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Saturday, 27 June 2015

The time has come...

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

Well, not many as it happens, just one: I'm relocating, upping sticks, setting sail. If all goes to plan, I shall arrive at the shores of Wordpress, set up home there and attempt to learn some of the fundamentals of navigating in an unfamiliar environment.

After (including this one), 140 posts over a time span of roughly five and a half years - hardly prolific, but it's only a hobby - I've finally realised that there are three of us in this relationship - Blogger, Google, me - and while the other two probably get along just fine, I get the feeling that I'm becoming a bit surplus to requirements.

You know how it is: you grow a little tired of each other; all three of you change; nothing you try seems to work any more; you start looking elsewhere...

If anyone reads this, I have made landfall and can now be found here - confused and a little disorientated. This could go either way. The moving finger writes types...

We'll meet again,
Don't know where, don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again, some sunny day

(Sunny might be a bit on the optimistic side)

Saturday, 29 November 2014

It all looks a bit different now

I tend not to write that often about walks around our local patch: no specific reason for that, beyond the fact that we do them so frequently that to us they're just part of life's routine; it would be a bit like keeping a diary of the washing up or mowing the lawn. Not that I'm disparaging local walks; they're the staple that helps keep us fit enough to do the other, more adventurous stuff when the opportunity arises. And they're the thing that most often gets me out of doing the washing up or mowing the lawn.

We were out earlier today and my mind went back to walking much the same route earlier in the year; it felt like no more than a few weeks back and I was amazed to discover that four months had passed - amazed and a bit mortified at how quickly the months and years seem to be rolling by. But the four months explained why things looked so different...

A field of gold from early August
Back in August it looked like the grain harvest was likely to be a good one locally; apparently it was and - just as importantly - the local farmers managed to get it collected and into storage before the winds and rain came along and battered it down. I've seen how hard they work - they were out there again today, past dusk.

Now there's just stubble still showing through in a few fields, but most of them have been turned over in readiness for whatever gets planted next. Different varieties of birds have moved in and the last few stragglers left over from the dragonflies, bees and butterflies have finally made whatever arrangements they make for the winter. The berries and hedgerow fruits have gone, as have the wild flowers - even the nettles are in full retreat!

It's all very quiet, virtually monochrome (aside from the skies) and could easily get a bit cheerless. That's when you have to remember how many folks there are out there who would give anything for the health and opportunity to take even a short stroll in the country - at any time of year, in any weather. So we remind ourselves that the rain and mud are part of the deal, and the reason why we have rivers, lochs, peatland and forests. And that we live at a pretty northerly latitude so short hours of daylight for a few months also come as part the package.

In one of his recent blog posts, Alan Rayner (A blog on the landscape) wrote that "Where we live, we say that we only have two seasons, the dusty one and the muddy one". Alan's a bit further north than we are but the same applies; we generally get the weather of the west, if in slightly diluted form, and we're now into that period in the year when the ground seems to get wet and just stay wet. It's one of the reasons why I miss the deep, bone-hard frosts of years gone by, which we rarely seem to see now. Tough on the ankles though - a rutted track, frozen solid; so maybe I'm letting nostalgia cloud judgement with that one.

Right now I'd love a couple of weeks in the highlands, but I'd settle for a day in mid Wales. The former is out of the question until next spring/summer; the latter might just be possible with a bit of planning and improvisation.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Lazy stereotyping

There's a lot of it about: certain politicians (and by certain, I mean most); smartarse television and radio presenters masquerading as investigative journalists; tabloid hacks masquerading as human beings; lobbyists, publicists, advertisers and PR flannel merchants; football people.

It would be easy to level some of the blame at Twitter, with its 140 character limit, but this all started long before the age of the tweet. Reductio ad absurdum - that's nearly what I'm talking about; not quite, but I don't know much latin. It's more this modern day partiality for reducing even the most complex and nuanced of issues to a single, over-simplified, one line conclusion.

A few days ago - in the middle of a relatively low-key conversation about turbines - someone suggested to me that it was a "well known fact" that all environmentalists are in favour of wind farms. There was genuine surprise when I responded that I consider myself to be very much an environmentalist and that there are more definitions of caring for the environment than those promoted by the high-profile NGOs and their political allies. I pointed the chap in question in the direction of some of the outdoor blogs, with the assurance that he wouldn't find a bunch of people anywhere who cared more about the environment. I know that he took me at my word, read a good few of them, had his eyes opened and will continue to read more.

But it's apparently easy to sell a lie; and the more glib the deception the easier the sale seems to be. Terms like 'The environmental lobby' are bandied around, go unchallenged, and become part of the currency; it's convenient, precludes the need for analytical thought, and suits a particular agenda.

