Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mike's Handrailing Masterclass or Peebles to Moffat - the rematch

Regular and attentive readers may recall that last Easter weekend four of us were snowed off in an attempt at backpacking between Peebles and Moffat in the Scottish Southern Uplands.

Well this was to be the rematch. Women, men and dog versus nature.  The team this time comprised three of the previous four: Mike (Northern Pies) Knipe, Alan Sloman and myself plus Shirley (Peewiglet) Worral, Martin (Phreerunner) Banfield, John Jocys, Andrew Walker, Mike Pope and Christine King, seven of the nine having completed the TGO Challenge with a combined number of  (I think it came to) 45 successful crossings.  With such a scorecard, you would think we should have greater success this time round. We were also to be accompanied by Piglet, Shirl's dog.  Or maybe we were accompanied by Shirl, Piglet's provider - I'm never sure with dogs, how the relationship works.

Martin, Mike P and Mike K in The Bridge

As has now become tradition (can you have a tradition after only one previous occasion?) we met up in The Bridge in Peebles with David Albon and Hmp3 Weightman.  The latter handed over a substantial quantity of pie like materials to our eponymous leader, which were never seen again.  Shame on you, you naughty pieman (I feel a limerick coming on here).

"We're going to start with the low route this time and follow the river up Glen Sax.  After that, we'll be following fences and walls for the next two days", explained Mike.  "It's called handrailing".

And so we did.  Everyone was well behaved and vacated the Bridge after only one drink and David walked some way up the glen with us to bless us on our journey before dancing his way back to Moffat.  Don't ask.

The team (L-R): Martin, John, The Pieman, Andrew, Mike P, Christine, me and Alan with Piglet and Shirl at front

We strolled up the glen crossing and re-crossing the stream (for the practice, I assume). 

Glen Sax

As we approached the upper reaches there was some suggestion of sending a Ranger to scout out a camping spot on the saddle at Glenrath Heights but I ignored this crazy talk and suggested the vaguely flattish area about 10m above where we were stopped.  To reinforce this proposal, I got my tent out.  It turned out this was a good decision. Further up would have been less comodious and colder, 'cos it was quite nippy that night on account of clear skies.

Saturday night's wild camp

Day 2: Upper Glen Sax to Megget Stone

Sunday dawned at it's usual time for a largely cloudless 26'th September but it was still too early and we were walking by 8 (ish).  We continued upstream to our first fence.  Martin and Shirl went for a little detour up Dun Rig (it's tickable, I think) and one or two others went off for walks through the heather clutching little trowels. 

Looking for a hand rail or a towel rail or maybe a hand towel. 

We handrailed along the ridge line, in a generally south-easterly direction, high-stepping over heather, and I started to wonder where the footpath had gone.  I'd just assumed at Easter that it had been covered by the snow.  By the time we reached Moffat, at the end of the following day, I finally accepted there wasn't going to be one.

Christine demonstrates eXtreme Handrailing

We dropped down somewhere for lunch and held our ground when some off-road bikers came past.  I believe the front one had expected Mike to open the gate for him but soon got the hint when the Pieman outstared him.  Then after lunch we climbed up some more, without the security of a fence for a while, before Martin disappeared for some considerable time to tick off some more roundy lumps.  It was hard to tell who had more energy, Piglet or Martin.  Piglet was doing most of the walk three times over, running up and down the line, checking we were all there, whilst Martin did the route the rest of us were walking whilst throwing in a few extra klicks and tops for good measure.  Duracell bunnies would have been hard pressed to better either if them.   

Shirl picks heather from Piglet's fluffy belly.  In deference to social conventions borne out of 30,0000 years of human evolution, the rest of us (sadly) didn't get similar treatment.

We followed some more fences and the heather mercifully gave way to short grass and easier walking, with Broad Law appearing in the far, far distance.  "Oh look, it's not far now", I said to Christine encouragingly but I could tell she didn't believe me.

Broad Law in the distance (and a fence in the foreground!)

The ascent to the summit of Broad Law was a bit of a grunty one, coming towards the end of the day, and the descent was interminable.  Well actually of course it wasn't because it did eventually end and we found ourselves at (or at least somewhere close to) The Megget Stone.  John, whose knee was well dodgy, had taken a different route and was already camped by the time we got there.

