I was out touring in Scotland on my own, having a short break to myself, recharging the moral and emotional batteries. After leaving the Atholl Arms Hotel at Blair Atholl (see More Scottish travels) I made two short detours along single track roads through grey and rainswept countryside deep in fall colours, and after some indecision about which route to take, found myself at the Sugar Bowl Café in Kingussie, a pleasant room painted grey and orange, the steamed-up windows indicative of a warm welcome within, shelter from the driving cold rain of November.
I sat over coffee and cake, looking through some purchases from a nearby second-hand bookshop. I had “The sending” by Geoffrey Household, “Raw Spirit”, the de facto autobiography of Iain Banks (but on the surface, a book about malt whiskey), and “The January Man”, an account of a year of walking Britain, by a guy called Christopher Sommerville.
I made an entry in my diary, and put my pen away. I happened to check my phone and I saw that the nearby Strathspey Railway were having a Diesel Gala Day! I left the café on the instant, in a heavy downpour, and returned to the car. I drove to Aviemore and parked up at the heritage railway car park, again in heavy winter rain. It was 12.50.
In the cold and wet station I learned that the next train was at 13.15. On the platform I got talking to Duncan, a professional photographer who took a few pictures of me enjoying myself. https://www.duncansphotography.co.uk/
From here on in the reader has to put up with nerdish trainspotter details about locomotives and carriages (for which – while I explain it – I make no apology.)
In due course an old English Electric “08” shunter brought in the train, and a Brush type 2 locomotive was attached to the front. I sat resplendent and alone in a very well-appointed Mk 1 FK (First Class Compartment coach). It had an absolutely lovely atmosphere. For me it is the ambience of the old Mk I’s; the woodwork, the lamps, the curved sheet metal ceilings. The sound of the doors slamming that make me feel about 10 years old, going on holiday to Skegness or Blackpool. Notwithstanding the atmosphere, I “bailed”, as the train-spotters are fond of saying, at Boat of Garten, hurriedly crossed the footbridge, and joined the up train back to Aviemore, which was hauled by a Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW) Type 3. A “Class 27” since the 1970s. This was mostly the newer (but still vintage) Mk II stock, still atmospheric, still nostalgic, but not quite the same as the old Mk I compartments.
When the railways were nationalised, British Railways found itself in charge of an absolute plethora of styles and designs of coaches, inherited from the four large companies that existed before. Some form of standardisation was required: from this, in the late 1950’s, came the British Railways Mk I coach.
This was the experience most people would have on a railway journey in the UK from the early 1960’s until the late 1970’s and indeed later, although newer designs were brought out subsequently. The Mark II arrived in the late 1960’s; the first air conditoned Mark II not long after that, and then the Mark III in the early 1970’s.
These are still around – they are the carriages seen in the old “HSTs” which can still be seen in Scotland and down in Cornwall. The privatised railway of today is up to Mk V which are the coaches used for the most modern trains like the Caledonian Sleeper. The final Mk I coaches were the old “slam doors” used in the south of England, and these were withdrawn as late as 2005.
I ordered some tea, crisps and a sandwich. The sandwich was freshly made! What a remarkable thing. I chatted sociably with the guy selling the food. At Aviemore, off the train and back on, and then all the way down to Broomhill at the other end of the line.
The sound made by these Sulzer engines in the Brush type 2 and the BRCW type 3, particularly when they are working hard, is really quite something; it is a magical music to my ears. There are, for me, few sounds that have quite the same effect as does the sound of a vintage diesel locomotive – or perhaps in particular, these slow-beating Sulzer engines.
One might have a hopefully pleasant Pavlovian reaction to many sounds – for example, the sound of a drinks can being opened, or that sound described by Alistair Cooke as the “most civilised sound in existence”, that is, the sound of ice cracking as spirits are poured over it. But for me, it is the sound of diesel locomotives, reminding me as they do, of going on holiday when I was a small boy.
From Broomhill back to Boat of Garten, where I changed again from one train into the other. As the afternoon went on, the weather and the light improved, though heavy showers persisted. I took loads of pictures.
From Boat of Garten back to Broomhill, then all the way back to Aviemore, arriving in the dusk after as remarkably moving and relaxing afternoon as I’ve had in recent years. And this on top of everything else this weekend bas brought. I paid £23 for a “Rover ticket” which enabled me to make something like six separate journeys up and down. I think I got my moneys’ worth.
A trip to Knoydart – extreme backpacking in October
My trip this October, in the planning these last three months, was to walk from the railway at Glenfinnan, through to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula. Inverie is one of the most remote places in mainland Britain. The walk itself I understand is part of the so-called “Cape Wrath Trail” though there was nary a sign at any point to indicate that.
I took the 48km walk in three more or less equal stages of about 16km each. From Glenfinnan to Strathan, Strathan to Sourlies, and from Sourlies to Inverie. As I was hiking alone, completely out of phone range, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call it “extreme” backpacking. Conditions underfoot were absolutely dreadful, wet and deep mud and peat throughout. Across that ground, I was walking at barely 2km per hour averaged over the whole day. I thought I’d meet few people if anyone at all, mid-week in October, but eight other people were on the hill travelling more or less the same route at the same time. We met several times, finishing with drinks in the Old Forge in Inverie.
As in the past, my journey north on the Caledonian Sleeper began with a pint in the Doric Arch at Euston station. Virtually deserted on a Monday night, this railway-themed public house has a giant scale model of “Evening Star”, British Rail’s last steam locomotive, strategically placed behind the bar.
It was really rather pleasant to sit in my berth in the morning, watching the West Highland landscape scroll past the window. Breakfast came as the train rounded the famous Horseshoe Curve near Bridge of Orchy. At Fort William there was ground mist. My eye was caught by a Stanier Black Five stood waiting in the mist for the off with the “Jacobite Express” charter train to Mallaig.
