Big and shiny is not always best

The Cairngorms do pretty well as a tourist destination – even in a normal Covid-free year it is often hard to book accommodation in the spring, summer and autumn months and in the winter skiers and snowboarders love the place, when it snows.

In recent years there has been much written about and argued over when it comes to the funicular railway and associated “ski resort”. The details are long and complex but it is enough to say millions have been spent and at different times it has gone bust or broken down.

Now the government has announced £16m will go into repairing the railway as part of a £20.51m package which Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said will “unlock the full potential of Cairn Gorm to make it a destination people can enjoy all year-round.”

There are a number of things which raised my eyebrows at this. Not least the staggering amount of money being spent in one area when other ski resorts were getting nothing and, as covered in my last blog, that there was no money to save Scotland’s outdoor education centres – shut because of Covid and then not invested in by the same Scottish Government.

Further, Cairn Gorm is already a year round destination – the main thing that has hindered it is that some years it doesn’t snow very much and when it snows a lot, the roads are closed.

You could also invest in keeping the roads open – imagine if the routes to ski resorts in the Alps or Pyrenees closed as often as ours do? But that’s not very cool, a funicular railway, however, is big and shiny – it looks great on photos, better than a snowplough anyway.

And it is big and shiny things that Scottish Government appear to be in thrall to – think about the way our two National Parks were launched, with press releases about a Loch Lomond visitor centre containing a Jenner’s outlet and the focus in the Cairngorms was the funicular railway.

Peatland restoration, conservation of habitats for upland birds or reforestation with native trees could have been the main focus – but a peat bog doesn’t look great in a photo op.

Think also why there is no money for outdoor education centres, infrastructure such as toilets on the extremely popular North Coast 500 or for car parks on over-crowded Skye – none of those things are big and shiny.

A Scottish Government press release about this investment had the title “Strengthening Cairn Gorm’s future” which led the cynic in me to think Cairn Gorm did pretty well for millions of years without human intervention and if there was really a concern for it as a habitat, and geologically, you would minimise any intrusion on the landscape rather than build something big and shiny like a funicular railway.

Yes, there need to be built infrastructure to help the skiers, our landscapes are there to be enjoyed and some disturbance is inevitable but please, let’s stop thinking big and shiny is best.

#saveyouroutdoorcentres

This summer, as the hills and glens were thronged with more visitors than ever before, there were reports of much anti-social behaviour, from littering to campfire left smouldering, from verges used as toilets to trees being chopped down for firewood. Photographs on social media from harassed rangers left to clear up the crap led to much hand-wringing among the outdoors community (I include myself here) about a throwaway culture where tents are cheap and not worth the bother of taking down and woods can be used as open toilets because someone else will clear up the mess – that’s what happens on hols.

I think the general conclusion was that a bit of education would have helped – that we (the outdoors-loving community) had been lucky enough, as children, to have been taken out by our families or by the Scouts or other outdoor education bodies with adults who showed us how to light a safe campfire, how to build a shelter; and we didn’t just learn how to do it but why we do it, why it’s important. We learnt a respect for the countryside and a desire to leave it in the same state as we found it so we and others could continue to enjoy it.

So in a year which has generally been dripping with irony, it should have come as no surprise that the Scottish government should on the one hand bemoan the state the countryside was left in and on the other fail to support outdoor education centres, the main places where many children and young people get their first, sometimes their only, taste of the outdoors.  I should say here, yes it wasn’t just Scots causing the problems (just as it wasn’t just the English) and yes it wasn’t just young people – in fact not even mainly young people. But instilling a love of and respect for the outdoors is something which should be started with young people.

It must be hard to be in government. All those people clamouring for attention and wanting their concerns addressed. However, there are sometimes issues which to the average person seem to be no-brainers, and one is supporting outdoor education centres.

