Saturday, 8 November 2014

They grow not weary...

This for our forgotten heroes.

On all the oceans white caps flow
You do not see crosses row on row
But those who sleep beneath sea
Rest in peace your countries free

Remembering our merchant seamen.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

TGO Challenge 2015 - From start to finish, maybe?

The message appeared in my inbox with the heavy thud of a bundle of letters hitting the doormat.  It had arrived! Sue and Ali had received my challenge application form and cheque for the 2015 crossings.
Only a week or so before, I was torn between a very generous offer of an assured place on a team with a 9-timer and applying in my own right.  I can't tell you how grateful I was for the offer, nor how tempted I was to ignore my gut feeling and accept it.  I kept turning things over in my head.  The overriding feeling was that I wanted to walk to my own tune, my own pace and spontaneity.  And, in the end, I was prepared to forgo a fine opportunity, and great company, in favour of autonomy.  I hope I haven't offended my would-be challenge partner by choosing the gamble of a solo application. I'm pretty sure I have not. 
Back to the moment...  ...not this one......but the one where I had received THE email.  That's it! I'm in the draw at the very least.  I was sat in the Howgills with two pals on a hiking (drinking) weekend in my caravan.  The weather was fickle, and we had only managed about half the walking we had planned as a result. No matter, I was in the hills.
So this time next month, I will be eagerly awaiting the second email confirming my place on the challenge.  I do hope I shall be fortunate, it's my fortieth year, you see, and I really won't be able to get a pass so easily in any other year.  This will be my present, to me,  the ultimate gift.
So yet again I hold everything crossed; fingers, toes, legs, eyes and wires.  That darned 'Standby List' looms like an eastward cloud, threatening to offload it's burden of saturation.  Or will it pass over without a drop of further waiting?
Maybe, just maybe, I will make the first draw.
I'll be back in November with the news.
I know you can't wait.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

TGO Challenge - North Water Bridge to St Cyrus

I woke up at a given time on the last day of my inaugural TGO Challenge.  A given time that I cannot remember. 
I can't even remember whether it was early, or late.  I can't remember a thing about the packing up and setting off. 
I do remember the 'roulette' crossing of that bloody awful dual carriageway and heading along the roads and lanes, flanked on one side by agriculture, and the other by Dave (PC) Pickles.  The fields were nice, but Dave's company was fine. 
Wish these Scots would make their mind up.  That's Dave, by the way.
 We bumped into some friendly locals, so I asked the way...

Friendly locals.

Arriving at the sign for St Cyrus was, for me, slightly choking.  I gulped back the emotion of the moment.  You see, this had been my longest backpacking hike to date.  Six days was my previous farthest.    I could have carried on for days - I was really in to the swing of it. 

St Cyrus - Pickled.

What the f*** do I look like? - That's rhetorical, by the way.  Thank you.

Dave and I were on a mission, and I seem to remember us having an amusing and silent 'race' with Ian Cotterill.  I'm not sure if I remember this right, but I reckon we won.

The final strait? 
I've seen lots of coastlines in my time, and lots that look like St Cyrus too.  I have never felt anything like the feelings I had when I saw the bay here at St Cyrus.  It was more than just a bay.  More than a beach.  It was an accomplishment, and achievement.  The end of a challenge.

Dave atop the cliffs at St Cyrus

We carried our packs all the way down to the beach, unlike some naughty little tikes who seem to still have a bit of the challenge to finish.  You know who you are!
The waters of St Cyrus.

I dashed into the water with my shoes, sock and trousers still in situ.  I had made it.  For me it was a real achievement.  I had always dreamed of completing a long distance path like the Pennine Way, or the Icknield Way - something longer than 100 miles, and through the hills.  This was far better, for me, than doing a waymarked route.  It was my route and it had been a ball.

Here follow some pictures on the beach. 
Me, a bit lighter than at the start.

The Poolers (centre frame)

Ian Cotterill, Isabel, Lynsey, Alan, Andrew, Dave - in that order.

Dave, a chap whose name I do not know, Freddie - with vino.  And a boot.

Bryan "Quadriped" Waddington.  Another, VERY, nice bloke.

A circle in the sand - with some names in it.  Including MINE.

Rob Hausam and Mr Pickles vandalising the beach.

On arrival at the park, there were a lot of bags hanging around.  It seems impossible to me that no one picks up the wrong bag.  By this stage in the game, one's rucksack is like a family member, a removable bodypart.  It's like an extension of one's self. 

