Friday, 22 July 2016

ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW

Scotland just had summer recently. It was on Tuesday this past week! Not wanting to miss the season, I set out on my bike, in 26 degree heat and light winds, to the nearby Pentland Hills.

I've cycled this route many times, but this was the first on the bike I brought back from the States last year. Due to its great hill-climbing gear ratios, very light frame and 700-size tyres, it breezed along, eating up the miles. Even the several steep hills passed almost unnoticed.

The down side of this route is that the first 15 miles or so are on busy roads, as it picks its way gradually out of the city. There are still impressive sights to witness though, even within the first couple of miles, one such being Craigmillar Castle ruins. Built by the Preston family way back in the 14th century it took 200 years to complete to its current size, as progressive owners added to it. It is most famous for, you probably guessed, it's Mary Queen of Scots connection (it seems every fortification in Scotland is). Following the birth of her son, James VI, she was gravely ill and convalesced at the castle for a month at the end of 1566. Before she left the "Craigmillar Bond" was made, a pact to get rid of her husband Lord Darnley, Henry Stuart.

In a little over an hour I was grateful to be turning off the busy roads at Flotterstone Inn, to begin the gradual climb through the Pentland Hills. It has been two years since I cycled this route, and back then the first of the two reservoirs, Glencorse, was practically empty due to work on the dam. It was pleasing then to see it full to the brim, and small boats were out with fisherman casting their lines.

With one final steep climb of the day, I was following the edge of the second reservoir, Loganlea, which brought me to my favourite spot to stop for a snack and rest, just beyond the end of the reservoir, at a small waterfall.

As I approached I could see that a new wooden bridge had been built since I was last there, making crossing the stream a little easier, though to be honest it was never that difficult, and I reached my halfway point for lunch, beside an array of vibrant wild flowers.


I had no sooner sat down than I spotted a Kestrel fly overhead toward the small waterfall. Almost immediately I thought I saw it again, on the same flight path. Intrigued I silently scrambled up the hill behind me to take a closer look, and my suspicions were confirmed as I could see it was a pair. I couldn't be absolutely sure, but on the small rocky ledge they were perched upon, the clump of heather behind them was rustling about. It could well have been a late brood for the pair. This was a first for me in the Pentlands, and it was pleasing to have seen something new on a trail I have cycled often. Satisfied I left them in peace and returned to my lunch.

As I emerged from the hills, just a mile or two on, high above the city of Edinburgh, I could just make out in the far distance the new bridge under construction crossing the Forth. It was quite hazy, and I took the best photograph my little camera could manage to record the view.


From this vantage point the existing road bridge and historic rail bridge looked tiny in comparison.

A short distance on and I was into the outskirts of the city again, through the small village of Balerno and onto the Water of Leith path. Embedded in the ground at the start of the path is a stainless steel representation of the course of the river, which was glinting in the bright sunshine, mimicking the silver water itself. From here I new I could stay off roads for about 90% of the 18 miles home.

I love this path as it winds along, following the twists and turns of the river, past quaint riverside houses, through old railway tunnels,


and through the historic Dean Village in the centre of the city.



Several miles on it joins the canal for a short distance and crosses a huge viaduct. This is where I left the canal to rejoin the Water of Leith and the final push home via the local Figgate Park to see the wildflower meadow.



Friday, 15 July 2016

CYCLING AMONG THE SCOTS PINE

Following on from last weeks mini adventure by train to the Scottish Borders, this week me and my bike hopped on a train in the opposite direction, to Aviemore in the Highlands.

Good friends of mine Sarah, Roger and their two kids Emily and Robbie, were staying in the area for a short break during the summer holidays, and had invited me up to guide them on a cycle run.

Although the train ride is three hours long, I thoroughly enjoy it. Gradually the landscape changes from flat farmland, to rolling hills and on to tall mountains. Population density decreases as well, as the train climbs to the highest point on the UK rail network of Drumochter Pass, at 1480ft. Small villages that are well known to me from past adventures with Pauline, of Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore and Kingussie, pass the window, and before long we're pulling in to Aviemore with its hordes of tourist.

