An extended spell of hot dry weather during June and July shouldn’t really be a disorienting experience, but that’s how it felt; particularly when it ran on beyond a few days and began to be measured in weeks.
Having come to terms with the fact that properly seasonable weather was actually happening outside, we realised that – despite spending sizeable chunks of recent summers wishing for nothing so much as a few warm, dry days – we weren’t really coping very well with the kind of conditions for which we’d been holding a nostalgic affection. An affection derived from recollections of long, golden summers past; memories which have benefited from the wistful burnish of time, distance and the selective editing which helps to keep us relatively sane. The key word in all of that is ‘relatively’.
Meadow Pipit caught in bright sunlight – Malvern Hills
The prospect of a couple of hours each way in an airless car meant plans for days in Wales or The Peaks were either deferred or shelved completely and we came to terms with the inevitable repetition of outings closer to home, injecting a bit of variety by now and again taking the train. The Malverns, for anyone who’s interested, provide a decent ride and walk outing: our preference is to take the train to Colwall, heading for the southern end of the hills and then walking the full length of the ridge before dropping down into the town and returning from Great Malvern. The route can easily be reversed for those approaching from a different direction and the whole thing can comfortably be fitted into even the shortest winter’s day. For a ridge which doesn’t quite make 1,400 feet, the Malverns can be surprisingly ‘bracing’ when a midwinter wind blows from the east. Fine weather brings out the crowds but, as with most hills, the more familiar you become the easier it is to escape those spots where people tend to congregate.
We were due to return to Kingussie in early August and it became difficult to avoid a sense of marking time. The highlands can have the effect of making other places suffer a little by comparison and there were a few times when we had to make a conscious effort to ease up on the anticipation, be a bit more appreciative of the immediate, and generally show a little patience.
Friday 9th August…
At last, it was time to begin the long journey north. Generally speaking, I’m not an enthusiastic motorist; given the choice I’d walk, cycle or take the train every time, but somehow this reluctance gets easily set aside when it comes time for the four hundred odd miles to the ancient capital of Badenoch, home to a fine old railway station and the Happy Haggis chippy. And, as if those two things weren’t sufficient in themselves, there’s also the mountains, lochs, rivers, forest trails, abundant wildlife and cafés serving ‘I shouldn’t really’ sized slabs of cake.
Kingussie is a restful base for us. It lacks the bustle and amenities of, say, Aviemore – no bad thing for those of us of a less gregarious disposition – but it’s extremely well located for accessing a wide variety of hill country, including some substantial tracts of genuinely wild land. The equation for ourselves can best be summed up as: less time driving, more time walking.
Ryvoan bothy. Not as remote as it looks, but out here a mile can be a long way in winter conditions.
If it’s possible to have a favourite trail, ours is probably the one leading past Lochan Uaine towards the pass of Ryvoan. Not long after leaving the lochan, and just short of Ryvoan bothy, the track branches and is signposted Nethy Bridge (left) and Braemar (right). The left-hand option seemed much the more popular with both walkers and mountain bikers so we opted to head off towards Braemar (or Bynack More). To be fair we’d walked a sizeable chunk of the Nethy Bridge path on previous visits, so it wasn’t entirely for misanthropic reasons that we took the right-hand fork.
The path takes you into the RSPB’s Abernethy reserve and there are notices to be mindful of ground nesting birds through to late August. We saw a number of smaller birds disappearing into nesting holes; quite close to the path in some instances. This year’s delayed spring had an impact on breeding and fledging across most of the UK and we noticed that, in some cases, the juveniles seemed at least a couple of weeks behind those we’d been seeing further south. Probably not surprising at this northerly latitude but nonetheless a reminder of how limited the timeframe is for those young birds to become mobile and self-sufficient.
Male stonechat, Abernethy
In a very short space of time and distance the landscape acquires a properly remote and unspoilt feel. Evidence of human intrusion becomes mercifully small – a path, minimally engineered in places; a footbridge spanning a fast-flowing river; very occasionally a passenger jet passing overhead betrayed by its muted rumble and vapour trail.
Just as there is a distinctive quality to the light in the highlands, there is an equally unique depth to the silence; particularly in the deeper valleys. It’s why the protection of national park status is so important to this area; the evidence of what is happening in similarly sensitive, but sadly undefended, places is proof enough of that.
Climbing out of the valleys, the views open out to layer upon layer of hills; more becoming apparent as you gain height. The path leading to the shoulder of Bynack More has been judiciously improved, using local stone and with relatively modest intrusion, although it is visible by the time you begin to enter Strath Nethy.
Not all manmade intrusions are completely unwelcome. The bridge over the Nethy is a pleasant place to pause.
The path which branches off and follows the valley floor in the direction of Loch Avon (just after crossing the Nethy) is an altogether different proposition; much more apparent on the map than it is on the ground. Easy to miss in summer vegetation, even when you know it’s there; an indistinct line in the heather, fading into the distance. I have mixed memories of similar tracks over the years; never 100% confident that they’re the right choice, relieved when they emerge in the expected place, desperately checking the map for bail-out options when they don’t.
Lochan Uaine – the green lochan. No explanation necessary
Inevitably all of this enjoyment comes at a price: the mood on the final evening could hardly be described as cheery; the long drive back to what passes for reality an unappealing prospect. The first priority on our return home was to make a booking for 2014; these are the small things which keep us as sane as we’re ever likely to be.
A weekend spent unpacking with little or no enthusiasm is an unsatisfactory method of rehabilitation and by the first Monday morning we were back on the Malverns, doing our best to avoid unfair comparisons and enjoying the hills for themselves. Partial therapy is preferable to no therapy at all.
The layered hills of Shropshire from the Long Mynd
A few days later we arrived in Carding Mill Valley, early enough to be only the third car on the car park and well clear of the crowds who would arrive later. By the time we came down we could probably have sold that parking spot for a tenner and there was barely enough space to ease our way back down the lane and into Church Stretton.
In the end there’s no avoiding the return to reality. Equally there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be deferred and diluted as much as possible.
And that’s a resumé of summer so far. Nothing much to report on the gear front: I bought a new lightweight waterproof – A Jack Wolfskin Vapor Trail – since when it’s barely rained at all so, other than the fact that it’s a good fit, it remains largely untested. The advertising literature did say it would keep the rain at bay; it might be worthwhile buying a new waterproof every year. No wonder Germany is such an economic powerhouse.