Saturday, 28 January 2017

Ben Donich. 847 metres. Rest and be Thankful. Arrochar Alps.

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With a fine day forecast last Saturday myself and Alan fancied a day in the Arrochar Alps. This is the B828 (in photo above) which leads you down through steep sided mountains on a single track road with passing places to a dead end strip of tarmac and the isolated but picturesque village of Lochgoilhead. Exactly as it appears in the name this cluster of low level houses, holiday homes and Victorian mansions sits at the head of Loch Goil and feels as isolated and remote now as it was in past centuries.
The remarkable thing about Glasgow's west coast position near the Scottish Highlands is that rugged steep sided mountains and deep fjord like sea lochs are only an hours drive away from the city centre. The compact group of peaks known as the Arrochar Alps have been the Glasgow hill walker's playground for generations and even now are little changed. Yes, this is mid January and not a drop of snow anywhere. Looks like summer, doesn't it?
We stopped briefly at the Rest and be Thankful, above; what used to be on horseback the long pull out of Glen Croe but which now is nothing in a motorcar, and reached Loch Restil (seen here) then carried on down the minor B828 to another smaller car park under Ben Donich. Both the Rest and be Thankful car park and the Ben Donich one, despite being large, were packed solid with vehicles of every description. In good sunny conditions nowadays in the highlands you have to be up early just to get a space but we managed to squeeze in. A path starts from here and leads up the ridge to the summit, handily signposted at junctions to avoid any confusion. Hill walking made easy.
Good weather and a lack of wind meant mist and low cloud in the glens but clear on the summits and we timed it just as the sun was burning some of the rising cotton wool carpets of mist away.
Very atmospheric and even better in an area like this with rugged peaks in every direction.
Alan, his faithful hound, and Ben Lomond.
The mighty Ben Cruachan, 1126 metres, and one of Scotland's notable Munros. A big memorable day out for any hill walker if you do all the summits on the ridge.
The nearby Beinn an Lochain just across the glen from our peak.
The path up Ben Donich is fairly straightforward until you come to a boulder-field and section of deep crevasses and rock fissures.Quite a few dogs have got themselves into trouble here down these holes and either went missing altogether or have had to be rescued. The path weaves through this short section with only one easy scramble down a 10 foot wall. Being a cold day with overnight temperatures around minus 5 degrees and thick mist over the slopes  the grass and rocks had a coating of ice on them which made them tricky in places. Poor old Bobby nearly slipped down a crevasse but was saved by being too fat to slide down the hole. Yeah! Obesity saves the day once again! Keep munching those crisps and biscuits- you know it makes sense.
These fissures are only really dangerous in a whiteout with obscured vision or after heavy snowfall when they can be partially buried................. or if the rocks surrounding them happen to be covered in invisible ice :o)
Although a mere Corbett and not a Munro Ben Donich is a fine hill and a relatively popular one so we encountered a steady stream of other hill-walkers on it. A fine excuse to hand out cards. Incidentally, my comedy novel about the great outdoors Autohighography features a chapter on the Arrochar Alps and takes place on a neighbouring hillside that also boasts deep fissures and several high level mountain caves where the action takes place. Namely, The Brack.
Link for that here.

And here it is in person. The Brack from Ben Donich- another fine jaggy hill with loads of character and interest including a little visited high level cave reached by a narrow traverse line. The mountains around the Arrochar Alps region are apparently the most fractured peaks in the UK caused by the type of rock there and post glacial slippage.
A fascinating and comprehensively researched account in this link below exploring their depth and complexity. Some of the cracks and deeper chasms have rock climbs in them like the ones below Beinn Narnain's summit, which I've climbed into and up decades ago, like most folk, without guessing their original creation. The unique shape of the Cobbler was probably caused by massive post glacial slippage taking away half the summit as well. Like the Whangie on a much bigger scale. An inspirational  theory is found in here behind the growth of small woods next to caves and fissures. Fantastic article and well worth a detailed read through.

