Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Birks of Aberfeldy

Sunday 26th August 2018

On the day before this walk I came up to Scotland in lovely, sunny weather reminiscent of the fabulous, hot, dry summer that was coming to an end, and woke to grey, overcast skies heavy with rain. After all the dry weather the rain was back, and normal service in Britain was resumed. Upon reaching the town of Pitlochry I had taken advantage of the warm, dry evening to take a walk around the town, down to the river and up to the dam. It was a nice way to unwind after the long journey. The following morning I retraced my steps down to the River Tummel crossing over the suspension bridge just a short distance downstream of the Loch Faskally dam before passing the Festival Theatre and up into the conifer plantation beyond. Soon the wide track was left behind and I was climbing a narrow path through the woodland that was lined with devil’s bit scabious, bracken and loads of pale orange mushrooms thriving in the damp conditions.

Rain was lingering in the air and would soon fall in earnest but for now I had a brief respite as I climbed the hillside eventually reaching the top where I passed the remains of stone circles. The trees have closed in on the archaeology preventing access so I continued along the path and out onto the open moorland on the southern slopes of the hill. This was a much more agreeable landscape with heather, gorse and the broom shrub covering the ground and views into the distance of the mist enshrouded Tay valley. Slowly the path brought me through the increasing rainfall down the hillside through the pleasingly wild terrain and into a young oak wood to eventually reach the village of Strathtay at the bottom of the valley. Since leaving Pitlochry I had been following the route of the Rob Roy Way and after crossing the River Tay this took me onto the route of a disused railway. By this point it was raining quite heavily so there was not much for me to see as I made my way along, which is often the case on old railway lines as often the scenery doesn’t change with nothing to see but the line stretching far into the distance. The most interesting point was when the line seemed to be sitting at the top of a very high and narrow embankment surrounded by dense woodland, but would have looked more dramatic in better weather.

Eventually I came off the old railway line and dropped down to beside the River Tay where more wild flowers decorated the scene although there was also a heavy density of the invasive balsam providing a sweet aroma to the wet surroundings as I made my way through the heavy rain into the village of Aberfeldy. After having my lunch I noticed that the rain had eased so I headed off towards the Birks of Aberfeldy, which is a spectacular gorge made famous by the poet Robert Burns. I don’t know the song, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the walk along the well-constructed path that weaves through the birch trees and either side of the Moness Burn as it falls through a deep ravine in a stunning setting. Woodland ravines such as this are magical places no matter what the weather and I thoroughly enjoyed the climb despite the resumption of the heavy rain as I neared the Falls of Moness where Burns was prompted to write his famous song. Getting a good view in these gorges is difficult and at Aberfeldy the path has to climb steeply to get high above the burn to a spot where a view can be made through the trees of the waterfall, although even from this spot vigorous growth of young trees has marred some of the view.

The path continues beyond the viewpoint descending onto a bridge that sits just above the falls with quite vertiginous views down the full height of the waterfall. Heading away from the falls I took a path that heads west gradually descending across the open hillside in the pouring rain eventually reaching the farm of Dunskiag where I turned sharp right to head back east towards Aberfeldy. On reaching the Moness Dun Wood I dropped back down to the burn and followed it downstream back into the village where I could catch a bus back to Pitlochry. This was really a very short walk around the gorge that inspired a Burns song and had been extended by walking along the Rob Roy Way from Pitlochry. It would still have not been long enough but I didn’t need to go to further lengths to prolong the walk due to the rain, which had prompted a late start and made an early finish desirable. I also enjoyed the walk over the hill from Pitlochry to Strathtay, especially the descent through heather and oak woodland, so despite the poor weather I have to say this was still a good walk.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

St. Sunday Crag and Great Rigg

Saturday 12th May 2018

Throughout my holiday in the Lake District I was trying to reach the summit of all of the Wainwright fells that are more than two and a half thousand feet high. There are fifty-six such high fells and by the start of the last day of my holiday I had completed fifty-one. Unfortunately I would not be able to complete the list because bad weather had prevented me from reaching three of the summits. This was always going to be likely in the Lake District where the weather is notoriously changeable, and many other factors can also force a change of plans. Taking this into account it is astonishing that I managed to do as many as I did, so my goal should realistically have been as many of the High Fells as I could. The weather for this final day was amazing, virtually perfect, as I left the Patterdale Youth Hostel along the pavement beside the road heading south. I had never taken this route before having always assumed there was no pavement making it better, and safer, to cross the valley and follow the bridleway on the other side. To my surprise I was able to safely get to the turning for Deepdale onto the path that passes several houses on its way into a valley that I had never walked in before. I have been missing out on a quiet valley with a stunning surround of high fells and a fabulous array of cliffs at the end.

