Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Helensburgh. A Date With Storm Ciara.

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While I wouldn't normally be excited to visit a 7th century middle aged Irish abbess this particular Ciara was an Atlantic storm, predicted to hit landfall over Ireland and the UK, bringing strong winds and gusts approaching 90 miles an hour with flooding likely due to high spring tides. (Spring is in early February now?!!! Who knew!!!) A Celtic cross in Helensburgh, above.
As this popular seaside town wasn't too far away, a half hours drive in the car from my house in Glasgow, I decided it was worth checking out. I hadn't been to the coastal resorts during a big storm for a few years now so I fancied a return visit. Ciara- pronounced Keira, as in the English version, is still a popular girl's name in Ireland along with a host of other Irish names for men and women in Gaelige (Irish Gaelic) usually hard to spell and even harder to pronounce as they often have little in common in speech version with the letters written down on a page. So you got off very lightly with Cee- ah-rah.  For instance- Irish singer Enya's real full name is Eithne Padraigin Ni Bhraonain and I'm not going to make any attempt to pronounce that phonetically. It's got to come from a Gaelic speaker to sound authentic and natural anyway.
I'm pleased to report Helensburgh got off fairly lightly as well although some of the seafront gardens took a drenching. Being normally a sheltered location within a sea loch, a finger of the Clyde estuary, it's not as exposed as the Ayrshire coastal towns and nothing compared to the west coast of Ireland, open to the full power of the Atlantic storms across a wide ocean- large impressive swells hitting the cliffs there even in calm weather. Flooded spring primulas here but it's rainwater inland so they should survive the moat treatment.
When I arrived at the car park in Helensburgh it was to find parking places already limited, quite a few cars stranded but luckily on a slightly raised platform of dry ground with a foot of water in between to reach the road. Most folk caught out just left their cars where they were rather than risk a deep water traverse but a few brave souls, with suitable all terrain vehicles got out. (The waters did subside when the tide turned.)
A vehicle with a high undercarriage makes an escape.
Not wanting my car to get soaked in salt spray, which is very corrosive, I parked well away from the water on a dry area. Even getting to the toilets was problematic though, the entry door washed with waves and seaweed, but luckily an upward fight of three steps inside stopped any flooding further into the interior. I came fully dressed in boots, waterproofs, and hat so this was easy for me. A coastal storm veteran of many decades experience.
Having crawled up dozens of summits in high winds in my hill-walking days I've also got no problem standing knee deep in the sea or getting wet with spray as long as its safe and a good photo opportunity. As you can see from this photo though you have to be very wary of thrown pebbles and seaweed  in the waves as they can get flung with some force a considerable distance inland.

Check out the size of the stones lying on the grass attached to the seaweed in the above photo. Apart from any damage on land many tiny sea creatures must die or loose habitat during these storms.

Having checked the tide times earlier I arrived just as the best action was starting, at maximum high tide, around a five metre rise in total with winds increasing. Helensburgh seafront here.

