Sunday, 27 June 2010

End of our holiday

Our last two days in Orkney were spent taking in a few sites and habitats we hadn't been to before. Antonia and I went and explored a burn and 'wood' near the airport. A wood on Orkney of a thin line of trees on either side of the river, where it has cut deep enough into the land to offer some shelter. We went for a couple of little walks, visited the eagle's tomb and the sights of Kirkwall. We failed to find a groatie buckie, but we've done pretty well otherwise. Antonia has done enough of her Orkney Nature Detectives book to earn a silver award. That's pretty good for a week's work, and I don't think it would have been possible if we hadn't had a strong prior interest in natural history. To get a gold award, you really need to live in Orkney, at least for a few months! Our transport between Orkney and Inverness doubles as a tour bus, so we had a last sight as we were leaving, the bus stopped at the Italian Chapel, decorated by Italian prisoners of war who were brought to construct the causeways. It is quite a moving place.

I thought as a model for our longer term trips, this trip to Orkney worked quite well. It's nice to have a house and few time pressures so you can just hang out, and even decide to stay in for a whole day. The great thing about self-catering homes is that you have all the advantages of being at home but none of the disadvantages in terms of lots of housework and administration to take care of. Mike got some work done, once he managed to get the internet fixed and I was pleased with the roadschooling aspect. We had enough time to get some traditional work done as well as the Orkney nature project which was very valuable.

Now we're on a really slow train between Inverness and Edinburgh, so we're getting to see a whole other bit of Scotland. Antonia and I have a bit more holiday with my parents, but Mike is heading back to London, then home tomorrow. We are already starting to think about what we have to do next in the way of doing our house up.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Orkney West Mainland

Proof of puffins!

There's something about wind when you're not used to it that's completely exhausting. Orkney did the wind thing on us today. It blew so hard that the weather fronts sailed over fast enough that we had everything two or three times: clouds, rain, and bright sunshine. It was just like those unbelievable weather icons that try to show every possible weather type in one picture. By the time I got home, I needed warm food, a large glass of wine and a bath, just to restore my body's reserves! Anyhow, today was our big touring day. We went to the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay and the Broch of Gurness. The last two were places on our Orkney Explorer passes. The Ring of Brodgar is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney complex. In between all that we went and searched for Groatie Buckies or European Cowries on Aikerness Beach, but although we found just about everything else there, we drew a total blank on cowries. If you wanted periwinkles, all you have to do is put your hand down and scoop, and up they come, in every possible colour. The people staffing the Broch of Gurness told us cowries were more common in winter. Oh well! At least we found hermit crabs and shore crabs in abundance today, so that just about makes up for it.

We also spent a certain amount of the day instinctively looking for shelter. It's incredible how exposed a great flat tabletop of grass such as the Brough of Birsay can be, but fortunately, nearer the sea there are all kinds of collapsed bits. We hid in one of them for lunch, and Antonia and I hid in another while Mike leaned over a high cliff getting a really good shot of some cooperative puffins. Lucky Antonia had already seen some, because we weren't too keen on having her so near the cliff edge. I think the strangest things of our day were seeing a party of teenagers in full swimming gear walking across the Brough of Birsay causeway soaking wet through. They had clearly been swmming, but they weren't getting any drier just then, because it was raining hard and the windchill factor was intense. They looked cold. So did we, and we were in all of our warmest gear. Mike was wearing his New Zealand hat under his North Face jacket hood and his scarf wrapped around all that. I was envying the scarf. The other strange thing was a chilling tableau someone had constructed at the end of the causeway. A freshly dead decapitated swan lay spreadeagled in front of a tombstone that had been constructed from the local beach pepples. Ugghh! what were they thinking. Orkney is wild enough that there are plenty of carcasses around, especially of birds, and I can cope with that, but there's something about this 'iinstallation' that's quite freaky. I suppose the person who built it had a different view, and I know Mike finds our biology-orientated interest in dead animals a bit icky.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Orkney working day

This was really a working day, at least it was supposed to be. It was more a day for discovering that Antonia is totally disinterested in anything except natural history (and poetry), and that only in a haphazard, low-concentration kind of way. Anything that has to do with people or technology or thinking about something for more than three minutes in a row gets impolitely ignored. I suppose she did learn a few things about doing research on the internet. Mind you, I am not such a great example. We went for a short walk to Lerwick Head, and I made Mike stop the car twice: once to photograph a lapwing, and another to photograph a curlew. I have a nice collection of bird photos, but they all need cropping. Antonia did not really come into her own until about 5pm when she started collecting and drawing grasses. Mike got lots of work done today as well.

