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…

 

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This has been a summer… (03/09/13)

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’.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

 

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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.
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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.

From the vaults: Into The City (08/08/2010)

There have been those I’ve enjoyed and would return to again and again; others I would happily live out my days and never once set foot in the place. It’s cities, I’m talking about.

Birmingham is a 30-minute train ride away; as journeys go it’s as good an example as you’ll find of public transport being the best option. Brum is a frequently and unfairly maligned place: the concrete jungle days are thankfully a thing of the past; only the long overdue remodelling of the hideous New Street Station is needed for the city centre transformation to be largely completed. Where Birmingham suffers, and will inevitably continue to suffer, is in the absence of any natural landscape: there is no river, no estuary or view of nearby hills to offer drama or enhancement in the way that the Clyde complements Glasgow, the Avon gorge dramatises Bristol, or any number of natural elements contribute towards making Edinburgh what Edinburgh, uniquely, is.

But if I’m forced to confront the daunting concept of entering shops then I’ll take a bustling city over a desensitised, hermetically sealed, out-of-town mall – even in the most inclement of weather; and the journey, by train, helps to make the whole experience a little more interesting.

Despite following a line which could scarcely be more urban, the trackside fringes are surprisingly wild. Not wild in the way that the Monadhliath is wild, or the Migneint; but wild in the sense of unkempt, neglected, left to the devices of those species adept at swift and burgeoning colonisation. Fox families move confidently in full view of station platforms; badger setts undercut the embankments; sparrowhawk and kestrel hunt a varied and plentiful diet among the buddleia and ground elder. Consume it too; undisturbed by anything other than the passing trains, to which they have become well accustomed. There’s more moving than just passengers and freight along these half secret conduits; buried in cuttings, hidden beyond garden fences.

Inevitably the wildlife shares its living space with the discarded evidence of human proximity – mattresses, plastic drums, bin-liners containing things we can only imagine. Detritus accumulating in a way which would have been impossible in the days of steam, when impromptu cinder fires regularly purged the embankments; admittedly to a somewhat random schedule and with indiscriminate consequences.

Although I suspect that back then less was jettisoned and more was mended.

From the vaults: Canals (12/04/2010)

Canals

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.