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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Just as we celebrated the New Year in snow-style in this part of the world, it’s a real treat to end the month with our familiar landscape again transformed into a silvery, shimmering wonderland.
True, it wasn’t so great for those who had to survive the ungritted roads earlier, but there’s something about pristine snow that, doesn’t just brighten up the landscape, but also seems to lighten the mood.
Children smiled this morning as they slid along the pavements and, although there wasn’t quite enough to force the buses off the roads and gift them an extra day’s holiday, it is uplifting to see kids actually experiencing snow. After an unsettlingly mild winter last year, the last month has seen the most snow around here in three years.
Hurrah: normal winter weather, essential to keep our ecosystems in correct working order and a welcome respite from the interminable months of wet, wet, wet, whatever the season, says me. Less selfishly, one of the few highlights from the end of my teaching career was witnessing 14 and 15 year old pupils gaze in wonder at the first sizeable amount of snow they had ever witnessed in their lives, in the early months of 2010.
Of course, slippery, icy roads are no fun for the elderly and infirm, but hopefully winter conditions do remind us to check on any vulnerable friends and neighbours. Equally, freezing temperatures take their toll on wildlife. But, keep the bird feeders full and you will be rewarded by a variety of garden birds, survival instincts outweighing their natural reticence, hungrily scoffing within a few metres of your window.
I’m not sure what’s in store, weather-wise, for the remainder of the winter, but in what may well be the last couple of months I spend in Middle England, I fully intend to savour the snowscapes as long as they last and record for posterity. I will look back on the blue tits feeding on the silvery branches of the budding magnolia with as much affection as I will remember the earthy geraniums and burgeoning Buddleia of high summer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Depending on whether you believe the seasons change by the calendar or the solstice, we are either in the last dog days of autumn, or are about to enter the final three-week run down to the shortest day and the ‘official’ start of the ‘miserable season’.
Me? I tend to compartmentalise the seasons in monthly quarters, so irrespective of the weather, autumn will end on November 30th and winter will begin, lasting until we emerge, blinking, into a bright, clear spring on March 1st.
Trying to work out why is not so simple. I’m not sure I’ve actually thought about why before; perhaps, growing up in Scotland it may have been easier to differentiate between each season, although they all seemed to be mostly composed of rain, whatever the time of year. I suspect it was much more to do with the amount of daylight, so that the beginning of December, for example, when it’s dark by the middle of the afternoon, is classic winter, whereas the beginning of March, when we are approaching equal amounts of light and dark, should be regarded as spring.
However, it’s only fair to admit that, not only have I always consciously divided the year into seasons, I have also divided those quarters into sub-sections: for example, December 1st to 21st is early winter; December 22nd to January 12th deep winter; the next three weeks is middle winter and, finally, February is late winter.
Weird? yes. Anal? most probably. So, why? Oddly, this is not something I devised in childhood, but thought up during the interminable years when the need to earn a crust forced me into a Monday to Friday, nine to five regime: the work pattern that shuts out daylight for the best part of three months.
For me, it was probably a tactic to combat depression, the black dog that, each year, began to hover around Hallowe’en and only started to ease by the half term holiday in February. But it wasn’t winter that I dreaded: far from it, I’ve always loved snow, the still beauty of cold midwinter afternoons, the early, fiery sunsets and the resilience of nature through the cruellest part of the year.
What I couldn’t deal with was the lack of any opportunity to see daylight for most of the week. As such, sub-dividing the season was an attempt to make the three winter months more bearable; a way to get through, particularly as at the end of each section I religiously logged the time of sunset, so I would have some concrete evidence of the slowly lengthening days after the winter solstice. Indeed, although not enough of an anorak to learn how to to apply the principles of the analemma, I did become sufficiently obsessed with sunset times to learn that they actually reach their earliest around 10 days before the solstice, remaining constant until December 21st/22nd!
Rather sad, I admit but, as they say, whatever gets you through the day, or in my case, the darkness. And knowing that even by January 1st sunset is around 15 minutes later than at the solstice is a small comfort during the bleak, empty days of early January.
But, returning to my opening point, whether we consider winter starts on Monday, or three weeks later, we are now in the darkest part of the year with millions condemned to little or no daylight for the next 12 weeks. I now consider myself hugely fortunate, having given up the day job three years ago so now, however wet and dismal, I can enjoy some daylight and fresh air in the middle of the day.
