Saturday, 6 February 2016

Sgurr Dhomhnuill. 2913 feet. Corran Ferry. Ardgour. Snow photos.An epic day out.

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Alex and John had a plan. Having finished the Munros (3000 foot and over Scottish mountains) and moved onto collecting Corbetts (2500 foot to 3000 foot mountains) they had their collective eye on Sgurr Dhomhuill, at 2913 feet or 873 metres.
As this lay in the wilds of Ardgour, one of the emptiest and least frequented areas of Scotland (due to having zero Munros of course and sitting apart from the usual tourist trails) it required an early start.
4:30 am in my case when my alarm went off in a freezing bedroom.
A full moon was out in Glasgow as I scraped frost off my car windscreen at minus 5 below. No snow in the city but plenty of ice on the pavements. Thankfully, the main roads had been gritted. I motored over to John's house where we picked up Alex as well in the darkness of a suburban street. Alex offered to drive as his car is economical petrol wise.  By the time we arrived at the Corran ferry, seen above, the gateway to Sunart and Ardgour it was just getting light. This area sits on a peninsula just south of Fort William and Britain's highest mountain- Ben Cartwright. (Just as well he lived in the Nevada desert or there would be snow on that cowboy hat year round.)
I was wishing I was on the sun soaked Bonanza ranch as well by this point as the thought of getting out the car and trudging up a remote highland glen for 12 km there and back was now a somewhat unappealing prospect. Although clear starry skies had sparkled back in Glasgow it was grey, dull and claggy over the mountains. Personally, I thought it was a tad ambitious to attempt the highest mountain in Ardgour in late January with the possibility of heavy snow as these remote hills are a tough proposition in good summer conditions.Baggers are always keen and optimistic though.

Once over the ferry we motored across to Strontian then up a minor side road beside the Strontian River where there is a car park. As its dark by 4:00pm at this time of year Alex and John set off at a blistering pace so they would not be benighted on the mountain coming off. I tagged along but when it started to snow heavily and the views got even worse my enthusiasm waned alarmingly. It's always been low in crap weather and soars like an eagle in sunshine. I don't mind bad weather outside at work if I'm getting paid for it but my free time on this earth is too precious to waste wandering around in the mist.
Even Alex looked less keen when we spotted our first glimpse of the mountain, mostly invisible under grey clag. (Gloomy, oppressive damp mountain murk that can soak you without actually raining)
As it continued to snow on and off I bailed out at this point. When it was mentioned as a trip I had a strong feeling I'd climbed this hill in the past but not making a note of my Corbett's on a saved list I couldn't remember who I did it with 20 odd years ago.
I waved goodbye to the plucky pair as they crossed the stream then headed up to the long undulating ridge-line of the Druim Leac a' Sgiathain. Even after negotiating that they had to get past Sgurr na h-ighinn at 2492 feet before reaching the mighty slopes of Sgurr Dhomhnuill. Given the poor conditions it was a ridge too far for me and I picked a nature ramble through the ancient oak woods of Ariundle instead as that was on the way back to the car. I also had a small blister from a previous solo walk  and didn't want to enlarge it without any major reward at the end of it.
This purpose built trail was mainly on wooden board walks through the forest and would be nice in spring or summer. Being winter and snowing steadily by now all I observed was a wren, a raven, a faraway jay then a dipper in the river. The trail followed the banks of the Strontian River for a few miles with the option of entering the village or returning to the car. I opted for the latter as I had the keys and a good book, food and juice on hand to entertain myself. "Itch" by Simon Mayo. Review here. Excellent read.
A modern classic about a Schoolboy element hunter and his adventures. An unusual subject but written with great boy's own adventure breakneck speed and witty dialogue that deserves massive acclaim. A cracker of a page turner that most folk would love and find interesting. Spookily appropriate too given that Stronian was where this particular element in the periodic tables was discovered.
The Strontian River. Lucky for me I had a good book and Alex's car keys  as it continued snowing for the next few hours and as darkness fell I thought about driving up to meet them but worried about getting stuck on the snow covered dead end track as I hadn't seen many suitable passing places to turn around without a slope involved. Being influenced by the gulf stream we don't usually get enough snow at low levels in Scotland to justify snow chains unless you have oodles of money as most years nowadays they would just lie unused in the boot unless you do a lot of highland tracks. The main roads are normally gritted.
Eventually they returned just as I was entertaining the notion of posting them "missing in action."
(This is a photo taken in the morning of the walk in along the minor road)

