By Train to Kokopelli

So, just back from another wonderful week at Kokopelli combined with a few days either side in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.

For me, the best way to get to Kokopelli (or virtually anywhere else in Europe) is by train. There are several reasons for this but, essentially, by taking the train you can make the journey a positive part of your your holiday . So, instead of enduring the abusive security process, punitive  baggage restrictions and the in-your-face travel experience that is flying, you can look forward to a comfortable, relaxed journey aboard some of Europe’s fastest and most technically advanced trains, with spectacular scenery flashing by your window.

Kokopelli at sunrise
Kokopelli at sunrise

Kokopelli is an eco-friendly campsite, run on the principles of self sufficiency and low environmental imprint.Therefore, if you are  environmentally conscious and concerned about your carbon footprint, it makes little sense to fly there. According to Travelfootprint London to Rome by air creates 240-350 grams of co2 per passenger km travelled, compared to 50-75 grams by rail.

Taking the train means you can take your bike
Taking the train means you can take your bike

As most Kokopellites love the outdoors, they will often have equipment like skis, snowshoes, cycles, tents, walking and climbing gear. Unlike aircraft, trains have  no baggage restrictions. Eurostar has recently altered its conditions for cycle carriage and now transports bikes, without bike bags, if booked in advance. This is well worth the £30 cost to avoid faffing around adjusting handlebars and pedals, particularly if you are touring with panniers. If you live near St Pancras you can also send your bike on to Paris/Brussels in advance which costs less. Have a look at Eurostar’s bicycle carriage and information about taking bikes on trains throughout Europe.

Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan's designer labels either side of your stay
Enjoy some retail therapy among Milan’s designer labels either side of your stay

Kokopelli is situated roughly in the middle of Italy, so going by train means you can combine your trip with some city visits: Turin, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Florence, Naples; the choice is yours.

The train can also be much cheaper, particularly if journeying overnight: if travelling as a family or in a group, prices in couchettes can be as low as around £30 per person. And remember, an overnight fare includes your accommodation. You also waste less time as you are travelling  when you are normally asleep and kids invariably love sleeping on a train!

But the best reason for travelling by train is simply that it is better. Instead of detracting from your holiday experience, it adds to it. Rather than wasting time in soulless, indistinguishable airport terminals, you get to experience life in other countries as well as the chance to engage with people.

May 1st, Kokopelli style!
May 1st, Kokopelli style!.

On one journey the Italian family at the same table “forbade” me to go to the buffet and insisted I share their lunch of bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto and local wine: something of a contrast with your typical Ryanair experience.

So, how do I organise train travel  to Kokopelli? Well, the good news is that it is actually ridiculously easy;  you do not need to move from your computer screen, there are no concealed extra charges and planning the journey can be an exciting way to involve all members of the family/group.

1. Make sure you consult  Mark Smith’s indispensable SEAT61  as this gives every possible source of advice on routes, destinations, booking tickets and just about everything else.

2. The nearest major station to Kokpelli is Pescara – liaise with Jacqui and Kevin about transfers etc – so look at the information on how to travel there.  But you may want to combine your trip with visits to other places in Italy, so look at all the options here.

3. Decide if you want to travel during the day or overnight: if I’m travelling on my own I tend to go during the day as individual sleeping accommodation is only available in first class and because I  enjoy the trip though the Alps. But, if travelling as a family/group and if time is at a premium, overnight can be the better option.

 

Milan-Turin-Paris TGV
Milan-Turin-Paris TGV

4. I book tickets in three stages: direct with EUROSTAR for London to Paris, with RAIL EUROPE for Paris to Turin/Milan and ITALIA RAIL or TRENITALIA for any other journeys within Italy. Booking just under two months in advance I paid £69 return on Eurostar; £116 first class Paris-Turin return and the most expensive of my five first class tickets across Italy cost €29 for a three hour journey from Pescara to Bologna. Often the best deal was the first class offer.

5.If you have a currency card, such as CAXTON FX use it to pay for the tickets billed in euros and you won’t attract any conversion charges.

6. You will have to change stations in Paris from Gare du  Nord to Gare de Lyon. The easiest way to do this is by metro, using the green D RER line. Tickets cost €1.70 at the time of writing, so make sure you have some loose euros and cents, although the machines do give change. Eurostar information desks sell books of metro tickets and provide maps of Paris. The metro is easy to use; just follow the signs and use the destination information to check  you’re going in the right direction. There is only one stop, Chatelet les Halles, between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon.

Finally, on French and Italian long distance trains the standard of on board accommodation is generally excellent. However, despite commodious luggage racks at the end of each carriage (Virgin take note) Italian and French travellers seem to prefer to lug their cases to their seats! Do make sure your luggage is clearly labelled as French police boarded the train at the border to check this on my return journey.

Bon voyage; buon viaggio!; enjoy the journey, it’s part of your holiday.