When anyone asks me what is the best feature of working from home my answer is automatic: being able to savour a winter’s day. And, if I was world king for the day, I’d make it compulsory for all nine-to-five slaves to have a week’s extra paid holiday in the middle of winter and insist they spent at least part of the day outside during daylight.
Back in the real world, even little things can make a difference: a few minutes to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, getting outside at lunchtime if you can, spending time feeding the birds and spotting wildlife (often easier in the winter) and if you’re feeling negative, thinking about their struggle to survive.
Just find something, however small, however fleeting, to enjoy. Winter takes up 25 per cent of the year and it does provide some of its most memorable moments. Don’t wish it away.
Postscript: the mountain hare, an iconic, indigenous animal of these islands, is now becoming increasingly rare. Appallingly, many are being slaughtered by the shooting fraternity who erroneously claim hares threaten the grouse they rear (reared, of course, to be blasted out of the sky in the name of ‘sport’).
Intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near-extinction of the protected hen harrier in England, and has other negative environmental effects.
Please sign Dr Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting before we lose any more of our priceless, indigenous wildlife.
Just back from a (too) short visit back to Galloway; one of the British Isles’ south west peninsulas, arguably its finest, and certainly its most undervalued. The south westerly coastlines of each of the four countries of the British Isles (here I am regarding Ireland in the geographical, not political sense) have always fascinated me, but until recent years, I was shockingly complacent about the charms of the area nearest to my birthplace.
Growing up in adjacent Dumfriesshire I surmised that Cornwall and the south west (of England) must have possessed exclusive elements of magical beauty, beside which the rocky inlets, ancient forests and deep lochs on my doorstep paled in comparison, given the millions of visitors the former attracted each year and its correspondingly top position in the bucket-list of the nation’s scenic attractions.
Indeed, by the time I left south west Scotland, I had become almost blasé about dark skies, cascading rivers, rounded hills and the lush, vibrant green foliage and densely coloured rhododendrons, characteristic of this temperate region.
Escaping south, I sought out the gentler pastoral vistas of pretty pubs, pastel coloured cottages, hanging baskets and historic churches and embarked on my long-held ambition to visit the landscapes of the literary heroes of my youth – Hardy’s Dorset and Tarka’s Devon were all, and more, than I had hoped for and in the well-preserved centre of my local town, Lichfield, it was easy to imagine its 18th century heyday as a coaching town and intellectual centre of the Lunar Men.
But Cornwall was my magnet. From Du Maurier, through Blyton to Mary Wesley and the art deco railway posters of the GWR, I had always been mesmerised by the images of bohemian artists, smugglers and pretty fishing villages, against a backdrop of sandy beaches, a dramatic coastline and sunny weather.
Even on my first journey, the road signs counting down the miles to “The West” stirred my excitement, my spirits on arrival undimmed even by a wet squall: this was the west side of our Atlantic facing island, after all. But waking up next morning (albeit to a beautiful blue sky), one by one, my visions began to shatter. There were people on the beaches! And not just a handful, but what looked like millions of them, crowding the sand and drowning out the birdsong.
I was used to beaches, along Galloway’s inlets and the Ayrshire coast, where you were (un)lucky if you saw another soul all day, unless of course you wanted company. Here, in England’s holiday haven, even fish ‘n chips was priced as a delicacy and the charm of Mousehole and Sennen completely obliterated by the unending horror of ceaseless traffic jamming up the tiny streets.
I have returned to Cornwall several times since and spent many amazing days walking the sumptuous South West Coastal Path (probably my second favourite long distance path), visiting independent galleries and Seasalt shops, as well as admiring the county’s interesting. and largely overlooked, industrial history.
But, although it has many qualities, I have never quite understood why, in comparison to the other south west peninsulas of the British Isles, Cornwall is so much more popular than the rest – warmer, maybe, but certainly no drier and much more crowded, commercialised and expensive.
Over the last decade, I have been lucky enough to visit all four of our dramatic south west peninsulas and, for what it is worth, ascribe them the following attributes:
most jaw-droppingly beautiful – without a doubt, Co Kerry
best old world charm – Pembrokeshire
And that brings us back to Galloway. Finally, I can now appreciate its charms and can recommend it as the biggest in area of the four peninsulas and the one with the most variety of scenery: from moorland to mountains, lochs and pastoral farmland, to say nothing of the aforementioned delightful (and uncrowded) coastline, you’ll find it all here.
