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.

Advantages of Lockdown #1

Lockdown has left many frustrated at not being able to get out and about – for me it is the mountains and glens I miss most, as well as the coast, and lochs, and Caledonian forest, and, well, you get the point.

However, spending most of my time in he back garden, thanks to the glorious weather, has meant the chance to watch and hear the development of a family of blue tits in a bird box.

The parents were a bit timid a few weeks ago, waiting ages before deciding it was safe to fly into the box. Now, however, with a host of chicks tweeting like crazy inside they are dashing to and fro with food faster than Usain Bolt, or Alan Wells at least.

With all this activity, the day of fledging cannot be far away but the activity of magpies has left me neurotic; they seem to be on the prowl (if birds can prowl), waiting for the little birds to appear. I’m not sure if they will gobble them up but to make sure they don’t get the chance I have been shooing them off.

Sitting out with camera in hand has meant work has been neglected on some days but the pleasure is worth it, especially when a tiny head peeks out. We made the bird box with the children at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Jupiter Urban Wildlife Centre in Grangemouth a few years ago – it has been a good success each spring since and it’s worth trying to make your own, try the RSPB’s guide

One thing from experience, you do genuinely get a sad feeling after the chicks fledge and the sound of frantic cheeping has gone, at least for another year.

In praise of urban walking

Scots Mag walkers out an about in Edinburgh

Why choose to walk in a town or city, rather than the wonderful Scottish countryside?

It isn’t as weird a decision as it might sound. As gales lash Scotland at this time of year, plans to get up on the high mountains are ruined but that doesn’t mean walking is ruled out completely.

Urban walks are not only more sheltered than a ridge in Glencoe or the Cairngorms, they can also throw up a few surprises.

The delights of the Water of Leith in Edinburgh are a prime example. Here, there are otters (yes, really), kingfishers and heron. I’ve seen them and if you pop into the Water of Leith visitor centre the nice people in there will confirm regular sightings of all sorts of wildlife.

A walk from Roseburn to the visitor centre gives the counter-intuitive feeling of being out of the city even though you are right next to it. While bustling streets, offices and houses are all around it is the trees, shrubs and river which envelop you.

The peace and tranquillity was enjoyed by more than 40 folk on a Scots Mag Hike at the weekend. This was one of the most popular outings of the year, I think because of the good conditions underfoot.

Some run the route we took (returning to the city centre by the Union Canal towpath) but the idea of charging through the scenery, while good for fitness, makes me think much of nature in the city would be missed.

So, if you look out of the window and don’t fancy a trip to the wilds, or even semi-wilds, think about what might be on your doorstep.

Foraging fun

Foraging is cool – it used to be the preserve of hippy-ish PHD students or high end chefs looking for poncey mushrooms and weird “leaves”.

Now it seems it is for everyone from those looking to improve their spag bol (use the water you soak dried mushrooms in, according to cookery guru Wendy Barrie) to people wanting to find sea capers on the shoreline (go and find Jayson at East Neuk Seaweed).

All things foraging are being brought together at Foraging Fortnight which begins next week (Saturday, August 31) across Scotland. I went for taster session yesterday – and there was a lot of great food to try as well as interesting people to meet

The festival programme has been designed to encourage all ages to get out and forage in beautiful locations from woodlands to seashores, hedgerows to back garden plants (Cambo Gardens in Fife are good for this). There are loads of sessions on offer – free and paid for – and they are going to repeat it in May next year.

Yesterday, I went to Bowhouse in Fife, a great place for foodies who like things natural and local, and there were the familiar things you would expect at this kind of event – lots of smiling people and great food. But there also a genuine vibe of positively looking at what Scotland has to offer for the dinner plate.

And that doesn’t mean spending a fortune in expensive delis – you can grab a feast of salad from hedgerows as you make your way to the seashore to find seaweed and molluscs. Add in a few berries and you have a really posh dinner which food snobs in north London would admire.

Don’t be snob though, just go out and give it a try – people have been doing it for years and much of it has its origins in the way the less well-off gathered their food down the centuries.

And, for any cynics out there: I wasn’t paid to write this.

Batten down the hatches – the doom mongers are back

It is the time of year when hillwalkers, mountaineers and climbers need to batten down the hatches as the “ban this sort of thing” brigade take to the airwaves and newspapers.

As snow descends on the mountains and rescues are highlighted it unfortunately leads some (often in offices in towns and cities far removed from the outdoors) to call for a reduction in access to the hills at a time when conditions are potentially dangerous.

This is wrong for many reasons, not least because it falls against the now widely accepted principle of land access and also that mountains are always risky for the unaware or ill-prepared. Equally, we don’t ban Sunday morning football because players sometimes break their legs, or drinking in case someone gets dangerously drunk and needs and ambulance.

One claim often made is that rescuers’ lives are put at risk helping people trapped in precarious positions. What should be remembered is that most of these rescuers are volunteers who go out because of a love of the outdoors and a desire to help fellow enthusiasts.

However, that does not mean we should ignore the tragedies and near-misses because accidents do happen and it is the responsibility of everyone who enjoys being out in the wild places of Scotland to make sure they are as safe as possible.

Shaun Roberts, the principal of the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, has told me that if you have a doubt about going out somewhere in the hills you should treat it as a “red flag” and consider your actions.

Planning and preparation is key and courses run by places such as Glenmore Lodge can be invaluable. For example, taking an ice axe and crampons is not enough if you don’t know how to use them and a map and compass are useless in a storm if your navigation skills are not up to scratch.

Common sense also means weather and avalanche forecasts should always be taken account of and turning back if the conditions deteriorate must be an option at the forefront of your mind.

So, rather than talking of bans we should all be doing everything to reduce the risk of going out in the hills and mountains and then get on with the serious business of enjoying it.