Orkney has the healthiest seaweed biodiversity of any place I have ever been to. I found several more kinds today, including some that look like mushrooms. It's certainly pretty good for birds as well.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Orkney Ancient History

We drove to Skara Brae on the West Mainland to see the major neolithic sites. As we passed Finstown, the skies cleared to a beautiful blue. The four wold heritage sites lie on a line approximately between two large freshwater lochs, and we had dazzling views of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar as we drove through. Lucky, because we didn't really end up with time to go and seem them. We spent a while at Skara Brae. I already knew quite a bit about the site so there were few surprises. The little museum and reconstructed house were unexpected and very nice to visit. We also went to 'the finest neolithic tomb in Europe' and saw Viking graffiti along the lines of "Ineberge is the fittest woman" and a dragon.

After a very late lunch, wee returned to our local beach, the thin natural causeway between East Mainland and the near island of Deerness. On the rocky side we found only the usual things, though I did find several new species of seaweed I didn't get to yesterday. I watched the tide a bit anxiously, knowing that it was coming in, upredictably due to the uneven shoreline and the mist. The most exciting thing that happened to us was seeing one of the piractical birds, perhaps a skua, actually attacking an ordinary gull (as in David Attenborough!). The two flew low over our heads for about a minute, both crying loudly. I couldn't tell why the skua was pursuing the gull, in any case it got away. Of course, the camera had about five things that needed adjusting before it could even think about taking a picture, so I didn't stand a chance. Oh and we also found the highly decomposed carcass of a seal pup (I think). Yuck!

We walked out into the broad stretches of the lagoon and had soon lost the road behind us in the mists. I wasn't too afraid that we would lose our way. Every so often, a car would rumble unseen on the road behind us. Even if there had been no road, the mounds of seaweed lay with their fronds pointing inland. Drifts of white shells had been trapped behind them, in a small triangle protected from the outgoing tide. It was still a strange feeling to be lost in the endless grey of sky, and wet sand. Every so often the sun would dominate, and light up the mists around us to a golden glow. Anywhere further south, it would have burned through in minutes. At other times, we would find ourselves in denser fog, with fine droplets blowing against our faces. The mounds of yellowish brown seaweed and the tiny coiled cones of the lugworms as our only landmarks. Antonia noticed these were of a different colour from the sand around them. We found out that the top sand is a golden brown colour, whilst only a little way down, it turns dark grey. We found that out because, despite her disdain of Neolithic houses, Antonia obviously has some ancestral instincts lurking deep within her. She discovered that she could crack the cockles open on a rock - there is one rock, it seems, in the whole lagoon. But most of the cockles were empty, and were only hard to open at all because they were held together with algae. So then she learned that she could find live ones by digging. So she dug and cracked quite happily for more than half an hour, with her hair trailing in the sand. I think she might have done quite well living at Skara Brae, though it certainly more comfortable to have warm baths and bread and jam at home.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Orkney Natural History

Antonia at work, drawing seaweed

We got down to some serious natural history work today. After a bit of maths over the Internet (which blissfully worked for about half an hour), Antonia and I went down to the beach to study seaweed and various other things. We spent the first hour generally beach hunting, and the next hour drawing and writing about all the kinds of seaweed we could. For written resources, all we have are a seashore sticker book, an Orkney nature detective book and some natural history leaflets about Orkney. It seems like nearly nothing, but it's enough.

After lunch, we dragged Mike out for a hike around Mull Head on Deerness. We really excelled ourselves on this one. It was a five kilometre hike, and it took us five hours. That's because we did some serious bird watching and also tried to get to grips with our camera. The first part went very well. We were excited to see puffins for real, and also some razorbills. I don't think we would have found them without the help of the real birdwatchers on the cliffs. The camera, we are having trouble with that. We are just about in a position to prove we have seen puffins, but not until I'm able to crop and sharpen them up in photoshop.

Cute, but not a puffin!

In the meantime, the clouds were swept away, leaving bright blue skies. Orkney is like Iceland in that when the sun is out, it glows. And this evening, Mike might have, maybe, probably fixed the Internet. I'm sure our hosts must think we're crazy caring so much about the Internet. Our usage isn't quite what people who use the Internet a little bit must expect. Leaving Mike aside, one minute I'm looking up the weather forecast, then the tide tables. Then Antonia wants to find out what insect lives in Cuckoo Spit or what a Bloody Henry starfish looks like. Next, I want a recipe for flapjacks, or to know when Skara Brae is open, or what concerts are on at the music festival. Besides that, having the Internet gets us out of lugging books around, since we can read something on Gutenberg. It's not a case of constant usage, more constantly intermittent.