Oh, I almost forgot to mention Alex and John were defeated in their noble quest, having to turn back through complete exhaustion after miles of knee deep snow, strong winds and occasional drifts. They were only a few hundred feet from the summit but ran out of energy and daylight and were worried about saving enough remaining strength for the return. Here's a zoom of the summit. So glad I turned back earlier as my heart was not in it that day. It never is in rubbish weather :o)
John said it was one of the hardest winter trips he's done. Alex was too knackered to say anything much.This is the prize above. A summer trip methinks to bag it now.
The return on the Corran ferry was in the pitch dark and the young girl collecting our money out on the freezing car deck with a howling wind reminded me once again why I'm glad I don't live and work in the highlands. It's grim up north. She seemed happy though.
Our intention was to visit and stay in the Steall Hut overnight, a mountaineering abode under Ben Nevis  reached by a single track road, then a narrow walking gorge to the hut but we didn't get very far. On the first hill into the hut we slid back down and decided to cut our losses at that point as it was too dangerous to continue. (we heard later from our club that the ones who reached this hut earlier had no hot water, lights or heating  so it was just like a stone freezer for two nights of our stay and they had problems getting out themselves. Despite being young and fit they never got up any summits either due to deep snow and dangerous conditions.Some had to walk the full length of the minor road to get back out again.
After a spot of snow shoveling and a turnabout with the car we decided to return home to Glasgow where the snow had been falling all day.
We arrived back in the city around 11:30pm after an 18 hour round trip. Ironically, I was in my element now energized... so I proceeded to take some city snow photos.
Clyde Tunnel area between Cardonald and Govan. Main roads gritted, side streets covered in icy snow.
The road to sunny Govan. This snow, the first of winter at low levels, didn't last long and it was soon back to rain, grey skies and storms battering the coast. Wildlife can handle heavy snow as they are adapted to it and live under this protective covering. They can't thrive however in recent winters with daily rain and flooding being the new norm.The world population currently grows at over 10,000 people every hour. In Cleopatra's day it was around 300 million and the Romans killed thousands of lions,bears, bulls, buffalo, horses,and anything else that would provide entertainment in the "games."  By the early 1800s it reached one billion but only after seven million years of human development. Now it tops 7 billion a mere 200 years later and is still rising. The truth is there is no room left for animals in the wild at our current rate of growth, only humans.

And I believe in this next article/statement 100 percent. We are all being conned and taken for a ride like the idiots we are.When are we going to wake up?

 On a happier note here's an excellent video of a tour round the Scottish Outer Isles by a German team of rock climbers hiring a sailing boat but it's as much a travel document, wildlife, and sailing trip for those not interested in climbing and well worth a watch full screen. Commentary is in English and features great camera work of amazing places. Years ago we used to do stuff like this on a tight budget ourselves, climbing sea cliff's from Skye to Cornwall in summer when work allowed, albeit at an easier grade than this.
P.S. weather as good as this is a rare occurrence in Scotland.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Gifford.Yester Castle. Goblin Ha'. Hopetoun Monument. Garleton Hills. Ormiston.

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On a lovely sunny morning in October 2015, a golden autumn which seems like a dream now after three months of almost continuous storms, flooding and rain, a group of us set off early to explore the east coast around Edinburgh and Lothian. This is a distant view of Arthur's Seat, the ancient volcano in the heart of Edinburgh seen from Falside Hill above Wallyford.
We were here to see this fortified house marked on the OS map as a castle. A private abode so no entry. The fertile lands around Edinburgh and Lothian are very rich in history, mainly because the land is excellent for farming and the Scottish east coast in general has been settled and used to create great wealth over centuries. The West Coast may have the spectacular mountains, jagged terrain and twisting sea lochs but the east has always been the dry and warm bread basket of the country and many grand houses and ancient estates dot the landscape. I enjoy both areas and never turn down any opportunity to head east. Usually the sun is here as well which is another big bonus.
A view of Edinburgh from the east looking over at Musselburgh, Joppa, and Portobello Beach.
Our first destination of the morning was Gifford and as we had left Glasgow very early we arrived just in time for the shops to open and get a quick breakfast on the move. Gifford is a pretty little village but the reason we were here was to visit Yester Castle and the infamous but little known Goblin Ha', a sizable cavern under the foundations. It was reputed that the castle was occupied by a wizard and necromancer as detailed in this link.