After shopping for some minor groceries in Fort William, I took train a little after noon to Glenfinnan. The mist had burnt off; the skies were clear. The train was absolutely rammed full of tourists, and the officials of the railway company, in consequence perhaps, were a little above-averagely irascible. Passengers must not leave bags here…bicycles must be stored front wheel uppermost…
In the most beautiful clear weather, I hiked up through the heather and trees towards the viaduct. It is concrete: anywhere else but in this stunning location it would be ignored as an industrial monstrosity. But here, certainly since Harry Potter, people travel hundreds of miles to visit Glenfinnan viaduct.
The way ahead lay up a tarmac road through Glenfinnan. As a 10k runner I have learnt much about pacing myself this last year – but not enough. Though I consciously tried to keep the pace down, I still went too fast along the tarmac and in only a few kilometres the hard impacts did more damage to my left heel than in the whole of the next three days, causing a small blister. I continued past the bothy at Corryhully, taking a late lunch, and continuing up to the top, the Bealach a Chaorainn. Here there was a rather surreal gate with no fence on either side of it. Onwards, trending north-east away from the setting sun, down into a wide glacial valley, the long and straight Gleann Chaorainn. As the afternoon wore on, the light grew more delicate.
The ground underfoot became boggier and more complex, and I was starting to tire. As the valley came out into the bigger Glen Pean, I fell over in deep mud and somehow managed to buckle the bottom third of one of my trail poles. Ratty, I crossed the bridge over the Pean and approached a band of forest. Here I met the first of the eight people who were crossing to Inverie at the same time as me, an Englishwoman called Suze and her partner Andy, a Scotsman. After a brief chat I left them in peace and sought somewhere to pitch my tent. But the ground was tussocks and hummocks, dreadful, pathless wet ground wholly inappropriate for camping. In the middle distance I spied some different green, and thought, that might a better campground. It did – but it was on an island in the river. I crossed to the island with only minor difficulties (the boulders in the stream bed were a bit slimy). I deemed the risk of flooding on this particular night, to be negligible, although there was clear evidence that the island could and would flood when the river rose in spate.
Next day, the tent was wet inside and out with dew and condensation. In packing, I found that I had inadvertently brought onto the hill, over half a kilo of spare cheap tent pegs which had been stored right at the bottom of my rucksack. Rather too much weight to casually carry around – I had to abandon them. I crossed the river again, noting that the river had fallen during the night, and set off into the forest. The route lay along a track that clearly predated the trees (an industrial plantation) by decades if not generations. Round onto a forestry road and onwards; beyond the woods, the sky was clear and blue. A choice presented itself: I could hike up Glen Dessarry in the woods, or in the sunshine. On such a beautiful morning, it had to be the sunshine, at the expense of a short detour.
There is a reasonable unmade road up Glen Dessarry, up which it was my task to toil. I took an early lunch – or maybe it wassecond breakfast. I am become a creature of Hobbit on the hill: bread and butter, cheese, tomato, Chorizo sausage, chocolate, date/nut/seed trail mix, perhaps an orange. At Upper Glendessarry the path leaves the unmade road and kinks to the right – “Inverie, 17miles” a sign says. Wet and very muddy, the path continues, keeping another industrial plantation on the left. I reached the top edge of these upper woods and found a convenient flat stone on which to have another snack. A mile or so away below I spied two hikers, presumably the Scotsman and Englishwoman. They saw me clearly against the sky, and waved, but I missed that. They must have taken the route through the woods. As I lunched, a single Typhoon fighter roared past in the distance.
The path continues upwards, always wet, muddy and boggy, over Bealach an Lagain Duibh, which to my unschooled eye looks something like “Black Lake Pass”. One arrives in due course at two linked lochans, dark and forbidding in the lost, high hills. That said, the sun was out and though the water was black, the mood was not too bad. Lochan a’ Mhaim, it is called. On the bank of the second of these, a small boat was stashed, having clearly been laboriously carried up from Loch Nevis.
On the way down to Sourlies from this lochan, there was at least one significant ford over the Finiskaig river. One has to take care with fords, hiking alone. The trail poles are a great help in safely crossing a river. It was a lovely walk down through variable terrain, but always muddy and wet underfoot. At times the river meandered as a “misfit stream” through the valley, then it dropped down through a gorge to the valley floor proper at the head of Loch Nevis. After the initial significant ford, the path kept to the right all the way, sometimes high on the hillside above the river, other times, lower. I passed three people, the first of whom I spoke with briefly. In a strong Slav accent, he told me he was making for the roadhead at Strathan, and that his friends were some hours behind him. An hour or more later I passed his companions. A lady with a Husky and an older, less fit looking man, labouring slowly up the hill with stertorous breath and a Cross of St Andrew on the back of his rucksack. They had started from Sourlies – and late indeed was the hour for them to be passing me not even close to half-way to Strathan.
Once on the valley floor I spotted a party of two walking ahead of me. They arrived at the Sourlies bothy a few minutes before I did. Mark and Dave; Dave, a Scotsman, Mark, an older guy from near Manchester. I decided to stay in the bothy and I put my tent up to dry in the stiff breeze, and it dried in minutes. Mark made some tea, and I contributed some milk from the sleeper train. Not long after that, the Englishwoman Suze and her partner Andy arrived, and there was some sociable chat. They opted to camp outside. Then, four Dutchman arrived – going to be crowded tonight! But they also opted to camp, although they prepared their food in the bothy and stayed for a chat. We started a fire, but if there was any wind at all, the chimney didn’t draw properly, and the bothy soon filled with smoke.
