Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hills on fire

I've been working away from home for the past two weeks. It was a big job and every day I was exhausted. Towards the end I was in need of a treat.

On a windy and wet late Friday afternoon, I packed up and headed north from Broughty Ferry, just outside Dundee. The roads were busy and the rain was coming down in sheets. I had just one hour ahead of me to my destination of Dunkeld, but the sun had already set and by the time I arrived it was pitch dark.

After feasting on local tasty fish and chips, I made my way with my camping gear to a nearby campsite.  I couldn't find my torch at first and fumbled about in the dark trying to pitch the tent. Tired, but happy to be away in my tent, I went to bed with the wind picking up outside and more rain coming in. The nearby river was in spate, crashing over boulders, as I drifted off.

The next morning I awoke to the first light and the dawn chorus. The rain had gone off and the early morning sun was spilling onto my tent. I opened the door and spontaneously exclaimed, wow! All around me, and the low hills beyond, the hills were ablaze with colour.

I had chosen this area on purpose, as some weeks before I had made a pact to myself to come here at the height of the Fall. Autumn is my favourite time of year, though spring comes a close second, but the colours of Autumn take the prize. The range of colours, through bright yellows, to oranges and fiery reds, are something to behold and lift the heart. Nearby a Robin hopped down onto the ridge of my tent, puffing out its red breast. It was a perfect day.

Just an hour later and a train rattled past on a nearby hill. I checked my watch, and sure enough 20 minutes later my outdoor buddy and best friend Pauline trundled round the corner with her outdoor kit slung over her shoulder.

Packed up we headed back to where I had left my van and pulled out our mountain bikes from the back. Loaded up, we set off into the hills, heading toward nearby Deuchary Hill. The first half of our route was along hard packed track and through tunnels of vibrant Autumn colours. All around was an overall colour of amber, above our heads, off to each side, and the surface of the track. It was truly amazing.

Eventually the track, being less travelled, started to narrow, and in places became deeply rutted and full of water and mud. Halfway to our destination for the night, the side of a small lochan north of Deuchary Hill, we were out of the trees. The track became almost impassable at times and we were regularly off the saddle and pushing. But it's all part of the challenge and I love it, the thoughts of pitching my tent and brewing a coffee soon, keeping me going.

The track improved slightly after passing over a small summit, allowing us to pedal once again.

By mid afternoon we were pitched for the night in a delightful little spot that pauline had seen previously on a walking day. The wind picked up and dropped the temperature, but we were all tucked up in our little shelters, a cosy home from home.

I awoke the following morning face to face with a little visitor, a tiny little caterpillar that had sheltered for the night in my tent door, looking for all the world like a small piece of lichen, such was its expert camouflage. The wind had eased, and though the skies threatened more rain we were lucky as it stayed dry. The first part of our track out required some more pushing but very soon we were speeding down the hillside tracks and back into the amber forests. I faced a new challenge toward the end as both of the hydraulics for my disc brakes started to fail!

Just another, slightly worrying, challenge, but the joy of the hills of fire all around me could not be extinguished.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A mournful lament

It's been a tremendous summer in Scotland, but my favourite time of year has arrived at last. Autumn.

Together with a friend, Vince, I journeyed to the small town of Callander on the fringes of the Scottish Highlands, about a half hour drive from Stirling.

With our loaded-up mountain bikes we set off north, following Route 7 of the National Cycle Network. With not a cloud in the sky and a chill in the air, we scooted along the cycle path, scrunching fallen amber leaves beneath our tyres. Within just 20 minutes or so we were past the car park that serves the hillwalkers of nearby Ben Ledi, and passing an ever-expanding collection of log cabins. I hadn't been this way for almost five years and in that time a half dozen log cabins had grown into a small village.

Grateful to be past the sprawling development, we were now on the west shore of Loch Lubnaig, on a well defined wide track, with the low sun in our faces, its lingering warmth taking the chill off my cheeks. On the opposite shore speeding cars and screaming motorbikes competed to be in front on the narrow loch road, but we were safe and quite content as we pootled along.

After 10 miles we reached Strathyre and four miles further on the small ancient settlement of Balquhidder, at the head of Loch Voil. Settled in the 9th century, it is most famous for Rob Roy McGregor, some of whose exploits were played out in the area, and deemed by some as the Highland Robin Hood. He died in 1734 and is buried beside his wife Mary and sons Coll and Robert in the grounds of Balquhidder Parish Church.

We had just 7 miles to go, and having turned west from Strathyre to Balquhidder, we now turned back on ourself, east, on a quiet little back road, before turning north once again toward Lochearnhead, back on a well defined cycle path. This section follows what I like to call a "rails to trails" route, following the route of the old Callander and Oban Railway. Non profit making it was closed in 1965 as part of the Beeching closures of many railways in the 60s.

The path of the old railway line gradually bends to the left as it passes Lochearnhead and starts a long, slow climb up through Glen Ogle. I love this section, far above the busy road and lined in lush vegetation either side. That is until it crosses a granite-faced viaduct as it majestically sweeps round a curve. Just a little further on from here we decided to make camp for the night in a small wood next to a a small hidden body of water, Lochan Lairig Cheile.

We had been camped for about an hour, a place I have used before with Pauline, when we decided to explore the dense woods surrounding our hidden away camp spot. Fallen trees were now covered in a thick layer of spongy moss, and a last splash of summer colour was provided by the purple of a solitary fox glove.

