Saturday, 20 May 2017

Edinburgh Castle: easy but very scenic Balcony Trail around the city.

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Edinburgh must be one of the most photo friendly cities on the planet and you could easily take a 1000 holiday snaps here no problem without repeating the views. I was actually through here by bus to do another walk but in the late afternoon I still had time to squeeze in this superb balcony trail around the castle, directly under the steep walls.
West Princes Street Gardens are lovely at any time of year but spring has the most colour, closely followed by autumn so we will start here although, as you will see from the photos, you can start anywhere along this circular walk. A large scale map of central Edinburgh Streets can come in handy but not strictly necessary as it's basically a walk around the castle and you can't really go wrong even if you miss a street.
This is a new sculpture in West Princes Street Gardens celebrating Wojtek, the Polish War Bear, and very nice it is. I already knew most of the history of this remarkable partnership between bear and human during the Second World War so was chuffed to see this completed.
For those who don't know the story of how a brown bear ended up as a corporal in the Polish Army fighting against Italian and German troops then moved to Edinburgh in retirement here's the short version.

Still in West Princes Street Gardens here and after a short climb we are now on the flat balcony trail under the castle. Apart from a few spires sticking up in the distance you would never know you were still in the middle of a densely crowded city. Edinburgh can seem slightly claustrophobic at times if its very busy- with high orate buildings, packed narrow streets full of tourists, and closed in views. Some of the world's first skyscrapers started here before America got going and took the crown for building high so this green oasis is a real gem for finding a quiet spot away from the nearby hectic streets,- beggars, buskers, and bankers.
Someone doing just that. A quiet spot to read a book or contemplate life in the gardens near the Scott Monument.
A close up view. Jenners Department Store and Scott Monument- two fine examples of Scottish Baronial/ Gothic architecture in a city crammed with elaborate gems. The Scott Monument is also a delight to climb with narrowing spiral staircases and a restricted worm hole of a top level where two
snakes would have trouble squeezing past each other, let alone a six footer with a rucksack  descending and twenty Japanese students determinedly coming up. No queues usually- very cheap admission entry and great fun.
Mermaid Detail on the nearby Ross Fountain. One of the finest examples anywhere of 19th century cast iron work and made in France before being gifted to the city by local worthy Mr Ross.
A full view of the fountain. Due to internal complications the water is switched off at present to protect it.
Calton Hill. As it's only a short distance away this monument studded mound can also be included with the castle walk. Allow one hour for castle circular at fast walking pace but two to three hours if not in any hurry and you want to explore the history and interesting buildings on the way.
One of which can be seen here at the west end of Princes Street. The Parish Church of St Cuthbert. (central dome with two round towers). As this was on the route around the castle I popped in just before closing time for a look. The Princes Street entrance to this building is handily placed beside public toilets.
The interior dome. A version of St Cuthbert's church has existed near this spot since the 12th century although back then it was a rural parish, just outside the city boundary, with buildings clustered on the slope below the castle denoting the young city. Now the present building sits well within the beating heart of the city itself- which is still expanding to swallow more of the outlying areas.
Although I only had a short time to visit this fine church and surrounding graveyard before it shut its doors for the night it has many interesting features and you could spend a good half hour/ an hour here wandering around exploring. A well known slingshot champion depicted in this lovely stained glass window inside the church.
The Last Supper I presume. A detail.
Once out of the church and continuing through the other entrance you come to King's Stable Road and walk along that into another rising path under the castle walls, this time on the south side. This is another pleasant strip of wooded parkland so not the risk of boulders falling that it looks here but you can see how impregnable the castle was of old. The English Army were always a serious threat as they outnumbered the Scots ten to one and still do population wise to this day. West Princes Street Gardens, so scenic and green now was once a grim bare loch, deliberately created and deepened from a swamp as an extra moat barrier to discourage attack and on this circular walk you can still see traces of the old city walls that ringed and protected the town.
I had a seat on a bench and a packet of crisps here overlooking the Grassmarket and Cowgate districts. Two areas that up until the 1980s were distinctly down at heel and fairly working class with a strong Irish influx after the famine years (James Connolly, Irish Republican, and one of the central figures of the Easter Rising grew up in the nearby Cowgate when it was nicknamed 'Little Ireland' along with many other catholic districts in UK cities so waves of immigration and people living in tribal communities within cities are nothing new. Neither is social unrest among the indigenous population, uneasy about new groups arriving in numbers and overwhelming services. During this trip I counted around 40 different languages on buses and streets, ranging from African, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Bulgarian, Swedish, Spanish... and loads I didn't know except that they were new to me. Edinburgh is a very cosmopolitan city.