The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon
The Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon

 

Postscript: arrived back safely last night, having left Milan at 6am. Journey went like clockwork – TGV was actually held up at one point on the Italian border, but made up so much time it arrived at Gare de Lyon seven minutes early – only downside was last lap home from Euston to Lichfield Trent Valley. The concourse was packed, as was the train, with many passengers without seats and only their good humour and the diplomacy and  good sense of the train manager avoided any serious incident. Arriving at my destination, a busy stop on West Coast Main Line, is like stepping out into the third world: there is no lift over the line, the station was closed (London Midland deem it unnecessary to man the premises after 7pm) and those of us having to wait for lifts/taxis got soaked as there is no shelter.

The joys of UK’s privatised rail network; and to think these train operating companies take millions of our tax money every year, but that’s another story….

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Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

At least 2012  has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.

So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if  idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months  have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top.  Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.

Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.

A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.

Rooftops in Florence

Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.

Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes  could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

You don’t have to ski to enjoy the snow. Forget the flight, pass over the pistes, cut your carbon footprint and take the train to the Dolomites this winter.

Sunrise over Pedraces
Winter activity holidays don’t have to mean downhill skiing. Later this winter I will return to my particular winter wonderland, the Dolomites, to enjoy the snow, but without the queues and unsightly lifts. And, with the added bonus of a relaxed rail journey there through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, free from airport hell and flight guilt.

Like most other visitors, I was immediately captivated by their vibrant colours and spectacular shapes when I first experienced these dramatic mountains. Tucked away in the northern corner of Italy, the area (known as Trentino/South Tyrol) benefits from a unique combination of Germanic/Latin culture, history and cuisine and five years ago the Dolomites were, deservedly awarded UNESCO world heritage status.

Santa Croce Church and Refugio

But the natural and unaffected character of the area is another, equally persuasive, magnet that draws me back to these mountains every winter. Although the region boasts over 1,000km of piste, the Dolomites are not the exclusive preserve of downhillers. The people are welcoming and genuine and the hamlets of South Tyrol are as far removed from the archetypal, commercialised ski resort as is possible to imagine.

The unspoilt villages of Arabba, Pedraces and Corvara in the dramatic Alta Badia region lie in a stunning mountain setting and provide a perfect base for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and winter walking: three excellent cardio-vascular activities that take you in close and personal to this winter wonderland, but with a negligible impact on the environment.

Winter Wonderland

Snowshoeing is much easier than it looks and within minutes of leaving the villages, you will be tracking along rivers, through woodland and across winter pastures. Higher up, waymarked trails give access to remote, snowbound landscapes normally only reached by mountaineers. Make sure you visit the tiny Santa Croce church, 2045m asl, high above Pedraces. Next door, the original Santa Croce Hospice, built over 500 years ago to accommodate pilgrims visiting the church, is now a mountain refugio (tel:+390471839632). Take a well-earned lunch break, enjoy the wholesome food and wonder at the fabulous mountain vistas.

Cross country skiing takes a little longer to master, but Corvara alone has 17kms of woodland and riverside routes below the magnificent Sella Massif. Winter walking (bring good hillwalking boots, or “four season” if you intend to use crampons) will soon take you far away from the pistes into a remote winter panorama with only its equally magnificent fauna for company: the brilliant blue skies and pristine white landscapes cleverly camouflage the arctic hares and silver foxes, but it is not unusual to spot golden eagles and chamois.

Sunset on Santa Croce Rock

Another bonus is that no expensive, specialised equipment is needed. Other than boots, pack waterproof outers, warm jacket, hat, gloves, layers and sunglasses. Snowshoes (around five euros per day) and cross country skis can be hired from sports shops in the villages, such as Sport Kostner in Corvara (Col Alt 34, 39033 Corvara, tel:+390471836112).

How to get there:
One of the key highlights of a holiday in the Dolomites, for me, is the journey itself: boarding the overnight train in Paris, travelling through the Alps, then lifting the blinds up next morning to the delightful medieval roofscapes of Verona and Padua. And a more prosaic advantage is that you can take as much footwear, bulky outer gear and extra layers as you can carry.

Sun, snow and rock: Pedraces

Eurostar’s www.eurostar.com carbon neutral trains whisk you to Paris Nord in just over two hours and return journeys start around £60. One useful, but little-known, hint for those outside the capital: discounted fares to London can be obtained through www.raileasy.com or the “Eurostar” section in www.seat61.com Remember to enter your destination as London International and not the terminus you arrive at.

Leaving the wonderful new St Pancras station www.stpancras.com mid-afternoon, it is possible to reach the Dolomites around lunchtime the next day on the overnight “Stendhal” service, departing Paris Gare de Bercy at 20.33, arriving Venice at 9.34 next morning. The return train leaves Venice at 19.57, arriving Gare de Bercy 8.19 next morning.

Use Mark Smith’s indispensable www.seat61.com (it’s worth a look even if you don’t travel by train) for inexhaustible details of routes, fares, booking instructions, connections, maps and even advice on the best way to travel between different termini in Paris.

As well as providing a superior journey experience, travelling by train can be cheaper, depending on type of accommodation and number of travellers. While it can be expensive for one or two people in a first class sleeper, six people sharing a couchette can travel for as little as £33 each, one way, booking well in advance and taking advantage of discounted fares. Remember, the price also effectively includes overnight accommodation as well as journey cost.