The alternative - acknowledging that there's no such thing as a single, homogenised, collective representing the complete spectrum of environmental opinion and thinking - well, that's a lot like hard work and very difficult to condense into a soundbite. It's disturbingly easy for those with access to the right channels to marginalise others who refuse to be compliant; disturbingly easy to bypass or subvert proper democratic and consultation processes. No need to win a debate if you can arrange for it never to take place.

Quite where I've gone with this I'm not sure; even less sure about where to take it next. Introducing new people to the outdoor blogging community is a small start, and an enjoyable one. It will have to do until I can think of something better.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Mooching The Mynd

Steve Gilbert (Fell Finder) is the real oracle on the Shropshire hills; a local lad who's moved north but still feels the pull of his home patch every now and again. It was Steve who really opened my eyes to just what a huge tract of walkable land there is if you take in The Stiperstones, Clun Forest, Pontesbury, The Caradoc Hills and The Lawley; plus, of course, the hills of The Long Mynd. And that's by no means the complete list.

We're still a long way short of covering all of it but we have made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to get a better feel for the place. This has been partly by means of a few longer outings, where the priority has been mostly covering ground, but also by days where we've just ambled around the valleys and tops, getting our bearings and trying to make sense of where we are standing right now in relation to where we were last time and the times before.

It's a surprisingly complex area: straight lines are few and far between; climb out of a valley and chances are you'll emerge not quite where you anticipated; head for a point on the skyline  and be prepared for it to take a bit longer to get there than you might have expected; the vegetation obscures paths in summer and gradually reveals them again from autumn. And, as any local - Steve included - will tell you, mist and fog are not exactly rare occurrences. I couldn't think of a better place for anyone to learn and practice navigation skills.

Carding Mill Valley draws people in the most numbers, particularly the summer weekend and bank holiday crowds, but even on the busiest days it doesn't take too long to access quieter spots; and there are plenty of them. Our most recent 'mooch' actually started from Carding Mill valley, albeit on a quiet, midweek morning; the apparently erratic and unstructured nature of the route is plotted on the map below and is totally in keeping with the approach we've been taking...

If it looks like madness, I can well understand. All I can say is that it feels better in the walking than it looks in print.

Standing on the topmost of the National Trust car parks and looking west across the burn (which I think is called 'Ash brook' lower down but appears to be unnamed here), there is an obvious ridge which takes a clearly defined line towards a rocky outcrop (Cow Ridge). There are a few straightforward scrambling opportunities along the route, most of which can be avoided by minor detours. For most of the ascent the rocky bluff looks like the top; it isn't, but by the time you get there the hard part is done.

Crossing the gently rising ground, heading W/SW will bring you fairly quickly to a tarmac road which climbs out of Church Stretton. Turn right as the road is joined and then look for an opportunity to step off the tarmac and onto a path which runs parallel to it; not that the road is particularly busy. Eventually the road splits and one fork peels away to the left, but the path keeps straight ahead and then slightly right, always climbing gently towards a level horizon. At the crest of the ridge, the Shropshire Way is joined and - if visibility permits - there should be 360º views.

The high point of the Long Mynd is Pole Bank and this is reached by turning left and continuing to climb steadily. Fairly soon, a trig point will come into view.

Just beyond the Pole Bank top there is a small copse, which can be a useful lunch spot on a wet day; there is not much in the way of shelter once you're out on the high ground.

The copse is fenced, but the trees overhang the fence far enough to afford cover. There are beehives inside the enclosure and a non-stop procession of honey bees to and from the heather, when it is in flower. However many there are (and there must be hundreds of thousands), they will fly all around you without once bothering you. The accumulated noise they make is astonishing.

Lunch consumed, we retraced our steps along the Shropshire Way and, ignoring the path down into Carding Mill Valley (which we were saving for later), crossed the moorland on a springy, green track, which meets a fence just as the ground begins to fall away. Turning left and following the line of the fence, eventually brought us back to the Shropshire way, near to the site of a pair of bronze age barrows marked on the OS map as 'Robin Hood's butts'. In all honesty, they are pretty unprepossessing and without prior knowledge, and closer inspection, you would see them as just a couple of natural undulations in the terrain.

Female wheatear, Long Mynd
Rejoining the Shropshire Way, we walked until we met the junction with the path down to Carding Mill Valley and Church Stretton. This path is usually saved for the final walk back down, as it gives some of the best views and is often busy with birds, taking advantage of the relatively small number of trees, which mostly cluster on the lower slopes around the bed of the stream. A stream which can frequently be heard long before it is seen. We have seen stonechats, chiffchaffs and wheatears, among others; a pair of kestrels - understandably enough - seem to have this part of the hills as a regular beat.

Grey wagtail (pictured near to
Light Spout waterfall)

Speaking of raptors, we have - on different days and at different times of the year - spotted buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk, red kite and the occasional peregrine. There are, by reliable accounts, both merlin and hen harrier in the vicinity, but we've never been fortunate enough to come across either; the terrain and habitat would certainly support both. Ravens, in decent numbers, are pretty much guaranteed year round.

