Sunday, 29 September 2013

Quharity mystery

Tracing out the boundary of the Tay catchment was easy. The watersheds are clear on the maps, everywhere except for an area west-north-west of Kirriemuir. It's the mystery of the Quharity Burn. This water flows out of the southern fringe of the Mounth, only to be lost in a bog and have its waters stolen and rustled into the Loch of Lintrathen (off the bottom left of the map below) and eventually the River Isla. However the burn and its name are resurrected a short distance further on, re-starting the journey from small beginnings towards the River South Esk.

Humans are probably the culprit here. The Inzion Burn, which steals the original Quharity Burn's waters and takes them south-west, is suspiciously straight. It looks like a channel deliberately cut to drain the bog. Newton Moss, at the head of the Inzion Burn, is still marshy according to the map.

So here's an example of where the watershed has been altered by human intervention. What implications does it have for my route? Should I follow the watershed as it is now, or as it should be?

The latter seems the more purist approach, but misses out a cracking hill: Cat Law (671m). It stands proud right at the edge of the Mounth and would make a great entry into the Highlands. Given its height, position and relative isolation I'll bet the views from the top are terrific. The purist approach would mean a less dramatic introduction to the Highlands, creeping in circuitously via the back door over the lower moorland whalebacks of Creigh Hill and Milldewan Hill.

Ultimately, pragmatism will probably win. If it's a fine day it'll be hard to pass up a visit to Cat Law. If the weather is rotten, the lower level route will probably seem more attractive.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Trailstar has landed

My Trailstar tarp arrived just over a week ago, and had its inaugural pitching this morning. It requires a bit of work to get it ready for use. The parcel contained the tarp itself in a yellow stuffsac, a bag of stakes and pegs (five of each, which I'd added to my order as they're not included when you order the Trailstar), a tube of Silnet seam sealer (included), and a very long length of yellow cord for the pegging points (also included). There are no instructions provided. This is about as far removed as you can get from buying a pop-up tent from Decathlon: the customer is assumed to have some practical nous and not to need their hand held. Once you apply the seam sealer, the tarp is non-returnable, so taking care and having a reasonable idea of what you're doing at this stage is particularly important.

This is a tarp designed to withstand stormy weather, and the stakes provided are therefore very substantial. The pegs are also bigger than I expected, much bigger than the needle-thin 1g titanium pegs for my Terra Nova Laser Photon 1 tent.

Stake and peg set for the Trailstar (loo roll tube added for scale)
The tarp itself is essentially a large pentagon-shaped sheet of silnylon, or rather five triangular sheets of silnylon stitched together. The five main seams run from the centre out to each of the corners where the main pegging points are: these are where the stakes are used. Halfway along each edge of the tarp, between the main pegging points, is an extra pegging point which can be used with the smaller pegs for additional stability, although in settled conditions you could get away with just using the stakes.

The workmanship is excellent and I couldn't find any flaws in the stitching or the fabric.

The first task in preparing the Trailstar for use was to cut, prepare and attach ten lengths of cord for the pegging points. I cut a 240cm length for the door and 60cm lengths for the rest of the pegging points. The cut ends of the cord fray very easily so it's important they're sealed - I did this by melting them carefully with a cigarette lighter. However it's best to thread them through the linelocs first before doing this - there's not much room to get the cord through here, and a melted lumpy end of cord may not go through.

Next I threaded the lengths of cord through the linelocs at each pegging point. For the door you need to select one of the secondary pegging points, i.e. one halfway along the edge of a panel rather than at the end of one of the seams, and attach the long length of cord here. The picture below shows a lineloc with the cord threaded through:

 I made the loop for the peg at the end of the cord that is threaded through the lineloc nearest the tarp fabric. At the other end I tied a simple knot to prevent it being pulled out altogether. The lineloc is ingenious and simple. In the position above (flat) it cinches down on the cord, keeping it immobile. It won't move out of that position when it's under real tension when the Trailstar is pitched. To adjust the cord you pull the lineloc up to a near-90 degree angle, then the cord can move freely through it.

