1000 mile weekend: Inverness June 2016

Last year my Lairig Ghru walk project resulted in quite a few thousand-mile weekends when I drove up and down to the Cairngorms over three days - this year there haven’t been so many.

On the first weekend in June I had the need and excuse to run up and down the country, and I only very fleetingly contemplated doing so by public transport - see last month.

The excuse was getting to the John Muir Trust Annual Gathering and AGM in Inverness.  

I’ve been a member of the trust for a few years, and supported some of their excellent work in rewilding and habitat restoration in Scotland.  It was really good to get the chance to talk with staff, trustees and other members of the Trust.  I'm really excited that, in addition to the developing Scottish projects, we might finally see some substantial Trust activity south of the border too, in the not too distant future.

Around the Gathering there was the chance to visit places around Inverness - I opted for a guided tour of the RSPB reserve at Culbin Sands - a fascinating place to visit (make sure you take both wellies and a tide table!).  

The Trust had also managed to sign up Pete Cairns to give the after-dinner talk.  Pete is a fantastic photographer and organiser of other photographers - his latest big project is Scotland: The Big Picture - it’s definitely worth finding out more about.  One of his big thought provoking questions is “What should Scotland look like?”.  

My take on that is that simple ‘conservation’ (preserving what we have now) just isn’t going to cut it any more (if it ever did), and that we’re at the stage where we need to be investing in ‘restoration’.  We need to be finding ways to repair ecosystems before we can step back and allow the natural processes to kick back in.

Pete made his points with some fantastic imagery capturing the essence of Scotland as it is now, and also his latest pictures of some of the charismatic Scottish animals - pine marten, osprey, golden eagle, wildcat and beaver.

On the way north I timed my travel so that I had a few hours to wander in Rothiemurchus Forest - doing a little bit of the walk I did so many times last year. I’ve missed doing the regular walk!

On the way south, I stopped off at the Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie.  This is part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland - and one the few places where you can see the animals that could (and perhaps one day will) be wild in this part of Scotland.  I’m not contemplating releasing polar bears, amur tigers or snow leopards into the Cairngorms, but it would be good to think that one day there might be habitats suitable for wolves and lynx somewhere in Scotland, alongside a restored (and reinvigorated) population of wildcats.  

On this visit both the wolves and lynx enclosures were closed off to allow youngsters to arrive without disturbance, but there was a delightful two week old wildcat around.  I could probably have spent all day watching the wild-kitten just being a wild-kitten, but unfortunately the A9 was calling me south. 

In Search of Strudel around the Tiernsee, May 2016

Before you reach for your atlases, the Tiernsee doesn’t really exist.  

It was invented by Elinor Brent-Dyer at some point in the 1920s, and was one of the settings used in a series of books published over many years in the middle of the 20th Century.  The “Chalet School” books were partly set around the shores of a fictional lake, the Tiernsee, in the Austrian Tyrol. EBD (as, I gather, she is referred to by fans) didn’t rely entirely on her imagination to conjure up the Tiernsee, she based her stories around memories of a long visit she paid to the Achensee (which really is in the Tyrol) in 1925.

I’ve never read the Chalet School books although my other half has done so repeatedly - but when the opportunity to visit the Tiernsee/Achensee arose I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation to spend a few days wandering up Tyrollean mountains. And besides, I was promised Apfelstrudel.

The Achensee is in a valley above the Inn Valley in western Austria.  Pretty much everyone who wants to visit the Achensee will wind up coming through the little town of Jenbach in the Inn Valley.  Our route across Europe by train had involved going through St Pancras in London plus Brussels, Frankfurt and Salzburg before we pitched up in Jenbach.  We could have completed the journey to Pertisau on the lakeside using the a funicular railway and the same engine and carriages that EBD (and numerous fictional school-girls) had used and one of the rather more modern lake steamers - but our hotel sent a minibus to collect us.

