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Friday, 14 August 2015

Switched Off In Sweden


I’ve been trying to remember the last time we had a holiday which didn’t involve strenuous physical activity – and/or getting wet, and I can’t. Until now, that is. We’re just back from a wonderfully lazy week in Sweden, staying with old friends in their summerhouse on the west coast, about 50 miles north of Gothenburg. We took short hikes, picked blueberries, ate seafood and enjoyed fair weather and long light nights.


The most energetic undertaking was rowing out to Krakan (pictured below -  the name means ‘crow’). It’s an uninhabited island two or three miles by sea from where we were staying and just a few miles from the former shipbuilding town of Uddevalla, visible in the background. Of course, we camped there – what else would you do? No tent, just a fire of fallen wood, a bottle of wine and our bags laid out on the grass.


My pal Bror, whom I’ve known since the 1970s, is a ceramicist and teacher (of art and history). For much of the week he was distracted by having to fix the roof – it’s the price he pays for being the most skilled of the siblings who share ownership of a family property. However, he didn’t need much persuading to sit and drink beer now and then. The assembled collection of empties, I ought to point out, represent the work of four adults, not just us two. Not at our age.


We had everything we needed at Lilla Hafsten: a warm sea, quiet woods and good company. We only took one trip out when Bror and his wife Carina took us up the coast to see a collection of Bronze Age rock carvings. This site was once on the coast but the sea retreated long ago and the granite (yes, granite) rocks now overlook a fertile plain.


I fell in love with Sweden in 1977 on my first visit there. I loved the landscape, the sense of space (it’s twice the size of Britain with about a sixth of our population). I was also enchanted by their Allemansrattan, or ‘every man’s right’ which entitles you to camp, gather wood and water on any land, so long as you move on after one night. It seemed to me a kind of tramps' charter, and I have taken advantage of it - in Norway as well as Sweden. Obviously you ask permission if you’re on farmland, but it’s as much as anything a matter of courtesy. Scandinavians love the outdoors and expect to be able to enjoy it.

Ah well, I’m now back to work on the brewery project – but only for four weeks. Come mid-September we’re off to the States.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

In praise of the Trangia stove - and sleeping under the stars


A gentle plume of steam coming from the kettle: it’s one of the most cheering sights when you’ve spent the night under the stars – especially when, as on our outing last weekend, it decided to rain just as dawn was breaking. I don’t think you can beat the Trangia as an all-purpose stove. It’s compact and light. It burns clean fuel (methylated spirit), gives a strong, steady heat, and seems to last forever. My own dates from 1977 and is almost as good as new. As well as making countless morning brews on it, I have cooked steaks and lamb chops on less than half a dose of fuel; and on one memorable occasion in the Spanish Pyrenees I made a very tasty coq au vin, seasoned with wild herbs. Mind you, I did have to refill the vessel part-way through. 

Last weekend we were celebrating an anniversary and, being the hardy souls we are – perhaps I mean foolhardy – we decided to take a weekend hike in the Wear valley and leave the tent behind. We’ve both got to an age when we really don’t like lugging a whole pile of gear. So, we travel light – and if it rains, we risk getting wet.

We took the train from Wolsingham to Stanhope and walked back. We’d been aiming for a small stand of beech trees high up on the hills to the south, but with a stiff wind blowing and milky grey cloud coming in from the west, we decided to stay nearer the valley bottom. We also made sure there was a dry shed nearby before lighting our fire, cooking our grub – on this occasion sirloin steak and a huge potato salad, washed down with a very decent bottle of Beaujolais.

I should add a note here on the preparations required for a successful al fresco dinner. When we’re taking steak we season the meat before leaving home – thyme, pepper and perhaps a little garlic. And, not wishing to carry a bottle of oil, we  slap a little butter on the side of each steak before wrapping it. This time we forgot, until after we were on our way. And here’s where I start to wonder just how weird it will all get before we are much older and may be excused a few of our eccentricities. When we got off the train at Stanhope we passed a little station café. It was closed, but the proprietors had yet to clear the tables outside – and there, to our great delight, were a couple of part-used butter-pats. I whipped out my knife, scooped up what was left and popped it in a paper napkin. The inner scavenger: alive and well but requiring occasional nurturing.  

I didn’t sleep very well. Unusually, I hadn’t taken the trouble to scout out a nice level, rock-free place to bed down. The fact is, there ain’t many rock-free places up there, especially as we were surrounded by the remains of ancient farmsteads. And I was fretting about the weather. The rain started around four, as per the forecast, and we retreated to the shed. It was built of stone, probably 150 years ago. The corrugated asbestos roof must have been added in about 1950 and was holed in several places. The front wall had parted company with the side wall and was leaning forward, leaving a gap about a foot wide. The doors had long since disappeared. But our rude shelter kept the rain off, and in the morning we were able to brew up in reasonable comfort. By the time we’d had breakfast the sun was coming through and Weardale was, once more, a beautiful place to be.

