Sunday, 26 February 2012

17 to 1. Time for a dram.

I am officially Number 1 on the Standby List.  So I have got the whisky out.  

Have one with me, will you?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

It's all downhill from here..

So, the progress is slow but, as with any long-distance walk, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you will always reach the end.  I'm on that part of the journey where you are up high, coming down from the summit and you can see the car in that spot just off the road.  Its a way off, but you know you will get there.

The latest from Challenge HQ is that I am placed at Number 5 on the Standby List.  This has given John enough confidence to email the route and admin sheets through to me so I can have them ready asap.  Naturally, I am well prepared so they were already in place, ready and waiting.  I've had it given the once over by trusted new friends and it looks good - low, and good, and a wee bit wild.

As I said, I am on the stretch where the car is in sight, only there is one difference.  The car is just the start of the journey...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Larks ascending...

I was almost going to miss out on getting a walk in this weekend, until I had a brainwave last night and decided to get up early this morning and go for a quick blast as fast as I could (with the pack of course).  No photos this time as it was purely a leg stretch.  You will have to imagine the crystal clear skies, and wonderful low sunshine, warming the frosty earth.

I'm 10 minutes walk from the Stour Valley Path (that's Path, not Way) so I jumped on that for a bit and back over the farmland into town for about six miles at full pelt.  I hardly felt the pack, which made me smile as I took a gamble based on advice received from numerous challengers/backpackers.  I bought a lightweight pack from Lowe Alpine, the Crag Attack 42.  It's smashing, although it misses out on a mesh pocket for wet stuff, but that's a small price to pay.  It fits nice and weighs less than a kilo and I can't pack much in it, which in turn means I can't pack too much!

Anyway, this walk - as I mentioned - passes through farmland and that is why I named this post "The Larks ascending...".
For the first time I can recall this year, I heard Skylarks chirruping and rising from all directions.  I'd forgotten about this spot for seeing 'larks, and it is truly brilliant for them.  I managed to get a good view of a pair courting on the ground, before doing their distinctive pursuit flights.  All the while, many others were suspended from the sky like little model aircraft on strands of cotton hanging from my bedroom ceiling.  They truly never stop singing.

So here is what Ralph and Nicola make of those 'larks....

If you are interested, I got round in 1hr 30min including the pauses to take my fizans off my pack and also to admire those larks.  I was back in time to get the kids (and Mrs M) up and make them breakfast.  Lazy tikes, my lot. 

And for those who are into the boot v trainer debate, my New Balance 570 AT's felt lovely - old and knackered, but lovely.

Night folks.  Hope you enjoyed the 'larks.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Mixing business with pleasure in The Cheviots

It's a smashing thing when business takes care of pleasure and that is exactly what it did for me this weekend.  There's a bit of garb and pre-amble here so feel free to scroll down for the photos. ;-)

A client meeting in rural Northumberland, not much more than a midgie's widgie outside the Northumberland National Park set my mind scheming.  It didn't take me long to put a route together.  

I pointed the car North at around 7am and arrived in Wooler at just after 1330h.  The next few miles to Langlee up the Harthope Valley took around ten minutes on account of the windy nature of the lane.  As I crept along the tiny lane the snow, scarce until now, began to fall more heavily.  There was a keen and wintry Southwesterly blowing the white stuff straight into my face as I got out of the car.  I shouldered my pack, and locked my car.

I was heading up to the Cheviot, and on over to the mountain refuge hut just six miles away from the car, only I wasn't  because I didn't like the snow and wind in my face at all.  I turned around before I had got very far up the hill and slipped back into the calm cockpit of my car.  Not today, I thought.  

But no digs were booked, and there were clear signs instructing no camping in the valley itself.  It was just raining down in Wooler and I went to the first of two camp sites, parked the car and knocked at the house as instructed.  I was greeted by a friendly chap who said I could camp, but the toilet block wasn't open.  Not minding missing out on a wash and brush up, I got my mind set on getting the tent up.  Before I did so, I asked if the chap would open the loos for sanitary purposes and I was politely reminded that I could camp but the toilet wasn't open.  I pondered what the chap might have done with the curly, steaming pile that I would have to leave by my tent in the morning before thanking him and asking if the other site was open.  It was not.

I headed up to the Youth Hostel - closed for the Winter.  I pondered on camping on their lawn, thinking they wouldn't mind, but then the necessary ablutions sprang to mind.  
Back into the car and round to the Tourist Information.  "Hi there!" I smiled.  "I'm looking for some basic accommodation" I continued.  "I have a tent if necessary".  The very helpful middle-aged lady looked at me, looked outside at the sleet and then said have you tried the camp site just up the road."  "Closed" I replied, "they both are".  The computers were down, and the poor lady was stranded without them.  "Ah, there is the Youth Hostel" she offered.  "Closed for the winter..." I said "...there was a sign up".  She frowned as if to disagree.  "I'll check" and after helping a lady who had arrived to give a talk on Family History with a computer demonstration, she moved into the office and called Rachel.  "Rachel says the Hostel is shut until Spring". "Oh right, well that is what the sign said" I said, stunned.  
"You could try one of the B&B's in town.  There's the Black Bull, and the Wheatsheaf, but I can't recommend the Wheatsheaf because it hasn't been inspected yet".  "I could give them a call, I think I can remember the number".  I glanced down at the large pad of tear-off, Tourist Information maps of Wooler, noting the advertisement posted by the Wheatsheaf showing their number.  I decided to let her carry on.  "Here's a list of accommodation with phone numbers, try these".  "Start with the Black Bull, but ask to see the rooms first, and make sure you don't get one at the front" she babbled.  I thanked her and left her complaining about how bad things would get in the Summer with just her manning the desk and the library, and closed the door.  As the door closed I could hear her telling the lady doing the family history talk that she couldn't use any of the computers.  Good luck with that, I thought.