I cooked spicy lentils and a “faranata” – a chickpea flour pancake. This impressed everyone, as freeze-dried wilderness meals seem to carry all before them. Just add hot water. But I like cooking, and one-pot cooking in the wilderness is a challenge I cannot resist. It does mean that I have to carry various bits and bobs onto the hill to make such mountain cuisine possible. A small onion perhaps; a clove of garlic, a twist of spices and salt and pepper. It all adds weight but is worth the effort. As I am a big man, today weighing over 90kg, I can afford to carry 20kg on the hill.
During the night it rained for a time and the wind rose. For some reason I did not sleep well, though i was comfortable enough on a little wooden platform with a couple of mats under me. The Sourlies bothy is in a magnificent wild location at the very head of Loch Nevis, a fjord in all but name. The Fort William to Mallaig road is 15km to the south and about the same to the west, over trackless mountains. To the north, across more trackless mountains 10km to Loch Hourn, itself 15km from Loch Alsh, another fjord or sea-loch. To the east, the route I walked – 13km or so to Strathan at the roadhead on Loch Arkaig. In short, as wild a place as anywhere in Britain.
Next day I was away bright and early, on the hill by 8.15a.m. The couple camping had already set off. The first part of the route lay right along the seashore, quite literally on the beach. Would be tricky at high tide, I would think. The path curves right up onto the headland of Strone Sourlies, and round into Glen Carnoch. One is then presented with a dreadful flat salt marsh to cross. At this point, before nine in the morning, the sky was deeply threatening, lowering grey. There were various paths across the marsh, and the light was good enough, but the going underfoot was really slow and boggy, very, very wet. Without trail poles this would be a really challenging walk.
I found crossing the marsh not so much the moral low point of my journey, as the moment when the sheer wildness and remoteness of this terrain, came home to me. Fall over badly here, walking alone, and even sprain your ankle, much less break your leg, and you’d be in a world of hurt. There’s no mobile connectivity. At best, at this time of year there might be twenty-odd people a week through here, and raising the alarm, without satellite telephony, would only be after 6-7 hours walk from here. Last year in the Cairngorms, I found the scale of the wilderness there similarly daunting. This West Highlands terrain is more intimate and familiar than the Cairngorms, resembling as it does the Lake District or North Wales, but this particular stretch was the exception, and that sense of intimacy deserted me. It was almost frightening.
Halfway across the marsh, I spied a stag and his harem of does, right in my path. I was concerned that the stag would get edgy and jealous if I came too close, and I tried to give them a wide berth, which wasn’t easy in a marsh. I’d been hearing rutting stags all the way from Glenfinnan. As I pondered the way forward, the deer moved out of my way. I spotted the footbrdge which I needed to cross. The scale of the landscape was so great that I had not seen it sooner. Soon after, I spotted the Englishwoman and her partner some way off course, keeping to the right up the valley. There was nothing I could do about it. I became conscious that I was not even carrying a whistle.
The bridge at Sourlies is new, having been erected in 2019 after the old one presumably collapsed or washed away. In October, one might ford this river only with the greatest possible care, and to do so alone would be foolhardy. Crossing, one then hikes up to the ruins of Carnoch, a substantial village or even township. Strange and ghostly it seemed me under that lowering sky. A substantial community once lived here.
From Carnoch, the path lies slow and steady uphill to 575m, back and forth in neat zigzags, to the col which is marked only by a small cairn. This morning’s walking, from Sourlies to this col, has been the summit, the climax, the crux, of the whole three days from Glenfinnan. A propos of the wilderness situation, the guy Dave had shown me earlier, some form of satellite-based emergency position-indicating device, for use in such country as this. I may have to consider carefully, obtaining something of that nature.
And on down into Mam Meadail and the rough bounds of Knoydart. The path was straight and true, steadily downhill and on the right of the river, but ever wet and muddy underfoot. Quite some way down – it is not obvious on the OS map, and so is a relative innovation of recent times – the path becomes a rather obtrusive unmade road. There is evidence of digging machinery having been here; the road is graded and passable with great care in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
The valley narrows into what is almost a gorge as it passes Torr an Tuircc on the right. There is a footbridge and a ford for the tracked vehicles used to make the road. From here, on the left of the river through pleasant woodland, into the wider valley of the Inverie River, to another more substantial footbridge. Thence onto a pretty useful unmade road, past a monument on a hillside. Then – again the OS map has not caught up with reality – past a blasted wasteland of harvested plantation, all giant grey tree stumps and waste timber. I continued along a high forestry road until reaching the edge of the land owned by the Knoydart community, where there was good signage. Along the side of some woods, which were somehow reminiscent of the Dark Peak, and then left, in spitting rain, down a path beside a babbling brook, down to the road.
The West Coast atmosphere here is very strong. These houses and lanes of Inverie very strongly resemble the settlement at Kinloch on Rum, as well they might. I walked out towards the campsite, passing as I did so, a mobile home. As I passed, two little girls leaned out of the window to tell me that the campsite was cold and wet and that there was a bunkhouse. Bemused, I stopped for a moment, and their father appeared to shush them, telling me that the campsite was fine. This pleasant-mannered Englishman sold me a place in the Knoydart Foundation bunkhouse nonetheless, for £22, and with that I was well pleased. The bunkhouse was great: comfy bed, superb showers. I had a cup of tea and sat in a lovely lounge, very high-ceilinged and gloomy. A fire crackled and two visiting old Lancashiremen sat chatting. I made myself some supper in the kitchen, and then walked out through the damp autumn leaves to the Old Forge, the “most remote pub in mainland Britain”.
Today, to walk through from Glenfinnan, though objectively a tremendous achievement, is not unusual. I was the first of nine people to cross today from the Sourlies bothy. This evening, all nine of those people were in here – myself, the couple from Edinburgh, the two guys from Manchester, and the four Dutchmen. Five of us sat down for drinks, and we had as remarkable and pleasant a time of fellowship with strangers, as ever I had.