Venice has two stations: Mestre, on the mainland and Santa Lucia in the city centre. Tickets are valid to and from either station. Many of the hotels in the Dolomites offer transfers from Venice (Marco Polo) airport: get off at Mestre and take one of the frequent buses from outside the station. Journey time is about 15 minutes and details are available from the airport’s website:http://www.veniceairport.it/page/servizi/trasporti/treno?m=01020201#The site also contains a wealth of details about Venice and surrounding area, including how to reach the mountains by public transport http://www.veniceairport.it/page/turismo?m=1500002

Where to Stay: Collett’s Mountain Holidays www.colletts.co.uk offer a range of accommodation in hotels, hosted chalets and self-catering properties in Arraba, Pedraces and Corvara. Collett’s are renowned for their love and knowledge of the Dolomites and their flexibility, offering snowshoeing, winter walking and cross country skiing. They are a particularly good choice for anyone holidaying on their own as they attract an eclectic mix of ages, families, groups, couples and individuals, offer a sociable “office hour” each evening and serve meals in a communal atmosphere.

For independent travellers, the Hotel Melodia del Bosco Runccac, Runcac
8, 39036 Badia/Pedraces www.melodiadelbosco.it offers warm hospitality, wonderful Mediterranean and Tyrolean food and helpful, multi-lingual staff. Run by the Irsara family and extensively renovated two years ago, it occupies a stunning position, has stylish en suite rooms, a whirlpool and provides guests with extensive local knowledge.

 

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Kokopelli, Abruzzo, Italy

The bus from Rome was busy enough to be interesting, but neither too crowded nor, other than the girl across the passage with the ill-fitting headphones, too noisy to be oppressive. So far, my public transport options in Italy had ticked all the boxes: clean, efficient, punctual, cost effective with, oddly, the TGV coming in from France the only late arrival on my journey so far.

The first stop was Chieti, just inland of the Adriatic, around two hours east of Rome. Here I was to meet Jacqui and Kevin who would take me the 20 km or so to Kokopelli Camping on the edge of the Majella National Park.

Twilight at Kokopelli

Their website and my communications with Jacqui had convinced me that theirs wasn’t an ordinary campsite. And, arriving at sunset, with a simmering orange sky strewn behind jagged, snow-capped peaks, I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, looking round from the 360 degree panorama, even in the fading light it was possible to make out traditional stone villages, limestone crags, cherry trees struggling under the weight of their fruit and rows of healthy green tomato plants lining the hillsides.  But equally obvious was the absence of any hook-ups, motor homes, manicured uniform plots or campsite queues and only the howling of a few village dogs interrupted the twilight chorus of birdsong.

The Corno Grande - highest peak in the Apennines - from Kokopelli

Next morning, Kokopelli produced some more pleasant surprises: daybreak revealed a stunning vista of delicious shades of green that seemed far too lush for a latitude on par with Rome and Barcelona and a short walk down to the village of Serramonacesca unearthed some delicious cheese and ham and an excellent bottle of local wine from its two shops, plus a classic macchiato from the village bar.

Kokopelli is a labour of love for both Jacqui and Kevin, escapees from work-life imbalance in the UK, who want to share their love of climbing, walking, cycling, running and all things outdoor in this beautiful locality, with those of a similar outlook.

Wildflowers of the Majella

“We live a self-sufficient, minimal impact lifestyle and aim to share it with like-minded people,” explains Jacqui. Food is grown organically, water heated by solar power and everything possible is re-used, composted or recycled. As such, holidaying at Kokpelli is more about joining in with a compatible community, than spending time on a campsite.

Even the accommodation options are novel:

Camping: Kokopelli style

“You can bring your own tent and/or bedding, or if it won’t fit in your bag, use one of our options,” advises Jacqui. And, as a long-time exponent of  pop-up tent rage, the  Strawberry Hills canvas bell tents on offer, complete with duvets and Bedouin rugs, were certainly appealing.

However, my home for the week was to top even these opulent tents. Rosemary is a T25 VW Camper, now peacefully retired after a lifetime of travelling across Europe.

Rosemary: enjoying a well-earned retirement

With her comfortable double bed, heater, sink, cooker and even her own expresso maker, my problem was to drag myself up and away from her delights every morning – she also boasts a large awning and can sleep another two adults “upstairs” in her pop top, for those who prefer not to get too friendly.

But, if you simply can’t entertain the idea of sleeping under canvas, or in a campervan, then there is also a converted room in the barn, and a family en suite room in the house.

Another stunning sunset

Showers and toilets at Kokopelli would grace a boutique hotel and there is a host of other facilities, ranging from hair dryers to a well-equipped cooking and dining area.

Given its locality and Jacqui and Kevin’s expertise, Kokopelli is a haven for all kinds of outdoor activities: you can hike from the door to the summit (2,800m) of Mt Amaro,  test your stamina and cycle skills on sweeping mountain roads, or  choose your own spectacular, deserted crag for a range of climbing challenges.

And, if all this is not enough to keep you occupied, then the Adriatic coastline with its alluring beaches is only a few kilometres away.