It was bally nice knowing I wouldn't have to carry it all day for a while.
Baggage Reclaim

Visit control in the Kinnaird Room.  Up-bloody-stairs!

Most of the lovely, and not so lovely faces I had met along the way had were in the bar at the Park that evening.  I was originally due to go for a curry with Andy Howell and some others instead of finishing my challenge with the post-challenge dinner.  However, I was rightly advised by Lynsey P that as it was my first challenge, I really should attend the dinner.  I asked at the desk, and yes!  There were some spaces available - and even Alastair, who hadn't crossed in this challenge, managed to get a place at the table.  
This is a man you just want to hug.  Every day.

I finally met Judith (@aroundthehills) which was great.  A very cheeky, and lovely (have I used that word too much about these challenge folk?) lady who I'd exchanged some internets with over the preceding year or so.  That had happened a lot during the challenge.  @s and #s and nicknames, all become real after an age of just pixels on a screen.
An infusion of challengers.

I ended up being sat with people who I now count as friends, some of them I have walked with since.  Andrew, and Alan, the Poolers. 
How I ended up with this lot, I'll never know.

This lot are much nicer. :-)


A nice photo to end a lovely journey.

I suppose I should reflect a bit here, it is customary to do so.  I don't think that is necessary though.  My challenge was good, in so many ways, but overall the people make it what it is. 

As far as this report goes, it's over now.  Thanks for bearing with me, and thanks to everyone who I met on the challenge for making the experience what it was.

Next stop - TGO Challenge 2015: Application time.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

TGO Challenge 2012 - Tarfside to North Water Bridge

Bacon butties and egg sarnies were on offer in the kitchen of St Drostans. I had two.

And a mug of tea too.

Others missed out because they were tardy. It was their fault. Right, Andrew?

I don't really remember what time I got going after breakfast but it wasn't early for sure. I'd been warned about bridges over the River Esk being 'a bit iffy', and the first one I reached confirmed those reports, the sign was very clear. It pretty much said "Cross and you will die". They were wrong.

With wanton abandon I walked, gingerly, across the decaying planks. They creaked a little, but I managed to escape with my life.

In spite of my very clear memories of the preceding day, the detail of this section is hazy at best. I find myself needing to look at my maps now, just to remember the route. I followed the route on the south of the Esk, pretty much hugging the banks after the bridge at Woodhaugh.

Leaving St Drostan's

The banks of the Esk
It was another superb day as far as the weather was concerned. In fact, since leaving Braemar there had been nothing but sunshine and clear skies on the trail. To say that we were lucky would be an understatement.

I 'leapfrogged' with several challengers along the banks. Many of them were folk I had not seen before.

Every now and then, I would see one of these traps.  They don't make me happy. 

I think this is a 'Martin bank.  
I thought this was a nice bridge.
Other than the hills, it is a lot like Suffolk. 

My Dad would have liked to see this.
A lot...
As I said, I leapfrogged a few challengers, most of them unknown to me, apart from Jane Egg. Most were unknown, until I reached Edzell, that is. It was like Braemar in terms of the sheer weight of TGO'ers. Batallions of rucksacks lined up outside many shops and watering holes.
Add caption
 First things first - an army marches on its stomach, or so they say. I sat down for a high tea of fish and chips followed by cake at the Tuck Inn café. Very nice it was too. Although I did feel a tad over-full.

Eddy and Alastair Hunt in that order.
Lindsay Jones had a Cucumber and was eating it like it was a stick of rock. It wasn't odd at all. She had also burned her arm somehow. The girl is a liability, but very sweet and likeable, all the same.
I told you.  She had a cucumber.

Still can't remember the name of that pub.

Ngomu aka 'Charles' - a very great man.

I messed around getting supplies, including some Tennants Super, for the evening at North Water Bridge, for I had heard that there was no boozer nearby and what better than 9% rocket fuel? Right, Lynsey?
I drifted off after a few beers at the pub whose name escapes me, walking alone over the impossible to find bridge and along the roads, through farmland and here and there, finally strolling into North Water bridge with some challengers whose names escape me still. I wish I had written notes after Braemar. Next time I will.

I promise.

There was a bit of messing about and waiting for pitches as I recall. But the site was good enough and I am sure that they enjoyed a bumper revenue that day.

Encampment at North Water Bridge

Down shot.

More tents.

In case anyone needed proof that we do actually walk...
I scoffed about 3 mountain meals having brought far too many with me, and after washing and brushing again (two days in a row with sanitation? luxurious!!) I set about doing some socialising. I met David Lintern, we had exchanged a few words on social media before the challenge and I introduced myself. David is simply a very nice man. Easy to talk to. Utterly inoffensive, wise, and charming. He is also very very talented. So pop over to to see what I mean.