“Somebody left us whisky And the night is very young I’ve got some to say and more to tell And the words will soon be spilling from my tongue”
I would not recommend going on that route without trail poles, waterproof trousers and gaiters. The weather was unseasonably mild, so I didn’t use gloves or a hat at all. I used a waterproof copy of OS “Outdoor Leisure map” #398, Loch Morar and Mallaig, as there does not appear to be a Harvey’s Mountain map of the area.
Well I’ve done it! I’ve read fifty-two books this year! I think I can be proud of that. Some of them I have even reviewed properly. We’ll not go through them all in excruciating detail here, but we will discuss broadly, my year’s reading. I never set out to read a book a week, but I did set out for sure, to read many dozens of books in the year.
Of the 52, 15 of them were in my Kindle – I can do both paper books and e-reading. Eight of the books were re-reads. A few of those only, will I highlight. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” which I re-read after seeing the film one Sunday afternoon. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” remains one of my favourite reads, being an account of a man who dreamt of going on a day trip to Heaven – from a certain another place. Another re-read was R.A Heinlein’s “The moon is a harsh mistress”, at one level, a story about a rebellion in a prison colony in 2075: at another, the greatest manifesto for libertarian political views, you will ever read. Eighteen of the 52 books were fiction – an oddly low number, although it just means that my interests have been well satisfied by non-fiction.
I started the year reading Dr J.H. B Bell’s “A progress in mountaineering”. Bell, as a 16-year old in 1910, cycled 47 miles from Newtonmore to the foot of Ben Nevis, and climbed Nevis alone. And then he cycled back 47 miles again: the account does not make it clear if he cycled 90+ miles in hobnail boots, or if he climbed Nevis in plimsolls. What seems clear, is that when compared with our elders, we have become a nation of wuss.
I enjoyed Jonathan Nicholls’ “Kittyhawk down”, a well-researched story about RAF pilots in the Western desert during WWII. In February I also read Murray Rothbard’s short pamphlet “The Anatomy of the State” (Murray Rothbard also wrote “The fatal conceit” about the errors of socialism), and a book called “The road to Mecca” by Muhammed Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who later became a senior diplomat for the government of Pakistan. In March I read Robert Winder’s “The hidden springs of Englishness”, and started Neil Sheehan’s “A bright shining lie” reviewed here – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one.
My sister sent me an old copy of Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” about an overweight man who turned his life around and became one of the fittest ultra-marathon runners in the world. As much for the appendices on plant-based diet, did I find that book interesting. William Wordsworth’s original travel guide to the Lake District proved oddly relevant centuries after it was written. Having tried and failed to source a copy of Varlam Shalamov’s rare Kolyma Tales, instead I read Hugo Jacek-Bader’s excellent “Kolyma diaries” and “White fever”, about travels in Eastern Russia – startling stuff about a very different world.
I read some science-fiction: Amongst others, Paul McAuley (“The war of maps”), Iain M Banks (“The Algrebraist” – again), an old Keith Laumer novel and two works of the modern writer Adrian Tchaikovsky. Also Heinlein – “Glory Road” (is that even sci-fi??) and “Harsh mistress” as already mentioned. Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I review here.
I read three books about India: Shashi Tharoor’s (perhaps understandably) bitter and twisted “Inglorious Empire”, William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company entitled “The Anarchy”, and finally Katie Hickman’s “She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India”. All very informative and enabling one to gain a more accurate perspective of world history. The lesson from Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire” is that bitterness and negativity, however arguably justifiable, is deeply unattractive.
I have read much about America: I am a fan of America. I believe in what America stands for, though it seem to be in trouble in these times and full of vice and failings. Robert Kaplan’s “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World”, reviewed here, proved very interesting at the start but perhaps a little disingenous towards the end. A great interest of mine is American history, particularly the westward expansion. I read Bernard Devoto’s; “1846: the year of decision” and John Anthony Caruso’s “The Appalachian Frontier” , was well as several of Dee Brown’s books – one on the Fetterman Massacre, the other on women in the wild west. Dee Brown’s greatest and most famous book, all should read: that is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, an account of the destruction of the native American tribes.
Later in the year I read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried” – the Vietnam war as seen through the lens of what soldiers carried with them. One soldier carried a pair of his girlfriend’s tights as a neckscarf, and wore them even after she dumped him. Also, I read Stephen Hough’s “The Great War at sea” – most informative – and Alice Roberts’ “Tamed – ten species that changed our world”. Self-explanatory title there, and rather a lot of detailed biology which I had to skip.
I read Ed Husain’s troubling account of journeys in certain cities in the UK – “Among the mosques”. In order to get published, Ed Husain has to be upbeat and positive about what is happening with Islam in the United Kingdom today, but I find that he can’t possibly be as naive as he comes across in his writing. A deeply worrying travelogue.
Tim Butcher wrote “Blood River”. The age of great explorers, opines one of the reviewers, is not dead. Butcher attempts with only partial success to navigate overland by motorcycle and boat, from the eastern Congo through to the Atlantic coast. The Congo is a messed-up place, and it is deeply messed up for a number of very complicated reasons. It will get worse – much worse. Certain important minerals essential for modern Lithium-ion batteries, required for what some people call “the energy transition”, are most easily sourced in the Congo. In the coming decades the extraction of those minerals, to salve the western conscience and enable electric cars, will do as much damage to Africans in the Congo as King Leopold ever did in his extraction of rubber in the early 20th century.
I read a useful and informative biography of Sir William Stanier by the ever-readable and prolific railway author O.S Nock. This one I found in an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. I read Ryzard Kapuchinsky’s “Imperium” about Soviet Russia – including an unforgettable two-page interlude on how to make peach brandy. What drives my reading, is this – not what is in plain view, but what is not. Sometimes something tangential – a fact or anecdote of paramount importance or of deep interest, is almost literally found “in between the lines”.