Aviemore station is where the nostalgic Strathspey Railway journey begins, with maroon coaches from a bygone era pulled by a traditional, restored steam engine. My timing was perfect, as just as I alighted with my bike the steam locomotive was chuffing its way in, with many happy passengers aboard. By the end of the week it would be Sarah's parent's Golden Wedding Anniversary. They were arriving Friday and had booked a journey and three course meal on board the train to celebrate. I was quite jealous.


I was a few hours early to meet up with Sarah and her family, as they were five miles further north at an adventure park called Landmark, so I took off on my bike. First stop was for lunch at a cafe I regularly visit when in the area at Inverdruie, less than a mile from Aviemore up the ski road, and tucked in to cullen skink soup with soda bread, and a fruit scone and latte.

Two miles south of Inverdruie is Loch an Eilein, nestled among the native Scots Pine of Rothiemurcus Forest, and it was here that I spent the next couple of hours pottering about on my bike, taking lots of photos and pedaling the three mile circular route round the loch.

Loch an Eilein translates from the Gaelic as Loch of the Island, and you guessed it, there's a small island in the loch, close to its western shore line. On the island is the ruin of an ancient castle. Its origins are not known exactly, but there was some sort of structure on the island when Robert the Bruce's grandson Alexander Stewart, built a fortified hunting lodge in the late 1300s. Now there are only ruins. Back home Pauline has an inflatable Packraft, and looking at the still waters, and the short distance from the shore to the island, I quite fancied the idea of exploring the island. But Pauline and the Packraft were back in Edinburgh. Another day perhaps.


Having met up with Sarah and gang later on, we settled into comfy chairs in their rented accommodation, and after supper planned the following days cycle.

Getting youngsters out of bed on any day can be challenging, but after less cajoling than I thought would be needed, we were off for our mini cycle tour. Sarah and Emily opted out and chose to go swimming instead, and to meet us later in Glenmore. So "the men", myself, Roger and Robbie, took off out of Aviemore and back along the ski road, for the six miles to Glenmore, following  a bike trail off the road called The Old Logging Way, once more surrounded by Scots Pine.


The route is very straightforward, and is a very gentle uphill for its whole length, so gentle you don't realise it has been uphill until the return journey. Taking a very slow pace we were in Glenmore in an hour with time to spare until Sarah and Emily arrived by local bus.

Now, if there's one animal that ranks above all others in the Scottish Highlands for me, it is the Red Squirrel, and on the veranda of the Glenmore Cafe you are pretty much guaranteed to see a wide variety of native birds, and Red Squirrels. It has been quite some time since I was last there, but I always make an effort to visit, as apart from the wildlife they do a fantastic bacon roll.

Inside they had made various changes to the seating, which was good, as it was in need of a thorough makeover, but I was disappointed to see that interest in maintaining the bird feeders seemed less of a priority. The staff were different as well, though the new name, Diana's at Glenmore, should have given that away. The feeders were looking old and rotting, with only one containing any food. Apart from a few Chaffinches and a mob of marauding seagulls, there was very little wildlife action, and of course most disappointingly of all, no Red Squirrels. It was more of a let down for Sarah and her family, as I had built up the experience prior to making the trip. But a walk down to the beach of Loch Morlich and it's fabulous views soon put all that in the past.


After a short meander, myself, Roger and Robbie set off on our bikes for the run back, taking a slightly different route round the shore of the loch. Just as we bounced on to the wide dirt track a Red Squirrel bounded across the track in front of me. Result.

There is a big reward in store having made the uphill pedal to Glenmore, and that is the fast downhill all the way back. It felt as if I only pedaled a couple of times, zipping along the narrow track as it made fun twists and turns through the forest.

Too soon it was time for my train home, and I boarded the train once again for my homeward journey. As if saying goodbye, the Strahspey steam train blew it's high-pitched whistle as we pulled out of the station, leaving the Cairngorms and Rothiemurcus Forest behind, bound for Edinburgh.


Friday, 8 July 2016

BORDER LINE

It's been a while since I did an outdoor blog. Primarily because I haven't done anything outdoors! Just now it's not the best time of year to be biking and hiking in the outdoors in Scotland, because of midgie hell, as it is officially called. So it was with that in mind Pauline and I chose a more easterly route for our weekend bike trip recently.