In addition to the lakeside, the valleys and mountains around Pertisau provide lots walks of all sorts. Ranging from flat-and-surfaced stroll through to fairly extreme climbs - we stuck mostly to the softer end of the scale.  

One of hazards of walking in the Alps is the profusion of guest huts strategically placed around the valleys and tops. In the UK mountain walking inevitably seems to involve stops huddling behind dry-stone walls hoping that the wind will drop for long enough for you to peel the clingfilm from a battered sandwich.  In the Alps the challenge is deciding if you want beer with the schnitzel-of-the-day or coffee with the strudel-of-the-day.  While the strudel-fest is certainly welcome it does rather defeat the feeling of braving the elements, and one of the huts we stopped at even had a vintage bus service if the post-strudel stroll back down the valley looked too challenging.

If the valleys and the tops seem too much, there is a lovely walk along the lake edge that goes right around the lake, and better yet you don’t need to do it all at once.  The regular little steamers chug up and down the lake all day, picking up and dropping off at regular points around the lake.  There’s usually somewhere to buy coffee at each pier - and there’s certainly beer, coffee (and strudel) on offer on the boat too.

Which brings me back to subject of strudel.  I was lured onto the trip by the promise of Apfelstrudel and I can certainly bear witness to the quality of the local strudel. If you’re taking notes, the Gramai Alpe guest-house had the best Apfelstrudel.

However, I did discover that there is something better than Apfelstrudel on most menus - Topfenstrudel just like Apfelstrudel but filled with curd cheese and raisins.  If you're offered it, you should try it.

We spent a very pleasant week staying on the edge of the Achensee - and we certainly hadn’t run out of walks to do.  Next time I’ll want to go back for a bit longer, and it would be fun to go back in winter and to do some of the walks on cross-country skis.  

And I’m sure there are a few strudel-stops I missed on this visit. 

If you want to visit the Achensee (knowledge of the Chalet School is optional) - try InnTravel.

Three days at the South End - Shetland April/May 2016

When given a long Bank Holiday weekend back on Shetland it’s sort of inevitable (for me at least) that I would spend three days exploring three of southern-most headlands on the Shetland Mainland.  And when the three days include an awful lot of dry weather and bright sunshine there really isn’t any better place to be.

Spring on Shetland comes a little bit later than down south.  The Oxford daffodils passed long ago, but the Shetland ones are still in full flower, and while the southern lambing season started weeks ago, up here there are lots of little lambs still trying to figure out how their feet work.

Daffodils at Virkie
Lambing Time on Shetland
Let sleeping lambs lie

Scat Ness

I always list Scat Ness as the place I most miss when I’m not on Shetland.  This is the middle (of the three headlands) geographically speaking - with Quendale Bay on the west side and the West Voe of Sumburgh on the east side.  There is also a old block house out towards the end of the headland, the Ness of Burgi, which always makes me think about the people that live around this area almost 2000 years ago.  Life would undoubted have been hard for people living around here, but for me this is a place to go to simply be surrounded by the waves and the winds.

Ness of Burgi blockhouse
Quiet Day on Scat Ness

Sumburgh Head

This is the main tourist attraction at the South End of Shetland.  Until recently the main draw had been the RSPB reserve, and its incredibly accessible sea bird colonies, particularly of puffins, around the cliffs below the Stevenson-era lighthouse.  In the last couple of years some of the unused lighthouse buildings have been developed as a wonderful little visitor and interpretation centre, and this year a tea shop too.  

The displays around the visitor centre tell the story of life at the lighthouse from when it came into service in the 1820s through to the point in the 1990s when it became automated and no longer needed resident keepers.  These days Lerwick is 40 minutes drive away on a good road - in the 1820s there was no road at all, and the lighthouse supplies all arrived at Grutness by boat before being dragged up the track to the lighthouse buildings. 

