I slept in a little later today but I still managed to wake up in time for the choir this mornin. As I noticed yesterday that the chorus was loudest in the front garden (which isn’t surprising considering the trees and shrubs are denser) I stood there and listened. One bird in particular was quite close. Can you tell what it is?
I have been an early riser since my son was born. The years of early parenting, waking up at the crack of dawn to the sound of a waking child, have conditioned my body clock to more often than not be up before everyone in the house. My son, now 19, no longer wakes cooing or crying for his breakfast, or jumping on me shouting ‘mummy, mummy….can I go out and play with Edward?’, ‘no, you can’t, it’s 6am. I don’t think Edwards mummy would appreciate you knocking on her door at this time!’ I will more likely still find him fast asleep at lunchtime if I do not wake him. Such is the teenage midday coma.
But other than the gift of a beautiful son, parenting also gave me another gift which has stayed with me – the gift of the morning. From wandering local woodland before dawn dog walkers to meandering down the silent streets of Cambridge alone first thing on new years day. To watching the sunrise over the west Dorset hills and catching Mr Fox arriving home after his night on the hunt to enjoying the wonderful peace and quiet of a still house before everyone else gets up. The morning is definitely my favourite time of the day.
There is no doubt that I have very likely experienced and savoured more sunrises then I have sunsets. Although I have witnessed many sunsets, it’s usually second hand to what else is going on at the time.
At the moment in the UK, we are in partial lockdown. On 5th March, the first person in the UK died from COVID-19, a new strain of Coronavirus which first appeared in Wuhan, China. It is thought that it originated from an infected animal in a wildlife market where live wild animals are often kept, slaughtered and then sold as food. Just under a month on and the death toll here in the UK has just reached 2921. 10 days ago the lockdown started. I call it partial because we are still allowed to exercise once a day and some people can still go to work. The streets are much quieter but they are not void of people. Our government plans to review this every 3 weeks, so we will potentially have stricter measures put into place in the coming weeks.
Many of us at this time are experiencing a higher level of stress and anxiety. I have not escaped this. A couple of weeks ago I started to feel quite unwell with it and knew I had to limit my exposure to the media and focus on things which calm me and encourage me. As well as time with God, I know that time in nature is a wonderful helper and healer. And God is not separate from his creation. God is present everywhere and yet I often feel closer to God in nature then I do elsewhere. I guess this is because nature stills my soul, makes me take notice and calms my mind. It enables me to hear God’s still small voice and often leads me to prayer. And there is so much beauty in creation. It is hard not to look on and feel at peace.
So this morning, when I woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep, I ventured outside to see what delights the dawn held for me. It was about an hour before sunrise and it was still quite dark. As I carefully opened our frustratingly loud back door, it struck me that I had made it out before most of the birds were awake. It was chilly and damp, a slight drizzle tickling my face as it fell. I stood still and listened. A couple of wood pigeons greeted each other to the south and male pheasants proclaimed their territories from across the valley, one not too far away in the field next door. But other than that, it was silent.
I decided a cup of tea was in order as I was still half asleep so I went back indoors to make one. In the space of time it took me to make tea, grab a cushion to sit on, place tea on radiator and cushion between knees in order to free my hands to open our annoying door, grab cushion and grab tea and walk out onto the patio, all the male birds in the neighbourhood were awake and rather beautifully calling, singing and making quite a wonderful racket. I was sad that I had not been there to witness the moment it began and decided that in the coming days, that was my goal!! But it was fabulous!
I took this short video before my phone died. Turn up the sound as I have a smartphone, not the latest in recording equipment. But you can hear it if you turn the sound up.
After my phone had died I wandered around the garden listening to the birds in different places. They were loudest at the front of the house so I plan on getting a recording of that in the coming days. What is interesting is that they don’t move. They sit wherever they are and call. Numerous times I tried to locate a bird and didn’t see anything. I just heard them singing. As the sun came up they emerged from their nighttime perch to look for breakfast and they started to quieten down.
The pigeons are usually the first to move in our garden, followed by the robins and blackbirds. Then the jackdaws and then the tits. Then everyone is up and Mr great spotted woodpecker comes to feed on the peanuts.
Before all this happened this morning though, I stood by our small gate which opens into a large field overlooking a wooded valley. I saw a stag not far away so I grabbed my binoculars. I was treated to a few moments of him grazing before he vanished behind a mass of brambles. I waited patiently for him to emerge out the other side, watching the rabbits eye me up as they tried to work out if I was a threat or not. But he never came. It’s likely he made his way into the trees out of sight. But it was a treat to see him.
