Snowshoeing in Abruzzo

Not many people would expect to find an incredible winter wonderland on the same latitude as Rome but, there again, not many people know anything much about Abruzzo, a mountainous area of great beauty about 130 miles due east of the Italian capital.

From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast
From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast

Nestled along the Apennine spine, this is an area of proud traditions, historic hill villages and simple, delicious food.  It also boasts snowy peaks, pristine pistes, abundant sunshine and an impressive winter sports season between January and April.

And just as Abruzzo is not generally regarded as a winter sports destination then, equally, my recent holiday would not fit the prototype of the traditional winter sports holiday.  I spent a week in early February at Kokopelli, a traditionally restored farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking the quintessential Italian village of Serramonacesca. Come the spring its extensive olive orchard will be dotted with delightful canvas bell tents, as well as a retro VW campervan.

You’re more than welcome to pitch your own tent, whenever in the year, but if camping in the snow isn’t quite your thing, there’s a comfortable, private, en suite room in the farmhouse and I spent the week in the cosy converted barn, complete with private, heated shower/toilet and fully equipped kitchen, snug under a luxuriously warm duvet each night in the pretty bedroom. Have a look here.

The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay
The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay

Run by two ex-pat Brits, Jacqui Dixon and Kev Price, now gone native in Abruzzo, Kokopelli is a low-impact, eco-friendly site and offers something different to visitors, whatever the season. Both Jacqui and Kev are experienced outdoor enthusiasts and will tailor an individual package for you, based on your budget, experience and ability level. They’ll guide you along their favourite routes during the day and introduce you to some old and romantic, vaulted restaurants in the evening.

“We’ve become real snowshoeing disciples and want to spread the gospel to as many people as possible,” explains Jacqui. “Abruzzo is ideal territory for snowshoeing, with superb, unspoilt scenery, good snow cover and plenty of sunshine. We know the area, can show you the best tracks, provide equipment, lifts to the slopes, instruction and all kinds of local information.”

Passo Lanciano, around 20 minutes drive from Kokopelli, boasts spectacular vistas, with the Adriatic coast easily visible on clear days, and is renowned for its good snow cover.  It certainly lived up to its reputation on my first day, as we parked the car, strapped on our snowshoes, or ciaspole as they’re known to the locals,  and simply clambered over three feet of snow at the side of the road on to deep, undisturbed powder.

 

Pristine pistes and sky to match
Pristine pistes and sky to match

The sky was a deep cornflower blue and with the temperature hovering around five degrees centigrade, it was soon time to shed some layers as we quickly worked up a sweat on the initial (and steepest) climb of the day. Take to the mountains, mid-week, early-season in Abruzzo and you pretty much have the slopes to yourself. The handful of skiers ascending the lifts were enjoying freedom from queues and miles of uncluttered, well-prepared pistes. Meanwhile, Fin the dog effortlessly led the way along the route, in between performing his very own canine-style Winter Olympics of rolling, burrowing and sliding down the snow.

Although quiet on a sunny Thursday morning, Passo Lanciano does not lack facilities, and its chairlift, eight ski lifts, 16 slopes, ski school, hotel and bars more than cater for the many locals and visitors from around Rome who, with their families, take to the slopes on winter weekends. And there are two extensive cross country circuits, as well as the many snowshoeing routes.

Nearby La Maielletta is a smaller resort but is served by several drag lifts and Blockhaus Italian Ski School  provides a comprehensive range of equipment for hire, as well as ski lessons for all ability levels.

Fin waits for the lift
Fin waits for the lift

Situated at the northern tip of Majella’s main crest, this is wolf country. You may not be lucky enough to glimpse this noble creature, but you could well spot some of the mountain hares, chamois, wild boar and magnificent raptors with whom it shares its habitat. On our way back, Jacqui pointed out a sanctuary for rescued wolves in Pretoro:

“Although terribly sad to see these majestic creatures in captivity, remind yourselves they are there because, for various reasons, they are unable to be returned to the wild,” she explained.

Abruzzo’s mountain resorts contain many attractive hotels, bars and restaurants and facilities are generally of a high standard.  However, one of the unique attractions of staying in this part of Italy is the opportunity to sample the hospitality offered in traditional villages, where many of the old stone buildings, often dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times, have been sensitively restored into comfortable hotels and restaurants.

