Thursday, 22 August 2013

Little acorns

I've just returned from Birnam, near Dunkeld in rural Perthshire, having given the penultimate talk in the tour of Sleepless 'til Seattle with Pauline.

Birnam is famous for a couple of things. One being Beatrix Potter who is said to have been inspired to write her stories when staying in Birnam. The theatre for this performance is situated next to a sculpted garden celebrating Beatrix Potter and there is small museum inside the building to her works. The other claim to fame is Birnam Wood, made famous in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. 

Our audience on this occasion were superb with the theatre being close to a sell out. We have one more to go in Helensburgh in two weeks time at the Victoria Halls.

As we have done every time we are away for a talk we made the most of being in the area, choosing to camp for two nights in a nearby campground. Our first day, overcast and drizzly, we wandered through the woods surrounding nearby Dunkeld. We accessed Dunkeld from Birnam by way of an old stone bridge, designed by the famous engineer Thomas Telford and opened in 1809. For over 200 years it has transported people across the River Tay from horse and cart to the modern day car and stood the test of time.

The woods in this entire area are spectacular, and contain every indigenous species to Scotland, and a few more besides. Though not native, I was very impressed at the sheer size of one of these trees. One A Douglas Fir, which sits in the nearby Hermitage, and stands 194feet tall with a girth of 23feet, is one of the tallest trees in the UK and was planted around 1846. The Douglas Fir was introduced in 1827 by Scottish botanist David Douglas from western North America. The tree yields more timber for production than any other and can live to 1400 years.

As we pottered along the shore of the Tay heading upstream, the forest continually changed. Sometimes we would be among the Douglas Firs, then it would be Beach, then a mix of Birch and Rowan, or Scots Pine, Larch or large Sycamore, and at one point, the impressive Oak.
It was this last variety that was made famous in Shakespeares play, and nearby, on the opposite shore beside Birnam, is the last living relic of the old Birnam Wood that he wrote of. It has an impressive girth of 24 feet and the bottom 10feet is hollow, allowing you stand up inside it. Estimates have put its age at 1000 years. From just a tiny little acorn that germinated 500 years before Shakespeare put quill pen to parchment.  It does not stand alone though. Just 50 feet to the side is an equally impressive native tree, a giant Sycamore. Though it has an impressive girth of 25feet it is a mere youngster at 300 years old.

Our second day, beautiful and sunny, was spent hiking up nearby Birnam Hill. It is only 400m high, but nevertheless it is a steep ascent along a well worn path. Well it would have been, except we lost the path at one point. This was to prove fortuitous however, as we stumbled upon the remains of Rohallion Castle, now just a small series of slate-built walls, dating back to the 16th century.

It also proved to be a handy short cut to the top of Birnam Hill, marking a dividing line between two very different landscapes. From our vantage point looking north were the Highlands whilst behind us to the south was the start of the Lowlands. The weather in the west was clearly changing to rain and heading our way, so we headed down after a quick bite to eat. The path down was steep, but it wandered through a beautiful Larch forest, the only deciduous conifer (so I learned from Pauline) and the views north down to the River Tay cutting between Dunkeld and Birnam were fantastic.

With the success of the show, the rich history of the area and the natural beauty of the varied and dense woodlands, this weekend turned out to be the best of our tour so far.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Celebrities, cyclists and fairies

Once more Pauline and I were treading the boards presenting our adventure talk, though it was actually a lecture theatre as opposed to a theatre per se.  Appropriately, this time we were at Glenmore Lodge, the National Outdoor Training Centre for Scotland.
On this occasion we had attracted Cameron McNeish, a well known broadcaster and writer of all things outdoor in Scotland. You can read what he thought of the show at the end of this blog.

Having had a good crowd of 30 on the Friday night, the staff at Glenmore Lodge asked if we would like to put on the talk again the following evening and raise funds for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team. This seemed like a great idea, an opportunity to give something back. On reflection it was too late to really publicise it well enough, and in the end we didn't reprise our show.

What I love after a show that's near the hills is we take off into the wilderness and find a spot to wild camp for the night, which really fits with the theme of our talk. This night we were a short way into the remnants of the great wood of Caledon, the Rothiemurcus forest.
I took this photo of the bark of one of the ancient Scots Pines, polished smooth by years of kids climbing it's boughs.

Almost every time we go away to perform, we inevitably take off into the great outdoors, either on foot or on bicycle. This time it was on bicycle, and Pauline had planned a circuit that she had completed previously.
On a glorious Sunday morning we set off out of Glenmore Lodge following an old logging route through the lush Scots Pine forests, seven miles to the town of Aviemore. There was to be a slight delay here though, as the call of morning coffee and cake became too much to resist.

In need of burning calories we were off once again, connecting up with the Speyside Way, a route we had cycled back in September 2009 (you can read all about that adventure here). This time however we were only on it for a short while, leaving it after just 6 miles to turn toward Loch Garten, home of the Ospreys, a bird of prey choosing to nest in Scotland before heading back to Africa in late August. The sight of them swooping down on a Scottish Loch to fish is a sight to behold.

The route Pauline had chosen was just perfect for the mountain bike, a mixture of pine needle-covered, hard packed and twisting paths, to boulder strewn tracks that the bike would bounce around on whilst I tried to keep my balance standing up on the pedals.

The views to the Cairngorm mountains was magnificent as we climbed the track up through the Pass of Ryvoan to the bothy at the top at 230m (750ft).  A quick snack and we set off on the last few miles. Not long after leaving the bothy we passed Lochan Uaine, the Green Loch, said to be where fairies go to wash, before a fast run along the old cattle thieves road back to Glenmore Lodge.

Of the talk, Cameron McNeish was kind enough to send us this quote the day after:
"Sleepless 'til Seattle is not your average slide by slide show. This is a humorous, hugely entertaining and at times moving account of two people fulfilling their dreams. It made me want to grab my bike and go..."

Next stop Birnam Arts near Dunkeld in Perthshire, on Friday 16 August.