Thursday, 25 August 2016


In complete contrast to the past few weeks, I decided to take a short trip by train to London, or as I like to call it (in a Cockney accent), "London Taaaahn". So, on a bright and sunny day, I boarded the Virgin train for the four and a half hour journey.

I'm not a city person really, especially in terms of holidays, preferring to be playing outdoors, but it has been a good six years since my last visit to the UK capital, so I was looking forward to it. The motivation behind going was to catch up with Australian friends John and Linsey, who have lived in London for the past eight years. It was only going to be a two day visit, but I knew it would be a lot of fun, as the two of them have a great sense of humour, mostly with a dry, fun-immature Australian slant.

I've known John for the best part of 16 years, and I first met him by chance on holiday in 2000. This was no run-of-the-mill vacation though. I was on a six-month world backpacking trip, and John, together with his Australian buddy Spiros, were on an adventure trip. We were all trekking in the Himalayas, on a route that led to base camp for those attempting to summit Mount Everest. It had been a lifelong ambition of mine to do this trek, and it seemed an appropriate way to start the new millennium. Just after the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, at the bottom of a hill that led steeply up to the monastery at Tengboche, I plonked myself down for a breather and a water stop, and got chatting to two guys, who, despite the altitude and thin air, were having a ball. This was John and Spiros. More on this encounter later.

We stayed in touch, and a few years later, after I sold my deli in 2006, I set off again on a long break. This time I stayed with John, and his new wife of a few years Linsey, on the northern outskirts of Sydney. A couple of years later and they were in London, transferred by the company John worked for. But that has come to an end, and they have both decided it's time to return to their native land.

They had changed a bit when we finally met up, most definitely used to and loving European life. After a short journey to Putney where their apartment is, John handed me one of his bikes and we went for a run through the enormous Richmond Park. In the evening they had other friends around and in typical Ozzy style they stoked up a barbecue and we enjoyed roast lamb and sweet potatoes for supper.

A late start the next day, and a leisurely journey into "the city", saw us spend a nice amount of time wandering the Egyptian and Greek artifacts in the British Museum.

I do love this place, and I don't think there's ever been a time when I've visited London that I haven't made a stop there. The day passed too fast, and a couple of hours before my train home we enjoyed a drink together in the wonderfully restored St Pancras Station.

But I didn't quite finish my story of when I first met John. As many readers will know my professional life involves filmmaking these days, and back when I was on my backpacking adventure I had just started my first steps into carving out that career. I had always been passionate about everything film, and when the usual, if somewhat boring question, of what we did for a living came up between John and I, sat there in the middle of the Himalaya, I was excited to tell him of my new found vocation. It was only polite to return the question, to which John replied that he was an accountant in a distribution company. There wasn't a whole lot I could ask him about that. It didn't sound that exciting. But we hit it off and enjoyed a week of trekking together, becoming good friends. Back in Khatmandu it was time for them to return home and we posed for a farewell photo with a fellow trekker Sophi from Sweden.

We agreed to stay in touch, so I asked him for his contact details. So he says, why don't I just give you my business card.

Taking the card, vaguely interested in what distribution company he was an accountant for, I read his card:

"John Peachey - Financial Controller - Paramount Pictures".

Thursday, 18 August 2016


They say you learn something new every day. My very first hillwalk that I did with Pauline was on the northern edge of Loch Tay on the 13th August 1995.

In many peoples opinion, including mine, it is the most enjoyable ridge walk in Scotland and is called The Tarmachan Ridge. But for the past 21 years I've always thought it was spelt Ptarmigan, like the Scottish bird. Then, last Saturday, on the 13th August 2016, I returned to walk the ridge again. Only when I parked the car did I spot a sign pointing to the main summit, did I notice its correct spelling.

I had intended to walk the route last August, on the 20th anniversary, but a small thing like a brain haemorrhage got in the way. Then on this attempt I couldn't reach the start point on the 13th, as a serious accident on the only route to Killin, closed the road for several hours. When it eventually opened it was early evening, but I decided to continue on and camp the night. The forecast was to be better the following day anyway.

I awoke the next morning, camped at 500m, to very low cloud and grey skies. This was not the forecast. I sat it out for a while, then around 9am, when it had lifted to the point where it was just shrouding the tops, I packed the tent away and set out for the hill. There are two ways to tackle this mountain. If you're only interested in "bagging" a Munro peak then there's a boring, fairly steep path in a straight line to the summit. A far more enjoyable way is to head west along its base for about 4km along a dirt track, then ascend onto a ridge, turn west and walk to the summit from there.