Unfortunately most of the local accents I heard came from people sitting hunched up on the pavements begging for money- some very young- so obviously it's a year round thing here and in Glasgow, not just for Christmas/ New Year,where one homeless person dies every week.
In the media recently though it was mentioned it was people's generosity that encouraged them into the city districts in the first place as many can earn good money every day with which to buy drink or drugs. You don't notice them as much in Edinburgh on a nice sunny day because of all the tourists milling everywhere but in less busy Glasgow City Centre they are very visible and must be off-putting to the tourist industry as they do number in the hundreds in both city centres. Like everything else in 2017 it's a complicated picture as presumably folk have different reasons for ending up homeless and on the street and everybody usually has a strong opinion on the matter and what's causing it. Why does nearly every district, village and town in the UK have a food bank now- something unheard of  15 years ago. Just a trend or a need- as folk using them seemed to have doubled or tripled year on year since 2008. Even affluent Milngavie, a well heeled suburb near Glasgow, has a food bank now, something that surprised me on a recent bike ride there although I suppose losing your job or being stuck on low wages with a large mortgage to pay and a family is a burden no matter where you live. Fashion trend or necessity? Why should they exist I wonder, if, as the government says, we are almost at full employment in the UK with more people than ever in work and the 5th richest economy in the world. Something doesn't add up somewhere. Like seven years of brutal austerity measures and service cuts yet the national debt is twice what it was before.
It's too complicated a problem for me to figure out so I'll stick to birds. A goldfinch. One of the UK's most colourful and eye catching feathered friends with its red, white and black face and its bright flash of yellow wings in flight. (not seen here, hidden by leaves)
A flight of steep steps leads down into the Grassmarket or you can keep level and go down the Royal Mile instead.
The Grassmarket is now a gentrified area and as its both historic and interesting with outside seating... loads of pubs serving food and drink, continental style... and an open aspect with views it's very popular. It was more rough and ready when Robert Burns and William and Dorothy Wordsworth visited here on their travels and stayed at a local inn. Livestock and goods were kept and traded here in this open area which also doubled as a place to hang witches, passing strangers and people you had a grudge against.  Which brings us to this striking tale of incest, dark deeds, and slaughter which occurred just around the corner in West Bow. Edinburgh is thick with vivid history. Worth a read. An early inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde perhaps?
The street in question and how it looks today. You can walk along an upper lane three floors up in the middle of this picture, see roughly where the wizard lived, and come out onto the Royal Mile near the castle entrance via an even slimmer narrow lane. This high sided street gives you some idea of how an entire labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys could grow up 12 to 14 floors high then the bottom floors of houses simply sealed over and new buildings placed on top.
 This happened here and several closes like this one disappeared underground and were completely forgotten until recently which makes Mary King's Close a unique and atmospheric visitor attraction under the heart of the Royal Mile.
Looking down West Bow from the third floor balcony. Fisher's Close, seen above, leads you into the Royal Mile, seen below.
Royal Mile and tourist buses. This is where Fisher's Close lane comes out and you can miss out the steep flight of steps down into the Grassmarket by viewing West Bow from here, coming out onto the third floor balcony above it.
St Giles Cathedral. (Also worth a look inside.) Walk down Bank Street from here and you complete the circle returning to West Princes Street Gardens. A great little tour of central Edinburgh and all for free.
This isn't. Balmoral Hotel. A five star stone cube that really draws the eye but £1000 pounds a night to stay in the J.K. Rowling suite where she went to get peace to finish her Harry Potter opus. Can't see me checking in here anytime soon but I have visited Mary King's Close and really enjoyed it as I like anything dark and creepy living underground.( Hello new girlfriend. I'll feed you soon. I found her in a graveyard in Edinburgh, just hanging around the crypts. She's warm and dry now though. I always try to bring back a little house warming present on trips away as it feels good to help others. That's my motto anyway. With so many lost souls to pick from one less will never be missed. Far better to be a stray dog in a city as they get immortalized and turned into heroes. This way nobody can say I'm not doing my bit for the country. No need to thank me- it's a pleasure to help :o)