In September of last year a new railway line was opened connecting Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders. Or should I say, re-opening, as there used to be a railway on that route until the 60s, when that short-sighted politician Beaching closed everything.

The line runs for 30 miles, and is the longest new section of railway opened in the UK in over 100 years. The last time we built new railway President Roosevelt was in office in the US and became the first to ride in a motorcar; a footway tunnel opened under the Thames in London; the Boer War ended and Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published.

This was my first jaunt on the new railway, and as  a train ride it's nothing spectacular, but it was very pleasant trundling through the lush border countryside, and in under an hour we were at the end of the line in Tweedbank.

From here we headed south east to the rugby town of Jedburgh, along small country backroads and overgrown paths following signs for St Cuthberts Way, a 63 mile long distance walking route from Melrose, where St Cuthbert started his religious life in 605AD, to Lindesfarne, his eventual resting place.


Though dry it was fairly windy, but most of the route was along lanes sheltered by high hedge rows or trees. A one point we found ourselves along a pleasant path following the River Teviot. At one point the path crosses the river via a narrow suspension footbridge, interestingly funded by the EU. I guess we wont be getting any more of that then!

A short cycle day brought us in to Jedburgh and we pitched our tent for the night in a local campsite, tucking in to Idahoan Home Buttery Style potatoes, the last of my American stash, and meatballs, whilst watching a bat chasing its own supper through the air.

Day two however was much windier, as we turned north east toward the historic town of Kelso, and we were heading straight into a 15 to 20mph wind for most of the journey back to Tweedbank.

But that in no way spoiled any of the adventure, and on this day there was a lot to distract us. No cycle trip is ever complete without coffee and cake, and on this occasion we stopped in the grounds of the magnificent Floors Castle, the seat of the Duke of Roxburghe.


As castles go it's actually more of a grand country house, built by John Adam in 1720, after any defensive fortifications were needed. Just as I freewheeled downhill round a corner the view opened up. In the sunshine it is an impressive piece of architecture, set in lush manicured grounds.


But coffee and cake were more pressing, and we adjournded in search of Floors Castle coffee shop.
 
It would be an almost circular route to find the entrance to the coffee shop, being situated behind the castle itself, carefully positioned so as not to show a view of the castle to those unwilling to pay the £12 entry fee. We weren't disappointed. We had our coffee and cake!

Pushing on the next point of interest was a rather roughly carved, 31foot high statue to William Wallace, in the grounds of the Bemyrside Estate, not far from Melrose. Made of red sandstone and erected in 1814, it looks out over an uninterrupted view of the Borders. At Wallace's feet an inscription reads:

"GREAT PATRIOT HERO! ILL REQUITED CHIEF!"


Pauline was the guide for the weekend, and her next "point of interest" was The Scots View.  Overlooking the valley of the River Tweed, it frames the distant Eildon Hills perfectly, and is said to be one of the favourite views of Sir Walter Scott. The sun had eluded us much of the day, but just in time for the photographs it cast patches of bright sunlight to carefully pick out the contours of what was an impressive and calming view.


Next on the itinerary was the Leaderfoot viaduct, made of red sandstone and standing an impressive 126 feet high from the river it spans. Opened in 1863 to carry the Berwickshire railway, it was closed in 1965, by, you guessed it, the politician Beaching! in 1981 it had a demolition order hanging over it, but thankfully it's listing was raised to A, and works were carried out to preserve it.


The final stop was very close by, but there wasn't anything to see or photograph. Imagination, with the aid of information boards, was needed, for here was the 2,000 year old Roman settlement of Trimontium. At the height of the Roman occupation, 1,500 hundred soldiers would have been garrisoned here. But it wasn't all military hardship, as in 1996, during excavations, they discovered the evidence for a Roman bath and a 2,000 occupancy amphitheater.

And so it was that this mini adventure in the Borders drew to a close. We arrived back at Tweedbank comfortably in time for the next train home, which was lucky, as there was industrial action on that Sunday. And that led to the trip being rounded off nicely with a free ride home, as there was no one from which to buy a ticket from, and we settled back as we trundled once more through the Scottish Borders countryside.