A particular favourite is  Brancaleone  a converted seventeenth century farmhouse, perched in a spectacular setting in the nearby hilltop village of  Roccamontepiano. Our evening here, sampling the delicious menu, and enjoying impeccable service in front of a roaring log fire, was the consummate way to round off a superb Saturday in the snow.

Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow
Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow

But, this is Italy, where, whatever the location or size of the establishment, you will always be sure of delicious food, cooked traditionally and slowly from top class, often home grown, ingredients. This is the land, not of fast food, but of good food. Agriturismo Tholos – ‘custodian farmers’ who specialise in growing, cultivating and safeguarding the agricultural biodiversity of the grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables indigenous to the Majella – are common here and you can try some of their produce at Tholos in Roccamorice.

Abruzzo, indeed, is renowned for the variety of its dishes, so even between neighbouring villages there is often a wide diversification in recipes. From wine to truffles, olive oil to cheese, in Abruzzo you can look forward to a mouth-watering experience, often in an unusual setting. If you fancy some divine ravioli on your way back from the slopes, stop off in Pretoro, at I Rintocchi, a restaurant (literally) in a cave!

Later in the week, I took a day away from the slopes and explored some of the charming hill villages dotted around the region. Guardiagrele, with its displays of traditional, decorated iron work, proved an excellent place to pick up some delightful and unusual souvenirs.

Sunrise over Monte Amaro
Sunrise over Monte Amaro

Two days on,  as I luxuriated in temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade in Pescara, along the same Adriatic coast that is clearly visible from the peaks of Passo Lanciano, I reckoned that Abruzzo, in early February, was the ideal location for some snow, sun and sea. Throw in delicious food, good wine and warm hospitality and you have the perfect package for an unforgettable snowshoeing holiday.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Snow resorts;

General Information for Abruzzo snow 

Other Majella resorts  

 

Food;

More information on Abrruzzo’s cuisine  

 

Getting There;

Serramonacesca is around two hours’ driving time from Rome and about 40 minutes from Pescara

Regular coaches run from Rome’s Tiburtina Station to Chieti and Pescara http://www.arpaonline.it/arpaonline/en/?page=or_peroma

Ryanair flies from London (Stanstead) to Pescara

If you have the time and like to travel sustainably, you can take the train from London (with a change in Paris) to Turin or Milan and then on to Rome or Pescara. Use Seat 61 to plan your journey

Kokpelli will pick up from Chieti and Pescara for a small cost and will help you with all the information you need to travel to Serramonacesca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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Re “Parking Troubles”

This is my reply to a letter published in the March issue of TGO magazine, in which the correspondent complained about a £10 parking charge levied in the Snowdonia National Park. I hope it might stimulate a debate on what measures we can use to reduce car usage in National Parks and how we can campaign for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas. Any suggestions?

How can we reduce traffic and improve access to our beautiful National Parks?

RE: “PARKING TROUBLES” TGO MARCH 2012

John Morris’s complaint about high parking charges in Snowdonia raises some interesting wider questions about the entitlement of motorists to drive and park cheaply within our national parks.

If a high parking charge discourages one motorist from driving around a beautiful, but fragile, environment like Snowdonia, then I would support it, however spurious the reasoning behind the charge.

Has Mr Morris considered joining the National Trust (NT)? Membership would enable him to enjoy free parking in NT car parks.  Another answer could be to share his journey to North Wales with other walkers, especially if he usually travels on his own: four people in one fairly economic car not only reduces emissions, but lowers individual petrol costs and parking charges.

An even better solution would be for Mr Morris to “dump his car” at home and try to access most of our beautiful places by foot, bike or public transport. Then he might just appreciate the difficulties faced by those of us who don’t/can’t /won’t drive. Perhaps his experiences might also encourage him to join this neglected group in lobbying for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas.

Mr Morris protests that high parking charges equate to “taxing our outdoor pursuits”. An alternative view would question how much entitlement motorists should have to pollute and obstruct our national parks without appropriate penalty.