I ended the year with David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”. This is a brilliant account of the Korean War. Another great Pulitzer prize winning author covering vast sweeps of American culture and history. Though some of the descriptions of battles are a little too detailed for me, what made the book is the wide arc of history, the bigger picture. In a book about Korea, I learned much about the “New Deal” and the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt. I learned about changes to domestic politics in the USA that are still very much of importance today. I learned about McCarthyism, and also about Douglas MacArthur – a horribly fascinating, perhaps deservedly reviled, but nonetheless important 20th century figure. What’s it like to have no self-doubt at all? Lack of self-doubt is not one of my qualities.
Earlier in the year, I chanced across Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt’s “Just for the record”, being an autobiography of Status Quo. This rock autobiography was a disappointment for me; it was potentially great story written in the most perfunctory manner. You would think that lyricists could write! No, obviously not. One thing I recall though is Rick Parfitt writing of himself as a teenager (when his guitar teacher patronised him) “No-one calls me laddie“. See my point above about lack of self-doubt.
Over Christmas I was given “Rainbow in the dark”, the autobiography of Ronnie James Dio. We learn that as a boy he swore to himself that one day he would headline at Madison Square Garden, in his own name – and he did! A readable enough tale of ambition fulfilled, of the virtues of hard work and persistence, and of some of the other less agreeable habits of rock ‘n roll stars. Reading it, I’d like also to read a biography of the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, if and when such a book becomes available.
This is for balance, for unfortunately, Dio’s account of those years is somewhat self-serving. It is a shame, for I regard him as a great lyricist, and the distinctive sound of his voice, be it in the heavy metal music of Rainbow, or Black Sabbath, formed a background to my youth.
The full list here:
Chris Anderson The official TED guide to public speaking Paul McAuley The war of maps J. H B Bell A Progress in mountaineering Iain M Banks The Algebraist Jonathan Nicholls Kittyhawk Down Murray Rothbard Anatomy of the state Muhammed Asad The road to Mecca Robert Winder The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness Adrian Tchaikovsky Cage of souls Nicholas Monsarrat The Cruel Sea C.S Lewis The Great Divorce Neil Sheehan A bright shining lie Jacek Hugo-Bader Kolyma Diaries Rich Roll Finding Ultra William Wordsworth The Lakes Keith Laumer Doorstep Jacek Hugo-Bader White Fever Shashi Tharoor Inglorious Empire Robert D. Kaplan Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World Ryzard Kapuchinsky Imperium Dee Brown The Fetterman Massacre Bernard Werber Empire of the ants William Smethurst Writing for television William Dalrymple The Anarchy Sven Hassel Court Martial Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Bernard DeVoto 1846:The year of decision Len Deighton Blitzkrieg Dee Brown The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West John Anthony Caruso The Appalachian Frontier Larry McMurtry Lonesome dove Larry McMurtry Dead man’s walk Larry McMurtry Comanche Moon Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt Just for the record – autobiography of Status Quo Michael Bonavia The birth of British Rail R.A Heinlein Glory Road R.A Heinlein The moon is a harsh mistress O.S Nock William Stanier Katie Hickman She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India Stephen Longstreet War cries on horseback George Orwell Animal Farm Ed Husain Among the mosques Richard Hough The Great War at sea Tim O’ Brien The things they carried Tim Butcher Blood River C.S Lewis That Hideous Strength O.S Nock The Settle and Carlisle railway Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of time Alice Roberts Tamed – ten species that changed our world Jeff Long Deeper David Halberstam The coldest winter: America and the Korean war Ronnie James Dio Rainbow in the dark
When I began my journey from East Surrey at 1853 on a Wednesday evening, it was with a heavy heart, for a number of reasons. A lovely old fellow we all knew was dying; he did in fact go home, early on the Thursday morning. A little later, arriving at Euston, I went for a pint in that favoured spot, the Doric Arch at Euston station. This marked the start of my holiday. Later, as I boarded the sleeper train, there was an oddly sudden and very heavy rain shower. My wife informed me that this rain was quite extreme back in Oxted, shorting out house electrics and causing minor flooding.
Arriving in Inverness, I was straight into gloves – it was one of those cold and blustery mornings. The train was almost an hour early. I recommend the Caledonian Sleeper; it is costly, but good value for money when you look at what you’re getting – return travel from London to Scotland, and two nights accommodation. You can of course just buy a seat rather than a berth, and sit up all night. This costs maybe £100 return and would be pretty much the equivalent of taking a 12-hour flight in economy. Sooner you than me: I say, what price money? If a journey’s worth going on, it’s worth going on in comfort.
Inverness is a long way from London and indeed, a long way from Edinburgh. The atmosphere is very different. I started by taking coffee and a breakfast roll in the bus station cafe. You can’t beat a bus station or train station cafe; no-one cares how smart or untidy you are, or how big your bags are. As a very tall man, I do sometimes value not being noticed.
To the co-op to pick up some groceries: I bought bread, butter, cheese, tomatoes, little oranges, an onion, fresh spinach, chocolate, fresh tortellini, and water. I carried in from home, coffee, sugar, spices and salt and pepper, porridge oats, red lentils, gram flour, and chorizo sausage, and also a trail mix of “date, nut and seed balls” – these were absolutely superb. Thence, by cab to the airport to pick up a rental car. Then I motored back into town, swiftly over Slochd and down into Glen Feshie, to park up at the road head and prepare for hiking. Leaving home, my rucsac was 16kg: now with food for three days and water, it must have approached 20kg.