If you are able, experience the morning. Open a window extra early if you are self-isolating. With so few cars around now, you will likely hear more than you would normally. And if you can go out, there are very few people (or no one) around right now first thing. But stay safe.
God bless x
The sun was glorious on Saturday and it was criminal staying at home. So Cara and I headed off down the lane to waste an hour wandering some of our favourite hidden spots near our home.
En route, we popped into the Churchyard which is always pretty no matter what time of year. But today it was quite lovely. As usual, we had the place to ourselves. A well-placed bench offers a nice spot to rest, to pray or to just take in the view.
What I love about a lot of the rural churches here in Dorset, is that the grass is often left to grow wild and long in some places to help our local fauna and flora.
We left the church and headed down the lane. I planned on taking a footpath from Ford Lane through the field to join up with the Hardy Way, and then to follow that up to the hill, through the combe and on to the lane that leads back to the village. However, on approaching the gate, it was being unhelpfully guarded by a gentleman and his dog. The man was sat in the grass just inside the field with his head bent forward engrossed in a book. And the dog, on seeing us, sat up and started to bark. Which then made Cara bark. Not wishing Cara to get into a game of ‘who’s growl is louder’, we bypassed the gate and carried on down towards Ford Cottage. I couldn’t blame the bloke really, lovely day for it. It just meant a detour!
A week or so back, the lane was covered in colourful wildflowers. Now, most had gone to seed but some were still glowing in the greenery.
The lane goes down into a lovely wooded valley. At this time of year, the spectacle of spring is giving way to summer plants. For the last two months, the banks here have been covered in wild garlic. And although the flowers have now seeded and the leaves are beginning to fade and become straggly, the garlic still carpets the ground. Cara and I headed down one of these banks (Cara walking, me half sliding) to a special place, hidden from sight but not from ear.
At the bottom of the bank is a beautiful stream worthy of painting. And if I could paint, I would! For today though you will have to make do with my camera phone. The light filtered through the trees and gave the stream an otherworldly, heavenly presence. I plan on coming back with a better camera and really capturing the light here because it’s stunning.
After lingering for a while, we climbed back up the bank and took the path at the side of the cottage and headed up the hill. Now, I really wanted to avoid walking this way because my feet really do not like the ground here. Last November I injured my feet and although they are much better, they have an issue with uneven ground, and this field is covered in holes and tufts left over from cow activity. However, the temptation of climbing the hill on this lovely sunny day was too much.
We carefully made our way up the hill and climbed up as far as we could go. The views were fantastic.
On the way back we took another route down the hill which I later regretted. There were so many nettles and thistles that poor Cara struggled to find a way through that wasn’t infested with some kind of stingy spikey barrier. Halfway down I then realised that the gate was still being guarded. There was no way I was going to get through it without a bark-off. So we aimed for Ford Cottage again and walked back the way we came.
I think perhaps a couple of hours would be very nicely spent sat on top of the hill one afternoon with a book and a picnic. I may leave Cara at home next time though to save her the battle with the unfriendly plants.
The night had started warm but it had become increasingly colder. As I lay in my sleeping bag, cocooned and donning baselayers and fleece, I felt the chill of the night pass over me at regular intervals. I tried not to think of the money I had just spent on my new liner or the prospect of taking it back and handing it to the gruff Scotsman who had sold it to me. My feet and hands were after all, quite warm. So, rather than march back into the store in which I got the liner, I decided that I would give it another night. I would however go and buy some better earplugs, because perhaps it was the noise, not the cold, keeping me awake. And I would also get myself some Ibuprofen, because perhaps it was the pain in my hip, not the cold, keeping me awake. Feeling better at this revelation, I dozed in and out of slumber to the sound of heavy rain which had now started to pelt the tent.
I lay in bed until 8am when my body could no longer stand the sound of the rain. So I grabbed my waterproofs and threw them on as quickly as I could. Exiting a tent in heavy rain is always a dodgy affair and one is pretty much guaranteed to let at least some of the rain in. Off course, it really does depend on the tent, and I was grateful in this moment that I had a porch area. Not a standing porch I must add, one in which you resemble a cave woman (or man), but a porch none-the-less. So when I opened the outer zip, the rain mostly came in the porch and not into my sleeping compartment. Quite frankly, being cold is bad enough. Being cold and wet in a sleeping bag would have seen me book a B&B.
