Thursday, 18 January 2018

INSPIRATION via THE POETS GLEN

Edinburgh's nickname, which perseveres today, is Auld Reekie (old smoky), earned from the days of coal and wood fires, smothering the city in smoke. It was first called so by the Edinburgh poet Robert Ferguson in 1752, known to Robert Burns as "his elder brother in the muse".

During the 1700s, and into the 1800s, Edinburgh was home to a variety of writers and poets. As well as Ferguson there was Allan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Of more recent times, and living to the ripe old age of 97, was Will H. Ogilvie.

They all had one thing in common. They would escape the smoke of the city into the nearby Pentland Hills, where they all drew inspiration from its landscape and seasons. They influenced Stevenson at the start and end of his literary life, and so too Scott, for who it was Carnethy Hill in particular. For Ramsay he found inspiration for his book The Gentle Shepherd, while Robert Ferguson wrote his wintry poem The Daft Days.

On a 2018 wintry, blue sky day, with our own inspiration, Pauline and I took a short ramble along the Pentland Hill's northern peaks, and where better to start than appropriately through Poets Glen, on the outskirts of the city suburb, Currie.

The ground was frozen solid beneath our feet and a light dusting of snow was on the hills up ahead. The path through the little glen twists and winds its way over a small burn and through tall trees, to emerge beside open fields, sporting a feint green tinge of new winter-sown crop shoots. It was a cracking day for the hills, and a fair number of people had clearly had the same thought.


Our route took us east up the gentle slope of Capelaw from the base of nearby Harbour Hill. On the top, with our backs to the city the southern summits were in view, with Sir Walter Scott's Carnethy Hill just off to the west. Turning round 180˚ the view from the top went on forever, looking north all the way to the Highlands. In the foreground was the newly opened Queensferry Crossing road bridge.


Despite the bright sunshine it was bitterly cold if you stood around too long. It was still winter after all. So after a quick lunch stop of piping hot, homemade soup from our flasks, we took in our last two hills; Allermuir and Caerketton, the latter hosting Europe's largest artificial ski slope.


Just like Robert Ferguson 250 years ago, we headed home with bags of inspiration from the Pentland Hills for that best selling poem. Well, excited anticipation of mugs of hot chocolate actually.


Friday, 12 January 2018

IT'S THE LAW

20 miles east of my house, just a half hour away, is the small coastal town of North Berwick. There is archaeological earthings around the town dating back some 2,000, but the first record of its current name, stated as Northberwyk, dates from 1250. The name Berwick translates as barley farmstead.

Many's a time I have visited the small town, and a few years ago I started off on my bicycle for a cross country ride following the John Muir Way, as North Berwick is the famous naturalists birthplace.

On the south edge of the town stand a small conical hill some 600ft high, called Berwick Law.


The hill is actually an ancient volcanic plug, blown there some 300 million years ago from a giant volcano that covered Edinburgh. The enormous Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh are part of that same volcano, they being the remnants of a lava tube. Slowly, the glaciers carved away everything inbetween, but somehow Berwick Law survived the erosion.

More astonishing to me was the despite its proximity, I had never been to the top. So during the Christmas and New Year holidays, it was a wee adventure for Pauline and myself as part of our list of things to do.

It is a very easy path up, though in places a mud bath due to its popularity. In no time you are atop its summit, and there, perched on its peak, are two bones from a whale jawbone. Well, fiberglass replicas actually. A jawbone has stood there since 1709, replaced several times over the years, but in June 2008 the most recent one was removed due to having rotted away. A donation was made to have the replica constructed so that North Berwick could have its famous landmark back.


As we stood taking the customary photographs, up above we heard an all too familiar call, as a skene of around 100 geese flew overhead. 


