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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.


Monday, 1 June 2015

Walking St Cuthbert's Way footpath, Melrose to Lindisfarne (Holy Island)


Looking over Melrose from the top of the Eildon Hills

I really didn't think I was fit for this walk: four daily stints of around 16-17 miles, carrying a medium pack with a change of clothes, a couple of litres of water and enough grub to get us through the day. The weather certainly didn't look as though it was on our side either: the long-range forecast promised strong winds, showers, and daytime temperatures around 9 C (48 F) - and for once it was dead right. On top of that I was still fighting off a nasty cold that had laid me low for three weeks; and as for general fitness, I had done very little hiking since those short mountain walks in New Mexico over the late winter.

St Cuthbert's Way follows the route supposedly taken by the Prior of Melrose who, in 664 A.D., was sent to Lindisfarne to see that the monks there adopted the Roman rather than the Celtic version of Christianity. This modest long-distance path traces that journey of around 64 miles, one he repeated later when appointed Bishop on the island.

We set off from Melrose, a small Borders town, on Thursday morning. Even as we emerged from the hotel door a light shower was falling from ragged clouds. Thank goodness we had opted for the west-east version of the trip, with the prevailing wind behind us. A stiff climb over the Three Sisters (otherwise the Eildon Hills) warmed us up and raised our spirits: the scenery, and the May colours, were simply dazzling, with the gorse ablaze, and the woods full of great drifts of bluebell and wild garlic.

Looking back at the Three Sisters from the east

...and from even further east: these hills remained in sight, on and off, for three of our four days
 Our destination the first night was Ancrum, where we stayed in the new camping barn in the centre of the village, just a few yards from the pub. This was a terrific set-up, the accommodation warm, comfortable and welcoming - with a lot of thoughtful touches, like the packet of biscuits and the bottle of milk laid out for our arrival. We met the proprietor next morning as she walked her children to school - and of course it's her Mum who runs the shop and Pantry right next door, making it quite the family affair. Next morning as we stocked up for the day's lunch we were served hot bacon rolls  and coffee.

After the hail, on Wideopen Hill
The second day was our longest leg, approximately 19 miles from Ancrum, over Jedfoot Bridge, through Cessford and Morebattle. By the time we confronted the stiff climb up Wideopen Hill (368 metres, 1280 feet) we were already pretty well worn out. It was here that we had our one patch of really unpleasant weather, a sharp hailstorm which, mercifully, struck just before we started the long climb.

In some of this more rugged country we were impressed with the number of stout trees that seemed to withstand whatever the elements threw at them. This remnant of an ancient  hawthorn hedge seemed particularly heroic. It's not evident from the photo, but it had managed to produce a small spray of sweet-smelling blossom.

The hawthorn that refused to die

In Kirk Yetholm we stayed in a hostel run by the Friends of Nature, and ate at the Borders Hotel -  both for supper that night and breakfast next day. They're well used to catering for ravenous hikers, being sited right at the end of the Pennine Way footpath.

A first glimpse of the North Sea, from above Wooler

Next morning we crossed the border back into England and headed for our fourth overnight stop at Wooler. As we dropped off the high moorland and started our descent towards the town, we had our first views of the sea.

St Cuthbert's Cave

From Wooler the country became less rugged, the weather colder than ever, with brief showers scudding through on a wind that was now blowing at about Force 6. The forecast had suggested '9 degrees, feeling like 5' - and again it was spot on. After sheltering in the woods below St Cuthbert's Cave - his supposed resting-place en route between the two Abbeys - we decided we could postpone the climb to the summit no longer. Mercifully, the sun came out - and stayed out for the rest of the day.

We were now descending towards the Great North Road (or A1) and the East Coast Main Line. We got across the highway okay, but at the railway had to telephone the signalman at Berwick to check that there were no 100 mph trains in the vicinity. Once over that obstacle, we were within sniffing distance of the sea and our final challenge. We grabbed a final snack by these remnants of World War II, designed to halt any German tank battalions that might land on the shore:

Vintage WWII tank traps, a mile or so inland from the coast
There are two ways of getting to Lindisfarne on foot. One is to wait for the tide to ebb and follow the causeway as it emerges from the sea. The main problem with that route is that you share it with motor traffic. So we opted to follow the more direct, but wetter, route used by pilgrims in times past and indicated by a row of tall wooden marker poles as it crosses three miles of sand, mud, and shallow sea-water. For that you wait a further hour after the opening of the causeway, then prepare to get your feet wet.

Setting off across the mud-flats. The tower here is one of two places along the way where you could shelter if caught by a rising tide. It would be a long wait.

It's a dramatic way to approach your final destination. With the wind now approaching full gale force, we were buffeted across an elemental landscape. The various warnings we'd read about possible dangers seemed to err on the side of caution. The water was rarely more than a few inches deep, while in several places grasses were growing. With my boots and gaiters on, and a few carefully executed leaps, I managed to stay dry, and we made it to the far shore in a little over an hour. From the landing-point it was barely ten minutes' walk to the Ship Inn, a huge dinner, and a taxi-ride home.

Nearly there

I'd recommend St Cuthbert's to anybody who wants a scenic hike along a beautifully maintained path. There is sufficient accommodation along its course to allow you to plan a walk of three, four, five or even six days. Although we both had maps and guidebooks, we were never reliant on them. The way was marked frequently and clearly. And if you want to make life really easy, there is a baggage-carrying service available. We also met a number of people whose B&B hosts had arranged to collect them by car at the end of each day's walk. There was every indication that all the people and businesses with an interest in promoting the use of the trail had put in a huge effort to make it an agreeable experience from one end to the other. I'd rate it as one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done. My only complaint is that it didn't cure my cold - but then I don't think staying at home would have done either.