Having half danced, half dodged rain across the campsite and made my way to the very warm and comfortable shower block (where I stayed way longer than I needed to, contemplating setting up camp on the floor), I returned to the tent and started to prepare my morning feast. As I set up my stove and removed the lid, I noticed something odd. It looked like something had nibbled it. Sure enough, on closer inspection, nibble marks could clearly be seen around the pouring hole. My thoughts immediately turned to my food which I was storing in the porch area and I checked my stash for any signs of invaders. And there, on the groundsheet, lay my bag of cashew nuts, open and nicely decorated with forest debris and small droppings. How very kind of the neighbourhood mouse to drop by for tea and to leave me a gift!
Having gratefully discovered that the mouse had only fancied cashews on this occasion, I made my breakfast (completely cashew free!) and contemplated what on earth to do with my food each night. Taking it into the tent was not an option. The porch area was open so the mouse could come and go as it pleased. But the tent was sealed and I wanted to keep it that way. leaving the food in the porch was also not an option. I am a generous person, but that was more generous than I wanted to be. Being a backpacker meant that I had nothing to put my food into to secure it. I considered putting the cashews outside the tent so the mouse would not venture in, but for all I know he could have sent out a mouse-mail with word of a free feast and come back the following night with his buddies for a massive free party! Nope, I would have to leave my food somewhere safe!
After breakfast, I spent some time with God and then Bill Bryson and made my way back over to the block to get ready. A man from Essex and I got chatting and I mentioned my little visitor. He suggested that I could tie a food bag in the trees. He had seen people do this in another campsite he had stayed in. I knew that in the States they did this to keep food from Bears (there they have special boxes to put the food in because bears can climb trees, don’t you know!). But I also knew that on the Appalachian Trail (a 2000+ mile trail through parts of America), the mice have been known to climb up and get the food tied up in shelters. But perhaps Appalachian mice are more clued up in the art of food bag bagging than their Scottish cousins? I decided I may give it a go that night.
I walked into town as I missed the bus. I grabbed some Ibuprofen, some gel earplugs and some watermelon sticks because I quite fancied them. I then walked back from town as I couldn’t be arsed to wait for the bus. On the way back I stopped at a fab little cafe called The Druie. I would love at this point to tell you what ‘Druie’ means but I can’t find any information on its translation. As clueless as I am in its name, it had the best cheese scone (pronounced SCON!) I have eaten in years. Well actually, it was the only cheese scone I have eaten in years. But very nice it was! And as I sat in the cafe, the sun came out.
With the sun shining, I decided it was time for a walk! I checked the map and chose to walk on the Glen Einich path to lochan Deo, a small lake in Rothiemurchus Forest. I set out in the same direction I had walked on the day I arrived, but this time I was more awake and could appreciate my surroundings. Just a few minutes from my tent and I could have been in a place so remote and forgotten that I too would be lost forever. Only the path on which I walked betrayed my imagination and kept me in the here and now.
I walked through wild forest where many varieties of lichen seemed to cling to all things alive. The forest floor was an uneven and dangerous carpet of green moss which grew on mounds so completely I couldn’t tell if they were boulders or tree stumps, or both. Coniferous giants and birch with seemingly pre-historic bark towered above heather and gorse out of a ground littered with dead wood. And it was almost void of any birdsong, save the repetitive shriek of a chaffinches alarm call. Eerie it should have been, and yet it was sweetly peaceful.
As I followed the path upwards past a remote cottage, the trees began to thin and I reached open ground. The view here took my breath away. Out in front and to my left beyond heathland and forest, were the Cairngorm mountains. Still partly covered in snow and shadowing under a pretty sky of fluffy clouds, they looked magnificent. I chose a spot and stayed for a while, soaking up the scene and taking some photos. And when I continued on I was in no rush to leave this view, which accompanied me for some time on the path.
The trail took me downhill again into the forest, which now was a younger plantation and predominantly coniferous. The ground, however, was still a green rug of moss covered mounds and I wondered what lay beneath. I checked the trees for mischevious faerie folk, just in case. And gratefully seeing none, I carried on walking.
After a short while, I reached a crossroad in the path. To my right, the path would take me to Loch An Eilein (pronounced ‘Ellen’), a magical place where a castle ruin floats on its surface. And to my left, I would end up at Loch Morlich, a crystal clear large mountain Loch surrounded by dense forest, with its own beautiful sandy beach. These were both places I planned on visiting whilst here, but today I had my sights on Lochan Deo which lay just ahead. So onwards I walked until the first reflections of the sky could be seen on the Lochan.
