The joy of sledging

What is it about white stuff falling from the sky (especially when it comes close to Christmas)? Some see it as a problem and it is disconcerting that councils can fail to clear pavements and side roads, leaving vulnerable members of society housebound. But I am lucky enough to see a good fall of snow as a chance to enjoy some winter fun locally, rather than having to travel to the mountains.

And with two children of primary school age I can live out the boyhood thrill of hurtling down a slope, not quite sure how it is all going to end.

One thing I did learn in the last week or so is that two people are definitely quicker than one when flying down the side of Cockleroy, a wonderful little hill above Linlithgow.

How no bones were broken is something of a miracle but it is best not to think about that, or the buried rocks beneath the soft fluffy snow, or the cold blast of a dollop of the snow being pushed up your back as the positively Olympian bobsleigh run turns into a tumble.

Instead, concentrate on having fun and enjoy the relatively rare sight of snow away from the glens.

My youngest managed to turn a standard red sledge into a snowboard, hurtling downwards while retaining his balance for a respectable distance before face planting in a drift – he came up smiling like a mini Yeti and did it again.

Follow all this with hot chocolate and you can stuff your Meribels or Whistlers – Scotland in winter is just as brilliant. I only wish it would snow again soon.

Top five winter walks with children

Autumn is turning into winter, the last leaves are dropping off the trees, snow is falling in the hills and early morning frost has become the norm. But that is not a reason to pack away walking boots and wait until the return of spring before enjoying a walk.

Winter conditions can mean ice axe and crampons are needed on the higher summits but lower down the winter wonderland on offer across Scotland is stunning.

VisitScotland close many of their dwindling number of visitor centres at this time of year which is amazingly short-sighted, even for city-based decision-makers. The outdoors is still there to be enjoyed and the conditions can be great to enthuse children, whether it is smashing up icy puddles, sledging down a slope or building a snowman.

Here are five great walks to take little ones on:

BENNACHIE, ABERDEENSHIRE, stands high above Aberdeenshire with views stretching down from the Cairngorms, over rolling farmland to the North Sea. The tors and tops on top of the hill are easily explored from a network of waymarked paths.

LOCH AN EILEIN, CAIRNGORMS, is a good place to look for red squirrels, deer and pine martens. The water often freezes giving a 13th century castle just offshore a magical appearance – even if it was once said to have been home to the notorious Wolf of Badenoch.

BEN A’AN, TROSSACHS, has a proper pointed summit with views over Loch Katrine to mountain but it low enough to escape the severe ice coating which can hinder progress on higher mountains. A relatively new path leads up to a steep and exhilarating, but safe, clamber by a burn to the rocky top.

BEN VRACKIE, PITLOCHRY, is another pointy mountain which dominates Pitlochry and offers a great way to burn off any Yuletide excess. The views over the central Highlands are superb and made even more memorable if you finish the day in the cosy inn at the Moulin Hotel near the start. This is the most arduous of the five walks and in very wintry weather, crampons and ice axe may be needed.

CAMBO SANDS AND ESTATE, FIFE, is a wonderful place at the end of winter when the snowdrops are staring to emerge. Beginning the walk below Kingsbarns, you can enjoy a bracing winter’s stroll along a great stretch of sandy beach (and maybe a wee sandcastle), before enjoying the flowers.

Don’t mind the gap

Sycamore Gap at Hadrian's Wall

WHEN the American poet Robert Frost said: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, he clearly wasn’t thinking of Hadrian’s Wall. Quite a lot of people love that ancient boundary between England and Scotland – or north Britain as it was before the Angles and the Scots came along – as demonstrated by the numbers walking the stretch towards Sycamore Gap when we visited recently on a cold, clear, sunny November day.

We humans are good at trying to divide things up with neat lines, particularly in that part of the world where there have been divisions and lines and boundaries – and battles over them – for thousands of years. Hadrian’s effort just happens to be the one that’s survived physically for the longest so far.

But what struck me most driving through Northumberland, then through southern Scotland on our way home north, was how similar the two are – the wild moorlands on either side of the Border which give way to isolated farms and rolling fields. The use of language and expressions are similar too – and I suspect rural north Northumberland is frequently as neglected and overlooked by politicians in London as rural southern Scotland is by those in Glasgow and Edinburgh, giving the two areas far more in common with each other than with their respective national cities.

Sycamore Gap is the most visited spot on Hadrian’s Wall, quite an achievement when you consider this is an 80-mile coast-to-coast World Heritage Site, with the remains of forts, bathhouses and shrines along its length. I suspect its appearance in the 1991 blockbuster movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves has an awful lot to do with that but then there are thousands of blockbuster movie scenes which aren’t still capturing folks’ imaginations 25 years on. So I rather hope that subconsciously people are drawn here by the fact there is a gap, a break in the wall, a link between the two halves, marked by something living and thriving. Because, in fact, we don’t love a wall.

Enchanted again

Enchanted Forest, the woodland light show at Faskally Wood near Pitlochry, was its usual fabulous self this year from the digital rain and the waterfall bridge to the toasted marshmallows.

It’s hard to believe this year is the sixth time I’ve visited with my family. Very glad to see they do a nature audit to check all that light and noise isn’t having an adverse effect on the wildlife – and even more glad to see that this year, as in the last few years, all the tickets sold out.