It’s arguably the best place in the country for cycling, with miles of quiet, scenic roads, plus the world-rated 7 Stanes MTB courses, is a magnet for fishermen, walkers and advocates of all types of water sports, foodies, ornithologists and astronomers.
Lovers of literature will also know that Galloway boasts Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, with its annual September book festival, the region’s history can be traced back to pre-historic times and it was an important early centre of Christianity. Many of its coastal towns and villages, notably Kirkcudbright, have attracted world-famous artists for over a century.
In other words, Galloway offers something for everyone. So, next time you’re heading to the Lake District, further north into the Highland (or even south to Cornwall) a detour to Galloway might just surprise you with how much it offers, and how little it demands.
But don’t tell everyone, we don’t want it ending up like Cornwall.
Summertime and, even if the living is not universally easy, at least so far this year we have been blessed with some sunnier and warmer than usual summer months. Warm sun, interspersed with frequent heavy showers, have combined to produce some amazing floral blooms: ideal growing conditions, certainly compared to last year’s bitter spring and parched summer.
High summer, that brief but ethereal few weeks between the summer solstice and mid July – traditionally, in my calendar, beginning with Wimbledon and ending with the advent of the school holidays – sees England at its finest. Daylight is long, the sun high enough to reach parts it can only muse about for the other 11 months and the trees and hedgerows groan under the luxuriant foliage that still retains its fresh, primordial, vivid green.
In our haste to seek exotic lands, or the more dramatic uplands of our island, we routinely overlook the diffident, understated glory of the English countryside in high summer: flamboyant geraniums overflowing from tubs and hanging baskets that adorn the walls and doorways; contrasting purple and white speared buddleia, surviving against the odds beside the busiest railways and across the most desolate of urban wastelands; delicately water-coloured sweet peas, flaunting their aroma as they toy with any convenient ledge, or hook on their charmingly haphazard climbs.
Cycle along a country lane and relish the heady scent of the honeysuckle and dog roses that smother the hedgerows, then look for the stately silhouette of a majestic oak to provide a shady green canopy from the sharp midday sun.
But savour it now. Summer days may seem endless, but soon the misty haze of August mornings will herald the steady drift towards shorter days and less intense sunlight and the vibrant green of high summer will gradually lose its intensity as the wilting blackberry flowers transform into the sticky dark fruits of autumn.
It has always seemed a strange anomaly that the start of the English holiday season – even before the kids throw off their uniforms for six weeks of freedom, the back-to-school kit has already appeared in the shops – coincides with the first unmistakeable signs of dwindling daylight: a full hour less now than in the halcyon days of midsummer, four weeks ago.
Maybe we should adopt a more Scandinavian approach to celebrate our summer at its optimum point, as opposed to during the dog days of August. Whatever, just make sure you don’t miss the glories of this English high summer while it lasts. As ever, it will be over much too soon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A spring clean of the site should now, hopefully, make it easier to see what I do – sometimes it does take a neutral observer to identify a major problem and suggest an effective remedy, so many thanks to Susan Grossman @wordsallowed for her expert advice.
Much as I still harbour hopes to operate a sustainable travel service, complete with accommodation, I will always be, first and foremost, a journalist and writer and Boot and Bike is where I share my travel tales and thoughts on all things walking, cycling and environmental.
However, as is always the way, just as I was putting the final touches in place, my inbox was inundated with offers for cut-price banner advertising in the national media. Usually these kind of emails are consigned to the Junk folder – unless the offer is for the Daily Mail, in which case I have a ready reply – but as these latest messages were suggesting an appropriate slot in the Observer Magazine, I was at least slightly heartened that my SEO must now be working. Hopefully with the revamp, it will now do so more efficiently.
So, 2014 arrives with the alluring prospect of a winter trip to Abruzzo (in my opinion anyway) the most beautiful and unspoilt area of Italy, sandwiched between a couple of dramatic train journeys through the snow-covered Alps.
Hoping for a good covering of snow in the foothills of the Appenines, I’ll update you with my snowshoeing progress, as well as my thoughts on sampling the best of Milan’s coffee, culture and cuisine in inverno; and, as winter is the ideal time for some museum visiting, a viewing of The Last Supper is on the cards too.
When I return, it’ll be back to the keyboard, but not as a chore, because just as visiting beautiful places, sustainably, is a pleasure, writing about them is a privilege.