Wednesday, 1 July 2015

THREE DAYS OF FIRSTS

Breadalbane, "The High Ground of Scotland", is an area that spreads around Loch Tay and surrounding glens in the Atholl area of the Highlands of Scotland. Various routes have been devised and linked for walkers and cyclists, collectively known as the Rings of Breadalbane. It consists of a great many routes I have never experienced. Until now.

On a calm and warm sunny Saturday, something of a novelty this year in Scotland, Pauline and I set out for Kenmore, a small village on the eastern tip of Loch Tay, Scotland's sixth largest loch at 14 miles long.

Setting out from Kenmore we cycled into Glen Lyon, the next glen north of Loch Tay. I had never explored this area before, so this was a first. Within a few short miles we had arrived in a small settlement called Fortingall. On the outskirts of this collection of a few houses is a small church, and within its grounds is what is widely accepted as the oldest living thing in Britain. It was at one time thought to be the oldest living thing in Europe, if not the world, but recent modern expert examination has proven it to be younger. It is still very impressive.


As you would expect, at over 2,000 years old the Fortingall Yew is not the prettiest of trees. Age does not support beauty normally. But what is astonishing is not its beauty, but the very fact that this tree has been growing on this site since the Romans were in Britain! Leading up to the tree is a footpath of flagstones, with dates carved onto their surfaces. Placed at the time when it was thought the tree was 5,000 years old, the inscriptions lay claim to it growing in the stone age and being older than the pyramids of Egypt. I knew about the Fortingall Yew before coming to the area, so it was great to see it for the first time.


The road up Glen Lyon is an easy cycle along the 34 miles of this, the longest enclosed glen in Scotland. A lush Scottish valley, complete with a castle built in the 14th century.


Just five miles before the end of the glen is the Bridge of Balgie, where we stopped a while and enjoyed home made cakes and coffee, sharing our goodies with brave little Chaffinches and Robins. From here a narrow road turns south to take you back over to Loch Tay, past the visitor centre for the Ben Lawers mountain. But we were continuing on to the head of the glen where we would take a disused steep road up onto the saddle of the hills to camp for the night, away from the marauding midges. For the past few hours we had experienced a light head wind and squally showers, but during the night the wind and rain picked up, battering the tent into the early hours.


The morning of day two was less bright but with less showers of rain, and we had the previous days light head wind now at our backs. Once we were down from the hills on a fast road, albeit in poor state of repair, onto the valley floor, the weather brightened up. A quick six miles took us into the village of Killin, at the opposite end to Loch Tay from our starting point. Right in the centre of Killin are the Falls of Dochart, created by the river as it cascades over exposed rock on its way to Loch Tay.


After picking up provisions, and enjoying a morning coffee, we set off south west, along a fairly recently completed cycle path, through Glen Ogle and onto the next glen south of Loch Tay and its body of water, Loch Earn. There are two options here for getting to the eastern end of Loch Earn; either you take the busy north road, or take the single track, south road. The safer option is of course the south road, and once again I had never cycled this part of Scotland before. We picked a nice spot that overlooked the loch to stop for lunch before heading along the southern shore.

Just over four miles later we were in St Fillans at the Loch's eastern tip. In 2005 this little village hit the headlines. A new housing development was halted to avoid killing the fairies that lived on a rock on the proposed site! And yes, the campaigners won and the development was redesigned to preserve the rock!

From St Fillans to Comrie, about four miles further east, we had heard there was a cycle route, helping to avoid cycling the busy A85 Perth main road. It was well hidden but we did eventually find it. It is not signposted so you would never know it was there. Though short, it was a little gem, with the route making use of old wrought iron railway bridges. With this being yet another first it was a treat to "find" this little hidden route.


Our second night was in a small wood high above the village of Comrie. In order to reach the spot we had found we had to squeeze our bikes across a narrow footbridge, which had cleverly made use of the gap between three trees to support the span across a river.


Our final day first took us through the market town of Crieff, which was established in the early 1500s. After picking up more provisions we turned north, following a fun cycle path that cuts through the local golf course and neighbouring woods. From its end we turned north up the main road heading back over to the Loch Tay area and the town of Aberfeldy. Handily, for the cyclist in need, there is a convenient restroom in the middle of nowhere!


