Glasgow Coffee Festival 2017

After missing last year’s event through negligently failing to apply for tickets in time, I did manage to remember this year’s date and successfully secured my place several weeks ago.  Undeterred by a foot injury, even a perfect spring day, – the hottest so far, this year, in the city – couldn’t keep me away.

The Briggait: Glasgow's wonderful Victorian fish market
The Briggait: Glasgow’s wonderful Victorian fish market

The Victorian splendour of the Briggait Glasgow’s old fish market, provided an appropriate setting for the profusion of gleaming brass and chrome on display across the main hall.

One of the great advantages of living in Scotland’s biggest city these days – up there with better cycling provision and ever-expanding foodie options – is the amazing variety of locally roasted beans now available, as well as the burgeoning range of indie and speciality cafes where they can be sampled.

Highlights were discovering some new kids on the block; Davide for his very informative backstory of Ovenbird (about to try my first flat white with Wegida Blue Natural); McCune Smith for the scrumptious amaretto and Glenfiddich brownie; and the lovely lady from Indycoffeeguides.

Essential packing for trip north in the summer
Essential packing for trip north in the summer

Armed with my new Scotland copy, complete with its essential advice on cycling friendly establishments, I’m well set for my trip north to Skye later in the summer and a detour to Dundee now looks to be in order, en route to the Fife coast  in the autumn.

Thanks to Dear Green for an excellent (on the house) flat white and for hosting the event.  I’m still hopeful you can come up with some letterbox-friendly packaging so your beans  can be delivered straight to my door later in the year!

Roll on 2018.

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New Year; Same Rain

Mid January already, but for the first time in 2014 it really does feel like the start of a new year.  Today the sun is shining: yes, really, even to the extent of having to close the top floor curtains in order to see the iMac screen.

Hardly earth shattering news: certainly not comparable to the continuing depressing events seen on our screens every day. But up here, in the submerged north, a morning without any precipitation, let alone one also with a glimpse of the sun, is something to sing about.

Halloween marked the end of our delightful and unexpected Indian summer; subsequently, there has literally not been a day without rain.  Temperatures well into the high teens and water falling from the sky in biblical proportions, combined with entire days of almost total darkness, gave late autumn and early winter an apocalyptic feel.

Christmas came and went with barely a hint of frost, let alone a flake of snow and New Year heralded the return of the deluge to levels previously reached at the beginning of December.

The swollen river
The swollen river

 

Living with a major river flowing past the sitting room window, the fear of flooding has been a constant anxiety.  Fortunately, so far, and touch wood, although an angry, caramel-coloured tide has thundered past, at times widening the river to three times its usual size and submerging the banks and overhanging trees with frightening ease, the drainage system has worked and the water has not risen any higher than the lowest-lying parts of the cycle path.  Fingers crossed, the short term forecast will prove accurate and the next couple of weeks will bring some drier, colder conditions.

MVI_4070.mov

On the positive side, a brief, dry window yesterday morning allowed for a a quick survey round the garden and brought the welcome evidence of buds on the magnolia and acer, plus a scattering of bulbs across the front flower bed: small, but unmistakeable, signs that spring is on the horizon.  Sunset is now a full 45 minutes later than in mid December and the beginning of spring  – in seasonal terms – is only 46 days away!

But if you have to endure a British (or, even worse, Scottish) winter, then make sure you’re in a city, especially one where the bright lights, busy shops and wide variety of culture are more than adequate compensation for wet pavements and cold bus stops.  Having a wonderful film theatre on the doorstep and world-class musical venues four stops along the train line really does hit the spot.

The Armadillo added an extra slice of atmosphere to Jools Holland’s ever-excellent winter tour and Celtic Connections looks mouth watering.  After that, the film festival will run through February and Aye Write will arrive soon after..

Glasgow has always been renowned for its culture and innovation.  Let’s finish with perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the musician who defined my adolescence at the venue that illuminated my childhood.

 

 

 

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City or Countryside? A Cycling Comparison

River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!
River frontage and a cycle path, and only three miles from the city centre!

Having spent the last couple of decades or so pedalling the winding lanes and country roads of Middle England, relocation to urban Glasgow was always going to be a radical change.  So, four months along the line, how does cycling in rural Staffordshire compare with negotiating the potholes and road diversions in the UK’s fourth largest city?

In many respects things, particularly hazards, obstacles and attitudes are remarkably, and depressingly, very similar.  While the former Second City of the Empire now lags behind Leeds as the UK’s fourth largest city, it certainly must be in contention as the world’s Capital of Potholes. However, although dangerous holes in the road may be more numerous in Glasgow, they also lie in wait for the unsuspecting cyclist in the countryside – often for years as no one reports them, no one repairs them, or because they are located in places that don’t exist, according to satnavs – widened and deepened by the constant trundling of farm vehicles until the roads resemble open cast coal mines.

While the city’s ‘cycle only boxes’ are routinely exploited by many motorists, even on the showcase A728 on its way past Celtic Park, the Emirates Arena and Police Scotland HQ, priority boxes would immediately become objects of wonder, and derision, should they ever appear in a county town and cycle lanes, in the few places they do exist, are habitually regarded as extra parking spaces.

