Sunday, 19 January 2014

Culbin by train

The train stuttered and swung its way from the east coast through the familiar litany of towns packed with bored and down cast commuters.  I did not care – I was not there.  A few miles north Culbin lies quiet and secret under the full moon, invisible beyond the infinity mirror windows of the train. 

I seem to remember I was having trouble with riding on sand. The back wheel was breaking away and I was tipping over. Aye, that was it. So I headed for the fire tracks and braved the mud left by the harvesters before breaking away myself into the empty still wood. I aimed for the Buckie Loch just to see. When I got there it was a stony field of downy dried thistles hiding from the sea’s next big temper behind a ridge of stones. The bike and I climbed the stones in a fluid pull on the bars and stopped, stunned and stilled.
Waves dropped quiet on the sand. Not breaking along the beach but just dropping – plop, soosh - in a single second across as far as the eye could see.  White dry sand blew along dark wet sand in swirls. Out to sea gannets speared into the white caps. Rise, cruciform, turn, spear, splash.  Fishermen in endless benediction.

I dropped the bike and sat down. The ridge top was a mosaic of small pebbles. Red granites, white quartz, layered toffee sandstones, smoothed ancient gneiss on its last journey after 3 billion years. Glaciers had gifted these stones to the sea as rough rocks ripped from Cairngorm, the tors of Avon, the hills of the great glen and many others. The sea had loved them smooth as skin, cold as their mother ice under my hand.

It was overwhelming to have all my senses competing at once.  I lay down, head on the ancient stones and closed my eyes – smell of sea, taste of salt, sound of a single wave.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Cashing in a full winter's Karma points

After an 18 month long winter culminating in snow for the May bank holiday, a decent July was very welcome. To celebrate the thaw I have had some nice long outings on the bike in the last month. A combination of stunning weather, bone dry trails and a newly refurbished Giant has made stoking up the miles a real joy. 

Highlights include: 

- Inverfaragaig to Inverness via the corkscrew road and the pass of the fair haired lads on a day where temperatures hit 28 degrees.  Only the polka dot jersey was missing. 

- a really nice round from home taking in part of the trail of the seven lochs. A fair bit of road but a beautiful section through the woods between Easterton and Bunachton. I had to go back and do it again.

- a long ride from Aviemore to Inverness on a now perfected Wade route. Follow the forest paths beyond the new estate on the west side of the A9 to Kinveachy then follow the route posted below past Sluggan and Slochd to Tomatin. You can just follow the Wade route from Lynebeg but its sketchy and was a green bog during the driest summer in 10 years - so it might be best to take the minor road to just past Moy where you go back across the A9 to the resurgent Wade road past the battle cairn. Do not take the path marked Wade's bridge - the bridge is worth seeing but the path dies against a quarry fence - but follow the forest road down past Auchbain to the Farr road. Then cross the River Nairn at Faillie Bridge - another fine Wade effort - and up the hill to Daviot woods and on to the Sneck itself.   A fine route for a warm day. Watch out for that river crossing before Sluggan - it seems like proof that Wade was a mountain biker. 

Some random images of the Aviemore-Inverness route are below. You should go find it - it's magic.

Looking back towards Lynebeg - there is a Wade Road somewhere under here

Wade bridge on the Midlairgs burn near Daviot quarry

Trail heaven - it really was this good
This portalavvy appeared on the trail at exactly the point when a thunderstorm broke - I do not think it is a Wade original.

Monument to the last battle the Jacobites won - Wade really did score a few own goals

Access for all!  - err......on second thoughts...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Scumbag motorist in Giant killing shocker

I went out for a ride the other night like so many other nights. The objective hazards on a mountain bike are many and varied - I might have mentioned ice, gorse, streams and gravity in the past - but this time I did not get as far as the trails. 
I pulled up beside a car to turn right but while waiting for the traffic to clear the woman driving the car suddenly started to reverse. I could not get out the way in time and she ran over my rear wheel. Luckily, I managed to unclip so the damage was restricted to my much loved Giant.
To add insult to near injury I did not get her information and she has not got in touch leaving me steaming with anger and £300 in the hole. 
My options are few but I did get some wonderful witnesses and I will keep trying to hunt her down. 
I just hope I can put the Giant back on the trails soon - the weather is grand just now. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The General's Great North Road