This is the way Pauline had guided us 21 years ago, so this was always going to be my choice on this day. But I reached the ridge only to be enveloped in cloud. I could see nothing. I waited for a while but it seemed it would not clear, so I headed back down 50m or so, to get out of the chill breeze, to have some food.

My experience since the last ascent has been vast, as has my knowledge and skill in the hills. As I tucked into my carefully balanced packed lunch of high energy foods, I recalled a similar lunch spot there 21 years ago. Back then the choice of foods suited specifically to take hillwalking had not yet evolved, and I liked to take all the elements of my sandwiches separately with me and make them fresh on the hill, as I hated soggy sandwiches. What had also not evolved was my understanding of having everything as super lightweight as possible. To this day it makes Pauline and I laugh when we remember how I pulled from my pack the elements to make my lunch, which included a full pack of butter! Even my camping skills needed a little tweaking as I used to take a full bar of soap . . . in a nice plastic, light blue soap dish holder!

As I sat reminiscing, smiling, I noticed the cloud just above me had cleared. To the east I could make out the shape of one of the craggy sections of the ridge. I also noticed the direction of the light breeze was at right angles to the ridge, thus blowing the cloud away from me. So I opted to go back up and start walking to see how it was. I could always turn back if it didn't improve or got worse.

But half an hour later the low cloud lifted, revealing the ridge in all its glory. All around me in the distance the other mountains were still shrouded, but here, right now, the ridge was clear, and only got better and better as the day went on.

In places the ridge narrows, and I'm not good with exposure. There is only one point that the guides say is a "scramble". From a distance it looks like nothing, but up close, though short, it's a little nerve racking. As you place your feet carefully on the almost vertical craggy section, you keep telling yourself not to look down.

I looked down.

Then the path in front of me vanished. Erosion had taken away a fairly crucial small section. In order to continue I would have had to take a small leap. Thinking that there was a very real possibility of falling, albeit a short distance, the risk of another bash on the head made me turn back. I had no sooner taken that decision than I discovered a less exposed path that I'd missed on the way up, and I was pleased to be able to continue on.

The guides online had advised the whole circular route would take seven hours. Not counting the stop for lunch, I reached the actual summit of the Munro, Meall nan Tarmachan, at 1043m, in around three, with another hour to descend. The final approach to the top is long and gentle, and you are rewarded with a great view back along the ridge, with its path twisting and winding, up and down, through the craggy peaks.

Down below me I could see that in the intervening years the original enormous car park had been removed, together with the visitor centre building for Ben Lawers (the next, higher Munro along), to be replaced by a much more hidden car park. There has also been a great deal of planting of indigenous trees through an ongoing regeneration programme, turning what was had once been a bare barren landscape, back into something of it's original beauty.

And the spelling of the name? Well Meall nan Tarmachan translates from the Gaelic to "Hill of the Ptarmigans", so I don't feel too stupid.

And I didn't carry a whole block of butter either.

Thursday, 11 August 2016


Over the past week I have been keeping a close eye on the weather in the Highlands, with a view to getting up one of its mountains. At first I planned to summit Ben Ledi, just outside the town of Callander, but I've done it before, so Pauline suggested a new peak, one she had enjoyed a winter walk on in February. Ben Venue, its Gaelic translation meaning The Miniature Mountain.

The forecast on the BBC at 7am on Wednesday morning looked favourable for the Trossachs area, just on the southern fringes of Callander, with light rain not forecast until early afternoon. So I set off early for the village of Aberfoyle to be able to make and early ascent the mountain Ben Venue before the rain came. It is a short journey to Aberfoyle and by 9am I was parking the car on the edge of Loch Ard.

It was raining.

Thanks BBC, for your ever accurate and reliable forecasting. Not!

Looking up the valley to the mountains beyond was not a welcome sight, with the tops obscured by low cloud. But I was here now, and the rain was light enough, plus the temperature warm enough, to warrant not wearing a waterproof shell, so I set out optimistically, with the thought in my mind, as I walked up the farm road for the turnoff to the hill path, that I can always turn back if it the weather gets too bad.

As described by Pauline, the first part of the route was very pleasant, and sheltered from the light rain, through an indigenous wood. The path was fairly muddy in places and somewhat overgrown, but it was an easy start and the smell of the damp bracken, its colours already changing to Autumn hues, made me happy to be in familiar surroundings.

As I emerged from the wood the river gorge stretched on before me, a gradual uphill toward the crags of Ben Venue, peaking out from the low cloud every so often, teasing me with views of its craggy features.
As a bonus the rain had stopped, albeit temporarily. I was now in open hillside on a very good path, following the river, with the occasional pretty little waterfall. The path takes an arc, turning toward the east, as it skirts round toward the summit, but the ascent is gentle.