Part 2: Glen Feshie to Glen Geusachan – across the Great Moss
After a climb through some pleasant woods, the route to Carn Ban Mor goes up the left-hand side valley of the Allt Fhearnaghan. I was feeling very fit and strong as I climbed, and I did notice far more snow than I had thought there would be. This seemed to be more than the Autumn icing-sugar dusting of snow I had anticipated, and was closer to real winter conditions. Up onto the Great Moss, I did not go to Carn Ban Mor, and also made the error of leaving the track, and thus wading through heather and fresh snow occasionally drifting a foot deep. It was blustery, showery weather. One moment, I could see Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul, the next, there’d be a squall and a snow shower. I made my way to the summit of Tom Dubh – just a slight top in the midst of the Great Moss, though at 918m as high as most Lake District summits.
From Tom Dubh, downwards into an area of fens, marshes and little tarns where I found myself going in circles and doubling back away from half-frozen watercourses I could not possibly ford. It was an oddly blue-grey world, and the snow started to pile down. I got on down to Loch Stuirteag, where I had hoped to camp! This was a wild and inhospitable place, wholly unsuitable for camping in anything but summer conditions. In any case, a howling wind was at my back; I sought in vain for shelter. Lower down, at the very top of Glen Geusuchan, I thought I found shelter, and laid my tent out in a flat spot. But the outer was nearly torn from my hands in a violent gust. What was I thinking of? I should have been in grave trouble had I stayed there. I packed up again and struggled on downwards into a glen of deep, trackless heather. I fell over and picked myself up again; I found myself on the edge of steep slopes down into the river; my feet fell into hidden water; I stumbled, carrying 20kg. To be fair, I had bought a new rucsac, an Osprey Aether Pro 70, and it was an exceptionally good carry. Nearly 2kg lighter than my previous rucsac, this one sat very comfortably and caused me no problems at all.
I could find nowhere to get out of the wind. I didn’t feel desperate, but it was quite a desperate situation. Darkness was impending; I was already tiring. I could not realistically make it to the Courrour Bothy in daylight. I should have been left floundering uphill through the trackless heather, in the dark and the storm, trying to find Courrour – an unlit speck in the mountain fastness.
Eventually I found a place in the river bed – can I pitch a tent on sand and pebbles? Yes. At least this place was sheltered by an old river bank, a six-foot wall of peat and heather, and was as out of the wind as I could find. I struggled with the wind whilst getting pitched, and pitched the tent outer first, though it wasn’t actually raining at that point. Almost the last thing I did outdoors as darkness fell (apart from getting water from the river) was collecting heavy stones to pile onto the guys and tent pegs. Well that I did so now rather than in the dark. I had a good camp – I cooked dinner, ate, and turned in soon after. I certainly slept some, though the noise of the wind and the frequent rain showers kept me awake much of the time.
I was awake at 5a.m when the storm reached its crescendo. Lucky I was that it had not been earlier. The wind redoubled in strength and tore out the pegs on the windward side of my tent, though the guy-line held. This made the outer tent flap in the wind unto destruction, unless it was fixed. The noise of the tent flapping wildly in the gale, particularly in the dark, could easily induce panic if you allowed it to. I managed to fix it from the inside, with rocks and moist sand. Then the pegs on the lee side came out, then on the windward side again. Four or five times I had to jam the pegs back in again, getting wet sand all over my hands and in the inner tent. By this time I was awake and dressed for the day and had started to pack up against the possibility of ultimate catastrophe. I did manage to make porridge and coffee, and dress a pre-existing cut on my forefinger, whilst using one of my trail poles to keep one peg in place on the lee side of the tent. This was a remarkably difficult moment and I seemed to get through it without too much trouble. The tent flapped; I was somehow able to rise above doing so. Panic, worry or getting things wrong was just not an option in these conditions: everything had to be done quickly, methodically, correctly, and in the right order. I packed up, dropped the inner, and took down the outer, but by this stage as daylight strengthened the storm ebbed; the worst of the squall was over.
From Achlean to my camp on Geusachan Burn at around 974943, was about 17km, which took about six hours. It is a very great shame, but buried somewhere in the sand of that river bank, or blown off into the wilds, there is a small slice of thin flexible polypropylene chopping board, bright blue, about 6″ x 6″ – for I never saw that again. Breaks my heart to leave litter, but the wind must have carried it away. There was some slight damage to the ends of my tent poles, which was easily fixed.
Part 3: Glen Geusachan to Glen Feshie
Let’s look at the positive – remember that bit in “Apollo 13”? “what have we actually got on this spacecraft that works?” …er, let me get back to you on that, chief…actually quite a lot. I was warm, dry, clean, my kit was packed and complete and dry, I’d had a hot breakfast and even some coffee. The world was at my feet.
In the glorious light of dawn, I walked out of the side glen and round into the Lairig Ghru. Fording streams and rivers is a serious challenge in the Cairngorms – it is rarely an issue in the Lake District. One cannot ford the Dee even this high up, certainly not in cold weather, though one might try in high summer. I had to detour all the way up the the Courrour Bothy to cross the river. It was an uphill slog through heather, with only the occasional hint of a path. I reached Courrour on a bright and pleasant morning, about 10a.m.
I crossed the Dee on the footbridge, and had brief converse the only hiker I saw for two days, an older man from Edinburgh. He was in for the day to climb the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul. Approaching Courrour at 10a.m in late October, he must have made a very early torchlit start from the Linn of Dee – that’s a long walk in. God only knows what time he started from Edinburgh! He did mention that there had been driving rain on the drive in – probably about the time my tent was getting hammered by the gale.
I powered on down the valley, consciously keeping the pace fast. I was fortunate in being very fit: when backpacking, many issues conspire to slow you down. Hips hurt, shoulders hurt, feet hurt, blisters, hungry, thirsty, exhausted etc etc. The last of these, when you’re very fit, is almost an irrelevance. Walking at 4km/hour all day long while carrying 20kg becomes merely doable rather than requiring a mighty effort.