NCN 75 near Uddingston
NCN 75 near Uddingston

Indeed, the highlight of my final week living in Lichfield was a confrontation with a very large and aggressive Ukip supporter (it was during the final week of the election campaign) who laughed as I tried to pass round his car without getting wiped out by a steady stream of fast traffic, threatened me when I photographed his offending vehicle and warned me about cycling in the future as he ‘wouldn’t want something horrible to happen to me’.  Apparently, he also failed to ingratiate himself with the police officer who cautioned him after I reported the incident.

Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour
Dalmarnock Railway Bridge in all its bucolic splendour

Above all, although Jeremy Clarkson and pals are generally regarded as poster boys for that persecuted and threatened species, middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England man, their misplaced sense of entitlement about the right to park where they want, to drive how and at what speed they want, sadly seems as prevalent among some road users, irrespective of age, class and gender, in urban central Scotland as it does among the Chipping Norton set.

But, overall, my decision to swap the leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the Clyde has, overwhelmingly, been to positive effect, especially as far as cycling is concerned.  Whereas trying to travel by bike in and around a car centric, rural village, involved the meticulous planning of a couple of 20-30 mile rides each week, timed to perfection around farming activity, the bus timetable and avoiding, at all costs, the school run, here I cycle every day; in and out of town, to and from the shops, along the tree-lined, cycle-friendly London Road to the excellent libraries in Bridgeton, into Lanarkshire, along to Balloch: and that’s only on NCN 75; so far I haven’t had enough time to venture further afield.

Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield
Looking west along the Clyde from NCN 75 at Shawfield

Selecting a new home that fronts on to a cycle path has, so far, resulted in a diverse range of benefits, including losing half a stone, finding resourceful ways of transporting everything from two full sized duvets, to a collection of house plants by bike, and seeing more wildlife – that’s foxes, herons, deer, not just the human residents – than I did in years in the countryside.

What I miss: days when I could go out for a ride without having to pack rain gear.

What I don’t miss: women (apologies to my fellow females), coffee in one hand, phone in the other, spearing their 4x4s through the school run, oblivious to the existence of all other road users. I’m sure they must exist in the city but, so far, I haven’t come across any in Dalmarnock

The river and path at twilight
The river and path at twilight

 

 

 

 

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Yes We’re Back: Boot and Bike Arrives in Glasgow!

 

View from my sitting room
View from my sitting room

So, half a year has passed since Boot and Bike last blogged. This morning I cycled in a pleasant 20 degrees, under a soft blue sky, peppered by puffy white clouds and, whilst January’s post appropriately eulogised about the snow, seasonal meteorological milestones are far from the only changes in a rather eventful  six months.

Winter to summer; south to north; rural to urban; Trent to Clyde; level to hilly:  a list of almost polar opposites. Throw in some other seismic events, such as a landmark (for ominous reasons) general election and it’s been quite a turnaround.

So having swapped the safe and leafy lanes of the Trent Valley for the edgier banks of the lower Clyde (inadvertently, I’ve always found myself within striking distance of some of our great rivers, now I’m literally in touching distance) and with a couple of months of housesitting, a further two confined to a camp bed until the furniture arrived, plus six week’s of marking thrown in for good measure, what’s the verdict so far?

Wonderful!  Although deliveries, deadlines and essential domestic installations have restricted possible outings, having a cycle path outside the front window was always a large part of the deal and, so far, it certainly hasn’t disappointed.

Look, a cycle path at the end of my garden!
Look, a cycle path at the end of my garden!

15 minutes into town one way, 10 minutes into the countryside the other, all level, traffic-free, bordered by the vibrant shades of midsummer wild flowers, with rabbits, foxes, herons and even the odd deer for company; absolute bliss.

The Dear Green Place doesn’t usually feature on the lists of the most cycle-friendly cities and there is still a long way to go, but armed with a cycle-specific satnav and a good waterproof jacket (my priority clothing purchase), it is perfectly possible to get from A to B using traffic-free, or less busy roads, enjoying a different perspective on the city into the bargain.

Being appointed a paper girl by the Glasgow Women’s Library has not only been my most creditable achievement so far – narrowly beating my growing expertise at flat-pack assembly – but has also provided the ideal excuse to navigate my way around the streets delivering their publications and sampling some decent coffee en route: indeed, I can feel a “Best Coffee and Cake’ post coming on.

The prized insignia of a GWL paper girl - not everyone gets to wear this!
The prized insignia of a GWL paper girl – not everyone gets to wear this!

This morning’s jaunt round the cosmopolitan bars and delis of Shawlands was complemented by a sunny lunch in the exquisite Hidden Garden at the Tramway – spoilt only by a massive gull stealing the last quarter of my toast, before having the audacity to return to clear the plate it had knocked off the table!

 

Welcome to Glasgow, where even the gulls are gallus.