Quiet day in Orkney

It's drizzling as promised, but we spent the morning hanging around inside working anyway. Our house is a typical Orkney shape in that it seems very small on the outside and quite spacious inside. It has huge windows in almost every available space from which we can watch the ducks and chickens. Last night, I saw a curlew hovering over the farm, and this morning, a flock of sparrows came down and seemed to be feeding on the red hot poker flowers that seem so popular in the gardens here.

In the afternoon, we went out, first to the beach for a little while, where we had a good time bothering the local wildlife. Antonia is armed with a seashore sticker book and a nature detective book and she is developing a more precise view of the species she finds: they are not just 'shells', but whelks, or limpets, or periwinkles... Mike and I are trying to use our new camera, but we are not very good at it yet. It has to be said that the weather isn't really doing us any favours, and we don't have a suitable macro lens for close up nature shots. At least I can now recognise an oystercatcher whenever I see it!

It stopped raining while we were at the beach and started again just as we were setting off to visit the local whisky distillery. We've been round whisky distilleries before, but I enjoyed this one. If felt quite small and intimate, and it was interesting to be able to handle the barley, peat, and casks and smell them. I didn't know this before, but all the whisky distilleries are black becase they get covered in an alcohol consuming mould. It's funny to think that there really is an 'angel' drinking the so-called angel's share (the alcohol that evaporates out of the cask), and that it's a tiny black mould. Our guide said this mould is pleasant in summer, but gets quite slimy in winter. Also, we finally got our whisky!!! They gave us a taster and we bought a few small bottles for later.

That's about it, apart from a quick drive around and a bit of shopping. We will start exploring properly tomorrow.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Long journey to Orkney

View from Horrie Farm in Orkney

In various ways, we have worked our way through the whole of Scotland: from the border to Milngavie by train, to Fort William on foot, along the Great Glen to Inverness by coach, then up to Orkney by coach and ferry. After all that walking on the West Highland Way, it feels strange to be sitting on coaches. We had great views all the way, though I have been along Loch Ness before and I find the landscapes around there too banal for my taste. This just means that it looks a lot like the lowlands of Yorkshire where I spent several years of my life. It's very nice really, and probably quite exotic to some people. I think that Mike, for example, finds this area very attractive. We wandered around Inverness a bit in the afternoon. For the last eight days we had no time to do much except walk, wash, eat and sleep. Now that we have nothing much to do I think we're torn between creativity and exhaustion. Antonia and I started thinking of art projects, and we are all thinking (not very enthusiastically) of getting back to a bit of work when we get to Orkney.

Inverness has very good restaurants and we found a nice seafood one for dinner. The food and wine were excellent, but everyone is too tired to talk, and it's pretty tedious just sitting around eating. We might have been better off in a pub, with a football match to entertain us, though I don't think I could stand another plate of chips.

We got up in time for the 7:30 coach to Orkney which took us through beautiful countryside along lochs and firths, across new causeways, where, until a couple of decades ago, we would have had to take ferry crossings. Since this coach doubles as a tour bus, we had some commentary along the way. I was struck by two hilltop monuments, created by the landlords of the areas we passed through. One was ordered by a local lord as a way of keeping his tenants employed during a famine. The story goes that he paid a day-shift to put the monument up in the day, and a night-shift to undo their work - the idea being that they were too proud to just take the money. I couldn't make out what the monument was, but it is apparently a copy of something he had seen in India.

In the other case it was the landlord who had a problem with pride. He had his tenants erect an immense statue of himself as a 'loving' memorial. From a distance, I thought it was one of those statues of Mary that you find in southern europe, and it seemed rather out of place. This earl of Sutherland was not very popular because he was at the forefront of Highland clearances. His county of Sutherland is one of the prettiest we passed through. As we reached Caithness, it really felt a little bit like the ends of the earth. Half the houses are abandoned, and not just very old ones. It is very windy today, and the sheep and cattle, like the remaining houses, have an enduring look about them. Mostly they are lying down in little huddles. There are virtually no trees, except where householders have built fences and walls to nurture them, but not all the land is pasture either. There is a lot of black moor. Off shore, we can see a few drilling rigs, which seem to be keeping the towns going, but our commentator told us that about 150 years ago the area was the centre of a herring boom, and so overpopulated that workers were housed in horrendous conditions.