The great North Road - Slochd pass
Today was a shock to the system with the temperature climbing to the dizzy heights of 19oC. Phew....
The only answer was to unearth the shorts, kick the tyres and hit the trails. 
Back in January, we walked a section of General Wade's Military Road from Kinveachy on the A9 to Tomatin. It left an impression and I wanted to go back, do it in daylight and continue to Aviemore. Various logistical problems were overcome by the family's weekend plans which left a car at Aviemore and me and the Bike at the road junction at Tomatin. Happy days......I just hoped I still had the car keys. 
The route heads under the high rail and road bridges which bisect the village of Tomatin, crosses the Findhorn and then turns left to parallel the A9 up to the Slochd. It is an easy angled climb on a fine track with the big brown swell of the Slochd hills filling the skyline ahead. Today, cuckoos were calling and lapwings were squealing in the hazy sunshine and it was a good place to be.
Living in Inverness with family in the central belt and an unhealthy attachment to the Cairngorms not a month goes by without a trip over the Slochd on the 'new' road so it was strange to approach the pass from a different direction. The top of the military road is marked by a large stone where the flowers suggest some ashes are scattered and a another memorial to two shepherds (I hope) who died on the A9. All this is in sight of and ignored by the hurtling traffic at the pass. 
I crossed the A9 ( the new road) and headed down through the Slochd on the old A9 ( the old road) before picking up the Old (Military) Road again and heading up over the railway (the iron road). Are you still following this?
After this the OMR and the A9 part company for nearly 15 miles as Wade took the road the other side of Inverlaidnan Hill and down to the Sluggan Bridge. This is a fine area of scattered pine woods and open views which I know well from cross country ski-ing and it is a grand route for the bike. I joined National Cycle Route 7 for a few miles down to Sluggan where I stopped and took in the peace and quiet next to Wade's fine arched bridge.

From Sluggan the route crosses a tarred road down to Carrbridge and runs out into the woods of the Kinveachy Estate. Watch out for the river crossing - it's half way up your shins on a good day and it is not warm. 
Parts of this route are just sublime as you travel through ancient pine woods on a cracking surface down to Kinveachy where the A9 thunders back into view.  Just after the lodge I went a bit wrong and took a path just to the side of the main road which was muddy and fouled by cattle but in the end it ran back up into the woods to finish with a coast down to Aviemore through sun dappled forestry. 
I have not had a bike ride in warm sunshine since August's Feshie expedition so I thoroughly enjoyed this route.   

Wade was an interesting bloke and he certainly made a mark on the Highlands. This road  was built by the British Army to speed up troop deployment after the 1715 and 1719 Jacobite uprisings. Wade created the first usable transport system north of Perth and was followed by Major Caulfield who in turn was followed by Thomas Telford who completed the job of connecting the Highlands to the outside world.
Wade rose to the rank of Field Marshal but was sacked by the Army after failing to prevent the Jacobites entering England and advancing to Derby during the '45. Ironically, he was taken unawares by the speed of Charlie's advance from Glenfinnan which was made possible by the hundreds of miles of lovely new roads he had built for the ungrateful Teuchters. 

You can't help but think that he should have a bit more recognition in the Highlands but while he waits for a statue I recommend you seek out the spidery lines of his real monuments by bike or by foot.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

An echo of firelight

Another tale from Aitken's guide that stuck was the legend of the Craigallian Fire. You can read about it here.
I passed the spot a few weeks ago on the bike and was pleased to see the spot is now marked. If you find yourself down that way be sure to stop and thank those pioneers for setting a flame that still burns. 

The monument reads: 

 Here burned the Craigallian Fire.  During the Depression of the 1930s, it was a beacon of companionship and hope for young unemployed people who came from Glasgow and Clydebank seeking adventure in Scotland's wild places. Their pioneering spirit helped to make the Scottish countryside free for all to roam.