Outdoor education centres are not just places where children and young people get an adrenaline rush when they abseil, kayak or rock climb, they help build health and well-being. For the disadvantaged it can be first taste of the great outdoors and for all it is a chance to build confidence away from any pressures at home, or in the academic setting of schools.

In August the Scottish Government said councils could not allow school residential trips to take place until the spring term of 2021, and that they would not review it until December. That meant that without financial support many of these places would close. So far there has been none.

Re-opening schools has been a priority but not all of education has been given the same level of importance. Classroom activity is good but activity at outdoor education centres is also incredibly beneficial to children and young people. It might not lead directly to exams but that should not mean it is less relevant to a proper education. We are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Schools become important not just because of education but because they are child-minders for parents needing to get back to work to kickstart the economy. And somewhere along the line, the education bit gets lost – it becomes about logistics; shunt the kids here so the parents can go there. But education isn’t just exams, it doesn’t have to be indoor, desk-bound learning. It is at the moment because we have made it so. But can we not take a step back and say what do we want our children to know, to have learned, to be able to do in 20 years and prioritise our education system around that?

None of us knows what kind of world is ahead for our young people – if we didn’t know it before, this year has most certainly taught us we don’t even know what the world will look like the following week. More than ever, our next generation need to be adaptable, flexible, resilient. They need to be problem-solvers, team players, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to care about our country and our world. 

However, even with outdoor centres, the amount of countryside education our children get is well below what should be the norm in a first world country. At my daughter’s state secondary only a handful get to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and local rangers now have to charge schools for courses (despite them working for the same council which is providing the children’s education). This reduces an introduction to the outdoors children are getting and reinforces the belief in them that exams are the only thing worth worrying about.

The Scottish Government said earlier this month it was “fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers”. So far, that appears to be untrue.

Please write to your MSP and the Scottish Government, and sign this petition to pressure the decision makes into making a decision.

Advantages of Lockdown #5

Exercise is good for you, we all know that. But before lockdown many of us didn’t do enough. I might go on big walks every week but in between them I can be as guilty as anyone at avoiding anything too strenuous – my only exercise sometimes being to walk to my office at the bottom of the garden (and our back garden is not as big as Monty Don’s).

Then came the lockdown restrictions and a feeling that we were trapped in our homes – only allowed to get out once a day for a walk or cycle, or jog. As a result we grabbed that chance and religiously started going out, planning our route to maximise whatever form of greenery / nature we could – all we needed was two feet.

That is a wonderful thing and with any luck some will continue to stride out near where they live. People have used the word leveller incorrectly during the pandemic but a local walk is for everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t need any fancy “kit” that hillwalkers can obsess about (me included) – waterproof, breathable or, stretchy clothes are not necessary, you can just wear whatever you like, although it is best to change out of your pyjamas and slippers.

And, there is no competitive side to it – people compare walks they have enjoyed, rather than talk about how fast they did it, how many miles they went or how tough they had to be to get through it.

As a family, we have discovered new places nearby, observed nature and enjoyed the feeling of being in the fresh air. My daughter knows the difference between a health walk and a stroll – when she has the idea of doing the former, it can leave me trailing behind but that is not a bad thing. The health side is a real plus to a local walk – you don’t need a fancy gym membership with cardiovascular optimisation apparatus or a supply of isotonic drinks, just go out of the front door and start walking. Remember, all you need is two feet.

Advantages of Lockdown #4

One thing about lockdown, not only here but across the world, has been the effect it has had of lowering pollution levels. For me that is a great thing, and hopefully something that can be built on after it is over.

Even now, with the restrictions lifted slightly and people seemingly able to increase their driving, the background hum of traffic near our home in Linlithgow is lower than it would normally be. This means less nitrogen oxides and particulate matter going into the air and then our lungs – brilliant! It also means you can hear more without the background noise of engines.

