Spring, snow and ski-ing

We’re just back from a trip to visit relatives in the south of France where some of my cousins suggested a day in the Pyrenees to see the last of the snow.

“What, more snow?” asked my daughter. “We’ve seen plenty of that at home.” Instead we enjoyed walks by the Aveyron, Ariege and Haute Garonne, and visits to the great citadel of Carcassonne and La Ville Rose (Toulouse), enjoying slightly warmer weather than Scotland currently has.

But the dump of snow is not something to complain about (that seems to be a default position for many). Rather, I see it as something to celebrate.

At the weekend a walk in the Angus Glens with Scots Magazine friends meant the high tops were still covered in the white stuff, making for a great backdrop as we made our way up to Bachnagairn.

In other parts of Scotland the white stuff has made it a bumper winter of ski-ing and with more snow forecast, the season is likely to continue into May. But such is our attitude to spring –  which says it is all about flowers and sunshine, as nice as they are – Ski-Scotland is warning lovers of the piste not miss out.

The organisation’s chair Andy Meldrum said the snow is likely to remain for much longer than skiers and snowboarders turn out. He said: “Once spring does finally arrive with warm sun and daffodils blooming, people seem to believe there’s no snow left for skiing or snowboarding. However, this really is the best time of year to come for a slide in the mountains with a much better chance of good overhead weather. It’s also a really good time to learn, when the weather is kinder and slopes quieter. Just don’t forget your sunblock!”

So, keep those skis and snowboards ready, there is still plenty of time to enjoy them. And if you are walking, remember it is not time to stow away the crampons just yet.

ENDS

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.

Cambo Sands and Estate, Fife

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on May 13, 2007

CAMBO SANDS AND ESTATE, FIFE

Just down from the Old Course in St Andrews is Kingsbarns – a links course for more than two hundred years.

The beautiful Cambo Sands on its eastern side is a lovely place for a stroll or picnic – it is often a little quieter than other beaches in the area.

At the southern end a path takes you up a beautiful wooded glen to the Cambo Estate, privately owned by the Erskine family since 1688. This is best known for its snowdrops but it is beautiful all year round and the contrast with the stunning, windswept coast is fantastic. There is an entrance fee for the gardens but it is well worth it and children go free.

DISTANCE: 3 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Undulating but about 80ft in total.

TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 59.

PARK: Turn off the A917 at the southern edge of Kingsbarns and drive three-quarters of a mile to the end of a narrow road and a car park next to the sea.

IN SUMMARY: Drop down to the beach and look to the left at the remains of the old Kingsbarns harbour before going right, along the sands. (Even at high tide you can walk along the shoreline although you may have to clamber over some rocks to avoid getting your feet wet. If unsure or the waves are high, follow the path above the dunes with Kingsbarns Golf Links to your right.)

At the far end of the beach go up to the top of the dunes and carry on in the same direction. As a track goes away to the right, go left and follow a Fife Coastal Path waymarker.

The path leads to a green and then a broad, well-built track going right. Ignore a another track, going right, and continue down to the Cambo Burn. Go right here and after about 20yards cross a footbridge – the third bridge up from the sea.

Go up some steps and follow the path up the wooded glen, above the burn. After about half a mile you reach a sign indicating the way, right, to the gardens.

Drop down and then go up to the entrance to the walled garden. You have to a go little further to pay the entrance fee in an honesty box next to the potting shed.

After wandering around the walled garden follow the signs through the rest of the gardens to the back of Cambo House where you can make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy a home made cake or sandwich (again, use an honesty box to pay). You can also buy plants here.

Go back to the front of the house and turn left, following the path out of the gardens and back down the wooded glen – on the other side of the burn you came up.

Once at the bottom retrace your steps around the edge of the golf course and along Cambo Sands back to the car park.