Looking towards the Adriatic

But Kokopelli is not just about adrenaline-fuelled adventures. An injured ankle impeded my plans to spend the week hiking through the national park, but enforced rest enabled me to appreciate the variety of wildflowers and butterflies, range of birdsong and darkness of the night sky. A short ramble to the village of Roccamontepiano was rewarded by a glimpse of a young deer in the woods, a deserted house among the olive groves and a delicious cake from the village bakery.

Throughout history the Majella has been renowned for its spirituality and as a refuge for hermits, monks and others seeking peace and reflection and the remains of many hermitages and monasteries are found throughout the area.

The hermitage of San Onofrio (Photo by Andy Reynolds.)

Today its sense of solitude and of being at one with nature is still very evident.

I’ll bring my boots when I return to Kokopelli and maybe my bike too, but I will definitely also take some books, my camera and binoculars and factor in time to sit, to observe and to contemplate.  History, culture, landscape, food, climate: Kokopelli is a special kind of place.

 

 

 

 

How to get to Kokpelli: buses run regularly from Rome’s Tiburtina Bus Station and take about two hours to Chieti and the same route will take you from Chieti to Pescara where there is a main line railway station with links to the rest of Italy.

For rail travel to and from Italy, check out:  Seat 61 and my Tips for Travelling to Italy by Train

Read about the the rest of my tour of Italy 2012, including travel, accommodation, cafes and shopping,

Kokopelli details facilities, prices, etc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Leave the car and visit the Knoydart peninsula: by boat, boot or bike

Forget stressful airport transfers and illogical sat nav instructions: be cool and arrive at your destination by boat. Visit the Knoydart peninsula in North West Scotland: inaccessible by road, so boat, boot or bike are your default modes. It’s remote, stunning, has four Munros and is a haven for walking, diving and photography, but it also offers top class cuisine and is famed for its hospitality, culture and community spirit.

Sunset over Skye

Across the Sound of Sleat from Skye, Knoydart is actually part of the mainland. However, unless you walk, or mountain bike from Kinloch Hourn you need to arrive by sea. Known as the Rough Bounds, it is one of the last real wildernesses in Western Europe. In 1999, the Knoydart Foundation , a partnership composed of local residents, the Highland Council and the John Muir Trust, was set up to “preserve, enhance and develop Knoydart for the well-being of the environment and its people”. Today, it is a thriving community, home to about 100 residents who welcome visitors to share its rugged beauty and enjoy its relaxed, genuine way of life.

As you can’t drive into Knoydart, why take the car? It is perfectly possible to reach Knoydart by public transport, the most civilised option being the overnight Caledonian sleeper:  board at Euston, or stations through the Midlands, wake up in the southern Highlands, then breakfast in Fort William before catching the West Highland Line to Mallaig.

West Highland Railway

Frequently voted one of the top railway journeys in the world, this 42 mile ride takes you past Britain’s highest mountaindeepest loch and shortest river, before reaching its most westerly station. Travel between April and October and the steam engine, Jacobite  will power you across the 21 arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, immortalised in the Harry Potter books, past the monument to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and alongside the iconic silver sands of Morar, the setting for the films Highlander and Local Hero.

If you have a few minutes to spare, drop into the Mallaig Heritage Centre  beside the station, where the imaginatively presented exhibitions tell the history of the Rough Bounds and show the rapid transformation of Mallaig into a busy fishing port after the railway was completed in 1901.

Head towards the harbour and, keeping to the left, you will arrive at the public steps on the small boat pier. Here, a small boat will take you on the last leg of the journey, across Loch Nevis to Knoydart. Doune is on a rocky headland on the western edge of the peninsular and the accommodation is run by two couples, Martin and Jane Davies and Liz and Andy Tibbetts and their families. Doune Stone Lodges offer fully catered, comfortable double or twin rooms, en suite toilet, shower and porch, while the Doune Bay Lodge is designed for larger families, clubs, corporate events, and consists of eight rooms, open-plan living area and kitchen.

The setting is idyllic, with unforgettable sunsets behind the Skye Cuillins to the west, and the absence of mobile reception and power-thirsty hairdryers and trouser presses adds positively to its unique ambience. The lodges are effectively and sensitively equipped: warm duvets and invigorating showers – particularly welcome after a bracing day in the hills.

Doune Dining Room  is one of only seven institutions currently holding the Destination Dining Award for providing the best of food in the finest of settings. Everything is home-made, seafood is caught locally and Jane and Liz’s organic gardens provide most of the vegetables and soft fruit. While meat eaters can tuck into locally-produced lamb and venison, my vegetarianism was expertly satisfied, with a sumptuous nut pate and mouth-watering desserts particular highlights, and fully catered means exactly that, with breakfasts, packed lunches and evening meals all included.

Ladhar Bheinn

Three Corbetts, added to its four Munros make this hill-walking heaven, particularly for those who seek peacefulness and solitude.Ladhar Bheinn, at 1020m (3,346ft) is the highest and most dramatic mountain, although like many peaks on Knoydart, it is difficult to access. Martin and his team are generous with their local knowledge and, by using their boat Mary Doune, it is possible to sail to many mountain approaches.