The impression of delapidation increased when we reached John O'Groats ferry terminal which consists of a few squat buildings for cafes and shops and a ruinous but very over-the-top Victorian Gothic hotel. It was freezing cold, with a strong wind, and I wished I had dressed rather differently. Our ferry, when it arrived, looked so small I thought for a while we were going to have to sit outside, but no.... We were down in the hold, on basic seats that had been bolted to the floor,with our life jackets in nets along the walls. I rather thought I wouldn't be needing mine in any circumstances, as the water would be cold enough to finish me off on contact. Being a smallish boat, our ferry went up and down rather a lot, and before long, dogs and children started getting sick. I advised Antonia to look out of the windows to try to anticipate her motion, and she pulled through, though she looked a bit pale at times. Orkney was a very welcome sight, though it was a bit of a shock when we found out that the crossing we had taken was the shortest possible one. I do know there are much larger and presumably more stable ferries than this coming into Orkney, but this is the one the Inverness bus takes you to.

In fact, we had been able to see Orkney from the mainland, it is so close, but when we actually got our feet on it, it seemed very rich and green and, well, safe. It has a less desolate feel than Caithness, although all the houses are still very sober and plain. When we got to Kirkwall, we found that everything was very close and convenient. We got all our information about what to do around here, an excellent sandwich in a cafe-come-music-centre, our hire car and our shopping, and we found our farm out in the country without any trouble. The only fly in the ointment is that it is bitterly cold here at the moment. It reminds me of the first day we spent in Iceland, when I wondered if were even going to be able to get out of the car. As soon as the wind dropped, it got reasonably warm there, and I think the same will be the case with Orkney. I hope so, because I'm looking forward to just messing around on beaches and archaeological sites and taking short walks. Though, if it rains, there is a pool table here, and plenty of other things to do.

Friday, 18 June 2010

WHW Day 8 - Kinlochleven to Fort William

Total distance: 22.95 km
Start time: 9:00; End time: 17:40
Time spent actually walking: 5 h 24 mins
Time stopped: 3 h 22 mins

It was a long climb out of Kinlochleven but that was pretty much the hardest part of the day. The weather is amazingly fine again, though apparently it has been very wet at home. Once we climbed above the treeline we had another of those long straight walks across moorland where you can see the path for miles. This was one of the longest days of walking, about 23 km in all so we tried to make good time in the morning. We arrived at a point where there had been clear cutting some years ago and had to walk through several kilometres of desolation. The foresters do not really tidy up after themselves, they leave portions of dead trunk standing and rubbish all over the floor. In our part of the world we have a different kind of forestry where they mostly take out individual mature trees or small patches, so we are not used to this. Eventually we got to a section where the forest was still standing, and it gave us an idea of what the whole area would have been like. Of course, these are not natural forests, but they do provide a different habitat. As soon as you get inside, you hear the humming of insects and the call of birds. The forest floor is very dark, but near the paths and clearings there is quite rich greenery (but not many species, it would seem). I am surprised how boggy the ground is as soon as you get off the paths, just about everywhere. It seems that the conifers find it hard to get a firm anchorage, because quite a few of them fall over, taking their shallow roots with them. Of course this creates more clearings, which may be bad for the foresters, but is good for the plants. The mosses here are enormous, and the trunks of the trees are reddish and very Scottish looking.

Until now, I was struck by how different the Highlands are from our own mountains, but here, around Ben Nevis, there is a slightly Alpine look. I think it's partly the sight of the mountains over the conifers, and partly the mountain resort feel of Glen Nevis which is full of holiday homes and campsites. The mountain itself made an appearance after spending most of the day under a cap of cloud.

The end of the walk is a bit of an anti-climax. People who saw each other every day for a week now end up suddenly spread across a wide area around Fort William. We all knew it was going to happen and managed to more or less take photos of each other and say goodbye during today's walk. When we got to the bottom we had to walk along the boring road past our B&B to the self-proclaimed end of the walk sign where we wanted to take a photo, then haul ourselves painfully back. We had plan to celebrate the end of the walk with a whisky, but we got caught out eating in this restaurant which resembled a cafeteria, because it was really too late for Antonia to eat in the bar. It was completely the wrong ambience for celebratory whiskies, so we've put it off till we don't know when... The food was OK at least. Probably the last large meal we can allow ourselves! I must say, I'm going to miss being able to eat Snickers bars every day with impunity, but I don't care if I never see another chip or piece of garlic bread!

WHW Day 7 - Kingshouse to Kinlochleven

Total distance: 14.07 km
Start time: 9:35; End time: 15:55
Time spent actually walking: 4 h 09 mins
Time stopped: 2 h 10 mins

My group are very predictable, in a sort of way. If I tell them they have a long day ahead and need to start by 8:30, they are ready at 9:30. If I tell them it's a really short day and we needn't start till 10:00, they are ready at 9:30. Anyway, I digress....