 

 

 

 

A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden - just watch out for the gulls

A perfect day to enjoy the wonderful Hidden Garden – just watch out for the gulls

 

 

 

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So Long 2014; You’ve Been an Interesting Year

 

With plenty of striking pictures of the unexpected, but appropriately seasonal, weather of the last few days, it seems much more fitting to say goodbye to 2014 through images rather than too many words.

Unexpected festive weather in the shires
Unexpected festive weather in the shires

It’s certainly been an eventful year, with many unexpected twists and turns, not least as far as that perennial favourite topic of British conversation, the weather, was concerned.

A snowy Hogmanay sunrise
A snowy Hogmanay sunrise

 

The Weather: after the relentless rain (and the risible response of DEFRA and its erstwhile, hapless head, Owen Patterson) of the early months, spring arrived at least a month earlier than in 2013 and heralded a consecutive spell of warm, sunny days that stretched from midsummer right throughout to the end of October.

An English country garden
An English country garden

High summer in Middle England was a revelation, with overflowing hedgerows and bountiful butterflies (including a welcome return for the recently-rare small tortoiseshell) enjoying the Buddleia.   And, even it was rather incongruous still to be enjoying tee shirt temperatures at Halloween, it certainly beat the usual wet and windy autumn storms.

The exquisite peacock butterfly
The exquisite peacock butterfly

 

Flora and Fauna: a settled period of sun didn’t just benefit the Lepidoptera and their habitat.  After last year’s dismal showing, the bedding plants in their tubs and baskets were back to their radiant best.  But the undoubted natural highlight of the year was the arrival of a young, fledgling robin, who took refuge in the garden, stayed for a few weeks, ate his way through several packets of oatcakes, learned to fly and came back each day to sing (for his breakfast, lunch and dinner). By the time he left for good his chest was beginning to redden and memories of those delightful days of late summer have been rekindled with each delivery of a traditional robin Christmas card.

My brave little fledgling singing for his supper
My brave little fledgling singing for his supper

 

Scotland: a momentous year for Scotland was also enhanced by a Mediterranean-like summer.  The Commonwealth Games enjoyed early days of tropical heat that had visitors swapping their fleeces and umbrellas for sun cream and shorts.  Glasgow Green resembled a giant beach and the heat lasted right up till the day before September’s referendum.

A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green: Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson is in foreground
A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green, with  Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson (white shirt)  in foreground

Strangely, the most momentous constitutional event of the last three centuries didn’t seem to be taken seriously until the eve of the vote by many in the rest of the kingdom.  Although its outcome, despite the result, is far from clear, one lasting legacy will definitely be the images of 16 and 17 year olds in their school uniforms, queuing to vote in their thousands, after making an important, informed and mature contribution throughout the debate.

The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional event of the last 300 years
The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional decision of the last 300 years

In a year of developments, some positive, some negative (the rise of the Greens has balanced to some extent the repugnance of Ukip) that have rumbled the political establishment, the positive engagement of young people in Scotland now seems, happily, to be spreading to other parts of the UK, with first time voters becoming much more involved in political debate.

 

St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey
St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey

Holidays: January was brightened up with another train journey to Italy, for what has become my annual trip to the wonderful Kokopelli Camping   bookended by two overnight stays at the welcoming Windsor Hotel in Milan

Pristine pistes and sky to match
Pristine pistes and sky to match: Abruzzo in winter

For the first time, I was able to experience the dramatic mountains of the Abruzzo in winter and, although temperatures were more akin to mid April, there was plenty of snow on the tops and a day’s snowshoeing was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Milan: always a favourite destination
Milan: whatever the season, always a favourite destination

On the way back, I was also able to achieve another long-held ambition; seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper, in Milan.  It didn’t disappoint. Usually it’s necessary to book online, well in advance, but if you are in the city out of season and are not part of a large group, try turning up at the booking office in person and be prepared to be flexible about fitting in individually when they have available space.

Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway
Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway

Post Commonwealth Games, the crowded vibrancy of city-centre Glasgow was followed by a few days camping in peaceful, pastoral New Galloway    This idyllic region of south west Scotland is routinely overlooked or ignored even by other Scots.  As a result, its alluring landscapes, dark skies and important history are complemented by quiet roads and uncrowded beaches. Throw in some thriving culture; an established artists’ town (Kirkudbright)  foodie haven (Castle Douglas), Scotland’s book town (Wigtown) and you have the kind of place that I like to visit.

Cycling doesn't get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown
Cycling doesn’t get any better than this: NCN 73, along the quiet lanes of Galloway

A few weeks later I ventured another 50 miles or so west to explore, for the first time the most southerly point of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature
Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with its traditional links with Ireland and its own mythical history, this is a magical place with a coastscape second to none.  Yes, the wind does blow here, but the views are breathtaking and its wild and marine life abundant – on a short morning’s cliff walk, the paths were shared with a fox, two hares and an inquisitive deer.

