Monday, 30 May 2011

Plan A: Coll and Tiree by bike. Plan B: Coll by bike and Mull by van.

Traigh Feall at the western end of Col

The Isle of Bute is, as the tourist board have long maintained, a beautiful island. But is not Hebridean. It lacks that Hebridean magic, the great luminosity which Murray attributed to light reflected from the surrounding sea. That Bute belongs to the B list of islands became clear to me as I walked in the hills of Jura a few years back, amazed at finding so much space out there in the west. Space that I had lived much of my life within a few miles of but which had been hidden completely from view and from consciousness by the smothering arm of the Mull of Kintyre. The islands of the Firth of Clyde are more mainland than ocean. This month brought an opportunity to experience this great contrast between the Hebridean and the non-Hebridean, following a visit to Bute with a much anticipated cycle tour of Coll and Tiree. 

The decision to tour Coll and Tiree by bike rather than by campervan was made and unmade many times in the preceeding months. The potential gains of cycling are not to be sniffed at: complete flexibility in choice of campspot; a week without motor vehicles; aligning our schedule with the other members of the party. The most important advantage is the ability to drink at will. The potential drawback is having to spend all week outside in crap weather being damp and cold. The rewards are only available to those who commit. I thought of the cycle tours that I had come close to cancelling because of the forecast that had turned out fine: the traverse of the Hebrides from Barra to Stornoway; Islay and Jura. All the while I tried to suppress any recollection of last year's wet tour round the north coast

In the end the memory of Islay, of beach camping by five miles of impeccable sand at Kintra in warm may sunshine, of the evening light as we supped Ardbeg at our campspot near the Feolin ferry,  prevailed and the bikes won out over the van. This recollection caused me to choose my highly spacious Wild Country Levache 3 man tunnel tent over my 2 man Hilleberg Jannu, a decision which was to ultimately set the course of the trip.

On the way to Oban we were stopping over in Taynuilt which provided the opportunity for a bit of sport. My original plan, to run over the Munros in the Ben Lui group, did not look appealing on the day. The tops were in cloud and the rain was heavy, windblown and almost incessant. I chose a low level alternative, the 17 or so miles down the lochside from the head of Loch Etive to Taynuilt. As I was changing into my running gear I read a text from Paul announcing that storm force winds - gusting to 60 or 70 mph - were forecast for Monday. By that stage we were committed to the large tent. I came close to booking the van onto the ferry but held back. We would pick a sheltered pitch. The forecast was probably wrong. I had  pole sleeves and some tape so could recover a pole failure. It would be all right.

View up Loch Etive, part way into a very wet 17 mile jog to Taynuilt

On Monday morning the wind, which had been very strong, began to intensify. We had eschewed a beachside wildcamp in favour of pitching in the lee of Coll's highest wall, that surrounding the campsite at Garden House. As our companions prepared to bail out to the shelter of the pub in Arinagour (sheiling of the goat) we suffered our first pole breakage and as I repaired it it became clear that we would be lucky to have a tent to sleep in that night, even if we devoted all our attention to nursing it through the afternoon. If we went to the pub we would return to find our tent in tatters. Soon after, as if to confirm this gloomy prognosis, the pole sleeve split and I had to reinforce it with a short section of plastic piping that I had collected, presciently, from the beach the previous night.

Perhaps the most sheltered pitch on the Isle of Coll
By 1000 we were in our positions, sitting on Ortlieb bags in the porch of the tent, preventing it from collapsing completely and in doing so bending the poles past breaking point. It was like sitting in a wind tunnel while being whacked periodically over the head with a tin tray.  The hours passed slowly and uncomfortably and the wind continued to intensify. Power cables nearby enhanced the wild wind, making it sound even stronger than it was. I was tempted to adopt a fatalistic attitude and just lie down in my sleeping bag to let the tent take its chance, but I knew that the poles would shatter if we dropped our guard, leaving us roofless in the middle of a storm. It all seemed pointless as the storm built further, for surely the tent would not last anyway. I started to drink beer to numb the pain. I read as best I could but Gaener, having no reading matter, was left to think dark thoughts. Erin slept.

