A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

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A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

Carn Ban Mor and Sgòr Gaoith: 10/08/17

About this time last year I was ruminating, in that way that curmudgeonly old gits do, about the vagaries of Scottish hill classifications. It was to do with Carn Ban Mor (3,451 feet) not being a munro, on account of having, in close proximity, a parent hill, Sgòr Gaoith (3,668 feet).

Being neither a committed bagger nor cairn-toucher I didn’t much care, and still don’t. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t end there: turns out – if Wikipedia is to be believed – that Sgòr Gaoith itself also has a parent peak (Braeriach – 4,252 feet). Well, seeing as it’s Braeriach, we’ll say no more about it; you wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Braeriach,

We followed the path – well walked and well engineered, winding up out of Glen Feshie from near the croft at Achlean. The first part is through woodland, always climbing but never too severe, until eventually the trees begin to thin out.

Encouragingly, well beyond the end of the established tree line, there are signs of regeneration and a gradual recolonising of the slopes by native pines. This could well be a consequence of Glenfeshie Estate’s policy of controlling deer numbers; if so it’s a welcome one, although personally I’d rather see implementation of the programme handed over to a few lynx.

Gaining height across the open hillside is, in the main, progressive rather than strenuous, and the views back towards Glen Feshie and beyond begin to open out. The path does steepen a little as it climbs to its high point, which is just about where you need to look for a small cairn marking the junction for the final short, easy stroll up to the summit cairn/shelter of Carn Ban Mor. It’s worth paying a bit of attention to directions and landmarks at this point because, by the time you reach the top of Carn Ban Mor and look back, this way-marker cairn will just have dipped out of sight.

Summit cairn/shelter – Carn Ban Mor

On a previous outing we’d decided against pushing on to Sgòr Gaoith; this was partly down to a later start, but also because a couple of trip reports I’d read had suggested that the walk across was deceptive in terms of both distance and re-ascent from the hollow between the two summits. In the event it proved somewhat easier than we’d expected, although the wind was beginning to pick up and the temperature was dropping as we climbed towards the distinctive outline of number 5 buttress (visible from the platform of Kingussie Station if conditions allow). The drifting clouds also meant that the top was disappearing and reappearing every couple of minutes.

The wind was sufficiently strong to keep us away from the very edge of the precipice, but we did venture close enough to get some shots looking down into Glen Einich and across to Braeriach. Loch Einich was a much more attractive colour than it had been when viewed from the shoreline a few days previously…

Braeriach – not quite prepared to reveal everything

This one – not one of mine, by the way – made it onto the Visit Scotland site

The edge of Sgòr Gaoith dissolving into the low cloud

With the wind coming hard from the west, the only viable shelter would have been one of the grassy hollows just above the 2,000 foot drop down into Glen Einich; maybe worth bearing in mind for a calmer day, or one where the wind is blowing away from the edge. We chose a more cautious option and walked back to the shelter on Carn Ban Mor , which had the dual advantages of being perfectly aligned for the wind direction, and a long way from the precipice. It was an easy decision, and a unanimous one.

Having said above that I’m not particularly fussed about touching summit cairns (or trig points), I do have a fondness for sitting inside them when they double up as a shelter. The one on Carn Ban Mor is particularly helpful, as it’s an exposed top, whichever direction the wind is from, and there isn’t much in the way of natural cover. We took an extended food stop while Braerich, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul played a game of cat and mouse with us – the object being to get a picture with all three summits clear of cloud. Inevitably the mountains outlasted us; they are better equipped for a long game.

Just a final word about Braeriach: what a staggering piece of mountain architecture that is! From a distance, or close proximity, it just seems to keep revealing one more new facet, then another… We haven’t yet viewed it from the Cairn Toul approach, so there’s still more to discover. The Highlands – there’s always a reason to go back.

 

Glen Einich (and its Loch): 06/08/17

The imposing crags of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaioth

How to describe Glen Einich? If it’s picturesque then it’s in a pretty uncompromising sort of way; speaking personally, I think that – for almost its entire length – there is a ‘presence’ about the place which is totally compelling. I can understand though that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes.