Galloway coastscape
Galloway coastscape

Finally, with the weather still too good to miss, in September I embarked on a Spaceships Campervan journey between Edinburgh and London; an interesting experience to say the least

Highside Farm: my kind of campsite
Highside Farm: my kind of campsite

The most memorable aspects of the trip were discovering some excellent campsites; notably the alluring  Highside Farm  in beautiful Teesdale and the remarkably rural (given its proximity to London) and conveniently sited Town Farm near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire.

2014's suitably snowy final sunset
2014’s suitably snowy final sunset

 Culture: and, last but certainly not least, a mention of the books, films, art and music that enlivened the year.

Books – The Goldfinch (Donna doesn’t disappoint), Stoner (absolutely lived up to its rave reviews) and the joys of re-aquaintance with the wonderful Joan Wyndham wartime diaries

Films – Ida, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Imitation Game and Under the Skin (in approximate order)

Art – vying for first place and marking 300 years since the Georgian accession were the British Library’s Georgians Revealed and Let Glasgow Flourish at Kelvingrove, then another Kelvingrove gem celebrating the life of Alasdair Gray, plus an interesting Stanley Spencer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

Music – after a year of neglect, some progress was made in improving guitar grades, but must resolve to try harder in 2015

 

Epilogue: so 2014, an interesting and eventful year, rounded off in personal terms by finally putting the house on the market, in anticipation of moving back to Scotland. Who knows what 2015 will bring; I’ll keep you posted.

 

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

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Balloch to Helensburgh: Three Lochs Way, Stage 1

Dumbreck sunrise
Dumbreck sunrise

Mid March; the best time of the year for walking, according to many experts and so, happily, it proved for me. As much of the country shivered in the face of vicious easterly winds and and a blanket of snow covered the south coast, this Glasgow morning dawned clear and bright, with a sharp frost soon levelling into a perfect, early spring day.

I was on my way to Balloch to try out the first stage of a relatively new trail, the Three Lochs Way, linking Lochs Lomond and Long, the Gare Loch, with a stretch of the  Firth of Clyde  thrown in for good measure. The route begins in Balloch, travels west to Helensburgh, then north to Garelochhead, continues up to Arrochar, before finally winding its way to Inveruglas at the north end of Loch Lomond.

It’s a low level trail, with few steep gradients and, as it generally follows the course of the West Highland Railway, it’s possible to walk all sections as linear routes and use the train to get to and from the start/finish points. The first section is ideal for this, as both Balloch and Helensburgh are termini on Glasgow’s suburban rail network. It’s perfectly possible to walk the route in either direction: just buy a return to either station, then a single from the other to Dalreoch and the rest of your return ticket will take you back to the city.

Over the hill to Helensburgh
Over the hill to Helensburgh

My preference is to start in Balloch and walk towards Helensburgh. This way, you enjoy the unmatched experience of leaving the loch and views of Ben Lomond behind you, just as the coastal vistas over Kintyre come into sight: a unique joy, whatever the time of year.

My other reason is equally hedonistic, but for gastronomic reasons. Finishing in Helensburgh provides the ideal reason to visit my favourite cafe in the area; the Riverhill Deli and Cafe in Sinclair Street. The coffee bears comparison with anything north of Turin and their delectable cakes and pastries, including the incomparable millionaire’s shortbread, are the perfect way to cap a marvellous day in the outdoors.

Head out from Balloch station and turn left at the information centre. Walk along the street until you reach the roundabout and take the the third turning into a quiet, residential street. You will soon see a footpath sign pointing left, take this and walk along the track crossing the footbridge over the A82.

A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch
A snow-capped Ben Lomond looks over the loch

This is known locally as the Stoneymollan Road, an ancient drove and coffin route and it leads uphill to a plantation gate. Walk through the plantation and turn right after about 800 metres at the T junction, before heading north round the edge of the plantation.

Until this point, the route follows well marked paths, but the next part is not on a defined track and it is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids. The route now veers off to the west though the trees. You must follow the red and white tape on the trees which marks the route over the burn and up the slopes of the Killoeter Escarpment.

Volunteers regularly check that the tape markers are in place, but if any are missing, or if you wander off route, you will need to be able to navigate yourself through this section using a map or compass.

Finally, after about 300 metres of climbing uphill when the end of a forestry road comes into view (from this point onwards the trail follows obvious, well-marked paths), follow it to the T junction. Turn left to continue to Helensburgh, but a short detour to the right takes you to the highlight of this section, the views from the top of Goukhill Muir. It’s only a short climb to 281metres, but the panorama compares with vistas normally only enjoyed from far higher summits.

Island footsteps to Balmaha
Island footsteps to Balmaha

A few clouds had invaded the previous unbroken blue of the sky, but Loch Lomond glinted tantalisingly in the sun, protected by the solid mass of Ben Lomond, its peak wrapped in a thick layer of snow. The line of islands below looked like giant stepping stones en route towards Balmaha and the blue of the loch was almost tropical in its intensity.

To the north, the snow-covered peaks of the Arrochar Alps jutted dramatically into the midday sky and, turning westwards, the Gareloch shimmered like a dark ribbon below the Rosneath Peninsula. Few viewpoints serve up such sumptuous rewards and reaching them usually requires much more strenuous effort.

