just helping the other two to move in.

Picture: The very last days of the old nest box. It had served us, and generations of tenants, wonderfully well.


From the vaults: Railways (26/12/2009)


(Some things never leave you…)

Walkers seem to have a natural affinity for railways; one which goes beyond the obvious connection of the environmental benefits of public transport. There’s something which makes the intrusion of a railway line into the landscape somehow less disagreeable than a comparable stretch of road. Maybe it has something to do with railway architecture having contributed some of the finer man-made additions to our list of landmarks: Ribblehead Viaduct, The West Highland Line, The Forth Railway Bridge …

 Driving that stretch of the ‘Great North Road’ (The A9), north of Dunkeld, can feel like traveling through a publicity newsreel for Highland tourism: the Tay valley, the pass of Killiekrankie, Drumochter, Loch Ericht, the southern Cairngorms …
But the road, for all the possibilities it opens up, can never match the romance of the Highland main line which shadows it for much of its route. Something feels ‘right’ about watching a passenger service tracking north, calling at Dalwhinnie, Kingussie, and beyond; a sense of amenity somehow surviving the onslaught of ‘deliverable outcomes’ and ‘targeted solutions’ in the post-privatisation era. Sadly the days of a locomotive dragging coaching stock are all but gone, so we make do with ‘Sprinters’ and ‘Turbostars’; better those though than line closures in the name of shareholder value.

I grew up around railways, and all too many years have slipped by since the days when I would lie awake, windows open, listening to the night mail paused at our local station. Invariably, in steam days, there would be wheel-slip and clatter from the departing locomotive – usually a Stanier Black ‘5’, occasionally something a bit more exotic. Later came the familiar ‘whistle’ of the old english Electric Class 40s at idle, the growl as they eased away from rest; railway sounds are one of life’s indelible imprints. We need to preserve our railway network, extend it and reclaim some of what’s been lost. And there needs to be a change in the impenetrable complexity of ticket pricing to ensure that walk-up fares are pitched at more realistic levels.

Pictures: (Top) Back in the days of GNER livery the northbound ‘Highland Chieftain’ passes the station at Dunkeld & Birnam. (Above) A Class 153 unit, having finished its stint on Europe’s shortest branch-line, waits by the signal box at Stourbridge Junction.

Chris Townsend’s blog (October 2009) includes an excellent piece on trains: http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/2009/10/in-praise-of-trains.html