There was no definite plan: the weather forecast was changeable and likely to remain so; some cloud; possibility of showers, but interspersed with clear spells. Okay, so waterproofs and anti-midge cream accessible at all times. We parked up alongside the road leading to Whitewell; this has become probably our favourite start point over the last couple of years and allows a last look at the conditions across the hills before setting off. Some cloud; the possibility of showers; maybe clear spells, looked about right; in fact – in an arc from Cairn Gorm to Braeriach – all of that was already happening.

Braeriach in cloud; the path into Glen Einich just visible

The early part of the walk is probably best described in a single word – Rothiemurchus; that should convey more than any amount of waffle from me. It’s all here in this amiable walk in – shifting cloudscapes; views of hills, near and distant; mixed woodlands, including welcome indications of regeneration in places; the sounds of water moving through the landscape, sometimes unseen.

Lochan Deo had an unruffled air about it, although there have been times when we’ve seen it looking a little more blue. It’s a useful reference point, being immediately adjacent to a junction of paths leading to/from Aviemore; Coylumbridge; Glen Einich; The Cairngorm Club Footbridge and the Lairig Ghru. We frequently see wild campers who’ve pitched up close to the lochan; even when there are midges about. There are certainly some lovely spots around there; easily accessible but still discreet without needing to travel too far from the path.

Lochan Deo

Foot and cycle bridge over the Allt Beanaidh

Once you’ve picked up the Allt Beanaidh, flowing north from Loch Einich towards its confluence with the Rivers Druie and Luineag at Coylumbridge, it remains pretty much a constant companion all the way to the loch. It needs to be crossed a couple of times: once by means of a handy bridge (which also seems to act as a repository for a mysterious assortment of single gloves).

And once with some improvisation…

It’s okay, I’ll carry everybody’s kit…

We’d been barefoot in the river on a previous outing, so it didn’t come as a total shock. If anything, it wasn’t quite as cold as I’d remembered it, but the current felt strong, even though it wasn’t particularly deep. Every few minutes the skies seemed to change and, with the variations in light, those changes were reflected in the landscape. Those buttresses along the face of Sgor Gaioth can look pretty intimidating, even from the safety of the path.

Sgor Gaioth’s mood not quite reflecting the blue skies and fluffy clouds

Eventually we began to get teasing glimpses of the grey, then blue, then grey again sheet of water which was Loch Einich; disappearing and reappearing as the path twisted and dipped…

By the time we reached the gravelly shoreline, alongside the outflow into the Allt Beanaidh, a spell of squally wind and rain was arriving just in time to greet us; there was barely time to take a handful of photos before the visibility was all but gone. From this aspect and in these conditions, the loch itself looked quite unprepossessing, although the same couldn’t be said about its setting. Fortunately, a few days later, we would see it from an altogether different vantage point – the path along the rim of Sgor Gaioth – and come away with better pictures and an altered point of view.

On the walk out we’d turn now and again to look back at the view; the rolling low cloud and rain hung around the semi-circle of hills surrounding Loch Einich for a long time and it would have been a mistake to stick around there waiting for the weather to clear. However, as we headed back towards Rothiemurchus, the skies were gradually lightening, although the cloud cover had eliminated most of the blue gaps by then.

Routebuddy made the out and return distance 21.6 kms (13.4 miles). Total ascent, out and back, was a surprising 568 metres (1,864 feet); a far higher number than I would have guessed on a route which never seems more than undulating. I suppose spread over thirteen plus miles it’s actually not that much.

All photos should enlarge with a click.

 

 

 

Mid Wales

This has been a while in the writing; not that it’s been agonised over or “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again”, like that mythical version of America, eulogised in James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams soliloquy. Nothing like that, I’ve just been battling with… well, with inertia to be frank.

This all took place over a few days – four to be precise – between Monday May 29th and Thursday June 1st. On an impulse, we decided to have a few days in mid Wales; having left it late the first hurdle to overcome was finding accommodation and sometimes, as on this occasion, the internet can genuinely justify its existence. We found a promising apartment in Rhayader which, in the event, proved to be considerably better than ‘promising’ and to where we will undoubtedly return, both in print and in person.