The heather was dry and, and a sheltered spot just off the path was a perfect place to stop for some lunch, before beginning the descent to Helensburgh. The majority of the route now follows a newly-constructed path and provides more fine views as the town and the Firth of Clyde come into sight, spoiled only by the mess of what appears to a scrapyard surrounding a cottage on the outskirts of Craigendoran.

Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde
Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde

Emerging at Hermitage Academy, you are a couple of miles out of Helensburgh and another advantage of completing the trail in this direction is that, should the weather turn inclement, or time be at a premium, you are only metres away from Craigendoran Station and half-hourly trains back to Glasgow.

Otherwise, turn right and follow the main road into Helensburgh. At one time regarded as the ‘Brighton of Glasgow’, the resort is renowned for its substantial Victorian villas and tree-lined streets.

I was too early in the year to enjoy the blossom that infuses the town later in the spring, or to re-visit the Hill House, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most iconic designs. But I was happy to sip my excellent flat white and sample the said shortbread in Riverhill’s convivial atmosphere before heading the few metres back to Helensburgh Central for my return to the city.

The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula
The Gare Loch and Rosneath Peninisula

 

Information:

Details of the Three Lochs Way:

Trains to and from Balloch, Helensburgh and Craigendoran: 

Map: OS Explorer 347, Loch Lomond South

Please remember: although gradients are fairly gently and tracks are good, one section of this route is currently pathless. It is strongly advisable to have a map and navigational aids and be confident in your ability to use them. If you are unsure and/or you cannot follow the marked tape, always re-trace your steps.

 

 

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Riverhill Cafe: Glasgow and Helensburgh

As regular readers will know all too well, I always take the opportunity to plug Glasgow as the ideal location to combine some top notch culture, food and  shopping with the chance to enjoy some spectacular local outdoor jaunts as well.

Maybe because my trips to the city as a child were many and varied and ranged from pantomime visits, to shopping expeditions and later on, all kinds of things connected with education, that I have always considered Glasgow to be such an eclectic place.

Among these primal associations, it was in the city that I first began my love affair with good coffee; indeed, I can still remember the excitement of discovering what I termed ‘frothy coffee’,  drinking it from a glass cup in one of the Italian cafes I was taken to by my grandmother. And, from then on, sourcing and consuming the best coffee I can find has become something of an obsession – as well as providing the excuse to sample some of the finest cafes that Vienna, Budapest, Rome and Turin have to offer.

So, it was with a sense of excitement that I headed across Gordon Street last Monday to try out the new Riverhill Cafe. Its first few weeks had certainly been a hit on social media, and if its coffee was half as good as its location – within luggage wheeling distance of Central Station and in an otherwise desert of good independent refreshment outlets – it would be worth the wait.

It was. My flat white was rich and creamy and a crusty sandwich of Italian sausage with salad and dressing was freshly made and nicely on the plus side of substantial. But, it was the staff who provided the real highlight; pleasant, informative and happy to accommodate any requests for slight variations of the items on offer. My only disappointment was that, after my sandwich, even I couldn’t find room for a piece of their appropriately-named billionaire’s shortbread.

Overlooking Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde
Overlooking Helensburgh and the Firth of Clyde

However, apart from its excellent menu and ideal location, Riverhill has yet another asset; its sister, the Riverhill Cafe and Deli, in Helensburgh. And as Helensburgh just so happened to be where I started and finished a couple of stages on the Three Lochs Way later in the week, then I really had no excuse not to taste another excellent flat white and replace some of the calories expended tramping through the forest with a slice of their slightly different take on that luxury shortbread. Apparently the chef here also regularly forages for edible herbs and plants to use in the daily menu, so no excuse then not to factor in another trip around Helensburgh on my next visit.

Well done Riverhill: you’ll be my first and last stop next time I’m back in Glasgow and, with the Hill House, other handsome buildings and enviable setting beneath the mountains and beside the Firth, yet another reason to boot and bike to Helensburgh.

 

RIverhill Cafe: 24 Gordon Street, Glasgow G1 3PU  0141 204 4762

Riverhill Cafe and Deli: 64 Sinclair Street, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, Helensburgh G84 6TP 01436 677575

 

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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 West Highland Way

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to walk  the West Highland Way (WHW). Indeed, even before the route was conceived as a long distance footpath (LDF), the thought of walking from the edge of Glasgow to the heart of the Western Highlands stirred my anticipation. There are plenty of other LDFs, some nearer, some longer, some more technically difficult, but none can compare in terms of drama, romance, scenery and diversity of landscape. For anyone who believes that the best way to travel is under your own steam and combines this with a feeling for history, a love of literature and a passion for the great outdoors, trekking from Scotland’s largest city, along the banks of her most iconic loch, past the head of her most historically (in)famous glen, to the slopes of her highest mountain, on routes laid down over the centuries by soldiers, drovers and emigrants, the WHW would be difficult to better.