Weardale from the south
Rather than scuttle home with wet gear, we climbed across rough sheep pasture to the place where we might have bivvied had it stayed fine, and, while the kettle boiled once more, spread out some of our gear in the sunshine.

Drying our gear against a dry-stone wall
From there it was a pleasant four or five miles down to Wolsingham where we’d left the car.

A distant view of Wolsingham
45 minutes later we were home, running a bath and planning another night under the stars. Weather permitting, that will be on a tiny uninhabited island in western Sweden, a short rowboat ride from the mainland. We’ll be there next week and reporting on our adventures shortly afterwards.




Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A hike across Scotland on the Southern Upland Way

In the hills between Dalry and Sanquhar

We’re just back from an eight-day hike along the western section of Scotland’s Southern Upland Way, a demanding 120 miles through some of the emptiest country I’ve encountered this side of the northern Highlands.

Looking back at Portpatrick
We began in glorious weather at the delightful little town of Portpatrick, completing 13-14 miles to pass Stranraer and reach Castle Kennedy the first night.

The gardens at Castle Kennedy - the cut that connects two small lochs
It was thirsty work, but sadly there was no pub at Castle Kennedy, only the rather splendid gardens, which we visited on Sunday morning before setting off on a fairly leisurely ten-mile hike to New Luce. There we stayed with a writer friend who has a house a few miles from town.

What I’d never realised about Dumfries and Galloway is that these innocently named Uplands actually rise to around 2,500 feet, so most days we found ourselves with some stiff climbs and stiffer descents. The area is also very sparsely populated. There are scattered farmhouses, there are sheep, and there are forest plantations, and that’s about it. What it means is that accommodation is hard to find, and some stretches of the route can be as long as 26 miles. Mercifully, it is possible to make arrangements that reduce the distances to manageable levels. At Dalry, for example, the manager of the Lochinvar Hotel arranged to pick us up at a point seven miles before we reached the town, drop us off at the same place in the morning, then collect us at the end of that day’s hike, some eight miles beyond.   
Dalry from the south (full title St John's Town of Dalry)

We were very lucky indeed with the weather. It basically stayed fair throughout. By day three and four the talk was of cataclysmic thunderstorms coming up from the south – but they contrived to show up when we were in bed; and the heatwave that had the newspapers hopping certainly didn’t penetrate the Lowther Hills. When we did have cloud cover we were generally glad of it: it was warm work when the sun was out. Thankfully, there was generally enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay.

Dumfries & Galloway is a country of big bare hills and secluded valleys - like this, below Cloud Hill, south of Sanquhar
...and when you do finally see a town, this being Sanquhar, it can be a long, long descent
Our toughest day was the last, when we left Britain’s highest village, the old mining settlement of Wanlockhead, and hiked 21 miles to Beattock, more or less the mid-point of the 212-mile route. The day began with three very steep climbs to 2300-odd feet. The descents were precipitous, and the ground underfoot squelchy.
At times, yes, it was a bit of a trudge.
With the severest undulations behind us we entered a long stretch of forestry where, for the first time, the way-markers seemed mostly to have disappeared. With some luck, a little floundering and a determined reliance on the compass, we found our way out of the woods and on to our final destination.

The road down into Beattock - which was our journey's end
Would I recommend the SUW to other hikers? Yes, but with certain caveats. You need to be prepared for the three or four long days (17-21 miles). You will need to carry plenty of water and food each day. On most stretches you will be reliant on what you have in your pack. On the plus side, all the places where we had B&B offered packed lunches, and, when we asked, were willing to do some laundry and/or drying for a small fee. But then we carried little more in the way of clothing than a change of underwear. The SUW wouldn’t suit everybody – and I suspect that the distances involved mean that it isn’t as well used as was hoped when it was pieced together in 1984. The way-marking is patchy in parts, and we found a number of posts that had rotted at the base and fallen over. But those were minor inconveniences to set aside the delight in walking such empty country, with such expansive views.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Chasing Black Gold - out today

Today is publication day for CHASING BLACK GOLD, the book I was working on for much of last year. This is an absolute cracker, a real page-turner, the true story of Robert Stone's adventures on the high seas. It involves black-marketeering, smuggling,  treasure-hunting, deep-sea fishing, political and corporate corruption, child soldiers - and it takes you into the USA's most frightening jails, with a few Con Air flights thrown in. (That's probably the lousiest blurb I've ever written, but I only have half my mind on this, being back at my brewery history project this morning... not quite as exciting, but a lot of fun.)

Take a look at The History Press's own page (via the link above) and see a more polished  promotional blurb. For my American readers, you can order it from 15 June on Kindle. If you want the hard copy, I know a number of people Stateside who have already ordered and received that from the UK. Hopefully, we'll have a U.S. publisher shortly.