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

West Lothian. Bing Lands. Ridge Lands and Golden Treasure Hunt.

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May is a fantastic month in the UK. Spring at it's height with a world reborn anew-full of dazzling colour. Rhododendrons and wild garlic here.
Around about this time of year I always leave the soggy west coast and head for the much drier east where a very different landscape and plant mix awaits. Lower hills, half the rainfall, and a different feel altogether despite being only 30 miles apart. The UK as a whole has a very varied landscape for its small size and even travelling 30 miles from region to region you will see dozens of landscape variations within that zone. West Lothian is a good example of this. Cairnpapple Hill here and a view from its summit. I was up here looking for that illusive crop that only grows well in the eastern districts. Planted Gold.
It changes around year by year so you have to be determined and hunt for it... like an old time prospector. One spring it will appear over in the centre districts in a massive cluster the next season it will be scattered thinly in strips miles apart. -just like real gold seams- huge glorious nuggets on the ground or slim veins hidden from view and hard to find.
As the highest hill in this area Cairnpapple Hill at 312 metres or 1024 feet high offered not only a panoramic view of the region but my best chance of seeing the topography from above and where I should be heading next. It's also one of the most important prehistoric burial sights in Scotland and several rings of ancient graves dot the summit like a current studded bun.
Sure enough I could see some small pockets of treasure in the distance near Bo'ness at the coast under the Ochil hills but they were mere patches only in the landscape- not the vivid blast of yellow gold I was after. I had my bike with me so I wanted to cycle around and completely immerse myself in a tank of gold- like that famous bond girl... and why not. Small squares here and there would not do for that driving ambition. I wanted a full deep ocean to dive into!
Wild Garlic. Silver would not do either. I wanted a sea of GOLD!!!!
Luckily, this time, away over in the direction of Livingstone and the Pentland Hills, I found my desired sea of yellow treasure. Abundant waves of beautiful flowing opulence. My heaven on earth for a primary colour addict. Oilseed fields and loads of them in a blinding profusion of dazzling uniformity that demanded dark sunglasses on just to observe their glory close up. My own Fort Knox to cycle through.
Soon I was happy in a world of brilliant yellow, blue skies above, and warm sunshine. The wicked wizard of the west had rediscovered OZ- as I did every year. Never failed to find it waiting yet.
I also had my familiar backdrop of the shale oil hills near Broxburn- both by-products of a sought after commodity. Paraffin in the shape of the shale oil heaps left behind after the manufacture of this once useful product and oilseed rape fields currently in vogue and used to make various cooking oils and other materials... but I didn't really care about that too much... for me it was the visual zap between the eyes that most attracted me.
Red and yellow and...

and green
Orange and purple....