The path skirted one end of the Loch and I followed it to a large rock where I removed my day pack, grabbed a drink and my watermelon and sat down. The Lochan mirrored its surroundings with blues and greens and whites. It was very pretty. A family were nearby enjoying the scene, but other than that, I had the Loch all to myself.
I considered taking off my shoes and paddling as my feet were feeling a little sore, but as I approached the water’s edge I noticed that it was quite murky and weedy. Settling on finding another spot after my snack, I sat back down on the rock and opened my watermelon. Very much looking forward to this sweet snack after my walk, I picked up the first slice, and promptly dropped it on the ground! Annoyed, I stood there looking at it for a few seconds. I contemplated picking it up and washing it off in the Lochan, then thought better of it. I tucked into the second slice, grateful that I had some left.
As I sat there I watched the wood ants at my feet carrying large chunks of white stuff to their nest, which was somewhere hidden nearby. I looked closely but I couldn’t work out what the white stuff was. I followed in the direction they were coming from and I spotted what appeared to be the remains of a dollop of egg mayonnaise. ‘Hmmm, seems I am not the only person with butterfingers to have visited this spot today’ I thought. Perhaps the ants have become bored of their woodland food and have concocted a secret plan to rid unsuspecting walkers of their lunch? I pictured the ants carrying off my slice of watermelon and felt slightly better knowing that it would at least go to good use.
After a break, I turned back in the direction I had come and then right where the paths crossed. I headed into the trees to reach the edge of the Lochan in search of a place to soak my feet. I found a spot which looked great and sat on another rock, preparing to remove my shoes. However, I saw something strange in the water that caught my eye. Laying on the bed of the lochan just by the bank, there was a small mass of round jelly-like – things! ‘Things’ is all I can say because honestly, I have no idea what they were.
The green slime blobs floated back and forth with the gentle ebb of the water. I got as close as I could without getting wet and looked for signs of tadpoles, thinking perhaps this was some kind of frogspawn. There was no evidence of mini frogs or the little jelly-like eggs they lay. And the more I think of it, the more I am convinced that if this did belong to a frog, that frog must have come from space and crash-landed on a meteor (probably the large rock I sat on where I dropped my watermelon). Of course, that is ridiculous. What on earth would a frog be doing floating around space? And then surviving long enough to crash land in Scotland and start a family. But then who am I to say what Space-Frogs are capable of? No, there has to be some other explanation. But at that moment, I had no idea what it was. And Chris Packham was nowhere to be seen!
Not wanting to risk my feet being knawed off by razor-sharp jelly teeth or being stung by some mysterious new species of green freshwater jellyfish, my feet stayed firmly in my shoes and on dry land.
I decided instead to explore the woodland. Not far from the water’s edge lay a bushcraft shelter that someone (or some people, very possibly a family) had erected. I always love finding these shelters and wondering who built it and when. And did they actually spend the night in it or was it just a bit of fun with the kids for an hour or two before heading back to the log cabin for a hot shower and some fish and chips?
As I set off to make my way back, I walked through the woods and into a small clearing. In the distance behind me and to the north-west, I could see a fantastic torrent of rain coming down. I absolutely love seeing rain off in the distance and this sight was more spectacular than most. I stood for a couple of minutes admiring God’s handiwork and took some photos.
It was dry where I was, but watching the sky told me it wouldn’t be for very long. That torrent was heading my way. I picked up pace having some crazy thought that perhaps I could outspeed the storm and headed into another copse of trees. The storm hit before I even made it out of the trees.
As I reached the other side of the forest copse, I could see across the clearing to the next plantation. Sheltering just inside the trees were a couple with their two children. It was then that I realised it was a hail storm, and it was awesomely pelting the ground with fury! Wearing waterproofs and ready for anything, staying in the shelter and watching the storm suddenly felt utterly boring. So I walked out into the hail, hood up, shoulders slightly hunched and a big smile on my face. The family, seeing me, decided they too would risk exposure to this mother of hail storms. As we passed each other we exchanged a shared understanding of our joy with smiles and giggles. And as I reached the shelter of the trees I turned around to behold the wonderful light that made the hail glitter and the sky glow. The sun was shining and the hail was still falling. It was truly beautiful. At that moment I was so utterly grateful that I had walked this way today. God gives such wonderful gifts.
Thinking this day just couldn’t get any better, I headed up the hill and out of the trees to the lovely view I had witnessed earlier which was now even more lovely. The storm had passed over and had headed Northeast and it now hung in the sky above the mountains, with a rainbow beaming at its feet. I was lost for words at its beauty.