The road climbed continually and at just over nine miles we took a narrow road at Amulree heading north west up Glen Quaich, back to our starting point of Kenmore.

By now I was starting to feel exhausted, made all the more rubbish by being overtaken by a touring cyclist with a smaller bike and more luggage! Just as we set off up Glen Quaich we met Scottish cycling celebrity Mark Beaumont, out for a little pootle over to Loch Tay to meet a friend. So off he sped on his lightweight bike with little effort, as I engaged a low gear and groaned at the thought of yet another nine miles uphill.

But this is no ordinary uphill. About half way the road designers thought it would be immense fun to make the road rise almost vertically for over a mile! Getting up this hill without any kit would be hard enough, but with 12kilos of gear on the bike, plus a few extra kilos round my waist, this hill was hell.

So I got off and pushed!  All the way!

By the time I reached the top Pauline had searched and secured a lunch spot, and I collapsed in a heap with barely enough energy left to pull open my tin of tuna.

Of course, what goes up must come down. I had cycled this glen about 16 years ago, but in the opposite direction, so I knew what was coming. At the Kenmore end the road dropped equally as steep, but this time with added hair-pin bends just for fun! This meant constantly pulling on the brakes to avoid taking an even quicker route to journeys end.

Eventually I popped out at Kenmore again and the south shore of Loch Tay, where it had all begun three days earlier. To round off a great three days of cycling, in the last few yards a Red Squirrel ran across my path and scurried up a telegraph pole, watching me from the top, most likely alarmed at my groans of pain from my burning, spent muscles. I did wonder for a moment why the squirrel sign displayed a large exclamation mark. Maybe it was because there were gangs of marauding squirrels jumping passing cyclists from atop telegraph poles!?




Thursday, 25 June 2015

HOW'S THE TOE?

It seems every time I meet anyone I know that is the first question. Nice they remember and are curious, but I thought I'd do a short blog this week to update everyone.

It was on the 20 March that I underwent three procedures on my right great toe to correct it's alignment, alleviate pain in the main joint and improve its movement. For those medically minded out there the three procedures were, an Akin, A Scarf and a cheilectomy.

To say there was swelling afterward is an understatement. The great toe itself was easily twice the size of the left one, and it was all wrapped up for two weeks in a dressing that made it look like I was wearing a giant ski boot underneath.

Back then I was told that after three months everything would be back to normal. That three month mark passed last Friday.

Everything is not back to normal.

There is still significant swelling which causes a fair amount of pain, and if I am on my feet all day then that swelling increases. That said though the pain level in the joint is all but gone, so there is good improvement. Flexibility was predicted to be about 70% but in reality I would say it's more like 20%. Though that is a disappointment it was reducing the pain that was the priority.

Based on the three month prediction I set about organising a challenging adventure on my bicycle, as a reward to myself for getting through the recovery. That adventure starts in two weeks time! I've been out training on my bike for the past few weeks, and my fitness has improved slightly, but I'm going to fall short of where I need to be for this new adventure. I'll tell you all about it on the 17 July. Meanwhile I'm off for a three-day cycle in the Scottish Highlands this week to try and push my fitness up another notch.

So overall I would say that although it has taken longer than I had hoped, it is going in the right direction. I'm not the most patient person in the world, but in things like this there is no choice.


Thursday, 18 June 2015

WHERE MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS STAYED A WHILE

Together with my cycling friend Pauline, last weekend I ventured off on a wee cycle tour just an hours train ride from Edinburgh. We were heading for Loch Leven, a rough triangle-shaped body of fresh water, about 6km at it's longest length.

I've cycled here before but not all the way round. Not because it is a long ride, as it's only 13 miles in total, but because the path only went about two thirds of the way round. But all that changed in  May of last year, when, after 10 years of planning, the route was completed and the Loch Leven Heritage Trail was officially opened.

It is a haven for wildlife, and the RSPB have a visitor centre called Vane Farm at the southern end of the loch, and as well as flocks of birds, it receives flocks of Twitchers all year round, eager to spot that rare visiting bird.

Just a short distance from our start point we passed under a brilliant little shelter atop a small hill, looking out over the loch. It is part of the project recently completed, made from natural materials, and the path passes under and through it.