The Long Mynd, and the neighbouring hills, have a distinctly different character to most others which are easily accessible from the west midlands (we can reach them in under an hour). Much closer, in texture, to some of the Welsh ranges and we often comment that they have a feel of The Berwyns.

Perhaps it's the climbing in the company of water that does it. Whatever the reason, it's pretty high praise.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Talladh-a-Bheithe - what does it matter?

My first ever Munro was Schiehallion; climbed, many years ago, in winter conditions. It was between Christmas and New Year, the snow line was at about two thousand feet, I was well wrapped up and with a good supply of food and hot drink and - most importantly - I didn't really have a clue what I was doing!

Starting from the Braes of Foss, there wasn't much scope for navigational error but the succession of false summits, combined with the marked drop in temperature as I gained height, taught me a few new lessons along the way. There were two brief blizzards, both of which seemed to materialise from clear blue sky and dissipate just as mysteriously; I quickly became grateful that this was a straightforward ascent, 180 degree turn, descent, and nothing more complex.

But I got to the top, stood for a while in a thigh-deep drift drinking coffee, survived and loved it. One other lesson learned that day was the speed with which weather systems can move. At the summit, I looked over towards the west, saw evidence of a serious storm and - with the wind blowing in our direction - reckoned that we would be getting some of that weather in a couple of hours or so. I might have been twenty minutes into the descent when the storm front moved overhead and a mixture of snow and frozen rain began to pepper the ridge. Quite a few were still passing on the way up at this point but, although the storm passed quickly, the light never really returned.

Oh, I almost forgot: the views! Like nothing I'd ever seen - space, distance, tops, valleys, layer upon layer of this thing which, in the round, we call landscape; knowing exactly what that word means without ever having the vocabulary to do justice to it. You'll know it when you see it!

The likelihood is that that landscape will soon be blighted by yet another inappropriately sited cluster of turbines. Turbines, plus access roads, pylon runs, sub-stations... landscape exploited, job done - move on to the next! It's the mentality of the alien invaders in Independence Day.

And so what? All we're talking about here is one individual's personal recollections; hardly significant in the broader context. Throw in the accumulated reminiscences of every other walker who ever made that same journey and - even for a relatively busy hill like Schiehallion - it's a tiny proportion of the population. Weighed in the overall balance, does anyone really care much for the opinions of what is, when all's said and done, a tiny demographic? Should anyone really care?

It's a question I'll return to, but only after another trip down memory lane...

There's a round of hills above Loch An Daimh, which lies slightly to the north and east of Loch Lyon. The complete round - starting from and returning to the dam - takes in a couple of munros (Stuchd an Lochain and Meall Buidhe), two corbetts and at least one other significant but un-named top. For a big raptor, it's about a couple of flaps and a glide from Schiehallion, and I've walked it approximately one point six times!

The point six was the first time. Setting off from the dam (which another blogger once described as a fine example of soviet-era architecture) in weather which would have persuaded a more sensible person to get back in the car and drive to a pub, I somehow managed to convince myself that it was bound to clear up later. In the highlands!

Well, it didn't - it got progressively worse; a wind so strong that it actually kept me upright on a couple of occasions when I would otherwise have fallen. In the end, I crawled under the edge of a small copse of tightly-packed conifers and ate lunch, knowing that I would be turning back. The sound of grunts and snapping twigs from the gloom behind me was a bit disconcerting; I assumed it would be deer. It was the kind of thoroughly miserable, wretched, frustrating day that just makes you want to come back and give it another go.

The second time could hardly have been more different: little or no wind, mostly clear skies with some high altitude cumulus clouds; Loch An Daimh blue and disturbed only by rising trout; the temperature just about perfect for walking in light clothing. Again, it's the views that lodge most firmly in the memory - in every direction: The hills of Glencoe; The Ben; Schiehallion itself; the Lawers range back to the east; Ben More to the south; a distant glint of what might have been Loch Linnhe; the seemingly limitless space of Rannoch Moor.

Well, we know by now what an illusion limitless space can be. And how temporary...

So back to the question: does it matter, and why?

Certainly, Schiehallion and the hills at the western end of Glen Lyon matter to me personally because of my recollections of times spent. And it's just possible that my reminiscences will strike a chord with a few others, just as theirs resonate with me when I read them. But that's not the point: landscapes like these don't matter to me just because I once walked the hill, or had a couple of good days out - those considerations are incidental. Schiehallion, Glen Lyon, Rannoch Moor, Ben More, would matter if I'd never set eyes on any of them; these places matter for their own sake - they need no endorsement.