Hopefully, the question of parking charges might lead to a general debate on how we can reduce traffic throughout all our national parks and other beautiful areas: yes, we may have been there before, and no, trying to reduce the number of cars in these areas does not represent a war on motorists. We need workable solutions before we ruin even more of our countryside.

Jill Phillip

For anyone seeking information about how to access walks in national parks (and other areas throughout the country) without a car, check out: www.carfreewalks.org while www.bootandbike showcases walking and cycling routes in UK and Europe, as well as giving advice on how to plan trips on foot, or by bike and how to get there without flying, or using a car. www.bettertransport.org.uk campaigns for sustainable transport options and www.livingstreets.org.uk lobbies for the rights of pedestrians in urban and rural areas.

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Autumn in the Country and in the City

Autumn, in particular October, is  ideal  for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?

Last Rays of Afternoon Sun

No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction.  Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.

One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs;  Edinburgh and the Pentlands. 

Autumn Colours

Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.

But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.

It’s a hard call,  but essentially the same rules apply as outlined in KIT,
http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/sample-kit-lists/   http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/kit/what-to-take/
but, on a smaller scale.

Sunset through the Trees

The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours.  Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets.  And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.

Jurassic Coast in Autumn

This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear  (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination.  This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”

Above Dunoon, Cowal Peninsular

So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.

For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.

Up to the Long Mynd

These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.

Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.

Autumn Sunset

But check out the exhibitions, movies and best eats in nearby cities as well to ensure you  make the best of Britain this autumn.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/interactive/2011/jan/07/britain-best-budget-eats-restaurants-cafes has a really useful list of budget eats in towns and cities across the country: I haven’t tried them all, but those I have in Glasgow, Birmingham and Central London haven’t disappointed.

 

Some Boot and Bike recommendations for this autumn:

Edinburgh and the Fife coast:  check out some of the classic books set in Auld Reekie 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/oct/12/top-10-books-literary-edinburgh?INTCMP=SRCH  and the Guardian’s interactive guide to the city
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/series/edinburgh-city-guide

Head out by train over the Forth Bridge (or cycle out over path beside the road bridge)
http://www.sustrans.org.uk/sustrans-near-you/scotland/easy-rides-in-scotland/edinburgh-to-the-forth-road-bridge
towards Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy. Cycle, walk along the coastal path   http://www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk/
to  Anstruther – visit the award-winning fish restaurant 
http://anstrutherfishbar.co.uk/index.html  –  then on to St Andrews and its university and world-famous golf course   
http://www.saint-andrews.co.uk/staindex.html

Birmingham and Shropshire: you’ve still got time to sample some food and drink at the city’s 10 day Food Fest  http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/food-fest-137426262
From the end of the month, try to catch the Lost in Lace exhibition 
http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/lost-in-lace-588181948
Trains from the city’s New Street station take about an hour to Shrewsbury
http://tickets.londonmidland.com/lm/en/JourneyPlanning/MixingDeck  Arriva Trains Wales  http://www.buytickets.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/advancedsearch.aspx also travel to Shrewsbury and thence Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow. Marvel at the expansive views from the top of the Long Mynd, then restore your calories with a trip to the foodie heaven of Ludlow   
http://www.ludlow.org.uk/fooddrink.html

Glasgow and the Cowal Peninsular: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is currently rocking to the AC/DC exhibition.http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/kelvingrove/whats-on/exhibitions/AC-DC-exhibition/Pages/default.aspx
Or check out how eminent writer/artist  Alasdair Gray, depicted life in the city in the 1970s in a major exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art http://whatson.seeglasgow.com/Event41951
From the city take the train to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon 
http://www.western-ferries.co.uk/  Bike  through the beguiling Benmore Botanic Gardens   http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/benmore   and on to enjoy the autumn colours in Glenbranter Forest, where there is also the opportunity for some off-road biking http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/recreation.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/ScotlandArgyllandButeArgyllForestParkGlenbranterForest

Newcastle and the Northumberland coast: you’ll never short of somewhere to go, or see, in Newcastle.  This autumn, the city hosts an international print making exhibition, before the Baltic hosts the 2011 Turner Prize  http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731#productlist=/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731&proxprodtype=
The 100mile Northumberland Coast is a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)  http://www.northumberland-coast.co.uk/ with award-winning beaches, castles and wildlife. Walk the 64 mile coastal path and use     http://www.northumberland.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=6898 to help you get about without using a car.

Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre    http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html   presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history  http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester.   And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast   
http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm

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White, Middle-Aged, Middle Class: just why should enjoying the great outdoors become more inclusive?

 

Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Spent a wet, but cheerful, couple of days in the Langdales last weekend, co-incidentally as the Lake District staged its Birthday Extravaganza to celebrate  60 years as a national park.

Although the rain and mizzle undoubtedly deterred some from attempting the rocks and summits, the lower paths were busy and the kaleidoscope of canvas (or whatever techno fabrics that have replaced it) in the camp sites, suggested that this summer’s staycationers won’t put off by a few showers either.

However, even a cursory, totally unscientific study of the ramblers and fell walkers on view would confirm what those of us who regularly hit the hills already know too well: the profile of the average fell walker is an uncomfortable reflection of the narrow social class who enjoy our national parks and the great outdoors generally.

Middle-aged, clearly at least middle income given the variety of mid-market outdoor labels on view, often grey-haired, several (impressively) well into their seventh and eighth decade, there were more Labradors and spaniels splashing about than anyone remotely under the age of 30.  And, as for any black or brown faces, forget it: geographically Grasmere may be within 50 miles of Greater Manchester, but in terms of any similarity in ethnic profile, it may as well be on the moon.

OK, so walking only accounts for a percentage of visitors to the Lake District and other national parks and it’s a fair bet that those swinging from trip wires or paddling the rapids would  be considerably younger.  But, although there were several teenagers on off-road bike trails, many more riders were middle-aged and the profile of the roadies was very similar to their sliver-haired counterparts on motorbikes. And, everyone I saw enjoying any outdoor activity was white.

This is hardly an earth-shattering conclusion and it certainly does not add anything to what is already common knowledge.  But, coming at the end of a week that exposed stark divisions within our society, shocking examples of disaffected young people and serious polarisation within sections of some major English cities, it is interesting to ask why so few young people, why so few from  ethnic minorities and those who live in cities (of all ages) are represented in activities within our national parks and in the great outdoors generally.

Undoubtedly the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, inclusion schemes operated by schools, youth groups, the Prince’s Trust and others do a fantastic job in enabling some young people from all over the country, to gain self-confidence and the opportunity to work together and learn new skills in challenging situations, but they only touch the surface.  The real tragedy is that groups currently under-represented in the great outdoors – whether from the inner cities, or the disabled, or ethnic minorities -are not able, or do not have sufficient interest, to enjoy some of our most beautiful places.

Far more thorough and academic investigations have been applied to why this is the case, but given that national parks were established in part following the historic campaign by working people in our industrial towns and cities to gain greater access to the countryside, it seems particularly sad that, today, so few inhabitants of those areas  are benefiting from what their predecessors fought for.

But, while this problem has no one single cause, it is not too simplistic to highlight one obstacle that threatens to make the situation even worse.  Although many national parks – particularly the Peak District – are situated near large, multi-ethnic conurbations, this does not mean that it is easy to get to them. Look round the car parks, or walk through Windermere, Ambleside, or Bakewell any weekend and it’s clear that to get to the heart of most national parks, or the countryside generally, you have to drive there.

Despite a few encouraging  bus services, getting to a national park, then travelling around it by public transport requires, patience, determination and the ability to spend hours negotiating the internet (always assuming you have access to the web). Recent cuts to local services, plus more hikes in train fares have combined to make the situation even worse.

Arrochar Station: Gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

Difficulty in accessing rural areas is an issue that is routinely overlooked, despite being habitually cited as a major obstacle by groups currently under-represented in the countryside.  Improving  public transport to these areas, as well as having clear environmental benefits, might also go some way to enabling these excluded groups to visit and enjoy the countryside. Interestingly, recent figures showing a sizeable increase in passengers using small, scenic railways, such as Derby to Matlock and the Looe Valley line in Cornwall, suggest people are willing to use these options, where they exist.

Improving access to the countryside may seem like very small beer compared to the numerous other problems of the early 21st century, but increasing access and enabling more of our population to enjoy the great outdoors could have some important social benefits and might just result in a little less polarisation and disaffection elsewhere.

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