Summit ticked off we headed down its eastern flank into town and followed The Glen, a wooded glen with a small burn and home to broadleaf trees of Ash, Beech, Oak, Elm and Sycamore. There are three ruinous water mill buildings dating from the Middle Ages along the banks of the small burn, and we followed its dirt path and boardwalk down to the beach and the waters edge. From here we had a clear view across to Bass Rock, itself another volcanic plug of the same age as the Law. This one however stands 2km offshore and in the breeding season is home to the worlds largest colony of Gannets.


A wander along the beach brought us back to our start point and home, for what else, but coffee and cake.


Friday, 5 January 2018

THAT DARN WALK

A new year, a new beginning, and I was itching for a new walk somewhere. Being the holidays, transport links were minimal, so finding somewhere away from the usual haunts in and around Edinburgh was tricky. Luckily I have a personal oragniser that can help with these problems. Not the personal organiser of the leather-bound type in the 80s, but my good friend, Pauline.

So it was, on a lovely winters day, that we took a short train ride to a little old town, sheltered by the Ochil Hills just north of Stirling, its origins dating back to the Iron Age, called Bridge of Allan. By the mid 1800s Bridge of Allan had become a renowned spa town.

Just a couple of hundred yards beyond the railway station is Allan Water, which rises in the nearby Ochil Hills and eventually joins the Forth. This was the start of the first part of our walk, an old 4km path to Dunblane, called the Darn Walk, thought to have its origins back to Roman times.

A short distance along the path we came upon an old cave, with giant roots and boughs of old trees emanating from its upper edge. Beside it was a more recent bench, carved with depictions of pirates and buried treasure. The author Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area often, and it is said that the cave was one of his favourite spots and it may well have been the inspiration for Ben Gunn's cave, a character in his novel, Treasure Island. We stopped a short while for a coffee and a sandwich, kept company by a hungry Robin, flitting down to take the scraps I purposely dropped.

 
The temperature was sitting at zero for the whole day, and there was not a breath of wind. On our right the fields' fences and withered grasses were encrusted with white frost, their crystalline structures glinting in the sunshine, and the low angle of the suns rays created long shadows on the path ahead, like a scene from some spooky fairy tale of witches and warlocks.

In places the path was bound either side by stone walls carpeted in thick green moss, creating an enclosed road of sorts. Underfoot, where the path was shaded by the tree canopy bending over, the path was muddy, and where the path traced its way across open land, it was frozen hard.

The varied nature of the walk revealed something new around almost every corner, making the all-too-short walk the highlight of the day. Within a very short space of time we were in Dunblane. The town dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries, and at its heart stands a large Medieval cathedral, because of which Dunblane is often referred to as a city.


The steep high street leading up from the Allan Water also feels old in its architecture, and the buildings either side, comprising of shops and homes, were unique and distinct in their character.


Just short of the cathedral is an old post box, painted gold rather than its customary red. The tennis star Andy Murray was born in Dunblane, and the painted post box marks his gold medal win at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

A picnic lunch and coffee consumed on the bridge across the river, we now turned due west toward the village of Doune, 6km away, following the Old Doune Road, which mostly took the same line as the old railway, closed in Beaching's carve up of the railways in the 1960s. We were ahead of time to meet our bus connection and so we ambled along, enjoying the peace and quiet of the Scottish countryside in winter, with views to the snow capped mountains of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin, which had also been visible iduring our last walk over Benarty Hill in Fife. Further west were the high peaks of Ben Ledi and Ben Lomond.


By early afternoon we were in Doune, which dates back to the 14th century, and is not only famous for Bonnie Prince Charlie having passed through in 1745, but more recently as the location for my young students film, Operatunity Knox! Doune was also once famous for the manufacture of pistols, and it is said that a Doune pistol fired the first shot of the American War of Independence. Dating even further back are the remains of a Roman Fort, from around 79AD, during the first incursion into Scotland.

So we had started along an old Roman path and now ended at the site of an old Roman Fort. From here our chariot, in the form of the number 59 bus, took us back to Bridge of Allan for our train home.