First though, a word about Rhayader: on occasion I have had to confess to instances of oversight, injustice, omission: Machynlleth was one such – a place we’d invariably hurried through on the way to or from elsewhere and only came to appreciate after a long day spent at an event in the town. Meall a’ Bhuachaille was another: a fine hill we’d neglected for no better reason than it being overshadowed by loftier neighbours; all it took was one diversion up and over the summit to establish that size really isn’t everything. Rhayader was, like Machynnleth, a portal; somewhere to be passed through on the final approach to Elan Valley, Claerwen and the wild, remote hills beyond – Drygarn Fawr; Drygarn Fach; Gorllwyn.

The River Wye from Bridge Street, Rhayader

Well, Rhayader is actually a very agreeable base: we hadn’t actually appreciated that it’s situated on the river Wye, although the Wye that passes beneath the town bridge here is a rather quieter river than further downstream at Hay or Symonds Yat. There was a time when I’d make an early start, drive from home to either Claerwen or Llanerch y Cawr, walk a round of the hills and then drive home; not far shy of four hours spent in the car for a day’s walking, and sometimes a day’s soaking. I’d regularly do a similar day in The Berwyns (my favourite Welsh hills), but somewhere along the line I lost either the energy or the desire for days where the walking is bookended by a long drive before and after. I don’t see either (the energy or the desire, that is) as likely to return, so finding a convenient and hospitable place for an overnight or two will be a prerequisite in future.

Pied flycatcher (female)

The hill walking around Elan/Claerwen can mostly be categorised as arduous, often trackless, invariably boggy. On this occasion, with much rain having fallen in the preceding few weeks, we gave the trickier terrain a miss and stuck to the better made paths around the string of reservoirs, including some sections of the Elan Valley Trail itself. As it happened, mileage covered wasn’t the primary objective, although we averaged around 9 or 10 miles daily; at least as important was the opportunity to see some of the resident wildlife – birds mostly – at what is a generally busy time of year. It probably goes without saying that there were red kite in abundance (Gigrin Farm being just on the edge of Rhayader), but there were also pairs of nesting peregrine and any number of smaller varieties – including redstart, redpoll, stonechat, and an abundance of pied flycatchers doing exactly what their name suggests they might.

An almost full Pen-y-garreg reservoir

The skies generally became more blue as the days progressed, although I was a bit previous with zipping the bottoms off my convertible trousers and triggered a downpour in retribution. Reattaching the dry bottoms to the wet upper part of the trousers was an exasperating exercise, so I gave it up. I could pretend that I’d persevered and mastered the knack, but I didn’t; I just thought “sod it” and stuffed the bottoms back in the rucksack. It was better than throwing them in the reservoir and looking petulant!

Pied flycatcher (male) with food supplies

Immediately east of the visitor centre, and accessed by means of the steel bridge which allows vehicles and foot traffic to cross the Afon Elan, there is a small managed reserve  – Cnwch Wood – with a nicely maintained network of paths and a high density of small woodland bird varieties. It would probably be difficult not to spot flycatchers here during the nesting season.

 

The dam restraining Caban-coch – the most easterly of the sequence of reservoirs

Walking beneath the crags immediately north of Caban-coch reservoir (the one beyond the dam which rises above the visitor centre) our attention was caught by the distinctive call of a peregrine and, within seconds, a pair passed directly overhead, barely higher than the treetops, separated and went their different ways. The female was a big specimen and it was noticeable that even the kite and ravens seemed to make themselves scarce for a time.

Pen-y garreg reservoir, framed by mixed woodland

Craig-goch reservoir

Road bridge crossing the point where the Garreg-ddu and Caban-coch reservoirs meet: the level is controlled by a submerged dam. The road eventually leads to Claerwen.

The inflow of Garreg-ddu at Penbont

Garreg-ddu showing the high water mark on the pump house

The Afon Elan, just west of the visitor centre

The Wye near Rhayader

 

 

A walk with not much to look at…

“It’s foggy up here”. Perceptive, that’s me.