Friday, 1 July 2016

1st OF JULY 1916

It is the 1st of July today. 100 years ago the bloodiest battle of the First World War began at 7.30 in the morning. Throughout this morning there has been coverage by the BBC of commemorative events in France, and a number of stories from relatives of those who fought, alongside interviews filmed in the 60s and 70s of participants, has been shown.

During the course of this first day, of a battle that would rage for 141 days, more than 16,000 British soldiers were slaughtered. To put that in perspective for myself, that is the equivalent of every man woman and child in the neighbourhood of Portobello where I live, disappearing overnight.

Everyone.

By the time the the generals, among them Haig and my namesake Kitchener, decided to withdraw, almost 1 million soldiers lay dead. They had advanced just 6 miles.

Two months into the bloodbath and the advance had stalled. New technology reached the front in the shape of two V-Star tanks, in the hope that it would restart movement forward. These machines were able to traverse across the trenches and barbed wire toward enemy lines. What no one had considered though was the thousands of now rotting bodies that lay several men deep everywhere. One of the films the BBC showed was an interview in the 60s with one of those tank commanders. He recounted the story of how he had no choice but to drive over the top of all these dead soldiers from both sides, and the look of horror on his face 50 years on said it all.

Back then there was still a British Empire, and part of that empire was Newfoundland, across the Atlantic, now part of Canada. 800 volunteers trained and then set sail for France to stand alongside their countrymen. On one particular day the command went up for this entire battalion to advance, and on the blow of a whistle, these 800 men went over the top.

The following day just 68 reported for duty.

Of course there were horrendous casualties on both sides. The Germans had been entrenched for 20 months before the British arrived, and had been in fierce conflict with the French. The French had learned early on that a direct charge was futile, but back then communication between forces was minimal at best, and the British never took advantage of this intelligence. However, they did discover that the Germans were surviving the artillery shelling because they had dug deep underground. Discovering this the British Royal Engineers dug tunnels even deeper, right underneath the Germans. One such tunnel, Lochnagar, was then packed with 16,000lbs of explosives and detonated at 7.28am today, 100 years ago, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. No one knows how many were killed, as the plume of debris rose 4,000 feet into the air. It left an enormous crater 300ft wide and 20ft deep, which is still there today, and is named the Lochnagar Crater.


When you look at a population census of the UK, you can see that every year the population rises. Except during what they call The Great War. In 1914 the population stood at 41 million. By the end of 1918 it had fallen to 38 million.

72,000 soldiers are still missing, buried somewhere in the fields.



Friday, 24 June 2016

A WEEK OF FIRST

Well, I can't really avoid saying it: the UK is screwed!  Yep, the lunatics finally took over the asylum and we have now, in all sense of the word, become an island.

For the first time in the EU story, a strong member state has narrowly decided to leave. Just as when Scotland had a referendum the margin was a very close few percent.

Amazingly, as the map on the left clearly shows, Scotland unanimously voted to stay a part of Europe. Scots have the honour of inventing a large proportion of history's great innovations, and we can be proud today, among this battlefield, that we had the common sense and vision to realise we are part of a global community.

The demographic of the vote was on a very distinct sliding scale. The older the voter, the higher the vote to Leave. Unfortunately I am in that older demographic, but I voted to Remain. It smells of a Rule Britannia, crusty ethos.

There is already chatter about Scotland having another referendum to vote on remaining or leaving the UK, and I suspect it would be a different outcome next time.

Time will tell.

In a few weeks time I had planned to return to the United States with my bicycle, a year after the crash in Wyoming, to give a talk during Adventure Cycling's 40th anniversary of Bikecentennial in Missoula, Montana. But I made a decision a few months ago not to go. The thought of a solo bicycle tour again so soon was unnerving me.

So instead of talking live at the event, they gave me a 12 minute slot where I could send them a film of my adventures. In order to make the short film hang together, I had to record what they call, Pieces To Camera, and for the first time I created a small film set in my garden. The end result looks pretty good, and shortly it will wing its way across to the States. I'll be uploading it to YouTube soon and will post the link in next week's blog.