Children of the Dead End

When I was 16, back in the days when we had summers, I walked the West Highland Way through the shimmer of a July heatwave. The Way had only been open a year and it came with a shiny guidebook by a chap called Bob Aitken. The guide contained a great deal of information on the history of the route and, unusually for the time and subject, avoided tartan and misty mountain cliche concentrating instead on the more recent social history of the west highlands.
Some of the subjects it opened my eyes to have already been mentioned such as access but one that stayed with me was the story of the Blackwater dam. 
The dam was built just before the Great War to provide power for the new technology of the aluminium factory at Kinlochleven. It was a monumental undertaking in every way with a massive dam rising out of the wild glen and huge pipelines snaking across the hillside for four miles before plunging down and into the back of the smelter. Amongst the grisly and possibly legendary stories of corpses strewn across the hill towards the Kingshouse, Aitken also mentioned a book called 'Children of the Dead End' - a semi-autobiographical novel by a former navvy called Patrick Macgill which featured several chapters set at Blackwater. It stuck in my mind and I pursued an occasional, haphazard hunt for the book for over twenty years. References to it would crop up in other books in the odd places but the book itself did not surface. So God bless the rise of the internet where I found it first time and it arrived in my eager hands about 10 years ago. 
For a book written during the first war it  is a readable and compelling picture of a long gone and unlamented way of life. Macgill was the basis for the book's protagonist, the wonderfully realised Dermod Flynn. His harrowing descent into navvydom has a horrible inevitability about it as his few choices go wrong and every turn in the road leads towards the twilight world of the Blackwater dam. For Macgill things went differently and he eventually led the life of a successful author and journalist.  Many, many others were not so lucky and remain to this day in the strange, poignant graveyard just under the dam itself. 

Blackwater dam
Our long walk in April led in the end to the dam and the graveyard and I found myself after many years walking in Dermod Flynn's footsteps.  We approached from the north along the old path to the sunken Ciaran Lodge which now lies under the sullen leaded waters. The dam came into view wreathed in smoke from heather burning and framed by the snow plastered hills of Glen Coe.  We crossed the glen underneath the dam, and I wondered at the large amount of ironmongery scattered around,hoping that it represented a link across the century to Flynn and the Dead End.

The dead end

Dermod's cairn

Finally we were there at the gate of the graveyard. I found a large lump rising in my throat and drank a quick toast to Dermod and Moleskin Joe before turning away to the dam before my brother saw the mist form in my eyes. There can be few sadder places in all the deep sorrows of the glens.

Dermod's ghost was not done with me just yet. A week later, I was browsing my father-in-law's bookshelf when I saw Macgill's name on the spine of a book. It was The Rat-pit, the  even rarer companion piece to Children of the Dead End. It had been on that shelf for twenty years and I had never noticed it. It was a difficult read covering the life and living death of Nora Ryan, Dermod's childhood sweetheart. Your heart will break for them and I highly recommend it. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

2013 gear hits and misses

The good 

Very, very pleased with my OMM Kamleika over trousers. I have used these through the winter on the bike with either tracksters or merino leggings underneath and they have coped with low temperatures, spray and mud with aplomb. They have been even better for walking. I wore them for a solid 16 hours on the Bike and Hike during which it chucked it down and the temperature ranged from sleet to tee-shirt weather. After the first (wet) 8 hours I changed the trousers underneath and found them to be bone dry. After the second (dry) 8 hours there was no condensation. The truth is that I forgot I was wearing them. Highly recommended. 

The bad and the ugly

Not at all pleased with my Berghaus Active Shell which continues to let in water and weather at inappropriate times. It is also a very bright red and can be seen from space. Yuk.

Honourable mentions

I have been getting good use out my Montane pertex pullover which seems good for anything short of a hurricane. It breathes, is windproof and gets a kind of equilibrium going when it rains which keeps you dry underneath while it wets out. As with the OMM trousers you forget it is on unless you are working really hard. It's been good for some very long walks and for shorter winter runs in awful weather.It is not robust enough for the bike other than road and easy trails but it's a really versatile, packable piece of kit.
My Hope R4 bike lights continue to provide more pleasure than is decent on dark nights. They are now superseded in the bike tests by cheapies from the far east but I will stick with them for a few seasons yet.
A new pair of Scarpa Cristallos have barely been out the box except for one day in February but they were comfy from the start and gave a great feeling of security from the sharp edges of the new Vibram soles. Crampon compatibility was good and they look lovely - maybe that's just me...........