Another shortish day although it included what passes as a climb up the so-called Devil's Staircase. It was easy enough. I have noticed that the West Highland Way mostly follows the line of old roads, and they always took the easiest way, mostly along the flanks of valleys. If there is a pass to cross, you can guarantee it will be at the lowest point. In the end, we probably dawdled a bit too much at the top, because we found the descent into Kinlochleven a bit tedious. Our book says Kinlochleven is no beauty spot, but we actually like old industrial stuff to look at. The last part of the descent was enlivened by the huge pipes of a hydroelectric system, and our hostel was right opposite the powerplant. This was 19th or early 20th century, so quite a pleasant brick construction.

It was actually the woods around Kinlochleven that I found to be very ordinary and unattractive, but I suppose the valley must be quite sheltered to be allowing them to grow at all. We hung out in the hostel for ages - it was actually quite nice since we had a private room and private bathroom. We eventually wandered down into town where there was a choice of pubs. We ended up watching South Africa lose to Uraguay in the World Cup, and let Antonia have a go at pool, so you could say we got into British pub culture. On the way back, we passed a huge climbing gym, the Ice Factor, and Mike managed to get them to let him in to look at their ice wall, with real ice! It's actually very impressive. You go into this enormously tall fridge with ice absolutely everywhere, it does cost a fortune to keep it cold. Mike and Antonia went back to take some pictures and I think Antonia had a little play in there and was very pleased with it. The climbing gym is not all ice, there are a lot of regular climbing walls as well (and a bar!).

It's hard to believe it will be the last day tomorrow, though it's a long one.

WHW Day 6 - Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse

Total distance: 19.71 km
Start time: 8:45; End time: 15:45
Time spent actually walking: 5 h 06 mins
Time stopped: 1 h 51 mins

We paid the price of having the laundry done by the hotel staff this morning, because we had to start getting it back and sorting it out, when we should have done that last night. It seemed like it might be one of the harder days of walking and I was very keen to leave by 8:30 am. The only way this was even remotely going to happen was if I sorted it out while the other two had breakfast. I am afraid my colleagues have absolutely no grasp of how long things take, and I'm sure we would have left at 10.30 am if I had just sat back and let them get on with it.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. We did the walk in double quick time and are relaxing at the Kingshouse Hotel, and, well, waiting for the shower. A few days back, under a railway bridge in the rain, a guy had warned us about the territory after Bridge of Orchy, while giving Antonia a doubting look. I can see what he means, in that if the weather conditions turned wet and windy, it could be horrendous. It is a long, long walk on an old drove road over open, mostly boggy, moorland. It must have been grim work building it, and very helpful when it was made. It's hard to imagine how the cattle got across this mess before that. As we had fine, warm weather, it was really a walk in the park for us. The so-called climbs are a bit of a joke to people who live in the Alps, but this is the kind of landscape I really love, and which makes me remember how closed in our own mountains can feel. We could see for miles and miles across Rannock Moor, so far that the distant mountains really did look blue as they are supposed to. We found a nice breezy spot for lunch off the path to avoid the midges. Antonia was over the moon because we found some insect eating plants (called sundew or drosera), a large feathery moth let her hold if for a while, and she found a dragonfly 'as big as a robin'. She got her feet completely soaked while she was looking for it, but she said it was worth it. We also saw the military jets on their practice runs flying low up the valleys. They make a few passes a day, so it is more entertainment than a nuisance. There were also military cadets out doing some kind of training on bikes, and an old guy sitting at the top of the pass, sunbathing and playing a giant game of draughts. He said his job was to give them a 'safety briefing' (e.g. lecture on not speeding) before they began the descent.

When you see the Kingshouse Hotel in the distance, it's this tiny white thing, dwarfed by the huge spaces. When you get inside it seems like a maze, with more buildings through whichever window you look out of. In decor it reminds me of one of the smarter places my parents would have taken me to stay long, long ago, in the seventies. I am having a bit of a nostalgia trip with that, and don't even mind if I don't make it to the shower and end up washing with a flannel. Also, I am downstairs, in the bar, BY MYSELF, enjoying a glass of wine and some garlic bread, because Antonia and Mike are playing in the room. That is really nice. Antonia's got her endurance up alright, she was frankly giddy for most of the afternoon. There is one thing about Scotland that she really, really likes, and that, I am afraid, is Scot Loos. They are blue portable toilets that you see all over the place and I think if she had her way, Doctor Who's Tardis would get 'upgraded'.

Monday, 14 June 2010

WHW Day 5 - Drymen to Bridge of Orchy

Total distance: 11.39 km
Start time: 9:26; End time: 13:28
Time spent actually walking: 2 h 43 mins
Time stopped: 1 h 00 mins

Hurrah! it's our short day! We need to do laundry so badly! We need to get on the internet so badly! But first, we need to walk at least a little bit.