That said, it is not necessary to go stratospheric to enjoy the beauty of Knoydart. Sailing from Doune, we headed north along the Sound of Sleat with Sandaig Islands clearly visible in the distance. Turning east into Loch Hourn, our progress was observed by some bored looking seals basking in the April sunshine, while Alastair, our knowledgeable skipper, identified Beinn Sgritheall as the snow-clad peak dominating the northern shore.

Barrisdale Bay

Scrambling ashore on Barrisdale Bay, it was impossible not to be moved by the still beauty of this sandy inlet. From here to Inverie, the “capital” of Knoydart is a trek of about eight miles through a spectacular mountain landscape. Passing the Barisdale bothy and campsite, the route climbs steadily along the pony path through Mam Barrisdale, until, at the top of the path, the cylindrical outline of Loch an Dubh-Lochain appears on the horizon. From here it is a relaxing stroll along the Inverie river to the Old Forge pub  in the centre of the village.

Loch an Dubh-Lochain

The Old Forge, the most remote pub in mainland Britain, is much more than just a pub. It has won many accolades for its beers, wines and locally-sourced food and also provides a rewarding coffee and slab of cake, as you relive your walk, climb or dive. But it is also the undoubted hub of the community; the stock of musical instruments in the bar testament to its famed reputation for impromptu entertainment. Its website  is a treasure trove of local information, advertising local jobs, advising on hill-walking routes and listing local accommodation.

Staying on Knoydart can be as lavish or basic as you want to make it. It is possible to wild camp on the beach, backpack in a bothy or indulge in a luxurious b&b. Match your requirements to the surprisingly wide variety available  – check out the Knoydart Foundation and Barrisdale and forget any excuses for not experiencing this magnificent corner of Britain.

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So Long 2011: Heroes and Villains of the last 12 Months

So, on this Hogmanay as 2011 ends and 2012 fast approaches, how was 2011 – a year when austerity, natural disasters, revolutions and mass movements of all kinds dominated the headlines –  for you? Who were the heroes, and who were the baddies in 2011?

Sunset on 2011

HEROES and good things:

  • John Prescott, for his commitment to dealing with climate change and keeping Britain at the centre of discussions on this vital issue (unlike some other politicians on other vital issues) and for being one of the few genuinely entertaining “celebrities” on Twitter
  • Caroline Lucas, our solitary Green MP, for continuing to fight the Green case in Parliament
  • Grass routes campaigning groups, such as 38 Degrees www.38degrees.org.uk and UK Uncut www.ukuncut.org.uk who taught us all how to effectively channel public anger in novel, entertaining and persuasive ways against outrageous governmental decisions – like the proposed sell-off of public forests and tax exemptions for multi-national corporations
  • An unexpected four-day window of lovely weather at the end of July that enabled me to climb two Munros in three days and enjoy stupendous views over the Trossachs and Southern Highlands http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/2011/08/two-munros-in-three-days/
  • The return of Sarah and her Book Barge www.thebookbarge.co.uk to enhance the cultural life of the Barton area
  • Skinny Kitten Cafe in Barton Main Street, with its sumptuous sausage sandwiches.
  • John, James and Mark at the Glasgow Guest House www.glasgow-guest-house.co.uk for their warm hospitality, unfailing good humour, Glasgow wit and style
  • The always-wonderful West Highland Railway www.railbrit.co.uk/West_Highland_Railway/frame.htm closely followed by Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomond.co.uk for taking me through wondrous places, to the other spectacular places I want to get to, without having drive there
  • Damian Carrington and his excellent team at Guardian Environment www.guardian.co.uk/environment including the fabulous Bike Blog and the brilliant new Environment App.
  • Dan Lepard and his mouth-watering recipes – by far my favourite baker
  • Ian Jack for simply being the best newspaper columnist around and for continually illustrating to all would-be scribblers just how to write
  • Finally, at long last, being able to give up the day job!

VILLAINS and bad things:

  • This supposedly “greenest-ever government: it actually would be very funny, if it wasn’t so sad and potentially disastrous
  • And, in a very close competition for the most outrageous example of its hypocritical approach to the environment – Spelman? Hammond? Paice? –  no, by a few stomachs it just has to be that arch-priest of over-consumption, Eric Pickles; the Secretary for Communities who believes the best way to improve our communities is to encourage everyone to eat more take aways and then throw the remnants and packaging into the landfill
  • This misguided acceptance by Caroline Spelman and Defra that bovine TB can be combated by a barbarous cull of badgers
  • The murmurings among the country set and Agriculture Minister James Paice, urging the Government to bring back hunting, despite poll after poll showing that at least 75 per cent of the population back the ban
  • The steady withdrawal of subsidies from public transport in rural areas
  • The constant publicity afforded to the bile spouted by some gross examples of white, middle-aged, middle-class males; eg, Clarkson, Littlejohn, Letts et al who believe they are entitled to ridicule anything they fear, or don’t understand, like women, safety and environmental legislation, the disabled, the disadvantaged and certain ethnic minorities

Sadly, this list could go on and on but, let’s end 2012 on a high note with more good things than bad. Happy New Year to everyone and here’s to a happy, healthy and green 2012.