Next up was seam sealing, the task I was dreading the most. The best, and certainly most efficient, way to do this is to pitch the Trailstar, seal all the seams in one go, and leave it standing to dry for several hours. For me this wasn't an option. I'm an urban flat dweller with no access to any green space suitable for leaving a tent pitched all day. There is the local park but I certainly wouldn't leave it there unattended, and didn't fancy spending hours standing guard next to it, fending off funny looks, smart-arse comments and annoying questions. We also have access to some communal gardens but didn't want to rub the landlord or neighbours up the wrong way.

Therefore it had to be done indoors, and over several evenings I sealed a seam at a time and left it to dry overnight. The key thing was to make the seam as taut as possible before applying the seam sealer, mimicking the amount of tension if the tarp was pitched. The picture below shows how I did this:

Preparing a seam for sealing
The Silnet seam sealer is horrible viscous stuff that starts going gummy almost as soon as it's out of the tube, so you have to work very quickly. I applied it neat as advised on the Mountain Laurel Designs website rather than mixed with a thinner as many bloggers advise: I decided just to keep it simple and avoid any catastrophes. Starting from the top of each seam (at the centre of the tarp) I worked small beads of seam sealer into the stitching with my index finger, working on a few inches at a time. I probably used too much of the stuff as I made too big a hole in the tube, making it harder to control the flow. However, whilst not the neatest job in the world, the end result looks comprehensive. Next time we get a wet weekend I'll pitch the Trailstar outside for an hour and check for any leaks.

So finally today I was able to get the thing outdoors and have a rough-and-ready go at pitching it. This proved to be very easy and quick, even for a first attempt. It took two or three minutes, with a few extra minutes for adjustments and faffing around. I'll need more practice to get it perfect, and try out some different pitching styles. Here I think it's pitched quite high. Getting the door panel taut enough is tricky - perhaps the trekking pole outside the tarp entrance should have been a bit higher (it was set a few cm shorter than the one inside).

Bags of room inside, as expected:


Overall I'm really happy with it so far and think I'm going to get on well with it. My goal is to perfect the pitching, and by the time I embark on my walk to be an expert at pitching it in a variety of ways.

Useful Trailstar resources

I came across a number of reviews and other things on the internet whilst researching the Trailstar. The most useful and comprehensive review I could find is by Colin Ibbotson, and I'll be going back to this next time I practice pitching the Trailstar when I have more time:

Colin Ibbotson and Chris Townsend go on a walk to pitch and compare three different Mountain Laurel Designs shelters, including the silnylon and cuben fibre versions of the Trailstar. The cuben fibre version is lighter than the silnylon, but how does it compare in other respects?

This video by Tony Hobbs about pitching the Trailstar is also well worth watching:

Also for inspiration I like to look at this post from time to time. The author David Lintern walked the entire Haute Route Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, mostly wild camping with a Trailstar. There are some interesting pitching styles featured here, including using one of the main pegging points at the end of a seam as the door, creating a huge and open entrance.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Washed out on the Downs

Last week my mum and dad were down from Scotland for a few days' visit. The occasion was the birth of our second daughter, who arrived right on time at 9.30am on 10th September. Once things had settled down a bit I took my dad down to Kent to walk part of the North Downs Way. We covered about 10 miles, taking the train to Otford just north of Sevenoaks and following the route east to Vigo Village, before doubling back and heading for Borough Green to catch the train back in to London.

Sadly the weather was terrible and it rained almost non-stop all day. Still, it was a good to get out and I saw enough that made me want to come back again for more regular walks along the many trails that criss-cross this area, once the first few difficult months of caring for our newborn are over. Our oldest should be ready by next year for little walks on these fairly undemanding trails as well. Also it was a good test for my dry bags and trekking poles, and to further wear in my North Face Hedgehog trail shoes which I'll be wearing for the lowland parts of the Tay catchment walk. These shoes are Gore-tex lined and kept my feet dry and comfortably warm all day.