At one time a railway ran by here until 1964, and on the new trail it has been marked by a mural burnt into a series of logs standing vertically out of the ground. I love this kind of urban art on trails and paths.


What I also love is coffee and cake, and just beyond half way is Loch Leven Larder where we stopped for a short break, basking under the now sunny blue skies. Just before we reached the Larder we passed by a graveyard, and on its western corner stood a two-storey, square stone building, a Keep. Luckily I had Pauline with me who is a mine of information, and was able to tell me that it was built to watch over the graveyard from would be grave robbers in times long ago.

Speaking of times long ago (do you see what I did there?), right opposite was a Keep of another kind. Out on an island called Castle Island, stands the ruins of, you guessed it, a castle.  Apparently Mary Queens of Scots was imprisoned there in the mid 1500s, but then I find everywhere I go in Scotland Mary Queen of Scots either lived there, was imprisoned there or drank tea there!  So who knows. Supposedly there is a key on the bed of the loch that was lost overboard when she was brought out by rowing boat. By now I'm guessing it's rusted away.


The character of the trail changes as you come round the north end and started heading south. After the coffee stop we were in native woodlands, and the path twisted and turned as it weaved in out of the tall standing birch trees.

We were very lucky with the weather, as so far June has been appalling. Starting out from the train station at Lochgelly four miles away, we were under heavy laden skies, but by the time we arrived back at our starting point it was sunny blue skies, though there was still a chill in the air. Until the middle of last century the loch played host to curling competitions on it's frozen surface, but thankfully it wasn't that cold this day.

Another cycle adventure coming up in a couple of weeks, which you can read about here of course. All this cycling is building up to something pretty special, and that is coming up here in July. You'll just need to check back then to find out all about an amazing new adventure.


Friday, 12 June 2015

WILD FLOWERS

It's been a great period of good weather recently, and this inspired me to get out on my bike.

It's been almost four months since I cycled any sort of distance, and this week has seen me slowly building up the distances. Unfortunately the saddle never seems to get any more comfortable!

All of this build up led to today when I set off on a favourite cycle that I've blogged about before. It's approximately 37 miles round trip, from my home in Portobello to the small town I used to go to High School at, Penicuik.

However, I ended up adding a few miles. Over the past two years a new railway line has been in the process of construction, linking Edinburgh with the Borders region (which it used to in the 60s but this was closed. Now at great expense we're putting it back!!!). This building project slices through part of the cycle path as it crosses the town of Dalkieth. I've always hoped that they would eventually install a bridge connecting the two paths up again for pedestrians and cyclists. Today I discovered it has been closed permanently and there is no clear indication of where to detour. Thus I added three miles and a fair bit of time just trying to figure it out.

But that was all forgotten about as I trundled along the "rails to trails" route out to Penicuik. There was a strong heady smell in the air from the proliferation of wild flowers all along either side. I added yet more time to my journey to photograph them all.


What is amazing is that the two sets of photographs on this blog are only half of the variety that I saw over the course of the day. I have no idea what most of them are called, but together with the constant companion songs of blackbirds in the surrounding woods it was a joy the whole way.



Thursday, 4 June 2015

AND . . . ACTION!

Every Saturday I teach just over 100 kids how to make movies at the Pauline Quirk Academy. They're split into three age groups, 6 to 8, 9 to 12 and 13 to 18, over two different academies, morning and afternoon.

We are now at the stage where the kids have to make a short film. Some weeks ago we started a process of all of them coming up with a short film idea. We then worked on each and they all voted for their favourite top three, and from there down to one script that we would actually make.

As a rule of thumb  one page of script is approximately one minute of film, and usually on a 10hour day shoot you can achieve about 3 minutes worth of finished movie. Well, these kids have only three hours to shoot their whole film!


So far we've made two films with the middle age group, and this Saturday it's the turn of the youngest. I'm confident that they'll manage it, with a little help perhaps. What I'm most worried about is the older, teenage group. Their ideas are great, but complicated, and as the weeks have gone by they've added more and more and we're heading towards an epic of Ben Hur proportions at the moment. It's possible we might not get their films completed, but there's a lesson in that.

Their imaginations are amazing, right from the youngest 6 year-olds all the way up to 18. Though as they get older they are less willing to take risks. Two of the films have a kissing scene, and it has been highly entertaining to watch those faced with this daunting task. Did someone say embarrassed!?