And it turned out to be a really easy walk, just a stroll along the valley on some old military road. We have green hills on both sides, with very few trees now, a road and a railway for company (hmmm) and it is frankly quite warm! Bridge of Orchy seems to be basically a station and a quite smart hotel with a bunkhouse attached. We are in there! Well actually, we are currently in the lounge of the hotel enjoying the free internet, having just eaten a long and delicious meal. We are looking forward to another one tonight, and we are doing nothing at all but surf the 'net till then. There was a small hitch with the laundry, but I'm afraid it's rather to our advantage, and to the disadvantage of the poor girl in reception. The washing machine in the bunkhouse was broken, so she is doing our horrible, smelly, pongy, disgusting laundry for us... for a small sum of money of course.

WHW Day 4 - Inverarnan to Drymen

Total distance: 18.93 km
Start time: 10:26; End time: 18:00
Time spent actually walking: 4 h 50 mins
Time stopped: 2 h 50 mins

As expected, it is raining today, so we had a big equipment changeover. Antonia and I had been hiking in sandals up to this point, but we have switched to boots and full wet weather gear. It actually wasn't too bad - there were even moments when the sun came out and we wished we hadn't bothered so much. Then the clouds came back, it started to rain again, and we just wished we had more warm things. We also got a particularly late start because Mike was busy explaining to our hosts about grassroots militant internet sourcing for rural areas, then, just as we were about to leave, Antonia discovered a tick. We did make pretty good time once we got started, due to the bad weather and the absence of a pub at midday!

Apart from the rain, we had quite interesting walking over open ground, where the sun kindly came out in time for us to eat a picnic lunch. It started to rain again as we climbed a wooded pass, stopped while we sheltered underneath a railway line for tea and started again as we walked through a windswept valley round an ancient ruined priory with a graveyard. We were quite glad to arrive at our hostel, and even more pleased that it had a really good drying room. Having a packed lunch helped us make better time today, but although it's the first day Mike and I felt we had really healthy stomachs, our feet are definitely starting to get sore. Fortunately it is our short day tomorrow.

WHW Day 3 - Rowardennan to Inverarnan

Total distance: 21.22 km
Start time: 8:45; End time: 19:50
Time spent actually walking: 5 h 15 mins
Time stopped: 5 h 40 mins

Today we excelled all previous records by spending more time stopped than walking according to the gps. Not that it was particularly hard walking, we just spent a long time hanging around in the pub at lunch time, then looking for Rob Roy's cave, then sitting on beaches. We missed the 'low road' along Loch Lomond, so we ended up with a quick and easy forest track straight into Inversnaid. By lunch time we'd made pretty good time. Our first mistake was stopping for lunch for about two and a half hours. Our second mistake was hanging around looking for Rob Roy's cave! The 3rd quarter of the walk was a bit scrambly, but not nearly as bad as advertised in the book, and the last quarter was easy as well. But it's upsetting to arrive so late, because you don't have time to relax. We're having dinner without getting washed, because we decided to have dinner instead! We're in the Drover's Inn, which is filled with stuffed animals, including a bear. It's also full of our usual crowd of hikers. Mike ordered vegetarian haggis, which tasted almost like the real thing. One of the interesting things about this trip is watching Antonia get outside at least two large meals per day (not counting snacks)! She isn't usually a big eater.

The weather was really fine and still today. It brought the midges out, but they weren't a nuisance if you keep moving (not sure how we managed to avoid them). It's supposed to rain tomorrow and as we climbed up out of Loch Lomond, the sun was misting over, and I could smell rain on the air. I wonder if it will materialise. After walking for a day and a half along Loch Lomond, it felt strange to leave it behind. It's really incredibly picturesque, not just for the views over the lake but for the woodlands as well.

WHW Day 2 - Drymen to Rowardennan

Total distance: 23.34 km
Start time: 9:15; End time: 19:30
Time spent actually walking: 6 h 59 mins
Time stopped: 3 h 4 mins

Today was a lot more exhausting than yesterday, even though it was just a tiny bit further. It was also a lot more beautiful. Maybe it was the long climb up through the conifer plantations to conic hill that did it? We had lovely views over Loch Lomond and its islands from up there. We made it to Balmaha for lunch by about 2:00 pm and that food also turned out be very good, the best meal so far. Mike and I have fallen into the routine of sharing a meal between us. It's kind of tedious having to negotiate each time, and it takes some of the fun out of eating out, but at least its the right amount of food. I learned some interesting things in the pub about the allegedly superfast evolution of arctic char after they got stuck in the Scottish lochs at the end of the ice age. I never really thought of lakes as being like islands for freshwater animals, but I can see how they could work like that and encourage diversification. The weather took advantage of our lunch interval to get its raining over and done with.