As we rummaged around the long thin trunks of the firs, we spotted a large tree that had been uprooted some time ago. Where its roots had left a small crater we spotted something lying in the collected water. As we got closer I could see that it was, or had been, a young male deer. Just 3 points on it's antlers. Probably this had been its first summer. As we rounded the animal we could see that its jaw had been ripped away and was lying exposed. I'm no expert but it looked as if it had suffered a fatal blow at the antlers of a larger male during a recent confrontation. This was, afterall, the rutting season for the red deer.

I was saddened by the sight. I spotted hoof prints in the mud on the opposite edge of the water, where it had stumbled its last few steps into this pool and come to rest, exhausted and fatally wounded. There was no smell from the carcass, and the blood from it's mouth was still bright red in the water, so it was likely this had happened very recently, perhaps during the last day.

After supper we sat in silence looking up at a star filled sky. In the distance I could hear the mournful bellows of the stags as they called out in the night. I knew it was for the rut, but a part of me felt it was a lament for the loss of the young deer.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Undead need not apply

Back in 2002 I made my very first short film called Bingo. We had a great crew and at one point 50 extras! Looking back I think I pulled off the film through sheer naivety.

It didn't go anywhere but it did open a door that led to meeting Kenneth Branagh, from whom I received a lot of advice and continue to keep contact with him to this day. However, as time has gone by I have learned more and more and now I find even the smallest film daunting in its complexity, but despite this the whole experience back then spurred me on to make bigger films.

Eventually, over the past two years, I pulled together a self-shot feature film documentary, all about a cycle trip across America. This time I took it as far as screening it in a cinema, entering it into film festivals and having DVDs made, which have sold in five countries to date.

Three years ago I was lucky to be given the opportunity to run a workshop for a local youth group, and I hoped that I might inspire young minds to make their own movies. Instantly it was obvious that this was a path I would like to pursue further, teaching kids film making.

Just three weeks ago I started to do just that, albeit a short contract. At a local high school, once a week for three hours, I have a dozen girls and boys all eager to learn the art of making movies. In a months time they will be on location making their very first film, which, once edited, will be shown on a local cinema screen.

They're excited and passionate, I'm excited and passionate, and I get paid to do this! I have definitely missed my calling in life. Academically I'm not able to pursue it as a career as I don't have a degree, but this is certainly the next best thing.

Apart from being my dream job, teaching these young students film making, I also get a lot out of it creatively. Each week I am amazed at the creativity of their minds. They know no bounds, and at times I need to pull them back a bit, but overall I think we are going to have a lot of fun creating a short film in the coming months.

One rule though is proving unpopular:

No Zombie films!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Arran heavy knit jumper

I am inspired to write this week, about a time long ago, by my friend Pauline's blog.

Last week the weather was glorious, and the smell and chill of Autumn was in the air.  As I have done many times, I headed out to the nearby hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the Pentlands, to complete a 30 mile or so round trip on my mountain bike.

I've written of this route previously, so I won't bore you with the details again. I made good time up and down the main roads heading out, with only the odd car driver being careless and robbing me of room on the road, and within an hour was turning off into the hills.

The road is still paved at this point as it climbs and twists and turns round the two reservoirs, dotted with fishermen on the mirror-like surface, swishing their lines back and forth. As I trundled along a group of school kids were coming in the opposite direction. They were loaded up with varying designs of rucksack, badly packed with all manner of objects dangling and rattling on the outside. Each one had a thin foam mattress rolled up and inside a black bin liner, tied to the bottom of their packs. Two of the team had the tent, precariously balanced atop their packs.

I continued on, smiling at their dishevelled appearance, until I left the paved road and followed a dirt path to the base of a small waterfall and stopped for lunch. Within a half hour two other groups of students appeared, similarly kitted out. They literally dropped their packs to the ground and slumped down, grateful to be stopping. I laughed out loud as a small argument erupted as to who was going to carry the map next.

Many many years ago I used to take similar groups from the Boys' Brigade out into the hills, the Pentlands being a popular destination. Looking at these groups now it could have been 25 years ago. Nothing had changed. The packs were the same, the rolled up mats in plastic bags were the same, and the argument about the map was the same.

My kit was no better at the time, 25 years ago. My rucksack was a scratchy nylon affair tied to an aluminium frame that would cut your arms every time you hauled it on and off. I wore blue trousers that stopped at the knee, then bright red hiking socks with matching laces on my boots. On top I wore a green tartan shirt and if the weather turned chilly I had a heavy knit Arran jumper in my pack.  Quite a sight.

Thankfully all that changed a few years later, and from 1995 onwards, thanks to the expertise of Pauline, my kit changed dramatically. I wasn't allowed to buy any new gear by myself for some considerable years after, in case I was ever tempted to buy another Arran jumper.

Almost 20 years on, now kitted out with the latest gear, and vastly more experienced thanks to adventures with Pauline, I have been lucky to have trekked slightly further afield from the Pentlands. From the great mountain ranges of the Scottish Highlands to places as far away as the Rockies, the Dolomites, Patagonia, and once, the mighty Himalayas.

More than 50 years ago Sir Edmond Hilary made it to the top of Everest with an Arran jumper, so I reckon I would be OK if I sneak one in my pack.