The summit of Ben Donich.
A view down from the ice covered summit rocks to Loch Goil.
The high plateau on Ben Donich just before the summit.
A small sea plane flying above us.
The rugged beauty of the Arrochar Alps.

The final icy steps before the summit.
An ice dog.
Arrochar Alps panorama.
The Cobbler and Beinn Narnain.
A great day out. Around 4 to 5 hours total walk depending on pace. We took five due to ice and energy levels.

Sticking with the Frozen theme... I manged to see three new films I hadn't seen before over the Christmas- New Year period that I really enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend to anyone. The first was 'Saving Mr Banks' about Walt Disney's real life 20 year battle/efforts to persuade Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers to let him transform her book into a film.
The second was Frozen. I'm not a big fan of modern musicals or Disney cartoons generally unless they are Pixar ones like Toy Story and Finding Nemo but the excellent story-line, characters and computer generated animation in this one proved exceptional and won me over despite my reservations that it might be just for young children. I do like children's films if they are well done, like Holes, The Spiderwick Chronicles or Moonrise Kingdom and this was.

The third a few days ago was Stonehearst Asylum, a clever twisty little thriller with great turns by Ben Kingsley, Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess and Michael Caine. Unlike the other two films a mixed review by the critics for this one but I enjoyed it. Critics tend to change their mind over time anyway and hundreds of masterpieces they loudly applaud today were scorned when they first came out. Well, it's all in the word isn't it. Not saying it's a masterpiece by any means but I found it good fun and more entertaining and lively than any amount of Shakespeare, Dickens, Samuel Beckett or Alan Bennett plays.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Stirling Old Town and Graveyard. Wallace Monument. City in the Mist.

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A dry but dull and exceedingly dreich Saturday saw myself and Alan head for Stirling- one of Scotland's oldest inhabited places and the former capital of the kingdom- before that pushy young upstart Edinburgh stole the title in the early 1400s.
We passed Stirling in the car driving to Blairlogie and Dumyat a few weeks ago and Alan remarked then that he'd like to wander around there and I fancied another visit myself as it's an area with loads of interest. I didn't want to waste a good sunny day on it though when we could have been up a hill somewhere so a dry but cloudy still morning seemed perfect for a visit to the historic town centre. Despite being a centre for habitation since pre-history times before the wheel, the Flintstones and the invention of the female friendly softer wood dating club, beloved of cavemen, Stirling only gained city status relatively recently.
 Unlike other places around the world where a city can be a collection of low buildings on a plain, in a desert, or in a jungle with a start date of a mere 100 years or so and a population of 50, UK cities have to really graft hard for the coveted title. Stirling as a settlement was around before the bronze age, was well established before Jesus paddled across the water and Moses spoke to God.
"Can we be a city please? " (to assorted royals down the ages)  "Aw C'mon, gies a shot! We've waited long enough! "
"Certainly not.. you're just a town! Know your place!"
Eventually, the present Queen relented during her Golden Jubilee period and Stirling was finally elevated in 2002 from royal burgh to city status. Hooray!
The reason for its long history is its strategic position as a gateway between the wild Scottish Highlands just to the north and the fertile plains of the lowlands spreading out towards the south. Hill forts would have taken this easily defended position on top of this volcanic basalt plug long before the present castle arrived and the nearby River Forth provided a reliable route for trade with other tribes and kingdoms into the open sea. In an era of swamps, marshes and uncleared forests the River Forth would have been the best means of fast travel and also handy for moving heavy objects around as in the case of the massive and ancient standing stones that still litter Scotland's landscape to this day. Nearby Clackmannan, is named after one, the 'Stone of Mannan' which in turn is named after a sea god despite being a long way from the sea but crucially situated near the River Forth. Still upright in this modern age and well over 2000 years young, it stands the height of two tall men and is shaped  carefully to resemble a giant's phallus. A sea god indeed.
Stirling Old Town and Edinburgh's Royal Mile are remarkably similar, both in building design, antiquity and landscape. Although Stirling has just under 50,000 thousand of a population and Edinburgh is fast approaching half a million souls both have a castle perched on the highest volcanic summit, defended by natural steep cliffs with the ground behind protected by this solid lump of immovable rock sheltering the earth in the lee side from the sweeping erosion of glacial ice sheets pouring relentlessly past, an inch at a time, out of the Highland mountains to leave a sizable tail of downward sloping earth. This is where most of the oldest buildings have survived to create a mini version of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
Alan was keen to visit the castle again to see the recent improvements although we had both been in it before years ago but an adult price tag of £14:50 each was considered too steep for something we had both seen and still remembered. Stirling Castle used to be around half the price of Edinburgh Castle but it's no longer the bargain it was, especially if you have children at £8:70 each. It is a great castle to explore but maybe the popularity of Braveheart, William Wallace and Rob Roy and the subsequent tourist numbers have bumped up the price. It's also £4 to park inside the castle car park. A couple of years ago was my last visit as I got in unexpectedly for free during September's Doors Open Day event. Not planned at the time to go in but I wasn't going to miss the opportunity :o)