and blue.
A rainbow cycle trip.
The landscape around this district resembles large waves, rolling in sweeping swells north to south with sizable climbs then dips if you cycle across them in that direction.
But if you cycle west- east or east- west you can stay mostly level and enjoy some great flat cycling along a rectangular looped network of minor roads between Torphichen and Kirkliston on the outskirts of Edinburgh. This minor lane further south was a find as it dissected two large fields like a knife through butter.
It also cut a path from the village of East Calder down onto a high viaduct... and a whole new cycling adventure....
But I need another post for that....
as that part of the journey was very special as well....
instead of big skies, open flat fields horizon to horizon and red/pink bings doubling as hills and viewpoints I found myself in a very different location...
dropping abruptly from the stone viaduct into Almondell and Calderwood Country Park and a lush deep tree filled gorge to explore....
To be continued....
Edinburgh and the east coast districts have had similar rainfall levels to London and the south east this year- normally dry areas getting even less water than normal following a dry, almost snow-less winter.. and you could see that in the fields... still growing crops but very hungry for rain.
That would change abruptly as well...

A highly nostalgic video of past times. I vaguely remember trolley buses as a child on the streets of Glasgow and although this is Sheffield it could be any large British town or city from that period going by the transport, thriving town centres, and the casual dress code... with ordinary looking folk pre- fashion, pre-plastic surgery, fake teeth, fake tans and computers. A different world and bygone age. Wonder if we will sit, as internet dependent permanently connected cyborgs, 60 years from now and look back at today with the same evocative bewilderment and sense of strange longing for supposedly simpler times.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Buidhe Bheinn. 885 metres. Knoydart in a Day.

