Friday 24 June 2016

Ailsa Craig trip. Kingdom of the Sea Birds. Girvan.

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Nine and a half miles off the coast of Girvan, in the middle of the Firth of Clyde, sits a thousand foot high granite monolith, where some of the UK's finest curling stones were once cut out then polished in the days when curling was a major winter sport, before health and safety, the folly of standing on untested lochs and ponds in large numbers, and warmer winter temperatures kicked in. If you are a big golf fan you may be familiar with the profile of Ailsa Craig already as it features as a TV star in its own right when any of the Ayrshire golf championships appear on telly and this unique island offshore comes into its own, via telephoto lens wizardry and clear conditions,  promoting Turnberry or Troon coastal links with the island often a framed scenic highlight in the background, looming large and seemingly just within touching distance between the shoulders of the famous players walking around the course or as a good talking point history feature between holes.
Although the cliffs look high and imposing enough from the distant mainland, close up they tower over the small boats below. Every spring nesting season this is also a kingdom of seabirds, like those other large isolated sea stacks - the St Kilda group, Bass Rock near Edinburgh and the Great Stack of Handa in the far north west. Unless you are lucky enough  to know someone with a private boat or can book a trip from Girvan to take you out there it's not an easy place to reach and too far out except for the most experienced sea kayakers with marine radio on board and the necessary skill levels required. If things go pear shaped out here it does feel very isolated and a long way back to the almost invisible mainland. Being a nature reserve, landing on the island is discouraged for visitors, except for the tour boat operators, who take trig baggers across in good conditions and is a growing modern trend among list baggers who team up in numbers to collect remote sea stacks by private boat hire or visit other hard to reach locations in a group to share costs. Boat trips from Girvan out to the rock and good info on the island's history and sea bird numbers in this link.
  Didn't know about the slow worms living on the island either.

Luckily, we did know a couple with a boat- John and Gail -who have a RIB with a large 90 engine  attached and a smaller spare engine for back up. They used to do a lot of scuba diving years ago all round the Scottish coast, hence the purchase of a boat around 20 years ago. A lot of maintenance is required however when you own a boat, engine overhauls and checks, washing down with fresh water including cleaning both engines after any sea trip, or checking the electric boat launcher and boat trailer for wear and tear or unseen faults. Always something to go wrong or fix on a boat.
As well as John and Gail, we had two dogs, another couple into trig bagging, then myself and Alex. I was invited over the phone and lost no time saying yes to an outing that I've only been on once before in 40 years. Alex seemed to already know about this trip through his Marilyn bagging and trig bagging sites online and invited himself along. Although not a great sailor he was determined he wasn't going to miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to bag this illusive and highly prized island.
Although the forecast generally was for flat seas and light winds the 9 mile crossing was pretty rough with a large rolling swell most of the way. By the time we arrived at the landing beach, which was reasonably sheltered, John had decided to stay in the boat and drop us off one by one onto the pier between tidal surges. As I'd already been to the summit and walked a good way around the base of the rock on a previous trip at low tide, I volunteered to stay with him, keep him company, and just go for a tour round the island instead as it was too rough to tie up and leave the boat unattended at the pier in case it got damaged by wave action.
The path up to the summit starts from here, continues past the old castle, then heads for the highest point past the halfway well and old curling industry buildings.
The trig baggers soon had themselves sorted out and proceeded to make the ascent while we travelled slowly round the coastline by boat.
Due to ground nesting seabirds, dogs were kept on a lead and Tiny Temper here also had a plastic muzzle as he was well known for biting fingers if any stranger patted him.
We soon observed loads of puffins...
and more puffins....
then gannets and sunbathing seals on rocks...
More gannets... this one taking off after a dive into the sea, observing then spearing fish from 40 feet up.
Young seal....
Large older seal....
Chalky, seen here, fancied the elegant two tone gannets with their black and white attire so much he adopted a similar black and white profile during his visit to the islands. With unseen ocean currents changing into new patterns and sea temperatures rising due to global warming many seabird colonies are having a hard time breeding in the last 10 to 15 years as the illusive sand eels, essential food the young chicks feed on, can be in short supply. Further north, in Scandinavia, isolated sea-stacks well known for long lasting seabird colonies have seen populations crash due to chicks starving in the nests. Unlike crowded Africa, where a growing human population there means less room and habitat destruction for large key species, such as rhino, elephants and giraffe, this isolated rock gets limited human disturbance and birds of every variety cover the steep ledges. You need enough fish swimming in the surrounding seas to support them all though.
Razor bill taking off...
Gannet's diving around the boat....
Meet the neighbours. Gannets and Guillemots.
I don't know what this year's breeding success will be like but the willing birds turn up every year to try to raise a family on this remote sea cliff.... one of the wonders of Scotland. It was only after taking this photo I noticed a dark shape in the water under the cliffs... probably a seal, seabird, or small porpoise/dolphin gliding along just under the surface.
Although he enjoyed his trig bag Alex was not a happy bunny on the hour long crossing. Although not physically sick into the bounding depths he didn't feel well for most of it, arrival and return,  and was very happy to see Girvan harbour again. A couple of  "sea legs" tablets taken as a precaution beforehand may have been of assistance here.
Colourful Girvan harbour highlighting the two tourist hire boats available for fishing trips or landings on Ailsa Craig, Marilyn trig bagging or wildlife sightseeing.