At its worst/finest a magnificent display of power where land meets sea, driven against the coastline by 60 to 80 mile an hour gusts on this occasion. Spray dancing 30 feet in the air and landing 100 feet inland. When it reaches 90 to 100 miles an hour and gets hard to keep still in one place or stand up I have been known to tie myself to railings or lamp posts to take steady photographs. I take my hobby seriously... and enjoy the challenge.
Luckily, I didn't see too many signs of major storm damage here although England, being heavily populated, with houses near rivers and flood plains, experienced the usual winter floods that are more frequent there now. Australia and other hot desert countries burn up in summer while our lands in winter get stronger floods, wilder storms, and longer rainfall. Pity we couldn't pipe it across to each other- swapping some sunshine and heat for fresh water.  Incidentally, there are still many folk around the world who do not believe in climate change but they are probably people who are not Scottish hill-walkers. Being out on the winter Munro's every other week for years we knew something wasn't right with the weather way back in the early 1990s-....30 years ago now...., as the snow on the mountains, started to change then. Unlike the arctic regions winter in Scotland occurs or does not occur within a few degrees... doesn't require 20 below to be winter here. Two degrees can effect it dramatically on the mountains so a natural early warning alarm call. Before the 1990s we had ten years of reliable hard snow and ice cover where we walked with crampons on from December to April. You needed them most weekends. After that period the snows either melted fast or disappeared altogether, same as today, usually a wading job after heavy falls, yet it's only now people are beginning to take it seriously. It's certainly not a new thing but there's now a sudden panic and realization as if it's just been discovered yesterday that we are in trouble. Same with plastic in the oceans- been noticing that on the beaches since the 1970s so there's a mild feeling of  hypocrisy/ where the **** were you? What have you been looking at? Not towards the scientists as they've always been predicting it, or today's children, but towards the general mass of population and governments. They should have been seriously tackling it 30 years ago but whatever happens now it's going to be unpopular as huge change to lifestyles and a brake on rampant consumerism  has to take place. The problem is... practically everything we do at the moment.... is unsustainable :o)
It doesn't take much to be happy...and sustainable.... and you can have a reasonably good standard of life with a lot less... I already do that to a large degree..through natural inclination and poverty.... always a good curb on spending habits....a carbon pinkie print on the planet..... but our entire economy and wealth at the moment depends on everyone buying stuff they do not really need. And if we all stop buying stuff  we don't need.... voluntarily.... other countries will just get ahead in our place. A frantic race to nowhere for all concerned.
Big seas on the Scottish coast. Troubled times ahead.
At maximum high tide the main Helensburgh coastal road became flooded slightly with cars having to drive through the spray.
It also got very dark and overcast but luckily it didn't rain. Always a bonus in a storm.
Flooded coastal road.
A slight miscalculation on my part saw me taking a photo from inside a wave spray instead of beside one. Which is why I wear full waterproofs. Gave me a good wash anyway.
Helensburgh's monument and seafront promenade.
A distance view. At low tide in summer a good walk can be had here along the coast on the sands.
Main pedestrian square in Helensburgh. A nice coastal town to visit in better weather with plenty of local independent shops, arts and crafts, seafront walks, and places of interest. Worth a visit.
Flooded play area. Soon dry out though.
Other than that I could not see much damage to infrastructure so hopefully it was only a cleanup operation with a fresh tourist season approaching in the coming months. Helensburgh and Lomond Civic Centre here, above.
Unusual raised face sticking out from the civic centre building. Enjoyed my date with Ciara.




















Thursday, 6 February 2020

A Bothy Trip with a Difference. A Lesson in Complacency.