The displays also tell the tale of Sumburgh Head’s role in the Second World War, when the newly built RADAR station helped prevent “Scotland’s Pearl Harbour”, when a massive air raid directed at Scapa Flow in Orkney was detected over the North Sea early enough to allow air defences to be put on alert.

Sumburgh Head lighthouse
Looking along West Voe from Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Puffins

Garths Ness

Having contemplated history two thousand years ago on Scat Ness, and 200 years and 70 years ago at Sumburgh, the final stop on my historical tour of the South End brings us to events of the 1960s and 1990s.  

Garths Ness is the westerly of the three headlands I’ve been visiting this weekend, this is a low lying headland in the shadow of Siggar Ness and Fitful Head at the south west corner of Shetland.  On top of the headland is a little group of abandoned 1960s buildings - it took me ages to discover than that these were part of a network of LORAN stations.  LORAN was a navigation system developed after the Second World War to aid maritime navigation mainly in the North Atlantic, long before GPS became the navigation technology of choice.

The other reason that Garths Ness gets a mention in the history books is as the place where the oil tanker Braer ran aground in 1993.  For several weeks in the early months of 1993 this headland was the focus of a disaster, a media frenzy and a clean up operation.  Wandering around the headland today there isn't any sign of the wreck or of the thousands of tons of oil released as the tanker broke up.  The lack of long term damage was entirely down to good luck - the tanker was carrying very light oil (not typical North Sea oil) and the storm that drove the tanker onto the rocks carried on without letting up for several weeks preventing the oil from spreading too far and effectively breaking up the oil so that it could evaporate.  The older local farmers still talk about the fumes spreading across the fields across the south end of Shetland.

Garths Ness LORAN station
Looking across Garths Wick to Siggar Ness from Garths Ness

Six Buses and a Boat - Getting to Shetland, April 2016

I’ve used several different routes for getting from Oxford to the south end of Shetland. 

This time (since I didn’t need a car, and I baulked at the airfare being quoted) I thought I’d try using the direct Megabus Sleeper service from London to Aberdeen, spend the day pottering around in Aberdeen and then get the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.

Bus 1

The trip started very smoothly - the X90 runs from Oxford straight into Victoria Coach Station in London, and gave me just time to get something to eat before joining the queue for the Megabus Gold S9 Sleeper service, direct to Aberdeen.

Bus 2

I was booked on a lower bunk on the S9 - which meant I had a reasonable mattress but had to limbo into the bed and had no space to sit up (In fact I could only just turn over).  An upper bunk was more like a hi-tec hammock but would have offered the scope for sitting up.

I concluded that I probably could manage to cope without turning over for the next ten hours, and closed my eyes and dozed off.  About an hour later I woke up and realised that the bus had stopped and the only movement was the bus being bounced around by passing traffic.  In the absence of a window (from a lower bunk all you could see was the rain-spattered window and the clouds overhead) I consulted my phone to discover that  I was about 5 miles from home in Oxford, on the hard shoulder of the M40.  The bus had inconveniently decided to have an electric issue.  It did however manage to limp to the Cherwell Valley Services where it finally expired.

Bus 3

Eventually a replacement bus appeared.  No sleeper bus luxury this time just a conventional coach - by this time it was about 01:30 and we’d covered about 65 miles in 4 hours and at this rate our 540 mile journey to Aberdeen was going to take about 2 days.  However rather than taking us to our intended destination at some point it was decided that where we really needed to be was Glasgow.  So at about 8AM we were offloaded at Buchanan Street bus station (I suppose it might have been mentioned at some point when I was asleep, but I certainly wasn’t the only one surprised by the turn of events). 