Apart from that, our Scottish weather has been more sunny than not, but rather melodramatic and occasionally ominous. In the afternoon, we walked along the Loch, up and down, up and down, and before we even knew it it was past 6.00 pm. I had an attack of whatever stomach bug Mike picked up in Paris, Antonia had a headache and sore feet and we pretty much limped along the last stage. We stopped at Rowardennan Hotel for dinner where Mike and I were able to bask in a bit of reflected glory from the acclaim that was really meant for Antonia. On the WHW, you pretty much see the same people time and again, so we are starting to know our crowd. After dinner, we walked another half mile along the road to the youth hostel in the freezing cold wind. We've got a nice room though and right now I'm planning to sleep in it.

WHW Day 1 - Milngavie to Drymen

Total distance: 20.26 km
Start time: 9:15; End time: 17:45
Time spent actually walking: 5 h 27 mins
Time stopped: 3 h 2 mins

We had a lovely day, walking just over 22 km (12 miles?) from Milngavie to Drymen. It was the best imaginable weather through surprisingly flat, but quite varied country. We had woods, a small loch, and a hilly passage before walking along a disused railway track to the pub where we were having lunch. In the afternoon, it seemed that we mostly walked a long a covered pipe bringing water from Loch Lomond, then through country lanes to Drymen. We stopped for tea at a disused sand quarry with nice views over Loch Lomond. This is a really nice time of year in Scotland because it feels like the earlier part of sping. There are wild irises, bluebells, rhodedendron and hawthorn flowers dropping their petals everywhere like confetti. The walk was really a breeze and even Antonia was hardly tired at all at the end. In fact, she was running round and round in circles in the garden of the bed and breakfast.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


Glasgow looks like a nice city, but like most northern cities, it's a bit wet and grim in the drizzle. It's also a bit dead before 10.00 am, which is when things start opening. I was really keen to visit some of the places described in Rob Roy, since I was reading it obsessively just a couple of weeks ago. However, of my two 'colleagues', one was sick and the other was tired, so things were a bit tricky for me. I managed to find the cathedral and necropolis, but they backed and filled at the idea of being out in the rain amongst tombs. I was a bit disappointed because I haven't seen anything quite like the Necropolis since I was at Pompeii. The Romans were known for building real cities of the dead outside the cities of the living, and this is a similar type of place. I later managed to get a drawing of its skyline at a museum and learned that it was opened in 1833, and specially designed to limit the risk of infection from cholera and typhoid. Since our recent visit to the catacombs of Paris, I'm starting to build up a picture of a crisis in management of dead people in the early 19th century, involving overcrowding and infection from existing resources. It's a little remembered story now, and I think there is also a religious aspect: cremation would not have appeared acceptable to most Christians two centuries ago, but it has come to solve what would otherwise be a worse problem in our times.

We visited the cathedral which out to be my favourite type of church - all mixture of styles from medieval to modern and lots of hidden spaces. I found the crypt where Rob Roy arranged his meeting secretly with Frank. It looks far too small and brightly lit for the purpose now, but as Antonia pointed out, churches used to be lit by candles. After that we went to the museum of religious life and art which was surprisingly good. For non-British readers, I should explain that religious education is compulsory in British schools, but it often takes the form of an education in world religions. This museum appeared to be designed to fulfill that role for the local schools with art and artefacts from many religions of the world, arranged by theme and culture. School groups studied a contemporary painting and Antonia analysed the contents of the Seder plate and drew a Sikh symbol. Meanwhile, I got my sketch of the Necropolis.

Next, we went to the museum of modern art. It's a very nice building, but we weren't much taken by any of the current exhibits. We went and had lunch in a pseudo-French brasserie opposite and studied its architecture instead. That is to say, Antonia and I had lunch while poor Mike just watched us. There were a whole bunch of other museums and sites it would have been fun to see, but it seemed wise to head for our hotel and get some rest before starting the WHW the next day.

The Testing Trip

As I mentioned earlier, Mike got sick in Paris just before we left on our long journey to the start of the West Highland Way. We are now in Milngavie, expecting to start hiking tomorrow and he is still no better. At any rate, he nearly passed out carrying his stuff to the hotel, which does not bode well. He has been trying quite hard not to whine, as he navigated London and Glasgow like something out of a B movie about zombies. He has been feeding himself varying amounts of food off my plate, depending on how much he decides he can cope with. As for me, I did seem to catch it from him, but it's affecting me much less and I usually manage to walk it off. I am not passing out or stopping eating, or anything like that. Antonia is very tired as would be expected, and her wasp sting has gone away to be replaced by an impending eye infection. Let's hope she fends that off too.