A nice church at Gifford.
The ruins of the castle are not far away, hidden deep in a wooded gorge and beneath them sits the Goblin Ha', reputed to have been clawed and chewed out by an army of hobgoblins, raised by the castle's owner to do his bidding. What's not to like?
The entrance to the cavern, now closed off with iron bars.... in case the creatures escape presumably? Fortunately Graeme knew another way in...
A head chopping entrance into the castle. A common feature in this type of fortification to force intruders to crawl through, thus setting them up for the defenders using sharp sword or axe.
The entrance leading under the castle.Another low stoop into darkness.
Inside the main chamber. Some natural light from two iron barred windows which was just as well as all we had was the glow from two phones to get around. Graeme informed me there was also a flight of narrow stairs leading from this hall down into an underground bolt hole and well. At one time it may have been an escape route leading out into the gorge but was now blocked off and a dead end. No well either as that was long gone, without any maintenance. I'd stupidly left my torch behind at the car by accident and the stairway down was pitch black, uneven underfoot and rather creepy.
" I can't see a scooby. Hold on a minute. Don't be hasty here. " I squeaked as Graeme insisted on pushing me towards the entrance to the tunnel to let me enjoy the darkness fully.
"Get down there ya big Jessie." He encouraged, forcing me on.
Eventually I made it to the bottom with the aid of his mobile phone giving off a spooky half light. We held hands together in the Stygian gloom as we crept further along... then I discovered it wasn't his hand....
A creepy place indeed and we didn't linger long.
Back up top in the sunshine once again we made our way across in the car to the nearby Garleton Hills to climb the Hopetoun Monument. I'd never visited Yester Castle before but Graeme and Bob R had not been up the monument, which is left open sometimes. We were in luck and the spiral staircase was soon ascended for terrific views over Lothian. Alex was also with us.
The volcanic plug of North Berwick Law, with its whale bone arch on the summit.
A zoom of the Bass Rock, nesting season over for the gannets,but each spring it becomes the largest northern gannet colony in the world and a favourite of mine with an early rowing boat trip around its sheer sides described in my first book. Link here for that. £1:14pence for 500 pages with interesting trips all over Scotland and Europe.

A view of the monument. What a cracking day out east. You can climb right to the top and a torch is handy here as well though not essential equipment.
We then visited the tiny village of Athelstaneford where the Flag of Scotland was first seen during a reputed battle between rival armies. A common sight with aircraft jet trails crossing overhead now but this was in 832AD. Known as St Andrew's Cross as this saint was crucified on an X shaped cross not the usual Latin ones we are familiar with today.
Nice stained glass windows in the local church.
The village of Ormiston came next on our enjoyable and varied day trip out east. It's surprising how you always find nuggets of history everywhere, even in isolated corners.Sleepy little villages like this one may surprise you with a gem or two. This is a tribute to Robert Moffat who was born here. Father in law to David Livingstone and a pioneering missionary in Africa in his own right he was instrumental in helping Livingstone thrive in Africa and must have considered the younger man a suitable match for his daughter's hand.
In the same village is this old cross on the main street. A 15th century survivor, historian's have found the remains of" Jougs" and  "Branks" as it was a place of punishment. The first is an iron collar for chaining wrong doers onto so that all the community could witness their shame and the second was the infamous "witches or gossip's bridal." A lower iron cage meant to fully encase a female's head, with a metal plate (sometimes containing a spike) inserted into the mouth so that they could neither speak or throw curses at onlookers. Happily woman's lib has improved since then... which is very good news for Nicola Sturgeon,Ruth Davidson et al... in nearby Edinburgh.
And on that happy note we will end our tour of Lothian and return to civilized Glasgow.

An excellent video of a descent into Goblin Ha' made with a great deal of imagination and style. Worth a watch in full screen mode with the lights out. Spooky stuff and well conceived. Although a night time tour of the cavern it's actually much brighter and better illuminated than our daytime visit with two feeble glow worms as a guide. Nice to see the stonework details and the roof of the cavern properly.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Saltcoats to Kilwinning across the amazing Ardeer Peninsula.