I arrived back at the campsite a very happy lady and made my dinner. I then remembered that I still had the very small issue of my little visitor with four legs, cute nose and long tail. What to do? I considered that perhaps the guys in reception would take my bag for me, but as the reception was now closed, that would have to wait until tomorrow.
I scouted the trees surrounding my tent for some time trying to work out where would be the best place to put them. And, after deciding there was not really anywhere suitable nearby, I opted to use my cheeky smile and ask a neighbour to help me out. I knocked on the door of a nearby van and explained my predicament to the people inside. After showing slight signs of confusion at being disturbed, they happily agreed to hide my bag in their boot, where I could collect it in the morning.
Before bed, I scattered the remaining cashews in three places under trees next to my tent. Well, they might as well have them, I didn’t want them any more. I then got ready for bed and settled down, feeling blessed.
To be continued…
It was only 8 pm but I was spent and could not stay up any longer. I needed sleep. I climbed into my sleeping bag – a Mountain Equipment Zero 300 – bright green outer with a bright red inner. It is funky to the extreme and would look awesome at a sleeping bag convention, if there were such a thing! But could it handle the chilly spring weather of the lower Cairngorms? The label said ‘of course we can handle it! We are not called Mountain Equipment for nothing! Check us out, we rock! Your comfort rating is -2 degrees. You will be toasty warm even if there is snow outside!’. At least that is what I thought it said. It definitely mentioned -2 degrees of comfort, which means that at -2, I will be comfortable. Though I think they base that on men (yay men, everything is made for you!) and for women it is slightly higher. Well, I can say that in my case, it was much higher. I was one degree above a frozen mummy popsicle.
Having spent a very cold night in my sleeping bag with an aching hip and a bladder which decided to wake me up at stupid o’ clock in the morning, I was freezing and busting for a wee. My thoughts switched from thinking of all things but the fact I needed the toilet, to what hardcore mountain people would do in this situation. They would man up and see this as an amazing opportunity! They would wee in a bottle and use it to warm themselves! Well, the only bottle I had was my drinks bottle and I wasn’t weeing in that! And I really was not sure that I was yet ready to sleep with a bottle full of pee. Sorry to let the side down Bear!
As I lay there trying to listen to the sounds of nature to distract me, my senses zoned in on a usually lovely, calming sound. The sound of the river! Uh oh!
I loosened the toggle on my liner and then my bag. Then I undid the poppers on my bag, then the velcro, and then the zip, all whilst doing a horizontal jig. I reluctantly but desperately hauled myself from my cold (but clearly much warmer than the tent) cocoon, put my jacket on and threw myself at the door. I unzipped the inner tent, squealed as the cold air hit me and stuck my frozen feet into my even more frozen shoes. I unzipped the outer tent and with a move reminiscent of a scene involving Jim Carrey and a Rhino, I emerged from my green home.
As I stood up I saw the one animal I had never seen in the British Isles and had longed to see – for like, ever! A Red Squirrel, majestically and ridiculously adorably hopping its way across the grass and heading up a tree. Now, in any other circumstance, this would have put a smile on my face, a tear in my eye and gooey cooing noises would have issued from my mouth. But now was not that moment! I staggered through the trees with feet that didn’t want to move thinking, ‘it’s ok, I’ll buy him nuts!’ and made my way to the shower block (which thankfully also had toilets!), where I arrived to find I had forgotten my key card. ‘Seriously?’. I danced back to my tent to retrieve it and back again to the building. As I opened the door I registered ‘how very nice and warm it is in here’ and shut myself in a cubicle.
Leaving the loo a new woman, I ventured back to my tent where I boiled up some water and made myself some ginger tea. Sadly the squirrel must have been scared off by my Highland Jig because he was nowhere to be seen. It was at this point that I realised there was no frost on the ground. How can it be this cold and not be frosty?!
It was lovely in the woods but the sun had not yet penetrated the trees, so in order to warm up, I took my tea for a walk towards the campsite entrance to find the first of the days sunshine. It was 6am and the sun had just hit the front gate. At first, I stood there, waiting for the sun to do its job. When it didn’t, I started doing squats, jumping up and down and clapping my hands and stamping my feet. There was no one else around and it was very quiet, the only sounds that of nature and the river, and now my stomping, stamping and odd ‘errrgghhh it’s cold!’ grunt.