 

Ben Vrackie, Pitlochry

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on April 30, 2006

BEN VRACKIE, PITLOCHRY

Ben Vrackie is one of the finest mountains in Scotland where you climb up high to reach a proper pointed summit with great views over the Perthshire and Grampian mountains.
The wonderful Moulin Hotel at its base helps to make it even better.

DISTANCE: 6 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,100 ft.

TIME: 4 to 5 hours.

MAPS: OS Landranger 43 and 52.

PARK: Turn left at the Moulin Hotel, about a mile from the centre of Pitlochry along the A924, then go right a couple of hundred yards later. The car park is at the top of the single track road on the right.

IN SUMMARY: Ben Vrackie looks great, it is rocky, pointy and dominates the town of Pitlochry below. It’s not a Munro but it is up there as one of the finest summits in Scotland. A walk up is just as a day up a mountain should be; a little strenuous and exhilarating with brilliant mountain views and real sense of achievement.

The route starts on a signed path which takes you out of the car park and alongside the Moulin Burn. Higher up, the sight of the 2,760ft summit greets you – don’t worry about the daunting appearance with a large craggy face looming above, the route up is not as hard it looks.

On reaching two wooden benches from you can take a breather and look back across Pitlochry and down the River Tummel to the Tay beyond. Shortly after the bench ignore a path to the left and carry on to Loch a’ Choire with the summit of Ben Vrackie rising steeply above it.

Cross the grassy dam by the edge of the loch and go up the well built path on the other side. The path zig-zags its way up and is easy to follow (if a little strenuous on the lungs). Near the top the path goes round to the left before a final steep section to reach the summit cairn. Stop and give yourself a pat on the back before using the view indicator to locate mountains from Schiehallion to the south west, the mountains of Lochaber in the far distance to the west and the Grampians to the north.

Retrace your steps to the start.

Note that in winter conditions the use of ice axes and crampons maybe necessary.

Ben A’an, Trossachs

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on August 21, 2016

BEN A’AN, TROSSACHS
Despite being only a little over 1,500ft high, from the pointed top of Ben A’an you can look down Loch Katrine to the Arrochar Alps. Ben Venue is closer, just across the head of the loch, while Ben Ledi is to the east. South lie the Campsies and north the mountains above Crianlarich.

A new path leads up to the top, via a fun clamber up by the side of a burn. Once at the top, take your time to enjoy the view, it is one of the best in Scotland.

DISTANCE: 3 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,250ft.

TIME: 2 to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 57.

PARK: A couple of miles west of Brig o’Turk on the A821 there is a Forestry Commission car park for Ben A’an, on the left. (£3 charge)

If travelling over the Duke’s Pass from Aberfoyle, the car park is on the right a few hundred yards after the turning for Loch Katrine.

IN SUMMARY: Cross the road from the car park and go up a wide track on the other side. When the track bends left go straight on, up steeply on a newly built path.
The path veers left as it nears the tumbling waters of Allt Inneir then continues steeply until a gratefully-reached flat section, before you cross the burn via a wooden footbridge.
The path then continues uphill a short way before levelling out as Ben A’an appears ahead. Don’t be daunted by its pointy appearance, the way up is a lot easier than it looks.
The path carries on across clear-felled ground then enters a band of birch woodland below the crags around the summit.
After a small clearing the path climbs steeply again, by a small burn which you cross, before levelling off and doubling back to reach the summit.
After spending time exploring the summit rocks most return the way they came and this is the easiest option. An alternative is to head to the north and west to reach the shore of Loch Katrine. This, however, is pretty rough terrain and can be very wet underfoot.

Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on March 3, 2009

LOCH AN EILEIN, ROTHIEMURCHUS

This is one of the most popular low level walks in Scotland, and rightly so. Nestled among the Caledonian pines of the Rothiemurchus Forest, Loch an Eilein makes an enchanting setting, completed with the ruins of an ancient castle.

This area is home to some fantastic wildlife. Red squirrels would be a highlight, as well as Scottish crossbills and Osprey in the summer. These magnificent fishers once nested on the castle but were driven away by egg hunters about 100 years ago.

