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.