Mountains, lochs and woods: a classic scene from the WHW

Thursday September 6th dawned damp and drizzly and, following a short, but efficient, luggage hand over at Milngavie station and the obligatory “start pic”, I was on my way. I’ve done all the first part of the section – as far as Dumgoyne – and some of the remainder before, but it was still a thrill to walk past the Craigallian Fire and visualise the depression days of the 1930s when it was a beacon of warmth and companionship to the many who tramped the hills for recreation, or as a semi-permanent escape from the iniquities of the Means Test.

A 12 mile, relatively flat, segment looked nothing compared to the demands of the later stages, but mid afternoon coffee and cake In the Drymen Pottery was a welcome end to the day’s walking, particularly as it had been raining steadily for the last hour. The Clachan Inn though, was a slight disappointment. It was clean and the staff eager to please, but maybe the restrictions that come with the tag of Scotland’s oldest pub, make it difficult to cope with the demands of a full house of walkers – wet wayfarers all turning up at roughly the same time put a strain on the shared facilities – and restricting cooked breakfasts, even a bowl of porridge, until after 9am scuppered any plans for an early start.

 

Friday September 7th and the sky glowered threateningly, but, unfortunately, although the rain kept off for the first part of the morning, when the heavens did finally open, many were at the top of Conic Hill hoping to enjoy the dazzling views over the south end of Loch Lomond. However, the umbrellas at the Oak Tree Inn kept out the rain and by the time I had completed the first afternoon mile alongside the loch, the rain had eased and the mist was lifting.

The banks of Loch Lomond

This, however, was to contribute to my first, major, faux pas of the trip. Shedding successive layers of waterproofs as the sun appeared shyly in mid-afternoon, I dropped my map wallet and failed to notice until a couple of miles further on. Although I jogged back, there was no sign of it –  another walker had picked it up and handed in at the next campsite, which although very kind of him, was not too much use to me as I was going in the opposite direction and had no means of getting back there. And, as just reward for my stupidity in leaving my holiday details in the wallet, I had no idea of how to get to the rest of my accommodation! Fortunately though, a combination of Andy’s efficiency in the Absolute Escapes office in quickly emailing the details and Fiona’s kindness in giving me a new map, ensured there was no lasting damage.

Fiona was my host at my next overnight stay, near Rowardennan. Her home, Coille Mhor – comfortable, commodious, with a luxury exclusive bathroom and breakfast to die for –  was everything the first night was not. This, plus her family’s willingness to go the extra mile for their guests, laid down a challenging marker for the rest of the accommodation en route.

 

Ben Lomond

Saturday September 8th: just a glimpse of brightness on the way past the Rowardennan Hotel, but enough to lift the cloud off the summit of Ben Lomond, at least for the moment. This, the WHW veterans had warned would be the toughest stage; not in terms of exposure or altitude, but because of the obstacle course that is the 2-3 miles north of Inversnaid. With this in mind, I made good pace first thing and took advantage of the wide forestry tracks to arrive in Inversnaid by lunchtime. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the path, slimy with recent rain, began to swerve up and down, over rocks and tree routes, at times about to seemingly splash into the loch itself. It was torturous going and, making good use of my new map, I used Island I Vow as my landmark and vowed not to stop until I was at least level with it.

On and on, the path veered one way, then another, and progress continued at snail’s pace – even the fit-looking lads with military-style gear didn’t overtake me with quite the same verve by mid afternoon – until I met a mountain biker travelling in the opposite direction. Taking the opportunity for a few minutes chat (not least to find out how he intended to deal with the hurdles to come) he reassured me that the path would level out in about 400m and, sure enough, round the corner of a delightful, sandy bay, the route stretched out, wider, straighter and flatter.

View from the head of Loch Lomond

Climbing up from the head of the loch, it was clear that the broad leaf woods of the shore were now behind me; in front loomed the muscular peaks of the Southern Highlands. This stage of the route also sees the most optimistic, or ambiguous, signpost of the walk. “Beinglas 2 miles” it says. Well, an hour and a half later, after the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, finally, the foot of Glen Falloch came into view. Tonight’s accommodation, at Beinglas Farm, delivered more than it initially promised: keys only on deposit, bags dumped in a communal shed didn’t auger well, but the chalets were very comfortable, food good, staff attentive and Murray’s semi win was available on TV.

 

Sunday September 9th was always going to be my big day. My itinerary said 12 miles along Glen Falloch and Strath Fillan to Tyndrum which, compared to the exertions of the previous day, looked relatively straightforward. Today’s forecast looked better than tomorrow’s, so up and out early, I made Crianlarich before midday, hurtled on to Tyndrum by early afternoon and, after picking up the bus/train times, took the plunge and headed off for Bridge of Orchy today, instead of tomorrow morning.

West Highland Way flora

In the event, all went well; the two Glaswegian veterans who marched me along at their lively pace, kept me entertained with their tales of past WHW exploits, the mist and drizzle didn’t really descend until the last 40 minutes and it was a pleasant surprise when the hotel and station came into view a little after 4.30 pm. At closer quarters, however, the hotel isn’t quite as welcoming to walkers – transport information was wrong, my companions found their booked accommodation did not materialise and a coach load of tourists seemed to be offered considerably warmer hospitality than us disparate wet walkers.