The castle has a history dating back as far as the 13th century and was once said to have been home to the notorious Wolf of Badenoch. In the 1770s a causeway to the ramparts disappeared when the water level was raised by a sluice gate built to allow timber to be floated down to the River Spey.

At the top of the loch a narrow path takes you to Loch Gamhna. Right on the edge of the forest, it sits like a Highland oasis, dwarfed by great, bulky mountains.

The return takes you back along Loch an Eilein then through forest before returning to the shore and a last view of the castle ruins at the end of one of the best short walks in Scotland.

DISTANCE:  4½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Undulating but about 500ft in total.

TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 36.

PARK: Take the B970, Cairngorm road, from Aviemore. Turn right after about three-quarters of a mile, following a sign to Insh. Just over a mile down the road go left, following a brown sign to Loch an Eilein, and you will find a car park another mile further on.

IN SUMMARY: Go to the far end of the car park and take a path to a notice board where you go straight on to reach a small visitor centre and some toilets.

Walk the few yards to the edge of the loch and go right, following a good path.

The main path follows the loch shore, although slightly above it, and passes the castle – after this look out for a path on the left which drops down to a bench offering good views of the ruins.

At the top of the loch ignore a track going right and follow the footpath round to the left.

After a few hundred yards (after the path has veered away from the loch and gone up a slight incline) take a smaller path on the right which leads to Loch Gamhna. Follow the path round the loch to reach the main path again, where you go right.

Ignore smaller paths going off to either side and follow the main path as it veers away from Loch an Eilein, before swinging round to the left and returning to the shore and visitor centre. Go right here to retrace your steps from earlier back to the car park.

Bennachie, Aberdeenshire

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on December 12, 2009

BENNACHIE, ABERDEENSHIRE

Bennachie makes for a short but energetic winter walk.

The popular hill has a number of tops and this route visits the highest, Oxen Craig (1,733ft), before reaching Mither Tap (1,699ft). This pointed rocky peak, with a Pictish fort below the summit, is what most people think of when Bennachie is mentioned.

The views are extensive with the Cairngorms to the south of west, Lochnagar to the south west, Mount Keen (the most easterly Munro) is further south and going round to south east is Aberdeen with the North Sea beyond.

DISTANCE: 5½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,590ft.

TIME: 3½ to 4½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 38.

PARK: Drive about six miles north of Inverurie on the A96 and turn left, onto the B9002. A mile and a half later you pass through Oyne and half a mile further turn left, following a brown sign for the Back o’Bennachie car park which is a mile down a single track road.

IN SUMMARY: Follow a path at the top of the car park, entering woods. After a couple of hundred yards go right at a track then, 20 yards later, turn left to follow a path further up into the woodland.

A little further on ignore a path going off to the right, then two going left and continue up through the woods. The path leaves the trees and goes right before zig-zagging up to Little Oxen Craig. Just after a level section of the path you can go right and follow a signpost to visit the old quarry at the top of this outlying summit. For the main route, continue straight on, ignoring a path going left.

Once at the base of Oxen Craig go straight along a path over rocky outcrops past a signpost to reach the summit.

Return to the signpost and go right, down stone steps and along an obvious path. Ignore a path going right and then one to the left. At a junction go right and then right again on reaching another junction.

Ignore a smaller path going left but a little higher go left at a signpost, on a path which bends around the base of Mither Tap. Go right at a signpost and then go up stone steps to the top.

Retrace your steps to the signpost and go left, then go right at the next signpost. At the next signpost go straight ahead ignoring the path on the left, taken earlier.

At the next junction continue straight on, ignoring a path to the right. The path swings left to Craigshannoch – you can make a short detour to the top by taking a path on the right.

Otherwise, continue round to the left and down to a signpost where you go right. The next junction (next to Little Oxen Craig) was passed earlier. Go right to retrace your steps back to the car park.

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.