I established myself at one of the picnic benches on site, and set my cans of 'Super' on the table. There were gasps all around, and the mockery began. I was forced by Lynsey & Alastair to drink a bottle of real ale to redress the balance, and Ian Cotterill convinced me to sample some of his 'cask strength' Laphroaig. Now, I don't usually like those peaty western malts, but the setting seemed to make it go down much more easily.

Having no booze to return the favour, I later recalled that I had carried 5 or 6 100g bars of Lindt chocolate from Strathcarron and had hardly touched any of it. I opened the packets and laid them on the table, breaking them into pieces for all to share. After Jane Egg had had her fill, the rest of us picked a few crumbs for ourselves.

As you can see from this photograph of an Akto, there was a stiff wind that evening.


Lynsey was running out of Nature Valley bars.
We each drifted off to our pits for a much-needed sleep.

Tomorrow would be 'St. Cyrus day'.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

TGO Challenge 2012 - Shielin of Mark to Tarfside

It's lovely sauntering along on a walk across Scotland.  One can take one's time, pausing as one pleases, taking in the views and resting a while, before pressing on in a lackadaisical fashion.  No one to nag one into motion.

It's a bit like writing this trip report, really. 

So there was I in the beautiful setting of the Shielin of Mark bothy (aside from the huge encampment of silnylon and noseeum mesh, and iffy bodily sounds), and at the first sign of dawn, I was awake.  There was a rumour that the rooms at St Drostan Hostal, Tarfside are like rocking horse gametes at this stage in TGO Challenge fortnight.  I like to get up early to enjoy the absolute best part of the day on the trail. 

I found a suitable place, as close as possible to Andrew Walker's shelter entrance and everyone else's water supply, to have a whoopsie and then got myself on the way.  

My first objective was my first ever summit of the crossing.  Muckle Cairn.  It is a fairly insignificant top, with a roughish ascent from the Sheilin, but on a clear day as it was on this, erm, I forget which day number I am on, but on this day, it was crystal clear.  Far reaching views to Lochnagar, and seemingly a view to the coast out to the east, but not quite.  The panorama was beautiful.
Lochnagar from Muckle Cairn

The other way, from Muckle Cairn
My mobile phone found a signal at this point and a handful of messages came through.  The best of these, by a Highland mile, was one from my good friend declaring the birth of his first daughter, Sofia.  I whimpered, and shed a joyful tear.  The emotions of the Highlands were running high.  

The way down to Glen Lee was clear, and then it bit me.  No, not one of the Adders that frequent the area, but a sharp jabbing, and ominous knee pain that I had never felt before.  

Not now!!!!  Not now!!!!  I'm only a midgie's widgey from the east coast!!!!!  

NOT NOW!!!!!

I pretended I hadn't felt it and carried on.  A hundred yards later, it bit me again.  This time was worse.  I gave it no attention, feigning a pause to take in my surroundings.  I bounced a little on the joint, it felt good and I carried on.  

Reaching the point where the track becomes more established, and the descent levels somewhat, ZAP! It got me again but this time was far more gentle. I walked through it and it disappeared.  500 yards or so of fear, discomfort, worry, disappointment, despair, all disappeared and I felt like skipping the rest of the way to the Stables of Lee.  I didn't.
The upper reaches of Glen Lee
Glen Lee plantation. 

It's a weird mix of a glen, with obvious forestry works but I really liked the walk down the upper stretches.  I was all alone.  Totally, and completely alone.  It was early-ish, and the air was just beginning to warm from it's cool, post-dawn chill. It was fresh.  Everything was crisply vivid.  And then whoosh!

A bird of prey emerged from beneath the tree line, into the blue/white backdrop of the morning sky.  It was a bird of prey, without question, a buzzard.  Cool. 

Too big, the beats were too slow.  Too effortless.  Too strong. 

A Golden Eagle!!!!  I watched it for a moment.  Almost crying again.  My heart was in my mouth.  I'd seen several so far, but this was the closest view.  It was just across the Glen from me.  I felt as though it could hear me breathing, so I held my breath without realising it.  I gasped inwards when I realised.

But something wasn't quite right.  It just wasn't behaving like a Golden Eagle.  I can't explain what I noticed, I still can't, even now.  But I had seen this before.  Where?  What was it that was different.  It was more chunky, where had I seen this before.  