A view of Girvan beach on our return.

The view on the road home heading down into sunny Glasgow and Paisley. A different world to the seabird kingdom just visited but a metropolis with its own challenges, hopes for the future and complex problems to be managed, decade by decade, year on year. As seen well in this photo the city spreads out across a shallow wide bowl surrounded by encircling hill groups- The Kilpatricks, The Campsie Fells and the Clyde Valley Lava Escarpment Plateau: otherwise known as the Lochliboside Hills, Fereneze Braes, the Brownside Braes, and the Gleniffer Braes respectively.
A great trip during this extended heatwave and thanks to John and Gail for the invite. Hope your engine set back was not too expensive to fix.

Friday 10 June 2016

River Falloch. Ardlui. Loch Lomond. Doune Bothy.

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Another Sunday of heatwave conditions saw us take to the kayaks once more. With temperatures nudging 25c-28c degrees most days we had little enthusiasm for a long hot hill walking day. Out on the water it was goodbye to midges, sheep ticks, clegs, and other biting insects and "hello" to a light breeze, cooler conditions, relaxation and the thrill of visiting very familiar places but in a completely unfamiliar way. Ardlui's wild and water-filled back door.
This is Ben Lomond, above, viewed from the River Falloch, where it enters Loch Lomond near the waterside village of Ardlui. Loch Ard, where we were kayaking two posts ago on this blog, lies to the east just through the low point between the mountains in the middle of this photograph.
We parked in a small lay-by near Ardlui marina and carried our boats down to the river. We being Alan and myself.
Ardlui is a water sports village at the top end of Loch Lomond just seen here behind the board paddlers. I don't know if you can hire them out in Ardlui but we noticed quite a few board paddlers, like this couple, and a teenage group taking instruction on how to use them in this vicinity. Kayaks by comparison, are much faster, more relaxing and use less energy to travel long distances although the board paddlers looked cooler and more sophisticated somehow.
As demonstrated here by Alan's Huckleberry Finn laid back approach.
Which as the day warmed up meant he could dangle both bare feet in the river while paddling. The kayak equivalent of "Easy Rider" motorbikes.
A Canada Goose on the River Falloch.
Feet back in again we explored the River Falloch and made some interesting discoveries as we paddled upriver, away from the loch and towards the Drover's Inn (Iverarnan) Both this pub and the one at Ardlui are well known to generations of hill walkers but when you travel towards them by kayak you see a much wilder side of this area, away from the busy A82. Glen Falloch here looking spectacular.
Alan found a sizable tributary off the main River Falloch, the Allt Arnan, and we followed this for a surprising distance inland. It was heavily overgrown and riddled with fallen trees and submerged hazards but looked as if it had been used at one point as a dock for several boats pre- combustion engine times. With wild and unsafe roads up until a few hundred years ago in the highlands you could sail to Luss or Balloch and back in a day from here for supplies or other travel requirements.
Slightly raised straight banks and large trees at regular intervals. Maybe a safe tie up point for medieval craft away from the annual flooding and damage along the main river. It felt very enclosing and "Southern Gothic" along this stretch although extremely beautiful. Not a breath of wind, no ripples and completely silent. You could easily imagine Cottonmouth Snakes, Snapper Turtles, Alligators or even giant Anaconda lurking below the surface here. It had that kind of languid backwater feel to it. Great to explore however. A smaller tributary opposite the Geal Loch can also be explored for a shorter distance.
In the swamp lands of Ardlui. What a find. Undiscovered Scotland... For us anyway.