A chopper searched the surrounding summits as I walked south. Early afternoon, I came into phone range and also into sight of the White Bridge across the Dee. I saw a couple with a pushchair and a dog – I didn’t realise how near the Linn of Dee car park was at that point – about three miles away. I saw two estate workers. The next part of my route lay for many miles along unmetalled roads, and in fact I was passed by a car once.
To the Red House, and on up the Geldie Burn – though no burn this, but another wide and deep river unfordable in cold weather or winter conditions. The Geldie Burn is technically a “misfit stream”. The valley in which it lies is glacial in origin, not carved by this or any river. Geldie Burn has enormous relict banks indicating that at some point in the geological past, when the ice melted, it must have been ten, a hundred times bigger than it is now – a torrent like unto Niagara.
Through the golden afternoon over lovely brown moorland, and endless path, which, once the un-made road ended, was never less than a clear trail. From the White Bridge, up the Geldie Burn and to the unnamed waterfall at the head of Glen Feshie, at least 12 kilometres. I started to experience muscle pain in my left shoulder; I found that Voltarol brought very swift and very effective relief.
Sometime before arriving at the unnamed waterfall, I fell over. I was negotiating some deep and evil-smelling pools of mud in one of the ruts of the road. Whatever…I twisted and slipped. Or I slipped and twisted…carrying 20kg, once you’re going down, you’re going down – there’s no stumble and recover with that kind of weight on your back. I ended up on my back in a foot deep puddle of thick, black runny mud. Desgustang! With some difficulty I got myself up and out again. Strangely enough, I personally was untouched – wearing a Goretex raincoat, gaiters and overtrousers, no actual mud penetrated to my clothes. My rucsac took the brunt of the mud and was very dirty. If I had a minor criticism of the light grey colour of the Aether Pro, it would be that the straps and hip-belt show the dirt very easily.
This remarkable waterfall was, to quote C.S Lewis, “a terror in the woods for miles around”. It was audible long before it could be seen. It has no name on the map; it is comparable to High Force in Teesdale, and were it within a hundred yards of a road in England or Scotland, people would drive 100 miles to see it. In the Cairngorms it is at least five hours walk up-hill from the road head in wild and remote Glen Feshie, and probably five hours walk from the car park at Linn of Dee. So almost impossible to access in a day-trip except in high summer. How remote! How excellent that remoteness is.
I was now in the descent into Glen Feshie and ready to look for somewhere to camp. Trees appeared, larch and other kinds. Suitable places to camp emerged, albeit far from water – the river was running in an inaccessible gorge. I had at this point run out of water, so I needed to camp right by a stream. Better yet, there was no breath of wind. I needed to stop a little earlier to allow enough daylight to ensure that my tent was OK after the beating it took this morning.
I found a place by a ford, and camped right next to the path, in as wild and remote a location as ever I have camped in…except for, oh, last night. The tent went up easily and the ground took the pegs well. Once established, I made a faranata – a pancake of chickpea flour, as recommended by my son. On a Trangia stove it worked a treat. For afters, some chocolate and a sip from the hip-flask. To drink I had litres and litres of stream water: slightly brown from peat. There’s no sheep up here – no need for any purification tablets. Though the colour was off-putting, and the water was so cold as to induce a blinding headache, it was like nectar, like Ambrosia, like ice-cold lager. It is a pleasure to be that thirsty and have a pure mountain stream in which to slake that thirst.
On day 2 I walked 30km in approximately eight hours. I used Black Diamond trail poles, Gore-tex gaiters and over-trousers, walking trousers, merino wool base layers, a thick cotton shirt and Berghaus fleece and waterproof coat. I get cold easily these days: a merino wool hat helps, and gloves are a big deal. I had a thin and a thick pair of gloves, and also some heavy mittens. I wore gloves at all times outdoors when walking; up on the plateau I found it necessary to wear all three pairs at once.
Part 4: Glen Feshie
I packed up in good order as the light started to improve, and was ready to hike by a little after 8a.m. I continued down Glen Feshie, through an absolute Eden, a veritable wilderness paradise. When I was a youth in Derby, I borrowed from the local library, an old book about the Cairngorms. And in that book, there was a snatch of an ancient Gaelic poem, which has remained with me ever since: Glen Feshie of the storms, I had the longing, to be in thy shelter…and now I had the pleasure of walking the whole length of this wild glen.
There were high and low spots to my morning’s walk. It took me until noon to walk out to the car, and on the way I got lost in the woods; there was a rain shower, and there was a washed out bridge over a tributary stream. There was much fording and crossing of streams, brushing through vegetation, and climbing up and down along the side of the gorge. For most – but not all – of the way, the path led along an unmetalled road. In places, where the road had been washed away, the path detoured up the mountainside.
On the walk out I found my hips were very sore under my hip belt. So I stopped on the path and took off my pack, and got out the Voltarol. I dropped my trousers without a moment’s thought, in order to put the gel on my hips. I’ve spent two days on the hill and meet one other hiker; I met no-one all day Thursday, and I met no-one after 10a.m on Friday. I camped in the wildest places where there was absolutely no chance of anyone coming past. Yet, no sooner had I dropped my trousers to apply the medicine, a man and a woman appeared from nowhere to walk past me. They never turned a hair. “Morning!”.
I arrived at the car at noon: It took just under four hours to hike down the valley – a journey I’d estimated would take at least six hours going uphill. And my hike was over.