Improvised repair of pole failure No 2.....
..... and pole failure No 3.
By 1400, four hours in, it seemed as if the winds had stabilised at storm or violent storm force and that, having made it this far, we may make it through the day. Despite the beer the time was passing so slowly that I began to monitor the air pressure instead. It was, thankfully, rising steadily at about an mbar per hour. I realised that cycle camping on remote islands is an extremely committing pastime.  There is no vehicle to retreat to. There is no possibility of purchasing a replacement tent. The hotel was full. If we lost our tent we would be in a bit of a pickle. The fragility of our situation was reinforced when another pole snapped, this time one of the critical central poles. Fortunately the owners of the campsite had a hint of the Steptoe about them and the place was littered with useful objects. I had made a mental note of the location of a pile of off-cut copper piping near the gateway and used a section to improvise a splint the on the pole. In the brief lull that followed I wheeled the child trailer into the porch. This held the front of the tent in position and allowed us to leave our stations. After 6 hours holding our tent together we were frazzled, but the tent was still up. By 1800 the pressure was nudging 1000 mbar. We had made it. 

Traigh Garbh, northwest Coll 

A great relief to see the Tuesday afternoon ferry approaching

We later learned that gusts were recorded that day of 75 mph on Tiree and of over 100 mph on the mainland. With a windy forecast for the rest of the week and a crippled tent we decided to not to go on to Tiree. Instead we returned to Oban, picked up the van and headed to Mull. At Fidden campsite I met a man whose tent original tent had been destroyed on Sunday. He had purchased a replacement locally which had survived Monday's storm. We discussed tents and their common failure modes. When I mentioned that I had suffered breakages to three of my four poles he perked up noticeably, keen to share his wisdom. 

"Aluminium poles?" he inquired in a leading tone, like a barrister setting a trap during a cross examination. When I replied in the affirmative he nodded sagely before continuing. "Carbon fibre poles are what you need, then the tent can flatten completely and spring back. The inside got a bit wet, but the tent survived. I spent the afternoon in my car moving it round as the wind direction changed to give the tent some shelter."

There was more. He was in his element now, holding forth on his area of expertise. "I had six extra-long pegs and I kept swapping them round as the wind changed." I suspect that the poles were plastic rather than carbon fibre, but was heartily impressed that his tent had survived the storm. 

Better weather for vanning than for camping. Lava flows by Loch Na Keal at the foot of Ben More, Mull.
All in all the trip deepened my conviction that if you want to go camping for any extended period of time in Scotland, even during the summer months, it is best to have a sturdy 4 season mountain tent. For an overnight or weekend trip in settled conditions a more lightweight approach is viable, but if you make a habit of relying on less robust shelters such as 3 season tents or tarps you will eventually be caught out.

We took advantage of the Fishnish-Lochaline ferry and traveled back through Morvern. Sunshine on the granite coastline east of Kinlochgairloch with cloudy Lochaber hills in the distance.

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Sunday, 15 May 2011

Great Toilets of the World Part 3: Victorian Toilets, Rothesay Pier

The Victorian Toilets on Rothesay Pier, Isle of Bute

I spent last week 'doon the watter' on the Isle of Bute, celebrating my granny's 90th birthday with a host of relations, some drawn from the other side of the world for the occasion. I go to Bute at least twice a year, but my visits are usually of the smash and grab variety; utilitarian trips in which I visit all the necessary family members in the minimum possible time before high-tailing it back up the road to Inverness. This longer visit allowed me to get out and about a bit more than usual and provided some material for my occasional series 'Great Toilets of the World'. Previous installments have been inspired by locations as diverse as the Cairngorms and Utah's Canyonlands.

They don't make toilet seats like that anymore

Despite having lived on Bute continuously for 17 years and part time for many further years, my first glimpse of the palatial pissoirs of the Victorian Toilets was on the television about 10 or 15 years ago. Captivated by the mosaic floors and shimmering marble, I resolved to pay them a visit. That it took so long to get around to inspecting them can be attributed to two causes. Firstly, I am not, as a rule, particularly interested in urinals. A sightseeing trip to a public toilet is, therefore, very easy to put off for another day. Secondly, they are located on Rothesay Pier. I prefer the shorter crossing from Colintraive to Rhubodach as it is cheaper than the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay route and it avoids the fiendish traffic queues of Glasgow city centre. Accordingly I have not often passed by their door. 

The Rothesay ferries and Inverkip power station photographed from Montford
The Victorian Toilets may be sumptuous, but the town of Rothesay is looking a bit rough around the edges. It was a lively and popular holiday destination until the advent of cheap package tours but it has been on the slide ever since. The place had been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years but now looks to be degenerating into the depressed and shabby state that I remember from my youth in Thatcher's Britain. Nothing stays the same, not even the countryside. On revisiting my boyhood haunts by the Glenmore Burn I was surprised by its dynamism, pools that I remembered had disappeared, others had sprung up to take their place. I ran over the hills of the north end one morning - Windy Hill and Kilbride Hill - and found them grassier than of old, the heather having retreated ,through climate change or overstocking with cattle and sheep or a combination of the two. As a boy I remember an old timer commenting that in the 1950s the whole hillsides were purple with heather. I wonder if by the 2050s there might be none left at all?