We had already paid £2:70 to park up the hill near the castle (Sunday free parking here I think) and didn't mind that at all as that got us four hours to explore and I knew there was plenty to see below the castle for free. When we arrived the ancient city of Stirling was buried under thick mist which made the old graveyard just below the parapets and castle walls rather eerie and atmospheric. The suitable realm of old horror films, vampires, and the creepily creeping undead.

This is free and well worth a visit as it contains many fine headstones, monuments, tombs and Victorian and medieval structures.
After a short time the sun started to burn a hole in the gloom and we could see something of the landscape appearing below us.
A modern dragon. Heat rising from a petrochemical plant breathing vapour into the still air.
A view towards the nearby Touch Hills above Cambusbarron.
Sun and smoke over the River Forth in the direction of clearer weather conditions.
Wallace Monument. A lot of Scottish history, so beloved of tourists, is a Victorian confection. William Wallace never charged around the Highland mountains as seen in the film. He was strictly a lowland fighter on the open plains and never went anywhere near the Highland glens if he could avoid it. Scary people lived there at that time who were just as likely to kill him as any other outsider from the lowlands.
The modern kilt was invented by an Englishman by all accounts, likewise all the different colourful tartans and patterns we see today. Can't even claim the original plaid (longer wraparound kilt) as our own as that probably arrived from Ireland from what I've discovered in books about the subject. A celebrated Scottish freedom fighter now, in this own time he was regarded by the English and even many Scot's as a bloodthirsty terrorist, similar to the IRA, ETA and yes, even ISIS, for being public enemy number one. As such he couldn't surrender or escape, even if he wanted to, and was finally captured (betrayed by a fellow Scot) then publicly torn apart, as was the custom of the day, for people that threatened the crown and the established order. Bits of his body were sent out to be hung in various strategic cities and towns across the UK as a warning to anyone else thinking of revolt. Some new info on that.

After visiting the graveyard we had a wander along the circular high level balcony trail that runs under the castle cliffs from the lowest point of the castle walls with fine views over low lying Stirling in places until it enters the old town again near the Town Jail.
Town Jail. Incidentally, this is the one way street where we were parked and it also makes a handy starting point to explore the town. If you are driving here just follow the signs for Stirling then take the motorway exit leading to the town where you then follow the brown 'to the castle' signs uphill on a one way loop system that leads you up and down in a circle with plenty of parking opportunities- going up and coming down.
The howling wolf. According to tradition a wolf howled repeatedly as Viking raiders came sneaking up the River Forth to sack the town, and suitably warned the townsfolk had time to defend themselves properly and repel the intruders. I'd never heard of this legend before and this excellent wooden sculpture is fairly new but the more we explored the town centre the more clues we found on buildings.
A Victorian design in the high street area on an old tenement. Stirling has a wide range of unusual period buildings as well as a large modern shopping mall- The Thistle Centre.
Fine period detail.
And a closer look at the very spot where the wolf was supposed to live in a cave below the castle. Somewhere between the 8th to the 11th century presumably as that was the era of the Viking raids.
The poor old wolf didn't get much of a hero's welcome however as they were increasingly exterminated wherever they were found and finally died out in the early 1700s. Good short history snippet here of man's best friend and enemy. The last stand of the poor old wolf. A much maligned creature.