Unlike the previous night, the wild camp at the Megget Stone was level and benefited from some tins of beer and a bottle of wine, which Mike had cached the previous afternoon,  accompanied by Saucisson sec, assorted cheeses and other nibbles from Shirl and digestifs in the form of whisky based beverages from Alan and Mike P.  How absolutely splendid it all was.  The world seemed a good place and I remember looking out of the tent door around 10:30 to see Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern night sky.

Megget Stone wild camp - the team enjoying an aperatif and crudites

Day 3: Megget Stone to Moffat

I looked out of the tent door and was faced with clag.  The other tents were still there but someone had stolen the tops of the hills from about 30m up.  We packed up and were away by 8:30.  The day started with a stream crossing and a 300m climb, following the fence up the shoulder onto Molls Cleuch Dodd.  (No, I've no idea how you are supposed to pronounce that middle word.)  This may have been a convenient hand-rail but quite honestly, a Stannah stair lift would have been more useful.

At the top there was a showdown with men and compasses and we all 'aimed off' for different points on the same fence.  Successfully regrouped, we trudged through the clag to Rotten Bottom, where we stopped for some lunch, which was made less rotten by blagging some cheese and salami off Christine, who had taken on board my previous comments in July about needing more protein on these walks, whilst I had completely forgotten. Well duh!

After lunch, we set off into some horrific splodging territory and seemingly endless miles of clag and barren moorland and to break the monotony, Andrew started up a game of I-Spy and we felt like a proper rambling group.  F for fence was relatively easy to guess but W for wire proved troublesome, which was odd since we had been following it for miles.

I spy Fences and Wire

Shirl demonstrates splodging

The last big ascent of the trip was Hart Fell, which left the group a bit spread out for a while before regrouping on the summit.

Summit of Hart Fell

From the top of Hart Fell, we dropped down towards Moffat, the cloud lifted and we got to see some fine views.  We stopped at Greygill Head for a snack before the final steep descent by the side of a wood. 

Greygill Head

Descent from Greygill Head

And this was where things went bad and Alan, in crossing a particularly nasty and unnecessary barbed wire fence, lost his footing and cut his hand open, really quite badly.  The full and gory detail can be found on PeeWiglet's plog.  Suffice to say there was a lot of blood and Andrew and Shirl did some first class first aid stuff while Martin jogged back to Moffat to bring a car up to the end of the track.

Alan in an unreasonably chirpy mood

It was an unfortunate end to what had been a fabulous trip.  What I brought away from this incident is that I should go on a first aid course, so that I know a bit more than how to open a band-aid.

For other accounts of this adventure, see

Doubtless Alan will one day be able to type again as well as hold a glass of beer and scratch his nuts, so check here as well

Total distance about 34 miles and around 7,200 ft of upness (by my reckoning).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Macclesfield Forest and Shutlingsloe

I used to have a client near Alderly Edge and for 12 years regularly drove over the Cat and Fiddle from Sheffield.  I must have done the journey more than 100 times and looked over at Shutlingsloe, on each occasion thinking I should make the detour sometime to climb it. It also features in a children's story, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which has an edge of the seat climax involving a giant chicken with the body of a woman chasing the main characters over the summit. I hope that hasn't spoilt it for anyone.  I've also read (somewhere) that Shutlingsloe is sometimes referred to as the Matterhorn of Cheshire.  Well that seems a little hyberbolic but it is nevertheless a fine shaped hill from any aspect.

This walk was taken from a book of Derbyshire walks I've had for about 10 years.  I'm not sure if I've ever actually done any from it - I bought it mainly for the photographs (and it was cheap!)  It starts at the car park by Trentabank reservoir, on the edge of Macclesfield Forest, and bimbles its way west along forest tracks before turning south to pass through fields, generally following the Gritstone Trail and arriving after a short, steep pull, at the Hanging Gate pub, which sits balanced, precariously, high on the edge of the Cheshire plain.

The Hanging Gate

Since we were experiencing a heavy rain shower, there was little hesitation in going inside (it would have been foolhardy and irresponsible not to do so).  The snug, with its welcoming open fire, is one of the snuggest snugs I have ever seen, with space for about 6 intimately close friends. They do good chips!

Our route continued through the gate opposite the Hanging Gate and gave us the first views of Shutlingsloe, which were quite magnificent.