Fortunately, however, my accommodation lay in wait at Ewich House, back at Crianlarich. After bussing it back to an enormous fish and chips at the Rod and Reel  Ian picked me up and drove to the 200 year old farmhouse he and Deb have sensitively restored into a marvellous guest house, enjoying an unrivalled location, modern facilities – the imaginative en suite, complete with organic toiletries that soothed my aching muscles, took my vote – wonderful hospitality and a breakfast to rival Coille Mhor’s. All this, plus Ian and Deb’s commitment to operating in the most environmentally possible way, places Ewich House firmly at the top of my must-revisit list.

Bridge of Orchy

 

Monday September 10th: As I now had the luxury of taking the train to resume where I left off in Bridge of Orchy, I could digest my porridge at leisure and savour the scenery, albeit briefly, from the magical West Highland Railway.

The climb over to Inveroran that had looked daunting last evening, now proved to be an enjoyable hike, providing views back to Beinns Dorain and Dothaidh and then on to Loch Tulla and the Inveroran Hotel.

“You’re going to get wet,” advised an elderly gentleman at the gates to Forest Lodge, and, true enough, by the time I approached Black Mount, all wet gear had been put into use: by the landmark Ba Bridge, as the photos prove, the rain was driving straight into the camera lens. Rannoch was certainly living up to its reputation as a vast, inhospitable wilderness, miles from any semblance of civilisation. But for me, the feeling of being at the edge of the world, with nothing but my foot power between me and shelter, was absolutely exhilarating and I felt nothing but respect for the few brave birds and hardy species of flora that survive in this hostile environment.

The bleak beauty of Rannoch Moor

The damp was beginning to take its toll and I was already cold as I first glimpsed the Kingshouse Hotel from the crest of the ridge. As its outline became more definite, I thought of the generations of travellers, climbers and walkers, for whom it had offered a beacon of shelter after hours, or maybe days, of exposure to the elements. Kingshouse deserves its legendary status, but it is slightly disappointing that it its uncontested location has led to a complacency in maintaining standards of comfort. Tradition and character are rightly valued, but should not be excuses for sub-standard, shared facilities, ill-fitting windows and tepid water.

 

Tuesday September 11th: opening the curtain to a handful of deer grazing insouciantly under the window partially compensated for a chilly room (and not being able to share Andy Murray’s first major victory) and a wonderful full rainbow lifted the spirits before the rigours of the Devil’s Staircase. This was definitely  leather boots territory and I had good reason to be grateful to my trusty Meindls as we splashed along paths suddenly transformed into raging rivulets.

Glencoe sunset

This was a four-seasons-in-ten-minutes day and the combination of squally hail followed by blinding sunshine, slowed progress. However, the regular shafts of sunlight supplied some great picture opportunities over the Mamores and the descent into Kinlochleven was frequently spectacular. Although hardly a conurbation, I found a return to shops, banks and take aways, comforting, but slightly sad at the same time. However, some enjoyable pub grub, entertaining company and a decent bottle of wine, helped make this the best evening, so far.

 

Highland grandeur

Wednesday September 12th marked the last day of the walk, and perhaps as a reward for our efforts, it dawned bright and crisp: ideal conditions to showcase Highland grandeur at its best. The forest climb was strenuous, but soon repaid by stupendous views back over the Leven valley and the mountains beyond. The remains of Lairigmor provided a suitable wind break/sun trap – and in my dream world, an ideal location for a WHW B&B offering cakes and refreshments to hungry walkers!

As the afternoon wore on, the miles predictably seemed to get longer and, even as the bulk of Ben Nevis came into view, it was still a salutary reminder that there were over six  miles left. But the mountain path eventually turned into the forestry track and the long descent into Fort William began; the campsites of Glen Nevis finally followed by the guest houses and B&Bs on the outskirts of town.

The track past Lairigmor

But, the WHW was still to have the last laugh: reaching the original obelisk, we found the official end of the way has now moved to the town centre. Eventually, we all made it and, while some retired to the pub immediately to celebrate their achievement, the long walk back to Glen Nevis for a welcome shower and snooze, made the return into town that bit harder later in the evening, although aching limbs and weariness were soon forgotten in the happy celebrations.

 

Epilogue:

So, despite my misgivings about my foot I made it, without any apparent ill effects and feeling considerably fitter at the end compared to the beginning. Seven days of historical, emotional and cultural connections in an environment of such beauty that frequently took your breath away, added to some considerable kindness from complete strangers, new friends, good company and camaraderie combined to make the experience all I hoped it would be; plus some more.