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The Ardeer Peninsula, a large tract of sand dunes, desolate beach and bleak river estuaries sitting between Stevenston and Irvine in North Ayrshire has fascinated me for many years now. Once the site of one of the largest explosives factories in the world, manufacturing Dynamite and Gelignite for mining, construction, and both World Wars it had a maximum work force of 18,000 at its peak, its own train station (Ardeer) and dozens of explosives blending and mixing huts, a dining hall for meal times, boilers, cooling towers, engine and power sheds, underground bunkers, and warehouses. For many years, unless you worked there, it was a closed site and terra incognita on many maps. Even today it is a remote and little known destination with a very real atmosphere of end of the world desolation and decay.
On a raw, wild winter's day just before Christmas 2015 I thought it would be a good place to visit, given the wild conditions for any hill-walking, and Alan was up for it as well, bringing along his dog. We parked the car at Saltcoats with the intention of walking from there along the coastline, where possible, to reach the peninsula. The first photo was taken at Saltcoats the second at Stevenston Beach where a pedestrian bridge led us over a small river onto the sands. Both Alan and his dog enjoyed the coastal scenery here.
 Once out on the sands we had a walk along the coast with a weak winter sun above, coastal Ayrshire being one of the few places that day with a sun symbol over it, hence our visit. Alfred Nobel, (the Swedish Peace Prize guy) invented Dynamite and Gelignite as well as taking out hundreds of other patents during his lifetime. He came from a long line of inventors and engineers as his father created Plywood and worked on the development of early floating mines and torpedoes. The Ardeer site was chosen for its remote setting and its plentiful sand dunes which could be arranged and shaped around the huts into handy blast chambers that would insure that any explosion would not spread to nearby huts. Chain reaction explosions had already happened at other earlier sites and had to be avoided at all costs.
One of the areas where you can still see the extensive sand dunes and the remains of old buildings. At its peak this site was a major employer in the area with Ardrossan, Saltcoats, Stevenston, Kilwinning and Irvine locals benefiting over decades. Like Bishopton Royal Ordnance in Renfrewshire (another large explosives site) it could be a dangerous place to work if you were unlucky or made a mistake but it also kept families in employment in an area with few other steady job opportunities. A fascinating link here to the history of Ardeer viewed first hand through the eyes of a young women working in the explosives sheds. See under War Years and Explosions.
I was initially surprised to see so many young girls had been recruited and killed but I suppose during the war years most of the able bodied men would have been already called up to fight. From my own point of view I was intrigued to see what it was like and if you could make an interesting walk out of it.
Although I'd visited the edges of Ardeer on a couple of occasions on my own I was not sure if it was still off limits or if you could cross the peninsula on foot then get over a bridge across the River Garnock estuary to reach Kilwinning. Despite searching for info online, facts about this area were few and far between and mostly outdated and none mentioned if this old bridge was still a viable crossing point. If it no longer existed or was closed off we would have a long walk back to Saltcoats, retracing our steps.On a previous trip I'd cycled along the beach at low tide from Saltcoats then halted at the River Irvine mouth as you can go no further. A bleak and desolate area I later found out was Scotland's only official nudist beach though you are more likely to find hairy Naked Rambler types there in summer than fashionable nubile young devotees. It is still a very wild area yet close to urban development and as far away from the South of France that you can possibly imagine.
On that first occasion The Big Idea ( a modern hands on visitors centre for inventions and innovators had just closed (I was there around 2004/5 at a guess) with massive debts.
As it was nearby I left the bike and wandered over out of curiosity to see this empty building but an automatically triggered loud hailer soon informed me that it was out of bounds and that the police had been informed and were on their way. Considering it's remote position and the fact that the bridge across to Irvine had been removed I wasn't that bothered and had a quick look around anyway as they would have to reach me first and I wasn't doing anything untoward. As this message kept repeating loudly it did put me off exploring the rest of the peninsula however, (I assumed at that time it was all off limits) and I soon returned to my bike and cycled back along the sands. This building and bridge are long gone now.