Shutlingsloe from the west

Shutlingsloe again - well it was just a nice view although nothing like the Matterhorn

The clouds lifted and we continued along a path in a manner, which if not aimless was somewhat erratic.  Navigating over farmland has never been a strong point.

We spurned the Crag Inn at Wildboarclough and headed up the road towards Shutlingsloe Farm and the final push to the summit. Well it was more of a puff and a grunt actually.  A push would have been most welcome. How those kids ran up there I don't know, though I guess being chased by a half crazed, chicken legged woman would focus the mind somewhat.

The views from the top are very fine.  On a clear day, you can see mountains in North Wales - or at least that's what the book says.  All we could see was a vague hint of elevation beyond the incredible flatness of the Cheshire plain.  Oh and the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, which, spookily, seemed to have been tracking us throughout the walk.

On the summit of Shutlingsloe

An eye onto the heavens - the big dish of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank

Looking towards Macclesfield forest and the path back to the car

It was blowy up on top, so we didn't hang about for long and it started to rain again just as we neared the forest boundary.  In fact it carried on being showery and from the top of the Cat and Fiddle we followed a rainbow all the way back to Sheffield.

We chased this rainbow across Derbyshire but never did find the pot of gold.  It's an allegory on life.

Distance: 7 miles, 1600 ft ascent.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A few pics from the Hohneck

Actually a pitifully small number.  I think the myrtille harvesting must have erased all thoughts of photographs from my mind.  Anyway, we have...

Looking down the valley from the GR5 towards Munster

The Hohneck from GR5, typical in shape of the rounded hills or 'ballons' of the region.

A very hungry caterpillar!

A rather less hungry me after tarte aux myrtilles!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Information for Cape Wrath Trail caperers and some musings on gear

Just to milk this little adventure as much as possible in terms of blogging inches, I thought I'd summarize a few potentially  useful notes for anyone else thinking of setting out on a Cape Wrath Trail caper, as well as add some thoughts on a few bits of kit I took with me for the trip.

The following information relates to how things were in July 2010.  River levels can go up as well as down, bridges can fall into disrepair and become unsafe, etc, etc.  Standard terms and conditions apply.

Useful information (well we would have found it useful)

Mostly this relates to places to stay and to eat.  There are a few notes on route-finding specifics in the individual posts for each day.  I still don't know the correct way to get out of KLH.

There are bothies at

  • Corry Hully (3 miles from Glenfinnan)
  • A Chuil (western end of forestry in Glen Dessary)
  • Sourlies - this is very small but there is enough excellent camping space outside for a small army
  • Barisdale - £3 per person per night.  Camping in the field opposite the bothy at £2 ppn.  See  Camping in the bay is not allowed.

There are no opportunities for wild camping between Kinloch Hourn and Glen Shiel or at least it is all very lumpy and wet.  The shelter on the west side of Buidhe Bheinn (at NGR 940096) - the Garden Shed - should only be considered for emergency use and is very small.

The camping spots noted by Brook and Hinchcliffe along the River Carnach look ok.

There is no camping at Killilan.  There is a bunk house at Camas-Luinie.  There is a good wild camping site in Glen Ling ( at NGR 945327).

There are hotels at Glen Shiel (Kintail Lodge) and Strathcarron.  Be warned that the prices for Kintail Lodge are per person not per room (next time I will be more careful to check such things).

Kintail Lodge also has a bunk house and a drying room.

There are tea rooms at Kinloch Hourn, the Jac-o-Bite at Glen Shiel and at the Pottery a mile south of Stratchcarron.

River crossings

Most river crossings were bridged and the bridges in a safe state.

There is a bridge across the River Carnach, after Sourlies at NM865964, which is in need of repair but appears usable with care (I walked over it and back)

We had river crossing problems at :

NG928107 where the river coming off Buidhe Bheinn meets the Allt Coire Mhalagain (day 5)

NG934163 where the Allt a Chiore Chaoil meets the Allt a coire Uaine (day 5)

NH006265 where the Allt na Laoidhre meets Allt a Ghlomaich (day 6)


I'd bought a few new bits of kit for this walk.  Most of them performed well.