In a months time we'll break for a month for summer, but when we return they'll all be working toward more seriously involved films that we intend to enter into festivals. I know they can do it, they just have to believe it themselves. Maybe one of their films will make it to DVD!

Speaking of which, my own feature-length documentary Sleepless til Seattle went on sale recently on Amazon. In the hope of improving sales, yesterday it received a major push and I've spent most of today packaging up 25 DVDs for the USA, UK, Netherlands, Italy and Australia!  There's a couple more to go out but I've run out of packaging!

Be careful what you wish for!


Thursday, 28 May 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE

On 25 April an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck the country of Nepal, not far from its capital of Kathmandu. The quake triggered an avalanche on Everest killing 19 people, and overall to date 5,000 people are confirmed dead in Nepal, with predictions of it reaching 10,000.

After just over one week a new report came in from an isolated valley in the Langtang region, where 250 people were reported missing.

We see news reports all the time on our TVs of disasters occurring all around the world, but when we see the report come from an area we recognise then it hits home just a bit harder.

I spent the best part of three months in Nepal a number of years ago, and setting out from Kathmandu I trekked for 6 weeks in the Everest region. When the names of the small settlements were mentioned in the aftermath it tore at my emotions when I remembered the kindness of the Nepalese people, who had now fallen victim to this tragedy.

But it was the report  a week later from the Langtang region that had the biggest impact. Towards the end of my time in Nepal, Pauline arrived and we set off to trek in the Langtang region. It was early May and the spring flowers were out in the valley. We were heading toward a distant peak and the last settlement was Langtang Lirung. This is a picture as it was on the day we stayed.


Now there is nothing left. The next photograph is after the earthquake struck, triggering an gigantic landslide that wiped out the village and its inhabitants. The photo is looking in the opposite direction to the one above.


When I was on the original trek in Everest I met up with an Australian guy called John, who worked in the film industry. We became friends and a few years later he returned to the Everest area. On that trip he set up sponsorship to pay for his Sherpa friend Kanhcha, who had helped him and kept him safe on his first trip to the Himalaya, so he could have a better roof over his head, and for his daughter to go to school.

Just a few days after the Langtang report was aired, another earthquake struck, this time close to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital perched in a bowl high in the Himalyas. Kancha's house is not far from there. There is no news yet, and after a month has passed we are all getting increasingly concerned.

Nepal relies heavily on it's tourist industry, and with large parts of the capital destroyed, and the effect on the trekking regions, one of the main draws for visitors, the country is in an impossible situation as it needs the tourists back to bring money into the economy to aid the recovery. International aid has been flowing into the country, but when I heard reports of it being held up at customs, and that the government was going to tax it, well, I was more than a little angry. These great people of Nepal really don't need that kind of delay in help.

Sadly I feel it will be a long time before they recover fully.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

WHEN IS A KITCHEN NOT A KITCHEN?

When it's filled with the clutter and furniture from the living room!


You don't realise how much dust, and goodness knows what else, collects behind pieces of furniture that very rarely get moved, until you have to empty a room completely. This past few days has seen me clear the living room entirely as the floor was in a pretty poor state of repair, and, long overdue, I decided to have it renewed with an overall sanding and sealing.

As I moved ever larger pieces of furniture out I found odds and ends that I had long since lost. The hoard was so varied at one point I fully expected to unearth the treasure of the Sierra Madre!

But this furniture had to go somewhere, and I had it in my mind that it would all fit, with room to spare, in the kitchen. Big mistake. I am amazed just how much "stuff" I have managed to squeeze into the living room over the years. With the kitchen now rendered useless I turned my attention to filling every available space in the bedroom, which is where I ended up living for 3 days!

Hardest part of all was the three-seater Italian leather sofa. This is one huge piece of quality furniture, and weighs a ton. When it was first delivered it would not come through the door. We had to remove the window and employ several people to haul it through. To make it even more of challenge the room is on the first floor! However, since then I have discovered that it comes apart, but it is no five-minute job, taking two of us the best part of an hour to dismantle and move.

Now of course I have the happy task of putting it all the furniture back. Joy. The finish of the floor is stunning, but of course now everything else looks tired and in need of some TLC.

I'll look at that in another 10 years.