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With an extended two week long heatwave over most of the British Isles, nebulous warnings of drought hanging over the summer months ahead for selected dry areas and not much rain for what seems like months now- Scotland is a different country.
A Mediterranean style climate, guaranteed blue skies and sunshine every time you open the curtains.... and gardens thirsty for water. This must be what summer is like in other countries further south.
After months of inactivity and hibernation my old pal Alex must have finally felt the sunshine warming up his dungeon and crypt... as he crawled out into the light and suggested a day trip to Knoydart to tick off one of his four remaining Corbetts. I was up for that so set the alarm for 5:00am.
This is slightly later at Milton garage on the outskirts of Glasgow. The Kilpatrick Hills getting the morning sunlight here. Late spring means it's daylight now from around 4:00am to 10:00pm, giving 18 hours of uninterrupted sunshine and Alex intended making the most of it with a day trip to Knoydart in the remote North Western Scottish Highlands.
Passing Ben Nevis and the daunting Orion Face Ridge on the left hand skyline... a winter grade 3/4 route that took Brian, Alex and I an epic 18 hours to ascend with ropes, ice axes and crampons getting back to the CIC hut around 4:00am in the morning after 8 or 9 hours climbing then descending in the dark one winter evening. A memorable outing.
Ben Nevis is the UK's Highest Mountain but most folk that climb it by the tourist path only glimpse these cliffs from above as they mainly attract rock and ice climbers. Some of the longest routes in Britain lie here. Ledge Route on Ben Nevis is also seen here on the right hand cliffs weaving through some impressive rock architecture.
A distant view of Ben Nevis from the north near Invergarry. At 1344metres or 4,411 feet it is not that impressive seen from Fort William, just a bulky big doorknob which saves its best profile for this direction.
Three and a half hour's drive later from Glasgow we arrived at Kinloch Hourn on the edge of Knoydart and geared up to ascend our Corbett. All the hills in this wild region are fairly steep and spectacular but fortunately a fine network of deer stalking paths from its Victorian heyday of the grand estates and income make life easier for the hill- walker. This district is known as 'The Rough Bounds of Knoydart' for a good reason as it's still a remote rugged wilderness, largely empty of people, approached from this side.
Alex on the public path walking through the magnificent grounds of the Kinloch Hourn estate. A car park exists at the road end here for the trek into Barisdale Bothy or to claim the three prized Munros in this area, namely, Ladhar Bheinn, 1020 metres,  Meall Buidhe 946 metres, and Luinne Bheinn, 939 metres. I'd imagine the majority of hill-walkers only do them once- unless you have a mad streak for multiple Munro rounds or are in love with the area. I certainly remember them as tough but highly enjoyable outings.
Kinloch Hourn estate. We never visited this place doing the Munros all those years ago but it's definitely worth a visit at any time of year with lush exotic greenery, forest walks and an uphill garden that contains unusual surprises for tree lovers. Having said that it's not the sort of place you visit by accident, well off the beaten track at the very end point of a minor road.
But a weaving minor road which also has it's special moments, scenery wise, especially in late spring with the gorse in bloom. Loch Cuaich here.
Red Deer crossing the road down Glen Garry.
Minor dead end road into deepest Knoydart. Both Alex and myself were slightly disappointed with Inverie village when we visited there a few years ago as the place was jam packed with tourists, and although beautiful to look at it did not feel like a remote special location on that particular day as it was just too busy for us. You do tend to get spoiled doing Corbetts as it's such a minority sport and you rarely see anyone else on the hills with paths or human presence a rarity, even in this crowded age.
Buidhe Bheiin therefore was ideal for us. Spectacular, remote and empty of people. A view of the hill but the summit lies hidden along an unseen ridge further in. Want the real Knoydart and Scotland of 30-50 years ago? Climb the Corbetts :o)
Luckily for us two old duffers a good staking path leads up the hillside through the estate grounds following the pylons then weaves up the hillside past the halfway point, taking a steep ascent and making it seem much easier with gradual, cunningly crafted, bends. These old staking path creators knew their stuff alright for turning almost impossible ascents into routes a heavily laden pony/ horse/ hill-walker can manage. We certainly noticed the difference when the path ran out and we had to negotiate our way up this final steep head-wall to gain the ridge, seen above.
As compensation however we did have stunning views down Loch Hourn (the Loch of  Hell) towards the peak of Ladhar Bheinn (the mountain of the hoof or claw, due to its horse-shoe shaped summit cliffs maybe surrounding Coire Dhorrcail ?) The path along the left hand shoreline into Barisdale is well seen here, the normal overnight stay for attempting Ladhar Bheinn, one of the great Scottish Munros.
And here is another. Beinn Sgritheall, 974 metres, famed for its panoramic views over the western seaboard and mountainous Scottish islands like Skye and Rum as it stands high above the coast.
And back to our hill which had a very easy but entertaining scramble over a rocky ridge-line to gain the illusive summit.
A view of the final summit push along the ridge.
and one from below showing its slightly knife edged profile although it wasn't hard or that exposed in reality, barely a grade one scramble, though tricky in high winds or under snow.
A view across to the Forcan Ridge on The Saddle, 1010 metres, a popular ascent route for those with a head for heights to the summit of this fine Munro and a distinct alpine feel in winter with one tricky, almost vertical, descent you might want a rope for if not used to exposed winter climbing.
Spring Primrose. A flower of the Scottish Highlands.
Violet. Another pretty flower of the mountain slopes.
Coming down again I was reminded why I don't do a lot of high hills these days. I still really enjoy them in good weather and have no problems going up but coming back down the steep terrain trashed my knees and I had to take several rests and painkillers to reach the bottom again. It only lasted a day or so though, like toothache in the knee caps, so very little to complain about really and worth a bit of discomfort now and again for such great rewards. Don't think I'll be doing my second round of Munros any time soon though as I have to limit my greater range efforts these days. Three Corbetts to go now for Alex and I hope to join him for them. If they are as spectacular as this one, I'll be happy.
Driving back to Glasgow in late evening sunlight through the mountain trench of Glencoe. Another cracking trip. Roughly a 6 to 8 hour hill walk depending on speed. I was slow coming down even though we peeled directly off the summit into the Allt Coire Sgoireadail to pick up the valley path there through this scenic glen back to the car.

Although I've climbed quite a few via ferrata  routes in the Dolomites myself in the past, both backpacking and on day jaunts this video seems as mad to me as the Adrenalin rush junkies climbing tall buildings and hanging off them... but one person's madness is another's joy it seems. Spectacular... bonkers... and very brave... where one wrong move means certain death after a long drop.