A lovely shingle beach was where we had lunch just at the back of the Drover's Inn, still on the River Falloch, but this was our end point as the river gets too shallow here to continue much further with a series of waterfalls further on. The Falls of Falloch.
Next we headed back down the river and into Loch Lomond. Our intention was to paddle across to Doune Bothy on the West Highland Way, a long distance foot path from Milngavie, near Glasgow, to Fort William. At this top end of the loch it is a deep steep trench going down to depths of over 150metres with rugged heavily wooded shores and high enclosing mountain walls on both sides.
Well seen here in this photo with the West Highland Way negotiating a path through beautiful deciduous woodland and small vertical cliffs, towering above Alan in his kayak. Two well used bothies sit along this stretch. Doune and Rowchoish. I've had a few good nights in both but they are pretty basic affairs due to their popularity and close proximity to the Central Belt population of over two million residents.
Doune Bothy interior. We met a guy in here staying the night. This is his wee dog.
Eilean Vow or Island I Vow. Twenty three islands adorn Loch Lomond but most of them are found clustered in the shallower and 7km wide southern end. This small circular gem still contains the remains of a castle and small dungeon and is the furthest island north in the loch. A fortress of the MacFarlane Clan in the area they settled here after their earlier island stronghold on Inveruglas Isle had been destroyed by Cromwell's army in the mid 1600s. The MacGregors on the other side of the loch were similarly punished by the establishment of the day in the 1700s determined to put an end to lawless behaviour during the last days of independent clan authority and bring them to heel... as portrayed in the Hollywood film Rob Roy with Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange. Smaller scale action than Braveheart but probably more authentic to ordinary clan life in the Highlands at that time. Incidentally, the real William Wallace was a lowland fighter from Elderslie, near Paisley ( or maybe Ayrshire) all his days and never went near any mountains if he could avoid them as the locals there would probably have kicked his ass and sent him packing after searching his pockets. His army didn't wear kilts or blue painted faces in battle scenes either- kilts being crap at stopping English Longbow arrows and they weren't that stupid. Dangerous unruly people lived in the mountains at that time with their own regional agendas and interests to protect until they were tamed and dragged off in chains to be given a safe and sanitized 'romantic noble highlander' makeover in Victorian Times but only after most of the more militant residents of the glens were removed, executed or starved into compliance and the age of the grand hunting estates took over with Scotland now portrayed by the more enlightened 1800s as a largely empty and safe theme park for the wealthy elsewhere to enjoy. Popular misconceptions and distortions of the past happen in every society as the winners usually re-write the script afterwards to suit their own ends and this becomes the 'truth' still widely preferred around the world today. A Scottish myth started by Sir Walter Scott in his influential novels of the period and continuing into modern times with the equally popular Outlander series of books and films. Preferred because its a simpler more heroic version compared to the often tangled, murky or downright unpalatable events with double dealing, bad behaviour, dodgy politics and deceit on both sides commonplace during any major upheaval in society ... well...just like it is today in fact.
The Geal Loch. River Falloch. A small reedy lochan in Glen Falloch just above the northern end of Loch Lomond but not visible to the A82 motorists whizzing past to get to Crianlarich and Fort William. Could be another country a stone's toss away from that busy tarmac ribbon full of bank holiday traffic and the inevitable jams and hold ups.
Doune bothy window display. It's the little things that make a home from home.