For me, and lots of people I have spoken to, it is birds who have provided the soundtrack to lockdown. Highlights have been a cacophony of noise from starlings zooming about all over the place with sparrows dodging around below them and then blue tits squeezing in to feed their young in our garden birdbox (they’ve still not fledged – see Advantages of Lockdown #1). Then, in the evening, a crow seems to clear off any pigeons or gulls and stands guard over the garden – actually think it is waiting for some of the hedgehog food we put down around then. Finally, a blackbird produces its wonderfully varied songs, flitting from treetop to treetop as if to say “I’m about to go to bed and if I wake up and find anyone in my territory, there’ll be trouble!”

It would be great to think this can continue after lockdown. It will need councils and the Scottish Government to act – traffic calming measures would help although previously they have been rejected near our house (for a number of bureaucratic reasons). It is also incumbent on us all to stop using our cars as much – the “big shop” has made a return and is one way to reduce multiple journeys to one place, or we could try to walk and cycle more whenever possible (for example, school runs are fine in bad weather or when the pavements are left icy while the roads are gritted but on a hot day in June a walk home is a great thing to do if possible.)

In the meantime, I’m off to see if the blue tits have fledged while there is less noise and air pollution.

(Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay.)

Advantages of Lockdown #3

The daily walk has become something of a ritual for many who would normally only walk from their car to the shop, restaurant or sports ground. This is great, as an outdoors journalist it is one of my aims in life to get people out and about, enjoying nature, fresh air and a feeling of being “away from it all”.

The restrictions are easing but with a five mile limit on travelling the daily ramble should still be local. (For those that think it ok to travel miles and miles and sit on crowded beaches or lochsides – please stop being selfish and stupid.)

In the future we will be able to travel further and return to favourite glens, coastlines and mountains – it is a time to look forward to, that is for sure. But we should not stop the daily walk near where we live. I think it has brought a sense of freedom to us – not only escaping lockdown but any sort of restrictions that can constrict us.

This can mean not thinking you have to have loads of fancy gear to go on a walk. I am the first to get giddy at the thought of new boots, walking trousers, even base layers, but the local walk has reminded us that you just need some fairly good footwear, hopefully a sun hat, if not a waterproof, and the ability to avoid getting lost.

The idea of having a challenge on a walk is a good thing but sometimes that can go too far. Walking further than usual, up a Munro or two or on a long distance path are good aims but they should not be the ultimate goal. For me the purpose of walk is not to conquer nature but to immerse yourself in the environment as much as possible, soothing the senses while getting a bit of exercise.

So, whatever happens in the coming months, keep the local walks going.

Advantages of Lockdown #2

Hidden gems, secret paths, lost valleys … we’ve all heard of them and some of them even have signposts. In lockdown many of us have discovered new places of beauty, tranquillity or surprise as we have strived to get on a walk while staying safe and local.

We live in Linlithgow so the loch, River Avon and the town’s hill, Cockleroy, are well known spots to get outdoors but even after more than 20 years being here it is great to discover new places.

One favourite was a little path up near the golf course – obviously everyone I told about it said, “Yeh, it’s good but I’ve known about it for years.” For my nine-year-old, who had decided to dress up as an Amazonian it was a good place to explore, and try to hunt for fish in a bubbling burn. No fish were caught but it is all in the trying.

The golf course itself was good for a ramble until they re-opened – a treat normally hidden from us non-players and who knew there was a huge abandoned quarry in the middle of it? Well, quite a few folk actually, but by no means everyone.

Another joy has been watching the seasons change and a walk in the same woods has revealed an evolving carpet of flowers beginning with snowdrops, through to wood anemones, ramsons and bluebells, Now, the blooms are fading as a light green canopy fills the trees with an enchanted air. Normally, I would have been mountain walking up and around the Highlands and maybe only seen the woods every few weeks. The more regular visits have made them more attractive than ever. As lockdown continues in whatever form there will still be the chance to explore, wherever you are. So, if you are considering driving more than five miles, don’t. Enjoy what is on your doorstep for now.