After 20 minutes I realised that my feet were not going to warm up and the only thing to do was to get moving. So I prepared to walk into town, where I needed to go to get supplies anyway. The walk to town in normal circumstances would take about 20-25 minutes. Today, my feet painful with every step, it took a bit longer. By the end of the walk, however, they were nearly thawed out, the pain was gone and I was walking somewhat human again.
Aviemore is a cool town. Geared up for snow sports in the winter and all manner of outdoor pursuits at other times, there are lots of outdoorsy type people there, with hiking poles in their hands, mountain bikes between their legs or skateboards under their feet. And they wear buffs, in every way possible. Round their necks, in their hair and on their heads. I felt very at home. At this time of year, one would feel out-of-place if one wasn’t wearing a down jacket. There were down jackets of all colours walking around, even at this early hour, it was really quite colourful. I had a nice blue one myself and nearly almost felt like part of the gang. Except I had forgotten my buff and therefore didn’t quite make it.
After (I convinced myself) a much deserved very delicious egg roll and a cup of tea from the local bakery, I headed into Tesco and stocked up on food. I then went and got myself a thermal liner for my sleeping bag which promised to add 8 degrees of warmth to my night-time. Oh Yes please!! And walked back to the campsite completely overloaded with nuts, oats, seeds, dates, rice and various other backpacker staples in my backpack and wondering how on earth I was going to ever make it back to my tent, let alone walk nearly 200 miles across Scotland with a backpack one day!
The hills looked gorgeous from the woodland path and I took some photos.
Finally reaching my tent feeling like I had climbed Mount Everest and feeling just as proud, I unloaded and cooked up a gourmet feast of Uncle Ben’s rice and tinned tuna.
The rest of the day I mostly chilled out around the campsite by the river and went for a couple of gentle strolls nearby, photographing the forest with my GoPro. My feet had been pushed too much with the weight and I wanted to rest them so they were ready for the adventures to come.
I couldn’t resist taking some bendy tree photos.
At 8pm it was getting cold again and I wondered if it was silly going to bed that early for a second night running. I managed to stretch it out until about nearly 9pm with the help of extra layers and Bill Bryson. When it was time for bed, I left my food bag in the porch and my shoes I took into the tent with me. I had learnt my lesson! My shoes were not being left out in the cold again. I arranged my thermal liner in my bag and started the rather awkward ritual of getting into my sleeping bag.
Now, you may be familiar with the sleeping bag ritual already, but for those of you who are not, I will explain how I do it.
First, I lay my liner on top of the bag the right way up, trying not to twist it. I then climb into my liner, which is kind of like a mummy sleeping bag shape without a zip (or a very large fleece condom!) and shuffle, pull and bounce my bottom up and down until the liner is up to my chest and not too tight around my feet. Then I place my legs in the sleeping bag and make the same ridiculous movements until I am fully in the bag. I pull the liner over the back of my head. I then pull the sleeping bag hood over my head. I then do up the zip on my sleeping bag, often having to pull fabric from the zip because it gets stuck. At this point, the sleeping bag hood usually slips off and I have to wiggle to pull it up again. Once my zip is done up, I can fix the velcro strap across the top of the zip and then clip the poppers together which makes the mummy shape even snugger. At this point, it becomes harder to move my arms and I start feeling like I have hands growing out of my chin.
I spend about 10 seconds trying to work out which pulley to pull first so I don’t restrict my movement so much I can’t move and pull the rest. I have three to choose from, the liner, the pulley that operates the inner snug on my bag and the pulley that operates the outside of my bag and ultimately cocoons me. And they are all next to each other, so I am constantly getting them confused and they are constantly getting tangled! Usually, I pull one too much and can’t move so all I have are two hands moving around up by my ears. I then loosen that one and do up another. Eventually, after what seems like an age, I am nice and enclosed inside my bag, all cosy and done up ready for sleep and feeling like a baby wrapped up in blankets. And then I realise I haven’t put in my earplugs and have to undo it all and start again.
And all of this happens on a Thermarest blow-up mattress that constantly creaks with every movement! Goodness only knows what my fellow tenting neighbours must think. But then they probably know full well the ins and outs of the sleeping bag ritual. Though they would probably prefer me to have a sleeping matt!
And so my second night in the cold tent begins. This time, however, I had a new liner! I lay there warm and cosy and looking forward to my first day of adventure tomorrow.
The original plan was to walk 175 miles through Scotland for charity, carrying a backpack and camping along the way. But things often have a habit of going Pete Tong on me, and this was sadly one of those times.
