Thursday, 24 October 2013

Daytripper #1

I sorely needed a break from marching up and down the Thames path for kicks, so two consecutive October weekends in Scotland have arrived at just the right time, allowing for a couple of day trips - slightly frustrating as I'm gagging to try out my Trailstar! That may have to wait until the Christmas holidays providing that the Express's annual prediction of The Worst Winter In Decades doesn't come true this time.

For the first weekend I had cunningly arranged a work commitment in Glasgow for Thursday and Friday, allowing a day's walking on the Saturday and a return to London on Sunday. The in-laws in Glasgow had also yet to see our newborn, so we all piled on to the train at King's Cross on Wednesday afternoon.

On Saturday, with work out of the way, Dad and I drove down to Glen Holm in the Southern Uplands near Broughton with the intention of climbing Culter Fell. The drive was a delight through autumnal countryside. After day upon day of rain and a forecast for yet more, our expectations were low, which was just as well. It started dry and cloudy but quickly became very wet and very cloudy with plenty of wind thrown in. Crap weather has plagued my walks and wild camps this year. I take it as valuable learning and conditioning for the big walk next year, and a good test of new gear. I also secretly hope there's some cosmic meterological pay-off in store for the Tay catchment walk!

A burst of sunshine after the storm, in upper Glen Holm
Walking through a forestry plantation, we were passed on the track by a gamekeeper in a 4x4. My heart started to sink as he pulled up next to us. My abiding memory of gamekeepers is being screamed at by one near Tomintoul when aged 16, who threatened to shoot my dog. Somewhat rattled, my friend and I plus dog ended up getting completely lost on the Cromdale Hills in a white-out that day. We ended up near Grantown-on-Spey and had to hitch a lift back over to Tomintoul.

This gamekeeper however turned out to be friendly and constructive: there was deer stalking taking place in the woods, and would be consider taking an alternative track through? It was interesting that at no point were we told we couldn't continue on our planned way: it was simply 'for our information'. I got the strong impression that this gamekeeper was familiar with Scottish access legislation, and that this probably reflected a positive attitude to access on the part of the landowner.

We were happy to take a detour, staying low by the burn to the edge of the woods and starting our climb from there, rather than continuing up through the woods to the open hillside. The encounter left a positive impression. Co-operation is so much better than confrontation!

The hills around Glen Holm are smooth and rounded from a distance, with some steep slopes overlooking the glen. On closer acquaintance however the going is rough. There were plenty of bogs, peat hags and tussocks to negotiate on the way round to Culter Fell. Navigation wasn't a problem though as a fence led all the way to the top, though I backed this up with compass work and estimating walking times between points, more for the practice than out of necessity.

The fence continued south to an expansive col of peat hags and treacherous-looking bogs covered in sphagnum moss. A wintering flock of golden plovers wheeled away with a single call. The rain had stopped and the cloud was lifting. Rolling heathery hilltops beckoned us on but time was against us so we dropped down to the upper glen for a brew and some sandwiches. We even had a bit of sunshine. A big, ragged flock of birds - fieldfares we reckoned - appeared over the brow of the hill opposite and tumbled in to land a couple of hundred metres upstream from us.

Cloud clears from Culter Fell
Bracken utterly dominates the head of the glen. In a landscape that's endured merciless sheep grazing for many generations, it's one of the few plants that does well, helped by a near-complete absence of trees which would otherwise crowd it out.

Upper Glen Holm
I enjoyed the hills here. The Southern Uplands is great country for long tramps, backpacking and wild camping, and possibly best for autumn and winter. However you cannot escape just how heavily managed and suppressed this landscape is, much more so than the Highlands, which itself is managed to a high degree. Glen Holm has the lot - commercial forestry, arable farming and swarms of pheasants in its lower reaches; hordes of sheep in its upper reaches (you could walk for miles and tread in sheep shit every step of the way); and giant wind turbines presiding over it all from the hilltops across the glen from Culter Fell.

What does this weekend hold in store? Weather looks okay-ish for now...

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