We are supposed to be the custodians: the environment should be safe in our hands. We have the information and the wherewithal; politicians get no credit from me for pretending to acknowledge their responsibilities while continuing to approve the trashing of the landscape. But what hope is there when power rests in the hands of a species which apparently can't even co-exist with a few hundred hen harrier?

If the energy companies, developers and wrong-headed politicians have their way, every summit in Scotland will eventually look out on its own particular Talladh-a-Bheithe. Its own particular, local tragedy.

They won't care. To them, it won't matter.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Talladh-a-Bheithe power station

This proposal is, even by the insensitive standards of proposals past, astonishingly brazen. The detail has been much better dealt with than I could ever manage elsewhere, but could I just urge anyone who passes this way to take the time to look at any (preferably all) of the following:

This is the text of my own letter of objection (already sent):

"Dear Sir/Madam

This is to lodge my personal objection to the application, by Eventus Duurzaam BV, for consent to construct a windfarm on a site at Talladh-a-Bheithe,  near Rannoch.
Coming immediately after the recent (June 2014) Scottish National Heritage publication of the wild land map of Scotland, this proposal is for a wind farm to be sited in Area 14 of the map; in other words, a place designated by the Scottish Government as worthy of "strong protection". It also lies immediately adjacent to Glen Lyon National Scenic Area and the scale of the area of impact is probably unprecedented, even in the context of other insensitive turbine installations.
Continuing to approve developments of this kind in areas of wild land will ultimately have a devastating effect on visitor numbers to Scotland in general and The Highlands in particular. A devastating effect which will be felt by the local businesses and communities who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. 
To someone who has been a regular visitor to Scotland for more than 25 years, the current direction of policy with regard to wild land and precious landscapes make no sense. The Scottish government seems to be actively pursuing a policy which will deter tourism; an independent Scotland (should that be the outcome) with its income from tourism decimated - has this been thought through?
If the opinions of visitors are to be disregarded, at least take note of the local opposition to this development. Shops, guesthouses, B&Bs, visitor attractions may not be able to finance aggressive lobbying and slick PR, but they are entitled to at least the same consideration as the multinationals who are driving this incessant flood of applications"

Some of it is original, some unashamedly cribbed from other, better letters - all with permission having been given. In the same spirit, please feel free to use anything from mine which might be helpful in compiling your own.

But time is short - the closing date for objections to be notified is August 5th.

Fields of gold

Our local farmer is a good sort: maintains some hedgerows, which the birds love; keeps the public footpaths clear and unobstructed. A few years back he told me one way to judge a grain harvest was to look at the way the drill tracks fill over as the summer progresses. In a good year they will all but disappear. There are no doubt other, more technical ways of evaluating grain yields, but it's something I've looked for ever since.

This year has the look of a good one, assuming there are no catastrophes between now and harvesting. The characteristic lines across fields of wheat, oats and barley have become all but absorbed as the crops thicken out; and there are very few weeds - apparently another good sign. 2014 might well turn out to be a vintage year for breakfast cereals, beer and whisk(e)y.

It's not just the cultivated crops that seem to be enjoying a bumper summer either. I can't remember another year, certainly not a recent one, where footpaths have become so overgrown, almost disappearing in places and becoming impassable to all but the most determined. Nettles, brambles, and a good few non-natives like balsam and knotweed, have combined with a sustained spell of hot weather to create some unusual conditions in familiar places. It will be interesting to see how quickly the established paths reappear when time comes for the temporary jungle to recede.

Wildflower meadows have a long way to go to recover from the years of decimation since the middle of the last century (95% lost according to some estimates), but this year's combination of heavy spring rainfall and sustained summer sunshine has allowed a few undisturbed places to be recolonized...

The benefits of the local farmer's enlightened approach to land management has been evidenced by the increased number of whitethroats taking advantage of the hedgerow habitat...

And by the ever-growing numbers of the resident yellowhammer population, with their admirable approach to personal hygiene...

Rob's fascination with his new camera (it's a Sony HSC 300 and the pictures are all his!) has yielded some interesting results. Thankfully digital allows for unlimited shooting, at least within the constraints of SD card capacity and battery life. In the days of film he would have been penniless by now.

On one recent evening walk, he managed to capture:

On full (50x) zoom, a distant, silhouetted, buzzard, carrying what looked like a bedraggled grey squirrel...

And an indication that somewhere, not too far away, it was probably raining...

Despite what appearances might suggest, the walkers below were sticking strictly to a designated path...

It's one of life's inevitabilities that when we reach a railway line we have to wait a while. The distant glow of a green signal just acted as further confirmation...

At least, when it arrived, it did have a locomotive on the front...

The trainspotting interlude meant that we walked quite a bit of the return route in gathering gloom and with the temperature beginning to fall quite appreciably. The sun also dropped quickly and within a very short space of time we saw a flaming sunset replaced by a full, silver moon.