My first goal for this walk was St. Sunday Crag which is usually climbed from Patterdale via the lower fells of Arnison Crag, or more usually, Birks, however since I had been focused just on the High Fells during this holiday I wanted to try a route that avoids these subsidiary tops and ascends straight for St. Sunday Crag. Therefore after walking along Deepdale for a while, just after crossing Coldcove Gill, I headed up the steep hillside on a wide path through dead bracken, beyond which an exceptionally faint path continues up the grassy fell in the glorious sunshine. Slowly I made my way up the fellside with some lovely, little wild flowers in the ground revealing a spellbinding display that you simply do not see in the more heavily trodden areas of the Lake District. I would like to return in the summer to these slopes when these flowers are at their best, though it is a shame that the sheep and popularity of the Lake District restricts displays such as these to such quiet locations. Further up weaving around rocks and in amongst heather and bilberry I eventually reached Lord’s Seat where the ground levelled affording stunning views across the Far Eastern Fells and Birks, while a clear path now appeared directing me to the striking conical point of Gavel Pike.

A steep climb, including a bit of a scramble, brought me to the top of the deliciously craggy Gavel Pike where the views in the fabulous sunshine were far-reaching and stunning. The top of St. Sunday Crag had now finally revealed itself, but the most picturesque views were over the top of Birks to the western tip of Ullswater nestled at the foot of Place Fell. It was now a simple matter to walk from Gavel Pike across the gently sloping terrain and up to the summit of St. Sunday Crag where the views continued to astound in this tremendous weather. Fairfield still dominated the view at the head of Deepdale, but as I made my way down the glorious ridge it was the Helvellyn range that was drawing my eye. From Deepdale Hause I started the fantastic climb onto Cofa Pike that is very steep involving some delicious scrambling and was great fun keeping to the top of the ridge across the top and up the screes to Fairfield. I had passed over Fairfield a couple of days previously and I couldn’t count it twice, however since I had plenty of time I stood on the edge of the plateau gazing out towards the heart of the Lake District and enjoyed the view.

During the ascent the Eastern Fells had dominated the views but now the rest of the Lake District was opened out before me. I could see the distinctive dome of Great Gable on the horizon and from there started naming the peaks on either side. This is a great game to play when at the top of a High Fell in the Lake District in great weather when time is not important and the splendid array of fells in spread out before you. Eventually I set off once more heading towards the ridge that gradually descends to reach Great Rigg, my fifty-third and last High Fell of my holiday. Unfortunately just as I had started making my way down from Fairfield I realised that I had left my cagoule in the Youth Hostel. Any other day of the holiday this would have been a disaster, however fortunately it was warm, I didn’t need the jacket at that moment, or for the rest of the holiday as this was the last day so I could get it back at a later date. With this cloud hanging over me I reached the top of Great Rigg and the culmination of my challenge on this holiday. While having my lunch gazing out over the stunning Lakeland scenery I noticed a few people at the top were setting up for some sort of race. I kept out of their way and just as I was finishing the first runners appeared soon followed by others.

I had originally planned on descending to Grasmere over Stone Arthur but with the weather being so good, and since I had plenty of time and didn’t want the walk to end I stayed high heading south towards Ambleside. As I made my way along the ridge from Great Rigg I was passed by hundreds of fell runners streaming past me on the Fairfield Horseshoe Fell Race while I slowly, dawdling, headed along the ridge trying to keep out of their way. By the time I reached Heron Pike all the runners had passed and I was able to enjoy the fabulous ridge in the glorious weather all the way to Nab Scar and steeply down to Rydal Hall where the runners were already passing the finishing line having ran all the way around the nine mile circuit that includes three thousand feet of climbing. By the time I was passing through the grounds of Rydal Hall only the stragglers were left to finish, who had just ran the gruelling course in two and a quarter hours, which is considerably faster than I could have managed. They had amazing weather for the run, and I felt like the Lake District was trying to convince me to stay and, frankly, I didn’t need much persuasion, but unfortunately I had no choice.

Usually after a fortnights holiday I’m ready to come home, but not this time. The Lake District is a really special place and given half a chance I would go there every holiday I can get. I have to force myself to go somewhere else, because there is nowhere better. In the right weather there is nothing better than being at the top of a Lakeland fell, and this holiday has reminded me of this fact and is going to make it even harder to stay away.