A suitable sultry video for this post. Mysterious, slightly dark and Hot Hot Hot!

Saturday 4 June 2016

Cross Fell, 2,930 feet. Cumbria. Pennine Way. England.

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A trip over the border to climb Cross Fell, 890 metres, 2,930 feet, the highest mountain in England outside the nearby Lake District  and also the high point of the long distance Pennine Way. It's a big beast of a hill notorious for having it's own powerful wind, the Helm Wind, which roars down its flanks during certain conditions and in ancient times was known as "Fiends Fell" due to the howls and shrieks sometimes produced by this unusual phenomenon at its severe best. The only named wind in Britain, incidentally.
It's also known for dense fog banks hanging over the summit so we were very lucky when Graeme, and Alex suggested a trip to climb it a couple of months ago on a lovely sunny day.
Our start point was from a small car park ( probably Kirklands as I don't have a map of that area) which lies to the east of Penrith, one of our favourite Cumbrian towns as we normally stop off there to get a Cumberland Sausage Supper after a trip to the Lakes. Although psychologically far distant in the minds of most Central Belt hill-walkers, fixated on the Scottish Highlands, this area and the adjacent Lake District can be enjoyed a mere two hour drive from Glasgow and both districts feel much closer time wise than anything north of Oban or Fort William thanks to wide straight roads. Having recently spent an hour stuck in the usual bank holiday traffic last Sunday heading down Loch Lomondside, a regular occurrence nowadays at this notorious bottleneck every sunny summer weekend this is a good if surprising alternative to avoid the masses. Arrive early though to get a space in the small car parks dotted around which does mean an early start and arrival before 9:30am.
As we climbed higher we started to get views over the 3000 foot plus peaks of the English Lake District, still draped in winter snow. Being taller and covering a larger area they attracted more clouds on and off throughout the day. Cross Fell is reminiscent of the Eastern Cairngorms or the Blair Atholl hills as it looks deceptively easy from the bottom but is one of those giant hog back monsters that always seem to take ages to ascend.
After a great dry start on good tracks the ground conditions turned slightly spongy the higher we climbed and the middle section introduced us to the typical featureless moorland, extensive bogs and boulder fields characteristic of the Pennine Way which runs down this high central spine of Northern England. In fierce wind conditions, driving rain or fog it would be really miserable up here and tricky to navigate with zero shelter apart from the man made structures that dot the landscape.
By the time we reached the summit of Cross Fell a bitter wind had picked up and it was no longer the calm warm morning experienced at the valley car park, where we had watched a red squirrel foraging for food beside the stream. Mostly obscured by vegetation or trees as it bounced around 50 feet away it defied our best efforts to get a clear photograph of it.
At this point we decided to split up. Graeme and David were happy with Cross Fell summit and would return the same way whereas Alex and myself, inspired by being in a new area, would carry on along this high ridge line to Great Dun Fell, 849 metres, 2785 feet and bag a tiny section of the famous Pennine Way. Tall cairns marked the path up here for Pennine Way walkers and I'd imagine you would be grateful to see them in poor conditions and limited visibility. At 268 miles, 430km long and over 30,000 feet of ascent in total it is reputedly England's toughest long distance footpath and you can see why here when much of the high level action takes place in such empty and featureless terrain with little in the way of shelter from the elements although the surrounding valleys are beautiful and pleasant of character. Good map and info here.

A flagstone path runs from Cross Fell over to Great Dun Fell to limit erosion of the surrounding bog.
We met four walkers on the way up the first hill and the only other person we bumped into after Cross Fell summit was this intrepid mountain biker racing along the flagstone highway at a great rate of speed. Far faster than I'd like to travel myself on a bike with such a tricky ribbon to follow so he must be good. Maybe we just caught it on a quiet day but many Munros in Scotland these days are far busier than this and it did have a remote empty feel all day.
Great Dun Fell has the usual golf ball radar installations adorning its summit. Some winter snow still lingering along this high escarpment.
On the way down we cut straight off the summit, heading for the village of Millburn. A nice descent with old mine workings, interesting animals and good views.
A herd of Belted Galloway Cattle, a tough distinctive breed well suited to upland conditions and limited grazing.
One of them had an itchy neck and was rubbing it on a lump of abandoned building.( probably mine workings as we had followed the rusty remains of an old overhead cable-way capable of lifting metal buckets of materials up or down the hillside.

Getting lower and entering productive farmland again

Further down we encountered a field of heavy horses enjoying the afternoon sunshine and fresh spring air. Nature gets revitalized by the onset of "Spring" as well it would appear.
By this time it was feeling like a long hike back to the car but luckily kindhearted Graeme eased our suffering by driving to meet us, picking us up in this neat village square. A bus shelter view and a well earned rest stop.
On the journey back we stopped off at the Little Chippy in Penrith for our traditional hill-walking fare of Cumberland Sausage and Chips. They don't sell these tasty treats in Scotland in any chip shops we know so this local produce is always sampled when we are down in Cumbria. A great day out and an unexpected destination.
We had a wander around Penrith in the evening before getting our chip suppers but this new development area, while interesting, appeared empty and had none of the character and long history of the original town centre close by.
Our mecca for hungry hill walkers. Great chip shops can be hard to find but I've yet to discover a bad one in Cumbria. Cumberland Sausage Heaven.

I'm not a fan of tribute bands normally but I came across this group on You Tube recently and they really capture the soul, magic and essence of the original artist to a high degree. Obviously you need the original songs and material/creator in the first place to start with but as Kate Bush rarely tours and her tickets are like gold dust I would happily watch this band live- not as any inferior substitute but as a unique experience in their own right. At £60 to £100 plus pounds a ticket I would never expend the energy to see K.B. anyway in person as it usually involves dates in major English cities rather than Scotland but I would definitely go to see Cloudbusting and really enjoy it... and at £12 to £20 pounds that is well within my budget range for bands.
On the strength of their videos online they could do a nationwide tour in their own right and fill halls across Britain and Europe if they so desired but the music industry being what it is today even the original artists struggle to make a reliable living at it and they probably have full time jobs that pay better money on a dependable month to month basis. Worth a watch. Real star quality and dramatic tension achieved.