The first few miles of the walk were lovely, even in thick mist and rain. The path climbed steeply out of Otford, tunneling through dense woodland before emerging onto a meadow fringed by woods on the top of the Downs ridge. We carried on through this mixed landscape of woods and fields, often sharing our path with horses, before dropping down a steep bank and across a muddy field to meet the Pilgrim's Way. This ancient trackway was the route taken by pilgrims travelling between Winchester and Canterbury. The North Downs Way shadows it for much of its length. The Pilgrim's Way tends to follow the foot of the Downs escarpment, perhaps because this is where natural springs tend to be located, rather than the tops of the Downs which are dry.

Reaching Vigo Village we were far from dry but definitely parched, and were glad to find a small pub. The windows were dark and it looked empty, but the door was open, so we went in to find a startled-looking woman behind the bar. I think she'd accidentally left the door unlocked! We were about to retreat but she was happy to serve us drinks, so we had a beer whilst a young Boxer left his tennis ball on our table, and attempted to climb on to the table to retrieve it when we didn't throw it quickly enough.

From here we backtracked down a steep section of path that tunneled through overarching trees. We went under the M20 and over the M26 as we threaded various little-used footpaths together to make our way to Borough Green station. These two motorways meet around here with the unfortunate village of Wrotham wedged in the tight angle between them. The noise of the motorways is a constant, wearing roar, even from a mile or so away, and overwhelms this section of the North Downs Way. Their embankments are strewn with litter hurled by morons from their vehicles. Living near this constant noise can't be good for blood pressure and must surely promote heart disease. Even central London is more peaceful!

Nevertheless there's lots of fine countryside here, and huge potential for linking up sections of the North Downs Way and other long-distance paths such as the Greensand Way and Wealdway to make long one-day or overnight trips. The High Weald in particular looks to be heavily wooded enough to enable sneaky overnight bivouacs, maybe something to consider for spring next year. Heading further south into Sussex and the South Downs there are also a lot of possibilities.

It's not exactly Scottish hillwalking, but from a training and preparation perspective at least there's the opportunity on the doorstep for some lengthy walks on paths and trails on rolling, even hilly terrain, and through some fine woodland. At the moment all my training walks are along the Thames path in central London - flat and paved all the way. Carrying around 12kgs on my back and getting to grips with walking with trekking poles, which I've never done much before, adds to the work-out. However, although it's great being out by the river at sunrise, it doesn't beat a walk in the countryside.

The walk also gave some food for thought regarding maps. I took a standard paper copy of OS Landranger 1:50,000 no.188 (Maidstone & Royal Tunbridge Wells). I didn't have my plastic waterproof map holder with me (something I would never be without when hillwalking in Scotland) and the map was in a sorry state by the end of the day, especially as I had to use it a lot for micro-navigation towards the end of the walk. The OS produce laminated weatherproof versions of their maps (Active Maps). They're expensive in the shops but can be found at a good discount on Amazon and Ebay. I'm beginning to think they're worth the expense, and bought a replacement sheet 188 and sheet 198 for Brighton & Lewes, covering much of the South Downs from Amazon for half the RRP.

Even using a waterproof map holder, paper maps still get worn out quickly, especially if you're folding them back on themselves a lot. On wet backpacking trips, the dampness will still get to them even if they're protected.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Indian summer

Some beautiful weather in London this week. Early morning walking has been a pleasure. Yesterday I put 8kg of iron dumb-bell plates, camera (a kilo at least), a sleeping bag and a couple of blankets into the Berghaus Vulcan II and was out at 6.15am for a seven mile walk by the Thames. Sadly the camera had only enough juice left for one picture:

Victoria Tower Gardens
The tide was low and still ebbing evidenced by the current breaking against the upstream faces of the bridge supports, the water like molten metal in the early sun. A heron stood hunched on the mud near Lambeth Bridge, then high-stepped through resting gulls, its long bill tilted disdainfully upwards.

Powder-blue skies, mist over the Thames, dew on the grass and a big bank of fog at Vauxhall Bridge. It had all the makings of a frosty morning minus the frost. Autumn is just around the corner all right.