Admittedly, it had been perfectly clear when we left home – about 4 miles away as the crow flies and about 600 feet lower – but the change in conditions really didn’t need to be pointed out. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” I thought the sarcasm was uncalled for.

dsc_0003I actually don’t mind the occasional walk in foggy conditions, and admittedly it’s easier to be philosophical when the journey from home has only taken about 10 minutes and you’ve seen the views from these particular hills literally dozens of times before. Perhaps not quite so easy if you’ve driven a long distance to explore somewhere previously unvisited. And I suppose we half expected it to clear as the morning progressed and a little bit of sun and wind worked their magic.

So off we set on a familiar circuit, able to see very little beyond a couple of dozen yards in any direction, listening out for signs of the birds who seem to be gearing up for what should be – migrations aside – their most active period of the year.

dsc_0009Occasionally the shadowy but recognisable shape of a blackbird could be seen rummaging away in the leaf litter; and a few robins, confident and optimistic, shadowed our progress along the track. Meanwhile, the only variation in the visibility seemed to be in those places where it became noticeably worse.

There are two, three or four tops in the Clent Hills cluster, depending on your interpretation. Three of them are over 1,000 feet in height, although only one – Walton Hill – is designated as a Marilyn. Calcot Hill is sometimes dismissed as just another undulation on the ridge of Walton Hill; Wychbury is often disregarded, simply as a consequence of being separated from the others by the busy A456; Clent Hill is the most visited, the one with the café and other facilities, and the second highest. The whole area does seem somewhat susceptible to hill fogs and this was neither the first, nor the worst we have encountered. As we left and began to drop down the steep lane leading away from the car park, we were very quickly back into clear conditions.

A weekend wander

dscn1141It was almost windless today; the column of smoke rising from the farmer’s rubbish fire was proof of that. But it was also, even without windchill, bitingly cold – that seeping, bone cold which seems able to penetrate any number of layers without the temperature ever needing to go below freezing. We kept moving and were glad of any uphill stretches to generate a bit more heat. As is often the case, my thumbs were the last of the extremities to warm through; although even then the cold was replaced by an ache for a while. Perhaps I am becoming soft as the years tick by; if so, I am not alone, judging by the number of insulated jackets, zipped to the very top, the wearer’s nose tucked away inside, like a quilted balaclava.

dscn1132On the far side of a field – maybe a hundred metres or so away – a decent-sized buzzard was resting on a fence-post, feathers fluffed out against the cold. It was just about at the extreme of the zoom range on my camera and even leaning on a gate the shot wasn’t completely steady. The zooms on some of these modern cameras are remarkable in technological terms but there are limitations when it comes to using them towards the limits of their range. Mine is a Nikon bridge camera (a P510) with a supposed 42x maximum zoom: at anything beyond about 30x the light gathering starts to fall away appreciably; add in the effects of camera shake and quick, precise focussing becomes a problem. Wildlife subjects can be gone in the time it takes to frame and focus, but attempting to hurry the process can give mixed outcomes. No doubt things have moved on in the few years since I last bought a camera, but I can understand why those whose primary hobby is photography choose to carry SLR cameras, multiple lenses and tripods. I’d be unable to walk very far carrying that much gear, so there has to be a trade-off.

dscn1143Walking along a stretch of canal towpath in rapidly fading late afternoon light, we came across some cattle drinking from the side of the canal; something I’d never seen before. Although, as canals go, this stretch is relatively ‘pastoral’, I still couldn’t imagine January canal water being the most appealing of refreshments. It must be the case that animals in the wild have to take hydration wherever they can find it, and my judgement is probably still distorted by the altogether different canals remembered from my distant youth (see here).

dsc01140Spotting the Brush Class 60, returning steel coil empties along the Worcester-Stourbridge line and headed for the Round Oak terminal (and there’s a whole other story for a different day) was a bonus. At one time threatened with total withdrawal from operations this charismatic locomotive was one of the last made in numbers (100 were built) by Brush Traction’s Peterborough works, and has thankfully returned from the brink.