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Around Glasgow

A wealth of culture, some of the finest art and  architecture in Europe, a shopping mecca, vibrant nightlife: just some of Glasgow’s best known features.  But, alongside these attributes, its marvellous location for walking, cycling, sailing and numerous other outdoor activities is all too often overlooked.

A city infamous for poor health and housing and blighted by its planners in the mid 20th century, Glasgow, which means Dear Green Place, has, surprisingly, more green spaces per head of population than any other conurbation in Britain, with beautiful parks to be found all over the city. And, within an hour of its centre, you can be climbing a Munro, cycling along Loch Lomond,or sailing in some of the world’s most beautiful coastal waters. This fairly unique combination makes the city ideal to shop till you drop, enjoy many varied forms of culture, but equally easily escape to the great outdoors that are literally on your doorstep.

In addition, the city has an excellent public transport system; in terms of connecting areas and scope, second only to London.  And, given Glasgow’s location, its commuter lines actually reach some of the most scenic and iconic places; for example, Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, is around 40 minutes out of the city on a twice-hourly service, whilst the legendary West Highland line, reaches Arrochar and the northern end of Loch Lomond at Ardlui in about an hour.

It is this mix of unique location, plus easy availability of public transport, that makes Glasgow such an ideal base for a boot and bike trip.

 

Get there and about: 

Virgin Trains www.virgintrains.co.uk travel to Glasgow from London, the Midlands and North West England on the west coast main line; journey times are about five hours from London and just under four from Birmingham.

Strathclyde Passenger Transport www.spt.co.uk is responsible for city and suburban trains, buses and subway.

Scottish Citylink coaches www.citylink.co.uk run out of the city along the A82 en route to Fort William, Portree and Oban.

Loch Lomond Cruises www.cruiselochlomondltd.com operate a ferry service from Tarbet across the loch to Rowardennan and Inversnaid, between April to October.

 Stay at:

Glasgow Guest House

Glasgow Guest House www.glasgow-guest-house.co.uk  enjoys a great location on bus routes, five minutes from Dumbreck rail station, within walking distance of the subway, virtually next door to Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover and 20 minutes walk from the Burrell.  It’s clean, welcoming, serves brilliant breakfasts, has a residents’ kitchen and ample and secure storage for boots, bikes and equipment: Glasgow with hospitality, humour and style.

 

Make sure you see:

Merchant City

Architecture; Look out for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s buildings and designs www.crmsociety.com Alexander”Greek” Thomson’s buildings www.greekthomson.org.uk  There is a wonderful Victorian legacy throughout the city and the magnificently-renovated 18th century Merchant City www.merchantcity.com is also a must-see.

 
 
 Art;  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Burrell Collection and Pollok House
Pollok House
Museums and Culture; Kelvingrove, Tenement House, Cathedral, People’s Palace, new Riverside Museum of Transport with the Tall Ship and any of the 13 major museums in the city www.seeglasgow.co.uk

Music; King Tut’s, O2 Academy, Royal Concert Halls, Theatre Royal, SECC

Film;  Glasgow Film Theatre and Grosvenor, numerous multi-screens

Theatres; King’s, Citizen’s, Tramway, Arches, Theatre Royal, Tron and many more

www.seeglasgow.co.uk

 

 Tuck in at:

Great ethnic restaurants in Merchant City and West End.

Bars and restaurants in Ashton Lane, near the university in the West End.

Good value food and drink at The Left Bank www.theleftbank.co.uk and The Two Figs www.thetwofigs.co.uk  in the West End.

Best coffee at Tapa in Denniston and Southside, www.tapabakehouse.com

Cute cafe and pastries at Cranberry’s in Merchant City.

Willow tearooms in Buchanan and Sauchiehall Streets for some Mackintosh-inspired refreshments www.willowtearooms.co.uk

 

Shop till you drop: 

Buchanan Street; John Lewis, House of  Fraser and just about everything else

Italian Centre

Italian Centre in Merchant City, Princes Square and Royal Exchange Square; more upmarket labels

Byres Road, Ashton Lane in West End; small boutiques and more bohemian options

Out of town retail centres; include Braehead and The Forge

 

 

 

 

 

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR DAY TRIPS OUT OF TOWN: Coast, Mountains, Lochs, Culture and History using boot, bike and boat and public transport. 

Coast:

Where? Ayrshire Coastal Path, Dunure to Ayr

How?  train from Glasgow Central to Ayr, www.firstscotrail.co.uk bus to Dunure, www.travelinescotland.co.uk walk back to Ayr

Why? fabulous coastal views of Arran and Argyle, cute little cafe and inn at Dunure, interesting, short diversion to Burns Cottage in Alloway

But; potentially dangerous tides in places, really do need guidebook and cannot rely on maps and signposting

Info; OS Explorer 326, www.ayrshirecoastalpath.org for details and guidebook

Directions; walk down to harbour from bus stop in Dunure, then follow route signs north. BEWARE of tides, particularly in Bracken Bay and do refer to guidebook as signposting is very obscure in places