In November I developed plantar fasciitis, an irritation of the plantar fascia, which results in pain in the heel and arch of the foot. I had had warning signs for a little while, but training on rather extreme hills and a night out for my birthday jumping around like a feral woman to glam rock were enough to put me out of action for a good while. Six months down the line and I am much better than I was, but the problem is still there. I can’t walk barefoot, I can’t walk as far as I used to be able to and my feet will get quite upset if I take them across uneven ground! And I wouldn’t be able to walk at all if I wasn’t wearing a pair of Superfeet insoles. Thank God for those nice, smart people at Superfeet!
So it was that I found myself with a night train ticket to Glasgow from London on April 29th, 2018, having bought it as part of my original plan to walk the West Highland Way, followed by the Great Glen Way. I could have just not gone, but it was rubbish already not being able to do my hike. So I decided I would find a campsite that I could stay at and head out on day walks instead. I chose Aviemore.
12 years ago I ventured up to Scotland for the first time. I took my son, then 6 years old, to Nairn, on the Moray Firth coast. I wanted to take him to the hills for the day, so we caught the train to Aviemore, the bus down to Glenmore and the funicular railway up Cairngorm mountain. It was a lovely day, going up the mountain in the snow and exploring (for a short time) the snowy footpath on the mountain and hunting for mountain hares and strange Scottish birds with odd names. And having seen a glimpse of Rothiemurchus and Glenmore and deciding I thought the area was quite lovely, I vowed one day to return and explore it properly. I was reminded of this when I was considering places to go.
I soon realised that the smart thing to do would have been to fly up! However, having checked flights and been quoted some ridiculous price, I had opted for a much cheaper option, the train! Or in this case, a train, a bus, a train, a sleeper train, a bus, a train and a bus. Thus I discovered that a journey from west Dorset to the Cairngorms on public transport can rival that of a flight to Australia.
The journey was fairly straightforward in some respects. Trains and buses all ran on time, except for a bus replacing a train between Salisbury and Andover due to work being done on the line. But I knew about this in advance and had planned my trip with this in mind. What I hadn’t planned for though was the sudden absence of my Kindle. It had been with me for 5 years. And it had been with me on the train to Salisbury and then had mysteriously vanished somewhere between Salisbury and Andover. Having boarded the train at Andover, I rummaged through my bags multiple times, but my Kindle had gone. Figuring that my Kindle hadn’t just decided it didn’t like me anymore, I concluded I had either left it on the train in a moment of pure brain slumber, or some meanie had taken it upon themselves to rid me of it whilst my bag sat in the luggage compartment of the bus. Clearly feeling that they have more need of it than me! Either way, it was gone. And a part of me was now missing.
I had downloaded a selection of books especially for my trip. There were a few crime novels to chose from, Pilgrims Progress, High and Low, the new book by my favourite hiker author Keith Foskett, a book about a lady who gave up buying things for a year and most importantly, it had my Bible on it. Ok, I wasn’t likely to read all those books whilst away, but I liked to have a choice. I liked to have my Bible. And now I had nothing and a very long way to travel!
Now one might think that a long journey, broken up by a nice sleep on a sleeper train is actually much less tiresome. That may well be the case if I had a sleeper carriage on the sleeper train (though I am not convinced). However, because it only cost £45, I had booked a sleeper seat. Caledonian Sleeper advertise their seats as being very comfortable and restful. Well I can tell you now, they are not! The seats, like most seats on British public transport, are designed to make you slouch. For an hours journey perhaps that is tolerable, but for a night trip, one ends up with a crook neck, back and shoulders before one has even started one’s holiday. It was all very uncomfortable. The toilets were naff with no running water to wash hands with. And it was cold in the carriage. And people were snoring! But I will excuse them that, just this once. The only saving grace was that I had picked up a book in London. So in the early hours, when I wasn’t gazing out the window at Durham Cathedral, The Northern countryside or the North sea whizzing past, I was engrossed in Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a small Island’.
Vowing never to travel in that way again after this trip, I arrived in a rather cold Glasgow. There had been frost on the ground as I arrived in Scotland’s western lowlands and rather than concerning me, this had actually excited me. I had, after all, been wanting an adventure. And a cold night in a tent seemed as good an adventure as any!! I figured Bear Grylls would be proud. I wasn’t yet at the stage where I was willing to drink my own urine, I figured that was something I would need to work up to, for quite some time. Possibly a lifetime! But for now, being cold in a tent was hardcore.