More old buildings and William Wallace statue.
Tudor style house.
Old High School. Signs of the Zodiac around the entrance. Now the Scottish Whisky Shop.
Rob Roy statue under the castle walls on the balcony walk which takes around 30 mins to an hour depending on pace and route. Highly recommended and fairly flat on wide paths all the way.
Stirling Arcade. A Victorian forerunner of shopping malls and one of only five examples of its kind in Scotland. Recently given a modern makeover inside and full of shops again. Found On King Street.

The interior view. Between this and several other good shopping streets it was an interesting place to explore and we also found an old traditional record shop selling vinyl albums of the kind that mostly died out in Glasgow. A real walk down memory lane.

This video seems apt for a Gothic looking Stirling. Great atmospheric music from a composition band who specialize in mood pieces, matched with a suitable film clip but not too scary, just interesting, and well conceived.  She may be a vampire but I'd give her a wee tour round the graveyard any day or night ."I ain't afraid of no ghost!" My kind of girl. Amazing what you can do with a bible and a few candles but a plumber might have been a better choice. No wonder she's upset, sleeping for entirety in a wet coffin. I'd have taken the huff as well. A dry warm female is a happy female I've always found.  Best watched full screen...with the lights out preferably :o)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Port of Leith. Ships. Monuments. History.

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A dazzle ship at Port of Leith docks. Due to the success of U- boats during WW1 and WW11 and the number of causalities and ships sunk at sea, painting the remainder in bright colours as a form of reverse camouflage in the style of zebras and other animals was seen as a tactic to confuse the enemy, hopefully converting torpedo direct hits to near misses. It was thought that they might confuse the range, speed, distance and outline of allied shipping but according to the info boards there is not much evidence that it actually worked. But they had to do something and boost flagging morale... so it might have worked that way.
A view down Leith Walk. As I mentioned before two posts ago I skipped New Year in Edinburgh to spend it quietly in Glasgow. I have never seen the point of New Year since childhood- all that anticipation and waiting throughout the day for a few minutes of drunken flash, bang, and sometimes wallop... handshakes, hugs or kisses... then the inevitable anti climax hangover the next morning. No thanks.
What I did fancy was to catch the end of Belinda and Anne's (her Mum) holiday trip in Edinburgh before they came back through to Glasgow. So once again a short time after New Year with the transport running normally again I boarded the Glasgow -Edinburgh bus in the early morning and made my way through there to hook up with them for a day of sightseeing and fun.
I'd timed it perfectly from my point of view as I wasn't keen on spending money on expensive city centre attractions I'd already been in years ago when prices were much cheaper than they are now. Fortunately, Belle and Anne had splurged out to see the city centre attractions and had also indulged in various shopping and eating out treats so by the time I came through they'd done the city centre district thoroughly for now and were more easily swayed towards different, cheaper options...and views... as they were both skint and stuffed :o)
I suggested a trip to Edinburgh's main and only city port which was reached by a short bus ride down Leith Walk. Edinburgh-especially at New Year- can feel slightly claustrophobic as the city centre pedestrian numbers almost double in size and volume at that time with nearly every nationality represented in the babel of different languages flowing around you on the crowded pavements. It's fair to say that Leith is more downmarket than Princes Street but like all the outer districts it's where you find Edinburgh's real citizen's hanging out and it does have its own special attractions... and they are mostly free. Yippee!
The water of Leith (a small river flowing right through the city) and its popular walkway/cycle-track, reach the sea here at the port which has been modernized and redeveloped in the last 15 years. This river front together with six large individual docks turn Leith into a mini Venice in places. It also explains why Glasgow and Edinburgh look so different in style, attitude and architecture despite being just over 30 miles apart. West coast Glasgow faces America and in the days of sailing ships most of its fortune and trade started out there along with its influences. East coast Edinburgh faces  Europe and the Baltic States and even today you can see their influence in the architecture all around you. I'm sure it also influenced the world of Harry Potter in some fashion as J K Rowling lived in Leith in the early stages of the books, obviously knows Edinburgh very well, and you can see that in the films with various backdrops of tall thin houses,
Not that different from Amsterdam... or is it just my imagination?
The town of Leith itself is worth a wander round with many interesting old buildings on show to demonstrate the wealth that used to routinely flow through this area. Leith Walk is also a long, fairly stately and vibrant shopping street for much of its length with an individual history all its own that could easily fill a book. All I can provide here is just a few brief snapshots.
Robert Burns travelled and stayed in Edinburgh to promote his work once it started to become better known outside of his native Ayrshire. This monument with its ornate decorative panels is also seen in the photo above this one in larger view. The subject is playing blind man's bluff in a traditional Victorian household presumably... although in the modern era this just looks like a friendly neighbour/ pedophile brought in to catch the child on the floor but also giving her a sporting chance of escape. At least that was Belinda's opinion of it on close inspection. I'm just old enough to remember playing this as a child myself.