Distance; 9 miles direct, about 11 with detour to Burns Cottage

Terrain; difficult in places, rocky outcrops, sandy beaches, field paths

Refreshments; Dunure Inn www.dunureinn.co.uk Dunure Harbour Coffeeshop www.harbourviewcoffeeshop.co.uk extensive selection of cafes and restaurants in Ayr

 

Hills:

i) Where? Beinn Dubh Horseshoe from Luss on western side of Loch Lomond 

How?  Citylink coaches from Buchanan Street bus station to stop on A82 next to start of route www.travelinescotland.co.uk

The Arrochar Alps

Why?  good workout for Munros, great views of Arrochar Alps, easy access, refreshments in pretty, conservation village of Luss

But; allow enough time to complete the horseshoe and plan carefully to synchronise with buses, particularly in summer when you need to book seats on specific services

Info; OS Explorers 364, 367, Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000  Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.c.uk  Glasgow, 40 Town and Country Walks, www.pocketmountains.com

Directions; walk from bus stop towards footbridge over A82, go past house on right, through metal gate into field, follow route from here

Distance; 7 miles

Terrain; hill paths, steep climb, boggy in places

Refreshments; Colquhoun’s, The Lodge on Loch Lomond Hotel www.loch-lomond.co.uk Farm Milk Bar, Car Park, Luss, The Coach House Coffeeshop www.lochlomondtrading.com

 

ii) Where? Conic Hill at southern end of Loch Lomond 

How?  train from Glasgow Queen Street to Balloch, bus to Balmaha  www.travelinescotland.co.uk

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

Why?  wonderful views only usually enjoyed from much higher aspects, ideal to fit in for morning/afternoon, or for a winter walk

But; shares some of access route with West Highland Way and can be busy, especially in holiday periods and in spring dog-walkers cannot access the high moor behind the hill

Info; OS Explorer 347, Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000  Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.co.uk  Glasgow, 40 Town and Country Walks, www.pocketmountains.com

Directions; path starts from Visitor Centre in Balmaha where bus terminates, follow the well-signposted route and good path to the top of the hill

Distance; 3 miles

Terrain; woodland and hill paths, steep in places

Refreshments; Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha www.oak-tree-inn.co.uk village shop next door also sells hot drinks and sandwiches, as well as provisions

 

iii) Where? Dumgoyne Hill, Blanefield, north of Milngavie

How? bus (no10) from Buchanan Bus Station to Blanefield (hourly during most of the day)

Dumgoyne

Why? more fantastic views to southern aspects of Loch Lomond, Arrochar Alps, Ben Lomond and more, from a steep, but short, climb, within easy reach of city centre

But; very boggy in places, have to jump across a couple of burns en route

Info; OS Explorer 348, Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000 Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.co.uk

Directions; start from war memorial in Blanefield, carry on up Campsie Dene Road to Cantywherry Cottage, then take path to the right up the hill

Distance; about 6 miles

Terrain; hill paths, boggy and muddy, steep in places

Refreshments; nice deli with lovely little coffeeshop www.pestleandmortar.com across from bus stop in Blanefield

 

iv) Where? Loch Humphrey and Duncolm, Kilpatrick Hills, west of the city

How? train to Kilpatrick from Glasgow Queen Street or Central 

Erskine Bridge from Loch Humphrey
Why? extensive views over the city from a surprisingly remote, heather-clad range of hills very easily accessible from the city

But? bleak and isolated on the hilltops, steepish climb to the Loch

Info; OS Explorer 347, Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000 Glasgow Popular Hills, www.harveymaps.co.uk Glasgow 40 town and Country Walks, www.pocketmountains.co.uk

Directions; from the railway station head along the road under the A82 road bridge to Kilpatrick Gasworks, then follow the track signposted Loch Humphrey. At the loch keep on the obvious path, passing Little and Middle Duncolm before climbing to the summit of Duncolm

Distance; about 8 miles

Terrain; tarmac stretch at start, then rough heather and bracken, boggy in places on hillside

Refreshments; none on direct route, pubs and shops in Kilpatrick

 

Munro:

Where? Ben Lomond

How? train from Glasgow Queen Street to Arrochar/Tarbet,  Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomondltd.com from Tarbet Pier across loch to Rowardennan (April-October), leaving Tarbet at 10am, returning from Rowardennan at 16:45

Ben Lomond

Why? great way to climb Scotland’s most southerly Munro on day trip from city without having to drive

 But; absolutely vital that you have sufficient hill-walking experience/fitness to complete the climb and descent before return sailing

Info;  Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000  Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.co.uk OS Explorer 364, 347

Directions; follow clear route to the mountain from car park in Rowardennan

Distance; around 7 miles

Terrain; tough mountain climb, remote and exposed in places

Refreshments; Rowardennan Hotel www.rowardennanhotel.co.uk

 

Corbett:

Where? Ben Arthur (The Cobbler), overlooking Arrochar

Why? One of Scotland’s iconic mountains, yet within easy access of the city, stupendous views of Ben Lomond and other peaks in the Trossachs, lochs Lomond and Long
How? Train from Queen Street, or bus from Buchanan Bus Station www.citylink.co.uk to Arrochar
But: very steep last section to exposed summit where slabs can be very slippery; liable to be cold,  windy at higher levels irrespective of conditions at start; proper equipment, clothing and adequate fitness essential; limited train service and seats on return bus journey often need to be booked in peak months, so check timetable carefully to avoid a long wait in an area with few places to shelter
Info: Harvey Maps: Glasgow Popular Hills, OS Explorer 364
Directions: turn right out of station, head into Arrochar, then follow road round head of the loch to the start of forest path opposite car park at Succoth
Distance: 6 miles
Terrain: excellent, easy-to-follow stone path for majority of route, steepish climb at start, then reasonably gentle gradients, apart from final stretch to the summit which is very steep and involves a short section of scrambling
Refreshments: fish and chips and some daytime cafes  in Arrochar but few options in the evening, Tarbet, perhaps better bet

 

Cycle Tour; 

Where? Loch Katrine by western access from Inversnaid 

How? train from Glasgow Queen Street to Arrochar/Tarbet,  Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomondltd.com  from Tarbet Pier across loch to Inversnaid (April-October), then cycle from Inversnaid  along Loch Arklet to Loch Katrine, with option of using paddle steamer, Sir Walter Scott  http://www.incallander.co.uk/steam.htm on outward or return journey across the loch

Loch Katrine

Why? quieter, better way to enjoy wonderful scenery and the iconic loch, without having to drive or having a long cycle in from Stirling

But; watch timings carefully to catch return sailings and take bike spares and emergency kit

Info; OS Landrangers 56,57 Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000  Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.co.uk

Directions; only one road out of Inversnaid, so cycle (or push!) up the hill out of the village and follow road along Loch Arklet to Stronachlachar, then either take the steamer to Trossachs Pier and cycle back, or cycle to Trossachs Pier and return on ferry

Distance; depends on what route you select, but with a full circuit of loch total distance will be in region of 30 miles

Terrain; quiet, mostly well-surfaced tarmac roads, steep climb out of Inversnaid,  undulating round the loch

Refreshments; Inversnaid Hotel www.lochsandglens.com/HotelInversnaid.asp

Cafes at Stronachlachar and Trossachs Pier www.lochkatrine.com meals and refreshments at Inversnaid Bunkhouse www.inversnaid.com

 

West Highland Way Walk: 

Where? stretch between Rowardennan and Inversnaid (or reverse) on eastern side of Loch Lomond 

How?  train from Glasgow Queen Street to Arrochar/Tarbet, then Cruise Loch Lomond www.cruiselochlomondltd.com  from Tarbet Pier across loch to Rowardennan (April-October) and back from Inversnaid, or route can be done in reverse from Inversnaid to Rowardennan

Looking Towards Arrochar
Why? fairly easy stretch of WHW on eastern side of Loch Lomond, within easy travelling distance of the city

But? can be busy, some of the route is in forest, so restricted views in places

Info; OS Explorer 364, 347, Harvey Superwalker 1:25,000  Glasgow Popular Hills www.harveymaps.co.uk

Directions; follow the obvious and plentiful route signs for the WHW

Distance; 8 miles

Terrain; good path with some gentle gradients

Refreshments; Rowardennan Hotel www.rowardennanhotel.co.uk Inversnaid Hotel www.lochsandglens.com/HotelInversnaid.asp

 

Walk with Culture: 

Where? Hill House, Helensburgh 

How? train from Glasgow Queen Street to Helensburgh, walk to marina at Rhu, then back through woodlands to the Rennie Mackintosh-designed Hill House in Helensburgh www.crmsociety.com

Why? opportunity to combine good little walk and great views of Clyde estuary, with visit to one of Mackintosh’s masterpieces, with plenty of interest and refreshments en route

But? check times in advance as Hill House opens on a seasonal basis and it can be busy in holiday periods

Info;  OS Landranger 56, Glasgow, 40 Town and Country Walks, www.pocketmountains.com

Directions; from Helensburgh station, head towards the shore and walk along the promenade to Rhu Marina, then turn right into Pier Road, right into Station Road and then up the hill till a large metal gate, before following the track through fields and woodlands to the Hill House

Distance; 7 miles

Terrain; tarmac roads and woodland paths, steep in places

Refreshments; selection of restaurants and cafes in Helensburgh, tea room at Hill House

 

Walk into History: 

Where? New Lanark Mills and Falls of Clyde 

How? train from Glasgow Central to Lanark, then take shuttle bus, or 20 minutes walk to New Lanark

New Lanark MIll Village

Why? see Robert Owen’s 18th century mill village, often regarded as the birthplace of socialism and now a World Heritage Site and combine with a walk along the Clyde valley past the spectacular Falls of Clyde, taking in a wildlife reserve along the way

But? train takes over an hour and the site can be very busy during holidays and in the summer

Info; www.newlanark.org Glasgow 40 Town and Country Walks, www.pocketmountains.com

Directions; walk or take the bus from station to the Visitor Centre at the village, then follow the signs for the Clyde Walkway

Falls of Clyde

Distance; 6 miles

Terrain; duckboards along parts of track, woodland paths, can be muddy and steep in places

Refreshments; cafe at New Lanark village, shops, cafes pubs in Lanark 

 

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