I breakfasted on arrival. It wasn’t just any breakfast either, it was an M&S breakfast. Well actually, it was an M&S lunch, but I figured a backpacker had no rules concerning what to eat for brekkie, so I wolfed down my egg sarnie quite appreciatively.
Glasgow was quite nice, what I saw of it as I travelled through to get my connection to Aviemore. I caught a bus connection from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street. There were three of us on the bus, myself and two rather nuts older Glaswegian women. They were discussing, rather animatedly and with great passion, the attractiveness (or in this case not) of a selection of politicians. They also found the subject of the length of Teresa May’s skirt rather interesting. One insisting that ladies of a ‘certain age should be hiding their wee legs because they are knobbly and not that nice anymore!’ and ‘her skirt just keeps getting shorter!’. As the conversation progressed, eye contact was made with me in an invitation to join in on this mini skirt bashing. I nodded a little, exchanged the odd kind word, thought ‘Oh God help me, I’m too damn tired for this’ and was very grateful when my bus pulled up outside the station.
The 3 hour train journey from Glasgow was lovely. As we made our way north, the flats and rolling green of Glasgow’s surrounding countryside gave way to glens, winding rivers and snow peaked hills. It was beautiful. It was so nice to be back in Scotland. I gazed out the window in awe. Others were not quite as interested in what was outside the carriage as me though. Most people were lost in their laptops, ipads, phones, books, or earphones. Some no doubt working, others watching Netflix or exercising their Facebook thumbs. It always gets me how very little people enjoy the countryside on public transport. I often look around and I am often one of the only people staring dreamily out of the window. I could say it’s because they live there and they are used to it, but I still do it locally. Clearly, most people are not crazy nature-loving hippy earth mothers like me!
I arrived in Aviemore quite relieved that my journey was almost over and discovered I had to wait another 1.5 hours for a bus to Rothiemurchus. ‘It’s quite walkable’, said the guy in tourist information. Not today it isn’t – I thought – with two heavy backpacks, screaming back and neck, unhappy feet, and no sleep. ‘I’ll wait for the bus’, I said (Bear Gryll’s would, of course, walk it, but he wasn’t here and he didn’t know!), and went and got myself another sarnie. This time it was Tesco who provided me with sustenance.
I finally arrived at the campsite, a lovely site on the edge of Rothiemurchus Forest. I was shown a map and told I could camp in either of two spots, one by a stream or one across a gravel car park away from the river. Both spots were in the trees and quite lovely. Quite keen to have a spot next to the stream, I unpacked the tent and started trying to put it up. Now, I had erected this tent only once before, two years previous. Daniel (my husband) had hiked up Ben Nevis with Cara (our Lurcher) and having already hiked the Ben, I decided to stay in the Glen and get the campsite ready. Back then it all went smoothly. But in Glen Nevis, the ground was lawn and the tent was new! Now, however, pegs would not go in the ground and poles would not go up and the footprint kept moving and the tent resembled a den made by a 3-year-old. Actually that would have been better than this!
After a while of trying to improve on my toddler attempt, I decided I would move across to the other side where the ground looked slightly less rocky. I was determined not to call on neighbours for help. I would not be the helpless female!! I struggled on for a while longer, exhausted and frustrated and the tent still was not erecting itself, despite my sweet talking. I decided that if I wanted to sleep tonight and not freeze to death I had to swallow my pride and go and ask for help. Thankfully there was a very nice man called John, who also had plantar fasciitis (we were PF buddies!) who came to help me. I told him I didn’t want to look like an idiot asking for help and he said that only an idiot doesn’t ask for help when needed. This man was wise. So I felt like an awesome non-idiot and we put up the tent together. When finished, it was a beautiful thing to behold! We had climbed the mountain together and we had conquered it! John went off to chill with his mate before another long day of hiking the following day (brave as well as wise!) and I unpacked my things into my new home for the next ten days and cooked my dinner.
After my dinner of Quinoa and an accidental spillage of a rather large amount of herbs into said dinner, I headed out on to the trail north of the campsite for an early evening walk. Exhausted, I didn’t go too far. I bimbled along the trail to a place where it met the river. There I hung around for a while, sleepily lapping up the solitude and the sound of rushing water over rock. I sat on a boulder and watched the white water cascade noisily down river and past the remains of an odd wooden thing of which I could not identify. The banks were strewn with trees, some of them fallen, the water having eroded the earth around their roots. It was quite wild and gnarly and utterly lovely. When I couldn’t take the tiredness anymore, I headed back to camp where I got myself ready for a cold night that would make Bear Grylls proud!
To be continued…