Made it! End of the Way, September 12 2012

Highlights – the whole route, but if I have to choose:

  • the gorgeous broad leaf woodlands on the banks of Loch Lomond
  • the ravishing red berries drooping from the rowan trees along the route
  • crossing Rannoch Moor – walking along its western edge and then home on the railway on its opposite side – feeling very insignificant in the midst of such an awesome wilderness, with my respect for the engineers and navvies who built the roads and railways reinforced
  • being lucky enough to enjoy breathtaking views of the Mamores and Ben Nevis on a clear, sunny autumn day
  • getting my kit list just about right and now knowing my waterproofs and boots do actually deliver what they promise
  •  Ewich House  – fantastic facilities, stunning location, warm hospitality and a tariff that doesn’t unfairly hammer single guests – the kind of B&B I would love to offer!
Some walking companions along the route

Advice:

  • if your luggage is being transported, seriously consider taking two types of boots – multi-activity shoes are ideal for the early stages, but I would have struggled without my leather boots on the final two days
  • look carefully at your schedule – particularly the stage over Rannoch – and don’t be afraid to make minor amendments, depending on weather conditions and personal fitness
  • get copies of bus and train timetables – particularly between Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy – as you can use the buses and trains to travel between start and finish points, if you amend your itinerary
  • check all your accommodation stop-overs carefully before you confirm – use websites or, better still, personal recommendations to get some idea of their facilities and atmosphere
  • remember to book in advance if you want to take the steam train (now universally known as the “Harry Potter” train) from Fort William to Mallaig at the end of your walk – I didn’t get round to this in Glasgow and lack of WiFi en route, meant it was fully booked when I finally accessed the site

 

Thanks to:

Absolute Escapes for organising my trip – and, in particular to Andy for sorting out my lost accommodation details, and Fiona at Coille Mhor for donating me a new, indispensable map.

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Cycle the Trossachs National Park

Greener and leaner – think pedal power, and no petrol costs – doesn’t have to be meaner. Cycling may be the car-free, guilt-free way of exploring the spectacular Trossachs National Park, one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions – but it also gives you the chance to sample, en route, the best cakes and coffee to balance the calories expended.

Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Book well in advance, reserve a bike space at the same time with ScotRail  and a single from the Midlands or South-east England to Glasgow can cost as little as £11.50. The process is user-friendly, far more transparent than the average budget airline – and it disproves some negative preconceptions about public transport and bikes in Britain.

Glasgow, known for its museums, shopping, architecture and café culture, is also a surprisingly cycle-friendly start to the route. Check out Glasgow Cycle Map  and use it to tap into the city’s dual legacy of disused railways and canal paths. These comprise a traffic-free route that takes you to Loch Lomond in barely 90 minutes from the Squinty Bridge.

Loch Katrine

Heading west, away from the loch and its coach parties, the gradients steepen through Drymen, towards Aberfoyle, and the beauty of the Lochs and Glens (Sustrans Route 7) becomes obvious as you enter the magical, wooded Trossachs. Cyclists keen to enjoy the braes without the weight of heavily-laden panniers can take advantage of luggage-transporting services.

Cycle touring equals flexibility, allowing a detour to the captivating Loch Katrine. The birthplace of Rob Roy, it also supplies Glasgow’s water – and the system of aqueducts running 34 miles to the city is understandably regarded as a wonder of Victorian engineering. Interestingly, it also freed Glasgow, long notorious for bad housing and poor health, from the scourge of cholera long before any other major British city. In summer, it is possible to combine an 18km circuit of the loch with a steamship tour on the Clyde-built steamship, SS Sir Walter Scott.

Glen Ogle Viaduct

The route then shadows the southern shore of the Highland-esque Loch Venachar to Callander, before heading north to Strathyre. There, the Inn at Strathyre provides a warm welcome, hearty food and regular, impromptu entertainment in the bar – which, for those who want to keep in touch with the wider world, has Wi-fi access. The cosy B&B has a range of double, twin and family rooms and will happily provide packed lunches.

From here the trail follows the old Callander to Oban railway, where your steady ascent may well be monitored by an unimpressed red squirrel. About 10 miles on, the path crosses along another 19th-century engineering marvel, the 60m-high Glen Ogle viaduct, now the exclusive preserve of walkers and cyclists.

From Killin, eastwards along Loch Tay, it’s only a short stretch to Aberfeldy where The Watermill  easily wins the prize for best re-fuelling stop en route. Voted Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2006, it has a café that takes its coffee very seriously. Here, you can relax in peace with a book, a newspaper and a tempting selection of cakes.

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It’s an easy ride along the pretty Tay Valley to Pitlochry, home of the Festival Theatre and just a 90-minute train journey from Glasgow, where you began. The comfortable and friendly Glasgow Guest House is ideally located between the Burrell Collection and Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover in the city’s Southside. Cycle to both and enjoy a few hours, or more, among some of Glasgow’s best cafes and bars. Alternatively, try out the off-road routes at nearby Pollok Park, or leave your bike at the guest house, take the train into town and take in the art, architecture, culture and wit (not forgetting the shops) of the Second City of the Empire.

Four days, 150 miles, roughly equal expenditure and consumption of calories for £350: it is possible to cut your carbon, stay relatively solvent but still indulge.

Destination Pitlochry
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