Outcrop of columnar sandstone south of Kilchattan Bay - Old Red Sandstone that has assumed a hexagonal  structure on cooling after it was heated by an adjacent igneous intrusion - perhaps unique in the UK
My main impression of Bute is of how small the island looks through adult eyes. Growing up on an island that is 15 miles by 3 has a profound effect on one's sense of scale. Ten miles seems a long way, even in a car. As a teenager I couldn't wait to leave the place and broaden my horizons. Much as I enjoy visiting the place, after a week's holiday a very similar sensation begins to develop and it is always a relief when my wheels touch the tarmac of the mainland.

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Monday, 2 May 2011

Cairngorms MTB traverse: Tromie Bridge to Dalnacardoch via Gaick

Campsite by Loch an t-Seilich. The waves give an indication of the invigorating headwind that I enjoyed on the cycle out.

When travelling between Blair Atholl and Kingussie I have never previously given much thought to hinterland that lies to the east, an area roughly the size of the Monadhliath that extends between the A9 and the ski centre at Glenshee. All that will change henceforth following a highly enjoyable bike traverse from Tromie Bridge to Dalnacardoch via the Gaick Pass.

As has become my custom of late, I left home after dinner on friday. My cycle had started from Tromie Bridge near Ruthven Barracks and was surprisingly on tarmac all the way, allowing me to make my rendezvous by 2000 hrs with friends who had cycled in from the south. This allowed plenty time to enjoy our scenic campspot on the northern shore of Loch an t-Seilich, yet another fantastic wild and remote place that can be reached from my house in under two hours.

North to Gaick Lodge with Loch an t-Seilich beyond
The banter round the campfire was excellent. Three bouts of hilarity stick in my mind. The first was at the expense of Pete, who had for some reason or other removed the pannier rack from his bike. Unfortunately he remained oblivious to this modification until the start of the ride, when unloaded his panniers from the car and found he had nothing to fix them to.

The second fit of giggles resulted from some discussion about whether or not it might be possible to cook a pizza in the campfire. I opined that a Dutch oven may be the best option. This confused Neil no end. He had previously only heard the phrase 'Dutch oven' used in a euphemism that was as unfamiliar to me as the conventional definition had been to him. For those who have led lives as sheltered as my own, a Dutch Oven is when you fart in bed then hold your partner's head under the covers, thus ensuring that they experience the full force of your flatulence.  I subsequently confirmed Neil's version on My favourite example of its usage was the following. 'Did you see the ambulance round Big James Kendall's house? Aparently he 'dutch ovened' his girlfried on the back of a night out in a curry house. She nearly died, twice.'

Loch Bhrodainn
The lavatorial theme continued as we discussed a youtube clip parodying bushcraft clown Bear Grylls entitled 'Bear Grylls; Born Shit Eater'. This is without doubt the funniest thing I have seen so far in 2011. I will warn you that it is not for the easily offended. While coprophagia is prominent  throughout, it is neither the funniest nor the most tasteless aspect of this comedy masterpiece.

Divers on Loch an Duin

We swapped car keys and parted after breakfast. An unrelenting headwind did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the route, past Gaick Lodge and Loch Bhrodainn. I paused to watch a pair of divers before tackling the singletrack section beside Loch an Dun. I was puzzled by a large weir above the dilapidated Sronphadruig Lodge (bothy closed - unsafe) that served no obvious hydroelectric or drinking water reservoir purpose. On my way down the glen I surmised that it was for flood control. The route was littered with the remnants of bridges and fording points, the legacy of generations of attempts keep a road open up the glen in the face of the vast quantities of shifting glacial material, sand and gravel, gradually making its way towards the sea.

North towards Sronphadruig Lodge 
I almost got my comeuppance for laughing so heartily at Pete's pannier problem. After blasting down the final descent to the A9 at top speed I arrived at Pete's car without a stuffsac that had been bungied over my rack. The sac contained a number of essential items including the keys to Pete's car and the spare battery for my mobile phone. I had been listening to some rather nice deep house on my phone throughout the ride and my battery was shot. Thankfully I only had to retrace my steps a few hundred metres to locate the missing items. It would have made a far better story if I had been forced to cycle all the way back to Gaick.....

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