Also in the full street photo above is the 19th century corn exchange with its distinctive tower and  elevated lengthy panel of child workers. "What do they signify?" I was asked by my companions. I had to confess I hadn't a clue and made something up about Leith only using child labour on the docks in the old days. " Life was hard then and as you died at 40 it was better to start them young and get more out of them for longer before they snuffed it."
" They do look very mature for their age." Belinda commented, laughing then pointing to the spot where she was looking.
"No, that's a shoe or a hand." Her mother scolded after squinting up at the panel. "You are terrible."
She then turned to me. "take a zoom of that so we can send it to my friend. That's funny."
 I eventually found the real explanation for the child figures, see link above. That's why I love exploring places as you learn so much about the history of everything and educate yourself in the process. I did know about 'Putti' but only as winged cherubs in religious paintings and not as depicted here in a long line of workers as the only subject matter. I wouldn't be surprised if this particular style and display is unique in the UK. Again an influence from European/ Italian art. I have seen examples in Glasgow but in a much more conventional setting sitting on the shoulders of someone important or in the background, flying around.
We struck it lucky on our visit to Leith docks as many different ships were tied up here at the same time giving us plenty to look at. Well known artist Antony Gormley placed six of his person shaped statues along the Water of Leith walkway in the river itself and this is the last in that line, looking out to sea.
A massive modern offshore support ship was also berthed here registered out of Nassau in the Bahamas of all places. Deep Arctic. As of the 15th Jan 2017 it was heading out past the Shetlands and Orkney Islands towards the Faroe group so we were lucky to see it here. Incidentally, this name got me thinking  about some of the things I've read recently concerning ice melting rapidly at both poles year on year and a possible new frontier opening up in the far north in previously unattainable frozen wastes. This could maybe explain one of the reasons behind the billionaires that are queuing up behind Donald Trump and an apparent thawing out of Russian relations as these days it's all about oil, thinking ahead, and the superpowers carving up dwindling resources around the planet. Forget the wall and immigration- that's the usual smoke and mirrors trick for the hopeful masses. Very impressive big beast this. It might also explain the climate change deniers outlook despite the vast majority of scientific opinion and on the ground research stating the opposite. If current climate trends continue the arctic is up for grabs- sadly for any wildlife  or humans in the way. As the old saying goes... just follow the money trail to reveal any truth.
Always liked this monument and memorial to the Merchant Navy around the world for its clever yet simple depiction panels. Suez, Egypt,  and the desert countries here.
Hong Kong Harbour.
Info board telling you what each panel is about.
Where it is situated. Leith waterfront.
Leith docklands. Much more open and spacious than the city centre district and both Belle and her mum enjoyed their day out as it was all new ground for them.
And a suitably Gothic sunset greeted us on our return to Edinburgh's West End district where they were staying.
Edinburgh. So much to see. My love letter... to it.. here.

For another muse and equally delightful inspiration. Every artist needs one... or two.
Fantastic graphics best watched full screen. Thanks for the invite girls.