I booked into the Black Bull, accepting the first room I was offered and settled for the evening.  The weather continued to be miserable, the locals coming in wet and windswept.  Still no snow in the town, my mind was cast to the hills.

The alarm woke me at 0730h and I pulled back the curtains to reveal...    ...glorious clear skies and a sharp frost with no wind.  FABULOUS!! I was fearing a sopping wet, or windy climb today.  I got my gear together, dashed down to wolf my breakfast and after exchanging a few pleasantries with the breakfast staff I jumped into the car and drove back up the Harthope Valley - gingerly.  There was a thick icy rime encrusting the road.  The wet wintry stuff had frozen solid and I thanked my lucky stars that my car had four-wheel drive as I edged my way up the 1 in 5.  I thanked them again as I nosed it down a similar decline.
I drove as far up the valley as I considered sensible passing just two walkers on the route.  It was just after 0900 and the drive which yesterday took just ten minutes or so, took double that.

I positioned the car so as not to get it stuck and got my self together.  The chaps I had passed in the car had reached me and we swapped routes and joked a bit before they left me to adjust my walking poles.  The weather was just perfect for a winter walk.  The cold was there, but without the wind it was completely bearable, just a baselayer, microfleece and my body warmer saw me just right to set off.  No hat yet, but gloves were required.

Before I got onto the hill I had a short road walk.  The wet snow from the previous day had turned to thick slush before it froze, making the entire lane like a cobbled ice-rink.  I stuck to the verge and avoided the likely tumble.  Stupidly, I hadn't packed my crampons, and promised myself I would retreat if all was frozen up high.
The rimey road, Hedgehope Hill in the distance.
At first path took me up between the trees for a hundred yards or so.  No sooner had I emerged above the tree line did the grouse start calling.  They were everywhere.  I must have seen twenty or thirty within the first mile of the climb.  Visibility was a treat and as I climbed higher, the Eastern lowlands of Northumberland revealed itself.  All below the valley, and even to the North was largely snow-free.  All above me was not.  

Hedgehope Hill from the flanks of Scald Hill
Mr Red Grouse
There had been a lot of snow the previous night and I patted myself on the back for turning back.  It would have been nasty up in the refuge, although part of me regretted it because waking up in the hills to this beautiful morning would have been an absolute treasure.
Further up the hill, the wind had begun to carve its beautiful waves into the drifting snow, and I took a lot of snow photos.  Only my point and shoot doesn't have a viewfinder so I had no idea what they would come out like.  The answer was FLAT, so I played about with most of the photos on the computer.

The entire walk was a joy, even getting my legs stuck in deep drifted snow, and falling over onto my poles was a hoot.  It had been a while since I had played about in the snow, and boy, was it fun!  It had clearly been freezing as the snow fell yesterday because the going was lovely and soft - no need to retreat, thankfully.

Apart from the two lads on the road, who had chosen to climb Hedgehope Hill, I had seen no-one.  My prints were the first to grace the snow on the Cheviot that day, and it made the trip all the better.  I glamorised that I was pioneering some new route to the top, which was bollocks of course but I indulged myself.  Pausing often to take in the scenery, my ascent was languid, and lovely.  I glanced across to Hedgehope and noticed two matchstick figures on the skyline, I guessed that it was the chaps I had spoken to earlier and wondered if they had seen me larking about on my tod in the snow, falling over and laying down to take photos - allsorts.  I was in my element.  

Richardson's stile by the flagstone path
The huge ladder stile by the flagstone path was upon me all too soon, so once I had climbed it I sauntered slowly toward the trig point.  By now, I was enveloped in the cloud that was being tugged away from the summit by the Northerly breeze.  I could see probably 50 yards in any direction by the time I reached the trig.  I took a summit shot for the record and ruffled my hair.  It was frozen solid!  I cracked the ice off and as I turned to begin my descent a lone figure of a person with no pack on came strolling toward me.  I remarked that he made me feel a tad over prepared, and he just remarked that he "couldn't be arsed with a pack".  He was with some others who were following behind, so I kept the conversation brief and set off back down the hill.  
Me, with frozen hair - and a REALLY ginger beard!
I'd decided to return the way I came, thinking that the descent down Harthope Burn might be deep and drifted snow.  I practically skipped down the hill, and apart from a half dozen tumbles into some of the deeper drifts, it was an easy descent.  I passed a chap on skis heading up the hill.  They were squeaking like mad and I thought to myself how that would get on my pip all the way up, but then imagined what fun the descent would be.  Worth it?  Probably.  
Long Crags, a feature on the ascent up to Hedgehope Hill - taken from Scald Hill
Langlee Crags, another feature on the same ridge
A VERY well worn stile on the descent - beyond, the orographic cloud clings to the Cheviot
There was a lot less snow on my way back down and my earlier tracks were partly melted with the strength of the sunshine.  I met a Dutchman on the lower flanks, and he asked what it was like.  "Fabulous" I replied.
On reaching the road, all of the rime was gone and I strolled quickly back to the car, ending a perfect Winter day out on the hill.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Come in number 9...

Latest update from TGOC HQ is that I am floating at number 9 on the Standby List.  Something to be said for patience but the Participant List is still tantalisingly out of arms reach at the moment.  

There are still 100 days to go (give or take).   I feel like a lurking scavenger, without a conscience!

Off to The Cheviots this weekend.  Weather - be kind.