The thoughts raced through my head so quickly, like I was wracking my brains but without any effort at all.  Mull!  It was on Mull.  It wasn't a Golden Eagle at all, it was a White-Tailed Sea Eagle.  My chest tightened, and I dried up.  That was it, a 100% unequivocal sighting of one of the rarest birds of prey in our Isles.  It settled again in the pines on the northern side of the glen, it was huge.  I reached for my grossly inadequate smartphone and fired off a couple of shots.  Then I hit the video camera button, something I rarely do when I see something special, for fear of missing something in the experience.  This was too good not to record.  I filmed it for only a short while and whooped, proclaiming my sighting to an empty Glen Lee.  I stopped filming and focused my eyes on the bird.
There's a White Tailed Eagle in there, I promise you.

...and here too. 
It's partner must have heard me, for a second Eagle erupted into the air and they wheeled about for just a few moments longer before heading off beyond the trees and out of the glen.  

I wiped the tears from my eyes, and composed myself before singing my way down the track.  John Denver - Rocky Mountain High.  

Here's the video.  Sorry for the shouting, and my audio caption, but I hadn't prepared a commentary.

"And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
I know he'd be a poorer ma-a-a-n if he never saw an eagle fl----y....etc..."

The Glen becomes lovelier after a treat like that.  Loch Lee was shimmering when I reached it, and the sound of Black Grouse was bubbling across the water.  I couldn't see them, but they were there.  It was like they wanted me to know it.   A Sandpiper made curved flights from the near shore, into the loch a dozen or so yards, and back to the shore.  It was keeping just far enough away from me to guarantee it's safety, and close enough for it to be a treat.  I reached the end of the loch, and then the road at Kirkton and a Yellowhammer fizzed across the road and whipped over and into the back of a hedgerow.   This was too nice.  No one deserves a walk like this.  I greeted the first person I met with a friendly acknowledgement, not wanting to impose myself on his morning, he reciprocated with a warm smile.  
The tower at Kirkton

Getting there...

...still getting there...

A sign that says so much more than its words.
I passed the impressive Kirkton tower and then a short walk across what now seemed like lowlands had me arriving at the welcoming sign for St Drostans.  I was at Tarfside.  It was no later than mid-morning and I was lucky enough to be welcomed with a choice of rooms.  I picked a single room so I could relax without fear of bothering anyone else and headed back to the kitchen for a bacon sarnie.  A bacon sarnie and a great chat with Alvar, and Ann, and others whose names escape me.  Soon, more TGO'ers arrived, Russ and Herman, shared great tales of previous challenges, good walks, and fine company.  It's an impossibly nice place to spend some time.  I strolled into the village of Tarfside itself to find the watering hole and the campsite for later on.  I found the latter easily, but the Mason's was nowhere to be seen.  I should have done more research.

I later found out why.  

I loitered with the campsite folks for a while during the afternoon, banter a plenty.  Dave Pickles, Andrew Walker, Alan Sloman, Pete Molenaar, Lindsay Jones, Bryan Waddington, Ian Cotterill, Eddie and Alastair Hunt, so many great people.  P C Pickles fought gallantly with his Akto, eventually claiming a weak victory by getting it pitched nicely.  Thank the skies that it was dry! 

The evening came and there were some gamekeepers (or similar shoot workers) waiting by the door of the Mason's which I had now discovered was little more than the front room of a large house, so Lindsay Jones and I lingered with them.  They were nice enough chaps and were curious about our 'challenge'.  Shame they do what they do, really. 

The evening was filled with challenge tales, japes and photo sharing, old friends meeting again since their last encounters on 'crossings' of days yore.  Lynsey Pooler was there, and Valerie, and Morpeth (Peter Shepherd).  
If he isn't blurred...

...then he is.  It's like some sort of law of physics.

Lindsay Jones, Pete Molenaar, other challengers - names please?!!!!

The wide choice of ales at the Mason's.  I chose Guinness, and then McEwans, and then it ran out.

Eddie and Ian are here.  Others too.

Valerie and...?  SORRY!!!  It's been 2 and a half years!  ...Thanks Alan, it's Big Ian. 

Haven't a clue who this one is.  Looks like trouble, though.

Morpeth, on the right.  Ian C on the left.

Dave Pickles & Bryan Waddington.  Fine chaps.

We got drunk, and somehow I managed to get back to my pit at St Drostan's. 

THE day of my life was over. 

I had planned to finish my write up this evening, but this post has taken me far longer than I expected.  I thought I had forgotten a lot of the detail, but it's still in there.  Ready for recall on demand.  But you have to walk the walk again in your mind.  Don't you?