But the highlight of my week has to do with another moment of filming, this time in a major theatre here in Edinburgh. I have been working solidly for the past month on a really great project with special needs schools around the capital, and the finished films were shown in the theatre as part of a bigger, live performance by the school students. It was heart warming to see the effort these kids put in, and the joy they got from it, in front of a thousand people. But one boy, all on his own, blew everyone away, including myself.

For protection reasons I can't tell you his name or show you his image, but here's a small part of the recording of this remarkable 12 year old boy. When you listen to it, bear in mind that just one month ago he had never performed in front of anyone, and usually asked his tutors to turn away. This is him in front of almost a thousand people.
video
It is a cover of Adele's song, Hello. I think she, like everyone there that night, would shed a tear. I felt immensely privileged to have filmed this first performance of this great talent.


Thursday, 16 June 2016

THE RED CARPET

One of the pleasurable parts of my job is that I must go to the cinema on a regular basis to see all manner of films. However, it's not often that I get to see work that I have played a major role in on the big screen. And when I say big, boy, I mean big!

For the past two years I have been gradually leading a group of young minds, from around 6 years old all the way up to 18, on a journey, in how to understand film, how films are made, and ultimately to then make their own film. In the past 24 months they have completed several movies, the most recent collection of which have been submitted to a film festival in London. We will find out if any of the six entered have been nominated by the end of July. If so, we're off to the Odeon, Leicester Square at the end of September.

But feet firmly back on the ground for a moment. Last Sunday it was time to showcase all the work the students have done in their time under my wing, to their parents and friends. We decided to kick off the event with photographs on the red carpet, complete with a seven foot high Oscar statue! The young students looked the part, and some were already versed in posing for the photographers in different directions. You could tell who loved the camera!

The students had put in an enormous amount of work over the past year on their festival film entries, and it was a thrill to watch them work over the months, as they put into practice their newfound knowledge. To say I felt very proud of them doesn't come close. Once we wrapped the shoots it came down to me sat in front of the edit suite, for three whole months, to piece their work together, and then to assemble everything into a memorable screening event for Sunday.


It's all about the kids of course. Their sheer joy at the whole event said it all.  You can't repeat those moments.

London would be the second red carpet event. They say everything happens in threes, so I guess that just leaves LA for the Oscars!


Thursday, 9 June 2016

PROGRESS

If you're a regular reader you'll know that I have been on a long health and fitness recovery. Part of that has been dealing with the effects of hyperthyroidism, a symptom of which is rapid weight loss.

Don't get me wrong, it was kind of nice to be down to the weight I was as a teenager, but then to keep going down, well, that was something quite different.

So for the past five months I've made gradual progress to correcting this symptom, taking a special medication to combat it. Two days ago I returned to the endocrinologist consultant to discover that the drugs have had a very fast and positive effect. In fact too good. I've now slipped the other way. I had been puzzling for a month or so now why, given that I mostly eat healthily, my weight was continually creeping upwards. As a result the meds have been cut in half again, and though it is usual to be on them for a course of 18 months, the consultant is hoping that I will be off them well before Christmas. Half the normal course. Here's hoping so I don't have to have needles jabbed in my arms for blood every 6 weeks.

Progress has also been made this week in completing my responsibilities to the performing arts academy I regularly teach Film and TV at. This Sunday sees a red carpet event, when all the students films over the past 2 years will be screened to an invited audience of over 500. The pressure's on though. Just a couple of days to go when today at the rehearsal three of the films didn't play correctly. Of course, as the responsibility of the whole show rests firmly on my shoulders, I'm now quite nervous as there are no more rehearsals.

They do say though, bad rehearsal, great show. Tuxedo at the ready. Can't wait.

Progress on the car front too. After last weeks scare of those badly worn tyres, I find when I make progress along the road now I am being more cautious than usual going over the speed bumps in the road, in case I knock the wheels out of alignment again. That was quite a shock to see those tyres.

Jeez! All things considered, I think I may well have used up my 9 lives this past 12 months!

Hopefully I won't die of nerves at the screening on Sunday!