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A bothy trip with a couple of old friends was planned a few weeks ago so after deciding which one to visit we motored up to the Central Highland District of Scotland on Friday evening, intending to walk the 8km ( 5miles) over the moors in the dark. It was a very dark night, no moon or stars, and pitch black- the total darkness of an underground tunnel. Normally you can see something of the landscape around you, even if dimly perceived, like the edge of a wood, the vague shape of the surrounding hills, or a large water feature but on this occasion it was  really dark. Probably due to an already featureless landscape and zero habitation glow with no city, town or village lights anywhere within 30 miles.
We have walked into dozens of bothies at night in the dark over the decades and rarely had a problem but on this occasion I experienced something unusual that turned it from a straightforward trudge into something approaching a mini adventure. Normally, if it's a night time walk we pick a bothy with a track to follow to make it easier. We had all been to this one before, years ago, and although remote, set in the middle of largely featureless boggy vastness, a land rover track made the walk in fairly uneventful most of the way. We were aware there was a pathless gap of two km across the bog however to reach a river crossing but we were confident this would be easy to find as well.
This is a view of the same area in daylight. It was no problem in daylight on our way back out to the car finding our way through the swamps without difficulty but heading in was a different matter. When we left the land rover track I took the lead position in front with confidence, forging ahead to find the best way through the boggy mire but heavy snow in this area followed by a recent rapid thaw had turned most of the ground mushy. Normally in Scotland, in mud and peat hags, you might sink up to your knees but no further but on this particular occasion I suddenly found myself in a deep muddy swamp. Not like the lochan above, which would have been obvious to avoid, even in the dark or frozen, but on supposedly solid ground that had loads of thick tussocks sticking up but a layer of frozen ice between them. Normally, this might be about knee deep if unlucky but after a months worth a rain, a dump of heavy snow, then a rapid thaw, I suddenly found myself crashing through the ice into thigh deep bog with a sucking mud base. If I moved a step in any direction it was almost waist deep and sticky, as the ice failed to hold my weight. It was not a lochan I'd wandered into- just a patch of bog- but far more saturated than anything else I've encountered in Scotland. After the initial shock I managed to take off my heavy overnight rucksack and push it in front of me across the ice then crawl after it... as separated like this the ice did bear our weight.
By the time I had managed to extract myself I was also separated from my two companions, and due to being in a dip or hollow I could not see their torches anymore. I was also soaking from the waist down and boy was that water cold. This is a daylight view of roughly the same terrain. Looks solid doesn't it? Imagine it in the pitch black and myself wondering if my head torch would stay on as that went under the water as well. And this is where the complacency kicks in. For a start I did not have a back up torch if this one failed and when I dug out my compass it had a very large bubble within it, rendering it unreliable. ( I must have damaged it when I shoved the bag of coal into my rucksack, pushing it down to fit, cracking the plastic inners.)
It had taken me at least five minutes to get free of the bog and I was now unsure of direction so I got out my map and had a think. Luckily, I was experienced  enough to consider things rationally and was still confident I could find the bothy, even without a compass or the others- who had forged on ahead, helped by a GPS. That's cheating!!!!. ( in the various clubs I've been in over the years it's not unusual to walk alone for a spell, especially on backpacking trips, or going up and down a hill, finding your own way, but this was a first for a night time walk when we usually stick together.)
At this point a weird thing happened. Just when I thought I was completely alone in the darkness of the eternal abyss a tiny light appeared from another head torch in the distance so I shouldered my pack and set off towards it. " They must have waited for me after all." I thought. "Happy days."
It was only one lone head torch however bobbing around and the longer I followed it the more I realized it was leading me in the wrong direction, down towards the main large loch in the district.( the western end of it just visible above.)
When it suddenly winked off I'd already worked out it must be someone else. Either a local gamekeeper, fish bailiff, or estate worker or another hill and bothy lover. I also realized if it was an estate worker they might have a rifle with them as part of their job so maybe not a good idea to chase after them any further. I got out my map again and had a rethink.