Neoair Regular - This was good once I got the hang of inflating it hard enough.  It takes me more than the dozen man sized puffs stated in the literature.  Maybe that's for the small one.  The first time I used it, it felt like a water bed but I think it was a bit soft.  It requires 20 of my sized puffs. It's quite narrow but I've got used to that.  I think it was probably worth the money.  It would be interesting to try the larger size.

Skin So Soft  - This just didn't work, well not as a midge repellant.  The chap who runs the cafe at Kinloch Hourn said it didn't work for him either

Skin So Soft + Lavendar Oil (as suggested by Alan Rayner) - This didn't work either but it does make sweaty armpits and socks smell a lot nicer!

Garmin Geko 201 GPS - this worked very well, though the stated accuracy was quite low in some areas surrounded by high mountains.  Don't know if that is usual for this sort of device.  It usually found the satellites in under a minute.  Anyway, it did what I wanted, which was to confirm where I was, is very small and light (88g) and is a doddle to use.  My son reckons that the eTrex H finds the satellites a bit quicker than the Geko.  My experience is that the Geko takes up to a minute to find them, unless it is completely lost and you accidentally press the wrong button, when it takes 20 while it seems to scan the entire universe for signs fo life.

Evernew Titanium cooking pot - There are good reviews of these coming out in the press but I was a bit disappointed with mine for a couple of reasons.  The metal is so thin that it doesn't disperse the heat from a pocket rocket very well.  If all you want to do is boil water, it works fine but heating up rice or a non-freeze dried bag meal usually ends up with food burnt on the bottom of the pan, even if you use very low heat.  I've read since, that titanium is a poorer conductor of heat than aluminium, so the heat won't disperse across the pan base as quickly.  It's probably better with a wider diameter burner but that would add weight to the overall setup, which makes you think you'd be better of sticking with a pocket rocket and aluminium pan. 

Also, the lid flips over sometimes if you don't place it on the pan too carefully and then it's a faff getting it the right way up without burning your fingers.  Finally, the plastic sleeves on the handles could do to be a bit longer.  When they get warm the plastic softens and they slip, so it's possible to end up holding the metal bit, which can be hot.

TravelTap - I blogged about this last year but it's worth saying here that I still love it and the convenience of having fresh tasting, pure water instantly from just about any water source.

Osprey Exos 58 rucksack - I love this rucksack.  I love the pockets.  I keep my wet whether gear in the main one on the back (front?), GPS and day snacks in the mesh ones on the hip belt. water bottles in the mesh side pockets and a ton of stuff in the top and side zip pockets.  If I pack it right, I can go the whole day without having to open the top to get into the  main compartment.

MemoryMap and Ortlieb A5 map case - I cribbed this setup from Alan Sloman after the Moffat-Peebles debacle.  Rather than buy expensive waterproof paper to print from Memory Map, print on standard A4 paper, fold it in half and use an Ortlieb A5 map case, which is both a convenient size and totally waterproof.   I kept the maps I wasn't using for the day in a ziplock plastic wallet inside the drysack inside my rucksack.  Previous day's maps can be easily disposed of, emergency bog paper or for setting fire to things!

There are two things I need to sort out still.  One is a way of keeping my feet drier and the other is experimenting with some freeze dried food.  Last time I tried this stuff, 15 years ago probably, it was disgusting but it sounds like it may have got better.  My daily food ration currently weighs around 750g, which for 4 days feels too heavy - at least I wouldnt complain if it was lighter, as long as what I was carrying tasted ok and didn't leave me feeling hungry.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Hohneck

Over the years of travelling I've found that some of the most interesting places you come across are the ones you find by happenstance. The deserted beach in north west Scotland with golden sands stretching as far as the eye can see, the bistro/cafe in back lane of a city or a family run hotel deep in the countryside with an unpromising facade but a menu of superbly cooked, local dishes (and really here I'm thinking France for this) and of course that surprise view, as you round a corner on a road or a mountain track (though it's less of a surprise if someone has marked it on a map as 'Surprise View')

And so it as with the Hohneck (1362m), third highest point in the Vosges, an area of north east France, to the west of the Rhine and geographically and geologically speaking the French equivalent of the Black Forest on the German side of the Rhine.  It's part of the Alsace, which over the centuries has changed hands between those two countries, the last time being after WW1, when it became French once more, and this explains the number of German place names.  It's terribly confusing, especially when the local French people speak to you in German.