Saturday, 30 December 2017

THE SLEEPING GIANT

OK, so my blog is a day late. But it is the holidays!

Roughly 40 miles north of Edinburgh is the City of Perth, and the two are connected by a motorway, the M90. Many's a time I have been traveling south back to Edinburgh on this motorway, when around halfway I pass Loch Leven. There's a nature reserve there and a flat cycle path all the way round its 15km circumference. On an island stands a castle, famous for imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots for a year in 1567, when she was forced to abdicate. 

We've cycled this area a number of times, but there is one aspect I see every time I go past, but have never ventured on to, and that is Benarty Hill, also known as the Sleeping Giant. At just 200m in height, it dominates the landscape, standing guard over the south edge of Loch Leven.

So on a frosty, almost windless day, Pauline and I made the short journey by train and connecting bus, to ascend the hill from its south flank. It only takes about an hour to reach the top, but for such a small hill the views are pretty amazing, uninterrupted all the way to the Highlands.


Above our heads two gliders were gracefully catching the updraft from the side of the hill, and in the far distance I could clearly see the flanks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, capped in snow. It was a great vista, but even without the wind it was still bitingly cold, so we didn't hang about, and traced the ridge east to find the way down toward the Loch on the north side.


We were hoping to catch sight of a skein of geese coming in to land at dusk on the Loch. Having stopped briefly on the way down for a bite to eat, we followed the steep path to the RSPB centre called Vane Farm, right on the edge of Loch Leven, which forms part of the 2000 hectares of the National Nature Reserve. In the centres cafe we warmed up with hands wrapped around mugs of hot chocolate, before venturing out onto the reserve itself to view the wildlife from the hides.


Most of the birds were at the far ends of the isolated ponds of water, and the low sun was casting a wonderful late afternoon light on everything. We moved from hide to hide and waited patiently for the geese to arrive, but there was no sign of them. In the distance we could hear the Whooper Swans calling as they sheltered on the banks of the pond as other birds came in to land for the night, among them curlews, but no geese.


The sun had gone and it was time to traverse the eastern shoulder of Benarty Hill back to our start point. High above us a half moon was crystal clear. With the naked eye you could make out large craters, but using binoculars the detail was staggering. Half way up, on the edge of the shadow, was a very visible crater, and I surmised it must be gigantic to be able to see it in such detail. I have no idea what the name of the crater is, but I could have stood and stared at it for hours.


Just then Pauline heard a familiar sound. As we turned our attention back toward Loch Leven, in the pink skies of the setting sun, a hundred geese flew overhead in V formation.

Job done.


Friday, 22 December 2017

WALKING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND

It's cold, which is correct for the time of year, but sadly no snow for a white Christmas here in Edinburgh . . . yet. But one thing is guaranteed and that's the twinkling lights of the city decorations.


On the shortest day/longest night of the year, Pauline and I met up at Valvona Crolla's in the Jenners department store on Princes Street. This is by far one of the oldest traditional department store I know of, having been started in 1838, just four years after Harrods in London. But we weren't starting here because of that, or even to buy anything. We were here for the Jenners Christmas tree, and institution in itself, and one which many a grown can remember going to see as a kid.


Hot chocolate and cake later we wandered George Street, an upmarket shopping strip just behind Jenners. At one end a temporary circular artificial skating rink had been created, which looked enormous fun.


From there we wandered the 1km length of George Street and marveled at the effort some store fronts and hotels had made.


At the other end was a collection of temporary wooden huts set out as a Christmas market, and from here we ventured back down onto Princes Street, with the castle facing us off in the distance.

The park in the centre of the city traditionally becomes the centre for all things festive, and this year there were lights and fairground rides everywhere you looked. Aromas of delicious hot food mixed with the sweet smell of scented candles and natural garlands as we wandered through another collection of Christmas market huts.


Together with the traditional music is was starting to feel a lot like Christmas.

 
Merry Christmas everyone.