The best way now to find the bothy I decided was to go slightly downhill, away from the head torch stranger, until I reached the western edge of the loch then follow the river flowing into it upstream until I reached the bridge across it. Easy landmarks to find in the dark and follow without needing a compass.... or even a torch if it stopped working with the insides now soaked....so I did that. You can see the ground I covered in the above photo. It felt far longer than it looks with a feeble torch as the batteries could have been newer but I thought I'd wear them out on this trip then replace them. I did have a spare set in the rucksack but changing them over in complete darkness might prove problematic so I did not want to attempt it unless necessary. An hour or so later John and Gavin came out belatedly, to find me, but by that time I was very near the bothy anyway- still confident I would reach it and over the bridge... it just took longer than expected.... and a few more kilometers in the dark. ( back in Glasgow I bought a new head torch and compass right away as it could have been more unpleasant and serious if my torch failed completely, although I would still have reached the bothy, just far later again, so I now have a back up torch just in case. A wake up call for me. Never rely on others too much.... although by nature  I usually am the independent type anyway  Probably never need it but a definite lesson in complacency on my part as my torch could have been better over rough ground and swamps giving me a fighting chance of a straight line traverse over a challenging up and down landscape and my new one is far brighter with a longer beam.
Anyway, the bothy, when I eventually reached it, was a comforting sight.  The first room was a bit basic... but I've slept in worse...
The next room was a step up in class. It had a fireplace... and a stone floor.
But the third room was the winner.... like the engine room in Snowpiercer,  a cheery coal fire.... a few items of furniture... like a table, two benches and some chairs. All the comforts of home.
Although I enjoy bothies at the best of times... this one was extra special due to the increased effort and uncertainty on the way in. Instead of putting me off it elevated the experience tremendously and I was buzzing with energy, staying up until 3:00am drying off my trousers and socks long after the others went to bed.
It also made me think about the fire and humans... and a 10,000 plus years connection with it. These photos are unaltered to show you that you really do see images or visions in the flames. The first one looks like a dancing chicken... the one below a sinister hooded figure, coming in on the right. Think of the thousands of tribes sat round a night time fire in various countries- the darkness beyond filled with very real predators and unseen mythical demons. In a fire you have ever changing paintings, imagination stimulation, a truth meter, and a mind enhancer all in one go. Before the TV, films, and the Internet it was the nightly fire that entertained the masses sitting around it- the original birthplace/meaning of community- and I can honestly say I've never been bored staring into the flames. Dragons, goblins, monsters, wizards, witches... all have their origins here.
Fire is a living creature... a comforting friend, like this, in a bothy.... or a raging monster in an out of control inferno... (the partial origin of the dragon myth perhaps,  a great beast, ravaging the land.) Like a friendship it needs to be tended....to be watched... otherwise it goes out. Feed it and it rewards you with heat and pleasure. A modern, steady gas flame fire is not quite the same. You need the impurities in the coal and wood to get the visions and images, the crackles and sparks. A perfect fish head above. No trickery involved. Just the flames at work.
The Dawn of Humanity. What this complex image conjured up to me anyway. The magic of the flames. In 20 years of the visual internet it has changed peoples outlook and general mentality a great deal- a major influence on the human race already....but think of what flame pictures and imagination combined have achieved and created over many thousands of years. The humble fire may well have been humanity's greatest creative influence and partner in otherwise hard brutal lives. Beowulf to Burns ...Baudelaire to Byron....vampire to werewolf... it all started here... gazing into the flames and telling stories to each other of the savage monsters or mysterious wonders lurking outside the door.
A few flickering candles complete the scene.
The bothy in daylight.
The water world of bog, moor and deep rivers on the journey back out, all ice and snow now melted away.
John and Gavin walking out.
Rain starting. A wet Gavin on the land rover track.
Reaching the car. Raining again in what has been a very mild, wet winter so far. But a cracking bothy trip. Made even more enjoyable by a waist deep struggle to survive in a half frozen swamp.


