Bus 4

After about 20 minutes loitering without much intent (I had got as far as checking train times for the rest of the journey), another MegabusGold coach appeared - the now busier than usual, and late, scheduled service from Glasgow to Aberdeen.  One fellow traveller did express the view that he certainly hoped this wasn't the same bus we’d started the journey on in London.  This time there was no sign of bunks, the bus was set up in its normal daytime layout - complete with a cheerful stewardess who would regularly foist scones, tablet and Irn Bru on unsuspecting passengers. This bus trundled its way across Scotland stopping briefly in Dundee before reaching the outskirts of Aberdeen. At this point the bus decided that it had way too many tyres and offloaded one with suitably dramatic sound effects. End of bus 4.

Bus 5

We were only about 10 (driving) minutes from the end of the journey, so there was a temptation to complete the journey on foot - but the traditional Aberdeen spring welcome of sleet was in full force, so I just sat still.  The still remarkably cheerful stewardess (who was aware that most of us were at the wrong end of a less than entirely successful journey from London) started drawing comparisons with “On the Buses”.  About 20 minutes later, just as the sleet stopped, yet another bus appeared to successfully get us into Aberdeen Bus Station just under 4 hours later than planned.

The Boat

I had been wondering what I was going to do with my day in Aberdeen.  In fact there was really only time for a decent lunch before wandering over the Northlink Ferry Terminal to check in for the MV Hrossey - where a cabin and a hot shower were waiting for me.  And I’ve probably never slept better on the ferry to Shetland - and we arrived on time on a chilly but beautifully sunny Shetland morning.

Bus 6

Having done all the other land bits of the journey by bus I thought I’d complete the journey with the aptly numbered Number 6 bus from Lerwick which stops about half-a-mile from the Shetland house.

Door to door.  40 hours. 6 buses. And one boat.

Keeping it Wide

Time for a little bit of an experiment.

I've been picking out pictures to show at Oxfordshire Artweeks next month (7th - 15th May, if you've got your diary to hand).  This year I'm sorting out wide images rather than square ones - this definitely lets me see some of my image archive in a different light.

A little selection here - more on the walls next month.  Do come and visit - full details on the Artweeks Website

Greenland Ice 
Clearing Clouds Shetland
Sunset Finland 
Evening Ice Baffin Bay
Early Light Oulanka

In Transit. The Lure of Travel

I probably don't include commuting in this, but I really do get excited at the prospect of going somewhere.

Today, for example, I had the option of sitting at a desk and getting on with some writing (which I should have been doing) or figuring out the pictures I want to show at Artweeks in May (which I also should have been doing), instead I opted to get up at 6 AM to go into London to spend a day pottering around there.

The X90 from Oxford to London (other busses are available) may not qualify as classic travel but it does involve going somewhere.  I'm now sitting in a Starbucks (other coffee shops are available) in the City typing - at one level its indistinguishable from my local Starbucks, but at another level the buzz is different and the overheard conversations in Headington rarely include references to liquidity or over-hedging.

The change from the routine (which is why I excluded commuting earlier) is for me the essence of travel.  When I think about past journeys, or imagine future travels, I find myself concentrating on the novelty.  I recently wrote about the attraction of rail travel - this is the perfect example of continuous novelty, the landscape unfolds around you, there's always something new to see and to try and understand.

So how long do I need to be doing something before it becomes routine?  When I'm planning travels I always get torn between the desire to properly explore somewhere and the lure of moving on to the next place or thing. Is this a recipe for being superficial? Just occasionally I find myself (perhaps against better judgement) having booked into one place for a week. Is there going to be enough to do? Maybe I can do day trips to somewhere else.

Maybe I'm just a tourist at heart.  If I look through my CV maybe it has the same sense of travelling on rather then spending too long doing one thing.  Maybe even my career choice reflects this, I've always looked for new things or new technologies to work with.

But maybe this is all getting too profound for a Friday morning in a coffee shop when I should getting on with some writing.