 

Friday, 15 December 2017

LOCAL WINTER HILLS

Last Saturday I went along to a surprise birthday bash for a good friend of mine, Lindsay, to celebrate his 60th. There was a slight hiccup with the banners, as no one had noticed they actually said, Happy 65th Birthday! Maybe that was the surprise. It was a fun night, with a great local ceilidh band duo, and great food, courtesy of Lindsay's daughter Caitlin. It was held in a handy venue for me, just a 10 minute walk from my house, and almost as short a walk for Lindsay and his partner Gwen. Though they are, like me, keen on walks of a longer nature in the great outdoors.

Pauline was away that weekend in glorious sunshine, and crisp white snow, up in Glen Tilt, at Blair Atholl, and her photos were impressive. So impressive in fact, that I felt a tad envious of her good fortune on being away in the mountains on such a fabulous winters day. Due to work commitment I had missed all the great weather that weekend, and the forecast for the early part of the week was less inviting.

However, when I awoke early on Monday, it was to glorious blue skies, and the temperature was still below freezing. Keen to have some outdoorsey fix and quench that envy, and to have a break from the edit suite, I pulled on my walking boots and cozy duvet jacket, and headed for our local hills, the Pentlands, just a short half hour drive from my front door.

More often than not, the way in to the Pentlands is from the city side, but on this occasion I was able to start from the south side of the Pentlands, at a small, old pub called The Flottersone Inn, and thus enjoy the whole walk in winter sunshine. It was bitterly cold, but thankfully there was not a breath of wind.

Within just 30 minutes I was on the southern ridge line on top of the first small summit of Turnhouse Hill. Winter brings clear skies and so the views can be forever. On this day I could see all the way to the peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin.


From Turhouse Hill it was a leisurely walk across Carnethy Hill and onto Scald Law, the highest in the Pentlands, though still only 579m.


I was happily snapping photos as I went along, when the camera suddenly packed up. I assumed it was the cold and so tucked it away in an inside jacket pocket until I was off the ridge line, and down onto the road that runs alongside the two reservoirs Loganlea and Glencorse, which would take me back to Flotterstone.

I stopped a while watching pairs of Cormorants fishing, when I thought I heard a familiar sound in the sky above me. As I turned my head upwards, five swans flew over in formation, and I was fairly sure they were Whooper swans, though they didn't call out again.

It may not have been the wild, highland mountain, winter adventure that Pauline had enjoyed, but there was something rather satisfying being out there on a Monday morning, on a glorious day, when everyone else was holed up in their offices, maybe looking longingly at the Pentland Hills, wishing they were out there instead.


Friday, 8 December 2017

HUGHIE GREEN . . . GREEN HUGHIE

In the 1970s we had various talent shows on the TV. You could say they were a precursor to todays X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, though with far lower production values. One such programme was called Opportunity Knocks and was hosted by Mr Cheese himself, Hughie Green. So cheesey was his presentation of the programme that Billy Connolly included him in his routine at one point, and liked the coincidence that Hughie Green's name backwards was the same as late night vomit produced after drinking too many Creme de Menthes, which apparently the Pope drinks.

Anyway, we digress. I've just completed filming with the latest youth group up near Stirling. They came up with a story line about a boy whose mother in the past had been a great opera singer, and he too aspires to be the same, but living in small town Scotland, his situation conspires against him.

Back in the early 90s, Channel 4, in collaboration with the English National Opera, ran a competition  called Operatunity. Well, the kids loved that title, but of course it likely had a copyright. However, the good people of Channel 4 clearly saw the value in supporting these students and gave them permission to use it in their short film.

But then we took it a step further. The gave the character the surname Knox, and thus the film became Operatunity Knox.

By a sheer coincidence I had been filming in London the week before, and whilst their picked up shots for them of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, so they could add them to their film.


Filming with two cameras simultaneously and with a drone flying camera for the chase sequences, the production values are such that Hughie Green would no doubt be jealous.