The best part of this route appears a little over half way, as you reach the top of the river valley. Suddenly the landscape opens up. Despite the low cloud on the mountain top, to the north, across the mountain slopes carpeted in vibrant purple heather, I had a hazy view of Loch Katrine. It was a shame that it was so damp and murky, as I could imagine in the sunshine this would have looked even more spectacular.

To my east the path hugged the side of the slope to the summit, winding it's way through rocks, narrow in places. With Loch Katrine on my left and the snaking summit path ahead I was in a good mood.

As the path started to steepen visibility dropped to about 20 feet, and with it the air moisture rose. Time to break out the waterproofs. Pauline had prepared me in advance that there were several "summits", but with such low visibility it was hard to know if I was ever at the highest point. I'd be thinking that this must be it, when a darker shape of another peak would come into view feintly through the cloud. Onwards I went, deciding that the path would naturally lead me onto the top, whereas so far it was curving round and through these other peaks.

After just two hours I arrived at the top of Ben Venue at 2,392ft.  This had been an enjoyable walk, despite the weather, and overall I thought the route was easy. Surprising seeing as how its a fair number of years since I've stood on the top of any Scottish mountain.

Visibility was down to a disappointing 10 feet, so I could only imagine what the view must be like. But as I sat for 10 minutes, rewarding myself with a flask of coffee, I set my mind to one day return.

But I'll not be trusting the BBC forecast.

Friday, 5 August 2016


Like most of the nation during this time of year, I'm taking time off my usual work commitments to recharge the batteries. However, I've not "been away" as such, preferring instead to have the odd few days here and there. But living in a city with a plethora of natural and historic features there's almost no need to go anywhere.

On another warm sunny day I headed out to walk to the centre of the city, via the highest point, from my home, which is at sea level.

A favourite destination for many a local walk is the Figgate Park, and at this time of year the wildflower meadow is in full swing, so this was an obvious first stop on the way. From the meadow I had a clear view of Arthur's Seat in the distance, forming the focal point of Holyrood Park, my next way point.

For a short distance, to get from the Figgate Park to Holyrood Park, I had to tolerate the busy traffic of the main arterial route for about half a mile, until the turn off through the historic Duddingston Village.

As I turned into the village I passed an old white house on my right, and up on the wall was a stone plaque stating that here, in 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart held his Council of War. So significant in its day, yet if you blinked you'd pass by and miss it.

Round the corner is a pub dating back to 1320 called The Sheep Heid Inn, making it the oldest licensed premises in Edinburgh, if not Scotland. And just across the road is a small church called Duddingston Kirk, which was built by a Norman knight called Dodin, 200 years before the pub in 1124. I had walked just a short distance yet traveled back in time 800 years.

The kirk was the point where I entered Holyrood Park proper at Duddingston Loch, a natural water feature and home to a great variety of wildlife. The park is associated with the Royal Holyrood Palace, created by James 5th in 1541, and is sometimes called Queens Park (or Kings Park depending on the reigning monarch) as it used to be the royal hunting grounds. The hill of Arthur's Seat now stood between me and the palace.

So I started my climb up to this highest point of my walk, the summit of Arthur's Seat, at 823ft. Like the rock that the castle sits on, it was formed by a now extinct volcano 350 million years ago, and eroded by glaciers to it's present shape roughly 2 million years ago.

It was a very pleasant walk up its slopes, and I reached the top in about 20 minutes, only to have the silence broken by a large mob of tourists gathered at the top. Fair enough, as it is a great vantage point to get the best photos of the city.

From here I could see my next way point, and journey's end, of Calton Hill. But I wanted to take a slightly less than direct route there, by coming down the northern ridge of Arthur's Seat to take in the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel. Built in the 15th century, its origin and history are a little obscure.

From there I had to pass by the hideous modern structure of the Scottish Parliament, but not before taking in the splendour of the Royal Palace of Holyrood House, a beautiful piece of architecture.

Just a few hundred metres further on up Calton Road, a narrow set of steps dug into the side of the slope, and called Jacobs Ladder, took me up to the finish line of my walk, Calton Hill. 
There has been an observatory here since 1776, now not used, and a pillared monument in memory of the soldiers and sailors who died during the Napoleonic Wars, which dominates the top of the hill. Next to that is the Nelson monument tower.

From this final point I had a 360ยบ view, east back toward the sea from where I had started, to Arthur's Seat in the south and across to the castle in the west. From every viewpoint throughout my walk it pleased me at just how green Edinburgh is.

As with the majority of my outdoor adventures, albeit this one contained within the boundaries of the capital city of Scotland, I ended the day with coffee and cake.