Journeys of Character

I’ve just put another long-ish European train journey in the diary.  In a few weeks I’ll be heading to the Tyrol in Austria via the Tunnel, Brussels, Frankfurt and Salzburg.  And I’m looking forward to the train days at the beginning and end of the trip almost as much as the mountain days I’ll get in between.  Reflecting on this I’ve been recalling other train journeys over the years.
As a student in Bristol I used to regularly ‘commute’ back to Northern Ireland via train (to Stranraer) and then boat to Larne, and I can still remember the nights spent on slow trains as they chugged their way slowly through the north of England and southern Scotland.  
Forsinard Station - Far North Line

During the summer vacations I used to head in the other direction and use Inter-rail tickets to explore Europe – as far east as Vienna one year, and as far south as Taormina in Sciliy on another occasion.  I still have the mental images (this was in the day before digital photography meant that we snapped and shared everything) of going round Paris by train at night, of waking up in the Swiss mountains and peering out from a claustrophobic six-berth couchettes to see snow-covered peaks, and of rolling slowly into Venice.
Later on I can recall being on the Caledonian sleeper between London and Edinburgh and on the Far North line across Caithness; and further afield on the Shatabdi Express between Delhi and Agra (where we couldn’t see anything through the steamed up double glazed windows) and the slow train between Bangalore and Vellore (in southern India) where we could see everything clearly because there wasn’t any glass in the windows at all.
And later still, touring Scandinavia by train from Stockholm to Oslo and Bergen, and north from Olso to Trondheim and Bodo, and the sleeper from Narvik in northern Norway to Copenhagen in Denmark.   Again (and admittedly these aren’t so long ago) I’ve got vivid memories of the journeys, of the landscapes I was passing through and of the people I met on the journeys and the conversations I had.

Oslo to Bergen in the sunshine

So why are these train memories so vivid? I think it comes down to character – train journeys just have more to make them memorable than do journeys by boat or plane.

Narvik Station

Narvik Station - end of the line.

Over the years (no, to be honest it’s decades) I’ve been on lots of long (and less long) air flights and quite a few boat trips too and in general these just aren’t such vivid memories.   On planes the trips usually just blur together – and on long haul you often only get to see the movies since there seems to be an insistence on darkening the cabins so everyone else can only see the movies. In that case, neither the vehicle nor the journey are very memorable.  There is a difference between a 777 and an A380, but not enough to be memorable once you’re sitting down in your allocated seat! 

Wengen Station, Switzerland
On boats there can be memorable episodes  – and the boats themselves are usually unique  (unlike the planes) - but in general the journeys are usually pretty unmemorable unless the weather decides to intervene with one patch of open sea probably not being too memorably different to the next one. The notable exceptions are coastal voyages like the Hurtigruten up the coast of Norway - am tempted to give this particular voyage honorary 'train journey' status!
On trains, the vehicles themselves are like planes, pretty unmemorable (unless you wind up on one of the restored historic trains) but the journeys themselves are memorable.  
The relatively slow pace and the proximity of the landscape gives you stuff to remember.   The train also doesn’t trap you in your seat – you can wander around and talk to people other than the ones in the allocated seats around you.   

Paris, Gare de Lyon

The slow pace also means that you can see the landscape around you evolve. You pass from urban to rural landscapes, you move between industrial and agricultural and maybe from coast to mountain. You get the chance to understand the geography of a country – travelling at 100 mph makes the transition understandable, travelling at 500 mph makes the transition too fast (even if the clouds keep out of the way).  

Basel, Switzerland

And there are stations!  And stations have place names – I can recall lots of occasions peering out of plane window and trying to figure out which city or bay I’m seeing 30,000 feet below.  Even if the train doesn’t stop as it heads through the station you can usually figure out where you are!
So does this mean I’m always going to travel by train – probably not, but where I can I do.  If there is time I’ll opt for the train rather than the plane for European travel.  For Paris and Brussels it’s pretty much a no brainer (at least if I’m starting in southern England), for other destinations it’s not always quite so clear cut.  

And one day, I’ll get to do real long-haul by train and do Oxford to Vladivostok all by rail.