In fact, this year was the first time we’ve struggled to get tickets – and we buy them months in advance. That and the fact there are so many other outdoor light shows which have sprung up around Scotland is a testimony to the brilliance of the idea and Pitlochry is reaping the benefits with an extended tourist season bridging the gap between the end of the summer and Christmas.

umbrellas at Enchanted Forest

MULTI-COLOURED UMBRELLAS AT THIS YEAR’S ENCHANTED FOREST

The Enchanted Forest isn’t run by some giant multi-national with endless funds – the venture was a real gamble which paid off. It might not have done. But it’s the kind of entrepreneurship we need in tourism in Scotland.

It galls me travelling around Scotland at this time of year and finding so many tourist information centres closed – especially the ones which sell postcards of exquisite wintry scenes in summer. And yes, it’s hard when it’s public money to justify opening centres when the tourists aren’t there in numbers. But to misquote Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you open them, they will come – the Enchanted Forest shows it’s possible.

VisitScotland also say that generally people look for their info online these days. And that is true. But another trend is the rising number of motorhomes on our roads. We have a lot more folk driving around, doing that kind of footloose, where shall we stay tonight kind of holiday – just look at the success of the North Coast 500. And while they’ll have certain must-sees such as Glencoe on their itinerary, there’ll be plenty of times when they’re just meandering from A to B.

And if you drive through a town with a tourist information centre, you might well stop even if you’ve never heard of the place because a centre means there must be touristy things to do.  So you might go up that walk by the waterfalls, then stop for some lunch, then tell your friends about it – all those pics on personal social media are the online bits that really work to spread the word.

Scotland is promoted brilliantly for whisky and golf. But now we know we don’t have to write-off the October to Easter period, we need our tourism experts to find ways of making Scotland a genuinely year-round destination to benefit the cafés, pubs, shops and campsites as much as the whisky companies and golf clubs.

More than a view

Book festivals are a great place to escape to; immersing yourself in a favourite, or completely new, subject can be just the recharge your batteries need from time to time.

So I was completely hooked when the Wigtown Book Festival decided to mix words, which as a writer I am fascinated by, with that greatest of pursuits, walking.

At this year’s extravaganza of literature – running from September 22 to October 1 – a series of “Walking & Talking” events are taking place. These include James Canton recreating ancient Wigtownshire by taking festival goers on a walk from Torhouse Stone Circle.

Authors Robert Twigger and Jessica Fox will walk through the forest inspired by Casual Games for Casual Hikers by poet Harry Giles – a book and map of things to do on a gentle walk from telling stories to rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains to maps to draw when you get home.

Meanwhile, Sara Maitland, who has used her life as a hermit in Galloway as the inspiration for much of her writing, will take folk on a silent walk – getting people to contemplate their surroundings.

Another outdoor experience comes from author and farmer Rosamund Young who will bring to life her cult book The Secret Life of Cows on a local dairy farm.

What all these events have in common is something walkers will appreciate but maybe take a while to realise. Certainly with myself the achievement of getting to the top of a summit, along a glen or around a loch was all I was thinking about when I first went walking.

But there is more to it than that. You nearly always feel better after a walk, even when you get soaked to the skin you can feel enlivened at the end of the day. There is also the side effects which come from being with others – one university in Scotland introduced a scheme where all meetings involving two people had to be conducted while walking around the campus, the reason being it made folk more productive.

So, there really are many reasons to get out walking other than the view. And one of them is to take in a book festival. Find out more about the Wigtown Book Festival at: www.wigtownbookfestival.com

 

Water delight

For me the Highlands have always been there for hillwalking, it was all about the mountains and the rest was really a backdrop to enjoy in the evening.

But having young children has been something of an eye opener, revealing the many activities I knew about because of roadside signs but had never tried out.

So, on a family camping trip to the Cairngorms this summer more time was spent on water than the paths and ridges of the superb mountains.

Both our ten and seven-year-old love the idea of reaching a summit but when they gaze down from Cairn Gorm their eyes are drawn not to Coire an-t Sneachda but Loch Morlich in Glenmore Forest.

The area has long been established for it winter sports but nowadays the summer season is just as important and no more so than on the loch.

Its beautiful beach, at 1,000ft, is dominated by the Northern Corries and on a sunny day can look a little Mediterranean – there is even a barbecue on the go. All of this is helped by watersports on the loch.

The youngest is desperate to follow his big sister on to a paddle board (he just needs his arms stretching to be able to hold the paddle). No matter, all four of us were able to explore the water, if a little inexpertly on one windy day, exploring a little river and generally enjoying a side to the great outdoors I have ignored since my youth when Duke of Edinburgh Awards were part of my life.

Other than that, the wetsuits never had time to properly dry out as wild swimming became “a thing” in the family and those who were bravest made it into water deeper than they could stand up in.

One of my favourite walks in Scotland, or anywhere for that matter, starts at the west end of the loch and goes up to the magnificent Braeriach and its corrie which looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.

But when the rest of the family were spending a day with some friends who live locally what did I do? Hire a kayak and spend a few of the happiest hours you can imagine paddling around and across the loch, admiring the views of the mountains from below.

Some may say it is a type of midlife crisis to go back to things I enjoyed in my youth but it is one I intend to embrace with no regret.