I really enjoyed our train ride to Glasgow. The worst part was waiting in the station in Euston, where Mike somehow nearly got into a fight with a really strange guy and Antonia fell asleep in my arms at least an hour before the train was ready for us. The Caledonian Sleeper is one of the cosiest night trains I've ever taken and actually one of the cheapest with the bargain berth tickets. I slept well and was awake at 5:30 am looking for the moment we passed the Scottish border on the gps. It seemed as if the landscape got wilder almost immediately as we climbed up into the southern uplands. It was all grey becks, looming clouds and swollen green hills. Of course, it was raining.

We had a slightly chaotic arrival in Glasgow with a couple of zombies (Mike and Antonia) and our luggage scattered all around. All I remember now is that Antonia and I ended up pulling our socks and shoes on on the platform instead of in the train. Then we began the very important search for breakfast and coffee (except for Mike who can't face anything).

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

London Zoo

After getting up at 5am British time, taking a bus, then a plane, then a train, then the London Underground, we made it from Grenoble to Euston station by midday. We played an amusing game called 'condense your multiple suitcases into one big one' at the left luggage office, so that we would only have to pay one exorbitant fee. After that, Mike went off to a friends to recover and Antonia and I went to London Zoo. Quite an expensive afternoon, but as usual it was fascinating and there is far more to see than we could possibly manage. We saw two shows, drew lots of animals in the reptile house, and photographed lots of animals in the aquarium. We are not so much into the big animals in this family (except aardvarks and komodo dragons).

Actually what was really interesting us on this trip was the interaction between the animals and the zoo environment. Antonia likes searching for the frogs and snakes in their tanks. I liked looking at the cross-sectional poster of the aquarium and realising that I was standing on top of huge tanks of water - and realising that yes, a huge amount of technology and specialist knowledge goes into maintaing these animals.

It's interesting when things don't quite work out the way the zoo would have liked. At the penguin feeding display, they would like to show us penguin feeding behaviours, including the penguin chick who is supposed to be learning to take food from the keeper, but prefers to beg or steal from other adults. I think I know who is setting him a bad example. Three or four herons had flown in from Regents Park on schedule for the feeding. There is an overhead electrified wire but it didn't seem to stop them. Still, after eating himself silly, one of them must have forgotten about it. He flew into it and crashlanded in a heap on the far side of the penguin pond. It took him awhile to pull himself together again.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Bad Beginning

In general I don't think people blog much about bad days, things going wrong, etc. I can tell you why, it's because they don't have time. I decided to make some time anyway.

Our story starts with us looking forward to a holiday in Scotland which we began planning nine months ago, involving some much needed hiking along the West Highland Way. All should be going like clockwork, because I began planning and booking (mostly) before accommodation started running out. I was extra pleased that we managed to arrange to have our house painted while we were gone, even though it meant emptying our bedrooms and bathroom and packing, all pretty much on the last day. That's a lot of work.

Then it turned out that against my will and better judgement Mike had to take Antonia to Paris 2 days before the start of the trip to see some relatives who couldn't possibly come down to us because a) they don't like mountains and b) it just wasn't convenient for them, but they were damn well going to throw a tantrum if they didn't see her. So off he went with her, leaving at 4.30 am and returning at midnight.

I must admit, my main fear was that she would be exhausted. I didn't anticipate that he would get food poisoning/gastric flu (diagnosis pending). So on the last day before our trip, with my intended teammate basically unable to remain vertical, I canned all the activities designed to enhance my comfort and wellbeing (such as getting my hair neatened up) and focused on the essentials.

As I was working on the string of endless tasks I hadn't time for I remembered that Antonia had a dance class that evening. Suddenly even the essentials were compromised and I was left with a choice between leaving clean or leaving adequately rested. I've chosen leaving clean, so to hell with sleeping, I might as well blog!

Anyway, I was sort of coping under the strain when said relatives, you know, the ones who just have to see Antonia, but at their convenience, not ours, suddenly remembered that the day they had picked to tear my husband and daughter away and wreak havoc in our lives was my wedding anniversary. I had very sensibly forgotten and when they reminded me of it with an email, it did nothing for my composure.

Now, if it seemed like things couldn't possbly get any worse, what happens at 8.00pm but that Antonia gets stung by a wasp that accidentally flew into her sandal. Fortunately, she's not allergic, but it's in a sensitive place for someone who's supposed to be walking 20km a day starting very soon. I'm watching the pink, swollen patch nervously.

Also, Mike has a fever, which suggests something infectious that can last a fortnight and which we can all catch. I'm feeling a bit woozy myself, but I'm hoping it's just exhaustion. Tomorrow, before 7 am, we leave for what is basically 36 hours of traveling without a place to rest our heads. Then we start the hike. Maybe...