Friday, 31 January 2020

Newhaven. Platinum Point. Western Breakwater. A Light at the end of the World.

After our visit to Leith then the mural wall our next stop was Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre.
Ocean Point Building. Always something of interest in this vicinity here as well... and not just shopping. A short sea front walk around the harbour, shipping and the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Queen's old ship which is now retired and permanently berthed here.
When you are on board this ship the royal quarters do not seem that large, small modest rooms and very dated looking now, 60 years later (the glass partition area mainly.) The rest of the ship is taken up with crew quarters, food and supplies, living and laundry rooms. ( On tour in warm countries the Royal Family had to change clothes five or six times a day. Not good if on official visits you are seen to be soaking with sweat which is a natural reaction in hot humid climates.) Although a supposed privilege to serve on the Royal Yacht crew quarters seemed tiny to me as well and I'd imagine you would have to be on your best behaviour at all times. But apparently the Royal Family, and especially the Queen, loved their holidays aboard, often touring remote Scottish islands, where they could relax, apart from maybe Princess Diana, a new recruit to the firm then, (and I think on her honeymoon) who had to be on her best behaviour. Mind you, not many teenagers/twenty somethings full of high spirits, would appreciate a sedate cruise, with or without the in-laws.
A large ship when you realise it's the equivalent of the family car. You can't really see the outside properly when exploring it so this is a view from the Western Harbour. The small craft in front is presumably to enter places, shallow harbours, islands, etc where the Britannia could not go. Of course, if you can't afford this lifestyle you can have as much fun and adventure sightseeing with a £40 tent and backpack. Probably more fun and adventure.
The inside of Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. Handy for the toilets in this vicinity.
The outside of O.T.S.C. and a rainbow bus.
Ocean View Flats. These remind me of the old 1980s Darnley estate close to where I grew up. A deck access playground of open corridors, stairwells, and connecting hi level pedestrian walkways between the various buildings . Lessons have been learned since then however and this is not so open of access, unless you live in them and have a reason for being there.
The other side of the estate.
This area has been redeveloped with new housing stock in a range of different styles. Each individual complex within its own environment is a mini high rise separate city state in its own right. A land of mini kingdoms if you will instead of the vast uniform council estates of old in Scotland where long straight rows of identical tenements prevailed.
Instead this is a smorgasbord of architecture.  I really like it...to look at anyway.... Anne less so. But it was all new to her so she did enjoy it.
"You're right." She commented. " They do love round towers in Edinburgh."
"Yup." says I. "and in a wide range of different styles."
The crowning glory of this area though for me is the West Breakwater and Platinum Point. The kingdom by the sea.
" It's like the Emerald City in Oz." I explained.  "A high rise confection rising from a flat plain, isolated and special. Completely unique."
"You've got this modern development dropped down on the very edge of the coast with the Port of Leith's West Breakwater made of large 100 year old blocks that will probably last centuries." I elaborated further.  "Stuck next to Egypt's pyramids they'd probably last thousands of years in a desert environment if the sea didn't hit them here. Stone immortality." I said this as we walked along said breakwater, hoping to transfer some of the magic I felt  the first time I came here almost 20 years ago.

"What a place." "It's unusual." She admitted. "Where's the Munchkins then?"

"Ah, you saw them earlier, Dorothy, my guest of honour. Don't you remember?"
" I do remember that. But that's cheating."
" Anything for a story." Says I. "Do you think that's a radio operator for a ship?"
"Could be,"


" It's the nearest I'll get to an Emerald City."
"Not visiting Dublin then?"
On cue our sunset arrived.
Forth Road and Rail Bridges. " Come on- that's pretty special."
" Not too bad." She conceded.
"You are a very hard lady to please."
We then walked to the far end of the breakwater where an abandoned and lonely feeling lighthouse sits. Imagine two arms hugging and sheltering a large basin (The Port of Leith- still the largest enclosed deep water port in Scotland) then imagine us walking out to the fingertips.
"This is a remote spot." she admitted when we arrived, taking my favourite circular tour under the stilts supporting this structure where the sea, at high tide, laps the pillars.
" Yep. It does have a very desolate atmosphere about it." Anne declared.  "A sort of post apocalyptic shabby chic." she joked. "I would not like to be here myself. It doesn't feel like Edinburgh somehow."
"It might be a portal between two worlds." This from me, adding to the atmosphere... no-one else in sight on either long breakwater arm, with a watery entrance channel preventing the fingertips from touching each other . " Not many folk make it out to here. Least visited location in the city, maybe." I guessed.
" Not my idea of a des res unfortunately." she offered, weaving between the pillars and avoiding the slippy seaweed. Right! We're done. Tides coming in. "
Look, The sea has bubble fingers. Five digits. Shake it's mighty hand. It's pleased to see you."
"No thanks.  It's going to be dark soon wicked witch and I want to go there next. " She pointed away.
In the distance we could see Calton Hill with its monuments. " I've never been up there at night but I've seen Sunshine on Leith recently and it looks good. Let's go."
So we did, jumping on a local bus and arriving 15 minutes later under Calton Hill.
Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh from Calton Hill.
" Now this is much better than a lighthouse at the end of the world." Anne declared. "Let the party begin!"
Fine words... but when we did eventually get the bus back to Glasgow she ended up sleeping all the way, city to city, while I read a book in contented silence in the darkness of the journey, with my little personal star above the only awake and vigilant companion, shining down on the pages.
The end.