What I did manage to see on that occasion were abandoned huts lying half buried in the sand dunes, miles of old barbed wire fences and a general air of decline. A few years later I returned on a summer bike trip along the cycle trail from Saltcoats to Eglinton Country Park and had a detour into Ardeer from that direction. It is a very large site and distinctly creepy as you never see anyone around except occasional gangs of local teenagers, random curious adults, or equally bold individuals. On that occasion I met a male adult stranger wandering around in a spacious underground bunker I was exploring on my lonesome, containing several rooms, and we both jumped involuntarily coming face to face around a dark corner then gave a nervous laugh. " It's a scary place." he admitted before continuing to look around. At that point, when his guard was down, I killed and ate him. Well, it's that sort of location and I pride myself on my ability to fit in with my surroundings.
He should have watched more old cowboy films as the bad guys in them always give a cheery grin before they shoot someone. That will teach him to relax near me. Classic beginner's mistake when meeting a psychopath in a deserted area. I didn't much care for the colour of socks he was wearing anyway and he seemed a right dodgy type to ever turn my back on. If you are not fast you're last in the quick draw game....And that is a true story. I haven't been back since. (the houses in the background seem empty but are guarded by cameras and patrolled)
Africa House. Once the South African Pavilion during the 1938 Glasgow Exhibition it was transported here afterwards to be used as a staff restaurant and conference centre. It is now abandoned and forlorn like most of this site. Nobel Explosives then ICI chemicals controlled this entire area but we wandered through here without seeing anyone although I did meet some members of a biker gang here on another occasion when I was exploring alone. Not a walk to everyone's tastes but certainly bold surprises exist round every corner... as I can testify.
Another side of Africa House.
An apt and accurate depiction, given the surroundings.
Inside an abandoned warehouse. Beauty can often be found in unusual settings and I liked the reflections on the flooded floor here.
A male goosander (Type of diving duck) in a marshy pond.
Tufted ducks nearby. Wildlife will always use abandoned habitats when humans have no further use for them.
The part of the site that is still being used and off limits. Despite three visits here in total I have yet to repeat myself and this trip with Alan opened up an entirely new set of buildings and dunes not visited on previous trips. We both enjoyed it and it was reasonably sheltered from a constant icy wind.
The old bridge and railway or tram line running across it. As the River Garnock is wide and deep here I was very glad to see it still intact and we were able to cross to the far side where the remains of the old Bogside Race Course once stood with cheering crowds in the stands. This entire journey is a walk though the ghosts of the past and a day trip into a wild and empty location that feels as isolated and remote at times as any highland fastness. In fact you will probably see far less people here and might actually want to avoid any you do come across :o) I found it exciting however and a very interesting day out. The walk into Kilwinning was a bit of a slog along roads and back streets, filled with abandoned factories and semi derelict industrial estates, many with for sale signs outside and once again I was reminded of just how prosperous and independent a lot of small towns in Scotland once were. On my travels around I've encountered hundreds of mysterious large squares of empty concrete in urban areas where some kind of factory or building must have stood. Many towns are still in free-fall and have been since the 1980s. Reminds me of the Shelley poem about the vast ruined city buried by the desert sands and the famous lines in it.... "Look on my works ye mighty... and despair."

We managed to get a bus back in Kilwinning and arrived in Saltcoats just after nightfall. 12 to 14 km one way depending on curiosity and mostly flat. Around 4 to 6 hours at an easy pace, exploring on the way. Interesting sculpture.

As a more scenic alternative here's a stunning route in Wales (Tremadog) that Alex and I have actually done years ago. One from Classic Rock and a great video. It's a deceptive climb put up by two Scottish intruders into the Welsh heartland so we were keen to tick it off. Starts easily enough in the security of the trees but soon becomes very exposed and elevated on a toenail traverse with no handholds for a few moves then weaves a devious snaking line up a near vertical cliff face to the top.  Photos of Tremadog climbing in here.
A brilliant open route we both enjoyed, along with a few other fine routes nearby before a well earned snack in Eric Jones' climbers' cafe below. Wouldn't fancy doing this climb now as I've lost my bottle for serious verticality these days. Worth viewing full screen. Great rock architecture throughout. Wish head cams and Go Pros had been around when we were climbing as we were fairly prolific around the UK in those far off days.