I was on a road trip last week with my daughter in our campervan.  We'd arrived in Calais, driven up through the Belgian Ardennes and then onto Luxembourg city, a quick visit into Germany, past the steel industry of Saarbrucken, which possibly makes Sheffield, even at it's peak of steel production look a bit tame, and then crossed back into France with the intention of looking round the old part of Strasbourg.  We arrived in the Vosges from Strasbourg not exactly by chance but certainly by circumstance, preferring not to cross back into Germany and the Black Forest (it feels so tense on that side of the Rhine) and constrained to be back at Calais in 5 days time, thus putting a limit on how far south we could go.

We stopped on a campsite on the edge of Munster, a small town of robust cheese and a spectacularly pretty main street of colourful half timbered buildings and so clean and tidy, it could be in Switzerland. Gone it seems are the days of France being a country full of litter and toilet paper. Even my daughter commented on how there were no discarded sweet wrappers and drinks bottles on our walk.

The road out of Munster goes up to the Col de la Schlucht (a name having an impossible number of adjacent consonants, so that it could almost be Welsh, only it's German - or is it French? I give up.).  Anyway, it's a bit like the Snake Pass only easier to drive and having a small ski centre at the summit of the col at 1139m.

It was a rather grey and blustery but we were up for a walk and the Hohneck was only about 3kms away and 100 vertical metres.  As the detail on my road map was a bit thin even for such a short walk, we called in one of the shops on the col and picked up an IGN 1:25k.  This only served to confuse me more. "That way", I pronounced, trying to sound confident, pointing south and we set of towards the base of the chair lift where, given the lack of obvious path, I decided to risk some dodgy French on the man selling tickets for the luge d'ete. "Monsieur.  Le sentier pour le Honeck, c'est par ici?" Amazingly it worked and he told us to go up the piste to the top ski station and follow the "ballons rouges" which were large orange lollipops on poles. It was a bit of a steep pull up by the side of the lift but levelled out at the top into a pleasant stroll through woods of birch and oak and some other kinds of arbres, and we strolled along a track lined with myrtilles (bilberries ) and wild raspberries which necessitated frequent harvesting stops.

After 1 to 1.5 km, the woods give way to open countryside, along a ridge of alpine meadows and grazing bell toting cows, with steep cliffs of volcanicky looking rock falling away to the Munster valley on one side and more gentle slopes on the other. This is part of the GR5, the Routes des Cretes. On the far side of the coombe about a km away, we could see a rounded summit with a building on it, which we hoped might be a mountain cafe, as it indeed was. You can in fact drive to within a few metres of the summit, so there were quite a lot of non-walkers inside as well as a couple of backpackers, who looked like they were on a more serious mission.

Tartes aux Myrtilles guarded by the madame!

On the walls were pictures of the region, a few cow bells and other items of 'tat' to tempt the tourist. I ordered drinks and a tarte aux myrtilles for the two of us and we watched out of the window as the thin, whispery clouds raced up the valley at our eye level and a few spots of rain started to fall. The tarte was heavenly - my daughter said it was the best thing she had ever eaten - and had the tray of remaining tartes not been so well guarded by the madame, we might have been tempted to run off with it. The coffee on the other hand was an extreme disappointment. It used to be that any self-respecting establishment in France would serve real coffee made with freshly ground arabica beans as a proper, full on espresso created with all the hissing and wooshing gadgetry of a Gaggia. That no longer seems to be the case and whereas in England now everywhere serves coffee, usually made with cheap, bitter tasting beans, a culture of 'instant' seems to have overtaken France.  Quelles horreurs, c'est un catastophe! I do hope I'm wrong on this and I've just been unlucky in the places I've bought cofffee on this trip but I suppose working an espresso machine is a dying art.

Mountain restaurant at top of Hohneck

The wind was no less blustery when we stepped outside but the cloud had come in, so we took a few quick photos of some murk from the summit and headed back out of the car park to retrace our steps. By the time we reached the top ski station, the lateness due in part to yet more myrtille forraging, the lift had stopped. I'd hoped we might blag a ride down as my daughter has never been on a ski lift.  Instead we made do with walking and trying to spot where we'd left the campervan, debating whether I had in fact put the hand brake on.

It wasn't a big walk but it was quite special.

(More pics to follow)