I carried approx. 20kg using an Osprey Aether Pro 70. This rucsac is one of the lightest expedition bags available, weighing 1.8kg – which is why I bought it. It feels lightweight, even flimsy, and I admit I was sceptical when it arrived, particularly given it’s relatively high cost. My scepticism lasted only until I got it packed and set off – on the hill it proved durable and a very comfortable carry, a much easier carry than any other rucsac I’ve ever used. This rucsac has replaced a much older Berghaus C7 1 series 65+10, nearly 2kg heavier, but with a good deal greater carrying capacity. I think we can safely say that when the manufacturer Osprey says 70 litres, that includes the hip-belt pockets.
The hip belt tightening arrangements are particularly inspired, and I liked the pockets on the hip belt. I will say, it’s not quite as clever as the manufacturer thinks it is with regard to attaching things to the outside, in spite of a wide range of straps. I could not easily see how to attach trail poles, and I still can’t obviously see how to put an ice-axe on it – the big first rucsac I’ve ever had where this is not completely obvious. Heavy items – tents, tent poles etc – may have the tendency to slide through the straps eventually. Also – as I found when I fell over – because the rucsac is light grey, it does show the dirt, particularly the straps and the hip belt. Getting it back home, it also became the first rucsac I’ve ever had to strip down and wash. Overall though I would highly recommend it.
I used a Trangia 27 (the smaller Trangia). I’ve been using Trangia stoves since the 1980’s and have never had a problem with them, nor been tempted away from them. Durable and reliable if a little heavy and – at least some say – a little slow. Two things I like about the Trangia – it has a low centre of gravity, and all the pans are included as part of the stove. I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent using a Rab Alpine Pro 600 down three-season sleeping bag.
My diary records this: Andrew Marr, in his “history of modern Britain”, writes that “in the New Labour years, as under John Major, a sickly tide of euphemism rose ever higher, depositing it’s linguistic scurf on every available surface”. True. That said, saying what I think is not part of the programme. There are even thoughts that these days I feel I cannot afford to have. I am someone with deeply libertarian and individualist instincts. I live at a time when authoritarianism and collectivism seems to be everywhere on the increase. Not only that, but authoritarianism and collectivism seem to be increasingly popular. In such a world I would do well to keep my opinions to myself. One of the things I fear most of all is being in a place where I have no time, peace, or private space in which to think. I fear being in a place where being a private individual or spending time alone is discouraged or even not allowed. Some might say, “why would you want to be alone?” but to that I say, “get thee behind me, Satan!”
Five years ago – May 2016
After business in London, my wife and I went to the Clarence on Whitehall, and had an indifferent supper in their excellent upstairs dining room with the skylight and the huge wall map of 18th century Westminster. I had a forgettable burger and a pint of Camden IPA, she had venison shepherds pie and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Total £40. Good atmosphere, friendly waitress, ordinary food. Then, we strolled up Charing X road and outside the entrance to the Portrait Gallery, we encountered a large crowd, including paparazzi straining for a view with their cameras. We found out that they were awaiting a view of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. In due course, limos and close protection police swept up, and the lady duly emerged to applause and cheers.
What struck me about this stroll in central London was that apart from mobile phones, cameras and the mechanisms used to propel the vehicles, there was nothing in the scene on Charing X road that someone from Pepys’ time would not have understood. What was going on? People were strolling, eating, drinking, chatting. Courting. Buying and selling. The fundamental activities that make up human life in any age.
Ten years ago – May 2011
Jargon: I don’t like the expression “X has a heart for Y” where X is a person and Y is a situation, a country or a problem. Someone at church speaks of having a “heart for France”, the sincerity of which, I do not doubt. But will we “get behind” their “heart for France”, though? Someone notes that as leaders in church, we must articulate a vision to the congregation.
I use the word “vision” here strictly in the modern management jargon sense of “Vision and purpose”, not at all in the prophetic sense of “dreams and visions”.
But leaders, particularly in a church, can end up with a vision statement that their people do not “get behind” – the people may not share that vision. That can be heart-breaking. We have seen all of this ourselves in the past. It’s all very well having a vision for the church if there is no room for discussion, dissent or even plain disagreement. Claiming that it comes from God, even as a clergyman, is a dangerous place to go. Because if you do, you can then brook neither dissent nor disagreement. And we have seen clergy getting into the greatest difficulties by refusing to discuss or entertain dissent. This is not somewhere you can go, neither as a clergyman nor as a boss or a leader in civil society, without the most profound and dire consequences.
Fifteen years ago – May 2006
A church men’s weekend at Wrotham, Kent: Good stuff throughout though more “martial” and less spiritual than I would have liked. That is not to do it down or minimise the efforts of the guy who organised it. In conversation on the Friday night someone mentions a book on courtesy and etiquette amongst the English which I ought to read. I learn that I must take myself less seriously, and also that I must think more deeply – I was comprehensively thrashed at chess by one who I have not considered to be a deep thinker. Clearly he is a deeper thinker than I!! I am encouraged to believe in myself – and to write more.
Twenty years ago – May 2001
Mike Breen of St Thomas Crooke’s Sheffield, spoke to us at a leaders weekend, on Moses, whose life was in three parts. He quoted D.L Moody who said that all people, all Christians, were in one of three phases of life. These were, being made or built, being broken – the desert place, and being used or blessed. It can be a cyclical thing rather than phases – we might be in the desert more than once, used or blessed for a season, made or built for one purpose or another.
Later, off to the Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow with Mrs. H, in a rented car. A pleasant and successful drive up there in a little over four hours. One thing I remember about the long haul up the M6 was the hills around the Lune valley highlighted against a dark and stormy afternoon sky, very beautiful. Visited a number of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sights including the College of Art. Next day, up Loch Lomondside, a nice long walk, cruise on the lake, then round down the side of Loch Long to Helensburgh to see “The Hill House” which was a remarkable place with the most excellent light, even indoors.